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Quebec tuition hike: Students planning day of protest in downtown Montreal

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Potentially thousands of students from Montreal's two English universities are expected to skip class and march through the streets on Oct. 30 to denounce the Quebec government's plan to hike tuition for out-of-province students.

The one-day strike action, dubbed the "blue fall protest," will see students march from Dorchester Square in downtown Montreal at 1 p.m. to McGill University's Roddick Gates.

McGill student Alex O'Neill told CTV News he is organizing the student-led movement alongside Noah Sparrow, a student at Concordia University. The pair is spreading the word on social media and has reached out to the student unions at both universities to get their support, as well as the Université de Montréal and Université du Québec à Montréal.

Earlier this month, the higher education minister, Pascale Déry, announced Quebec would nearly double the tuition fee for Canadian out-of-province students from roughly $9,000 to $17,000 beginning next fall. Under the measure, the provincial government would also collect the first $20,000 from international students and reinvest that money in the French university system.

The ruling CAQ government justified the plan as a way of reversing the decline of French, saying that out-of-province students largely come to study in English institutions and leave after graduation, and that Quebec taxpayers shouldn't be subsidizing students from the rest of Canada.

Quebec's three English universities — McGill, Concordia, and Bishop's University in Sherbrooke, Que. — are poised to be disproportionately affected by the tuition hikes as they receive the highest numbers of students from outside the province than French universities.

"It's really quite disheartening for myself to see just the same cards being dealt and then played again by the Quebec government to these same groups of people," said O'Neill, who said he sees the move by Quebec as an attack on access to education.

"We typically perceive American universities as being unattainable education on the basis of how expensive they are. But in the Quebec government doing this, they very much communicate to not only their people, i.e. the Québécois, but to everyone else who wishes to attend university in Quebec, that education is a privileged institution that is, through this plan, stratified. I think that's something that I am ultimately trying to counteract."

Criticism of the measure, announced on Oct. 13, has come from various levels of government, as well as the business community, which raised concerns it would be counter-productive to solving Quebec's labour shortage. Federal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, members of the provincial Liberals, and Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante have all publicly denounced the tuition hike plan.

"We need workers. We need students. We want our economy to grow," Mayor Plante said last Wednesday. "[If the CAQ wants] to reduce the gap between Ontario and Quebec, I have to say, this measure, what it will support is more people going to Toronto universities."

Indeed, some students outside Quebec have said they are no longer considering Montreal for their post-secondary studies in light of the CAQ's announcement.

Concordia's director of student recruitment Savvy Papayiannis told The Canadian Press that her office is already seeing an effect from the tuition hike, with many prospective applicants cancelling campus tours and withdrawing from recruitment events.

Several high school students attended a fall open house at Concordia on Saturday. They told The Canadian Press the increase in tuition will influence their decisions about university.

Gage Crouchman, 17, from Ottawa, said it might mean giving up on going to school in Quebec.

"It's a shame," he lamented in an interview. "(For) a lot of students, it's going to take Montreal off as an option."

O'Neill said he is also reaching out to Liberal politicians to join the students in the strike action, which will be held in ridings held by the party at the provincial and federal levels.

On Saturday, interim Quebec Liberal Party leader Marc Tanguay published a critique of the CAQ plan on his Facebook page, calling it an example of the party's "petty nationalism."

"We don't see Canadian and foreign students as an imaginary threat. We propose a nationalism that is inclusive, proud and confident. We believe that Canadian and foreign students who come to study in Québec are a source of wealth, that their presence alongside Québec students fosters mutual understanding, openness to others, and a wealth of knowledge and research, and that their presence in Québec is a wonderful opportunity to share our French language with them," the post read.

"We are currently experiencing a labour shortage that is stifling our economy and compromising the delivery of public services to which Quebecers are entitled. The government's efforts should focus on retaining [these students and teaching them French], rather than trying to drive them out of Quebec."

With files from The Canadian Press

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