Charest cancels trip to Vermont; UVM students protest in solidarity with Montrealers

Jean Charest. Image from Wikipedia.
Jean Charest. Image from Wikipedia.

In solidarity with striking students in Quebec, UVM students and members of the Vermont Workers’ Center planned to protest Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s Vermont visit on Thursday. The premier had been scheduled to sign a cooperative agreement with Gov. Peter Shumlin, but the visit was canceled at the last minute.

James Haslam, lead organizer for the Vermont Workers’ Center, claimed Charest bagged out of the Green Mountain visit because he was turned off by the anticipated protests in Burlington.

Vermonters successfully sent a loud and clear message to Quebec Premier Charest that his agenda of union-busting, repression and austerity aren’t welcome here Apparently after hearing the buzz about the solidarity rally being organized by leaders of Occupy Burlington and the Vermont Workers’ Center to support the Quebec students strike, Charest decided to cancel his trip.

It seems unlikely, however, that Charest would have been turned off by a smallish group of Vermont protesters as compared with the thousands of Quebecois who have been turning up in the streets for weeks to oppose tuition hikes in the province. The official word from Shumlin’s office was that Charest had postponed his trip to Vermont to attend debates in the General Assembly in Quebec City. was unable to connect with Charest’s press aide Thursday, but news reports from Canada said Charest had abruptly changed his chief of staff. The Montreal Gazette wrote that “his office is denying the sudden decision is related to the student crisis rocking the government.”

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For more than 100 days now, Quebec students and supporters have protested tuition increases for the province’s universities. The Quebec National Assembly passed an emergency law recently requiring anyone planning a protest to notify police eight hours in advance.

Ashley Wolf, a senior at the University of Vermont, said students in Burlington planned to highlight the events in Quebec and make connections between the struggles students face in both places.

Tuition at UVM for in-state students for the 2012-13 year is $13,344. For out-of-state students it is $33,672.

Wolf said the steep cost drives some students to other states.

“A lot of Vermont students can’t go to UVM,” she said. “That’s an issue.”

While Vermont students will still be paying far more than their neighbors in Quebec, Wolf said the percentage increase in tuition raises concerns.

The increase in tuition in Quebec will cost students $325 more each year for five years, raising tuition to just under $4,000 by 2016-17.

Haslam said there are solidarity protests planned in other parts of the United States also.

“For Vermonters, we feel we have a heightened responsibility to show there is strong support for the students in Quebec,” he said.

He said it is not so much the money but the trend toward a more U.S.-style policy that is less friendly to the working class.

In recent days, police have arrested hundreds of protesters in Quebec under the emergency law that was passed last week.

Protesters in Quebec are demanding that the premier roll back the tuition hikes. Quebec has the lowest tuition rates in Canada, but even after such an 80 percent increase, it would remain among the lowest in the country.

Across the border in Vermont, the tuition increase at the University of Vermont was up 3.5 percent from the year before.

Richard Cate, UVM’s vice president for finance and administration, said that is actually less of an increase from last year, which was 5.8 percent.

Typical UVM students who have to borrow money to go to school leave with around $20,000 in debt, Cate said. The state university’s tuition is one of the highest for in-state students in the country. Part of that, Cate said, is due to low state funding.

Despite the small appropriations for higher education in the state, Cate said, Vermont has not seen drastic cuts like other states.

“In our case, we have been fortunate in that the rules of the game haven’t changed substantially,” Cate said. “We’ve had less public support but it hasn’t been volatile.”

Another reason the university’s tuition increase rose less steeply this year, Cate said, was a decrease in the financial aid the school gave out as a result of incomes in the state increasing. Less financial aid going out means less pressure to increase tuition across the board.

In Quebec, Cate said, the tuition hike is a much greater change in past process that seems to be precipitating angst. Education is much more heavily subsidized in Quebec, he said, meaning more shock at the increase in tuition.

When asked about the pending protests at a press conference Wednesday, Gov. Peter Shumlin said he did not get involved in the internal political issues in Quebec.

“I would kill to have the inflation increases in higher ed they’re protesting in Quebec right here in Vermont,” Shumlin said.

Of the $300 or so increases in tuition, he said, “We would take that any day of the week.”

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  • Cynthia Browning

    People interested in this topic might like to read an Op-Ed in yesterday’s New York Times (5/24) by two professors of Political Science at the University of Montreal. They claim that Bill 78, passed by the Quebec Assembly 5/18, is an attack on freedom of speech, association, and assembly that is designed to break the 15 week long student strike.

    I do not know a lot about the background of the issue concerning the tuition increase for Quebec students — it may be justifiable, but in that case it should be possible for the government to justify it through a process of public discussion, negotiation, or mediation. It sounds as if Premier Charest has instead chosen this new statute, which is aimed at suppressing dissent by proposing to impose steep fines not only for what a particular person may say but also for what other people may do.

    Curiouser and curiouser. I would be interested in additional coverage of this by VTDigger and any references to other pieces that Diggers out there might have to learn more about this topic.

    Rep. Cynthia Browning, Arlington