Last updated: September 18, 2012 2:28 pm
Fear over securitized campuses lingers on in Quebec despite end of student strike
MONTREAL (CUP) — Though Quebec’s unlimited general student strike is over for now, tensions on campuses have left some students and teaching staff questioning how universities can continue to claim to support an environment of collegiality and openness.
Over the course of the seven-month-long student strike and particularly in it's final six weeks as the application of the controversial Law 12 loomed, the presence of police on campus and the role of university security services have prompted some to re-examine the principles that define a university.
“Elsewhere is a university still considered a university when arrests occur on its property, when people are taken into custody, trapped and charged by riot police? When students are considered to be dangerous criminals when they attempt to simply respect democratic, collective decisions?” read a letter published in Le Devoir in late August.
The letter, which was signed by 17 student associations from the Université de Montréal, called upon the university’s rector, Guy Breton, to resign due, in part, to police interventions on campus on Aug. 27 and 28.
Karina Banville, a student at Cégep Rosemont who participated in picketing classes resuming at Université de Montréal on August 27, recounted how she and other demonstrators were kettled in the stairway of the 3200 Jean-Brillant pavilion.
“I remember seeing a guy standing there, looking around, trembling — you could see the fear in his eyes,” she said.
With just enough space for officers to pass the groups of students squeezed onto staircases, Banville described how a woman beside her started panicking after a an officer pushed past her.
“She was crying so I told her to take my place closer to the wall,” she explained.
Days before the majority of post-secondary schools on strike were required under Law 12 to re-open their doors, police in Montreal announced that they would only intervene to enforce the back-to-school legislation at the request of “executives of educational institutions.”
UdeM called police onto campus after negotiations broke down between university security agents and students. Around 50 students picketing classes refused to leave or remove their masks, according to UdeM’s spokesperson Mathieu Filion. He said the situation began to escalate once shouting and pushing began.
“At that moment, it was out of control and the university decided to call the police,” said Filion. Police arrested 20 students, 19 of whom are being investigated under Law 12.
At the time of the police interventions at UdeM, six departments had voted to stay on strike: anthropology, art history, cinematography, video gaming, comparative literature and East Asian studies.
Filion said that the university does respect decisions made through systems of student democracy. However he said that Law 12 eliminated the university’s options in terms of whether to resume classes.
“We had to do it — all the resources necessary to resume classes for students who wished to study were made available. So, in this case, we chose to resume classes because we didn’t have a choice. The university had to do it,” said Filion.
UdeM’s student newspaper Quartier Libre reported that the head of the university’s security services Lucie Dupuis approached at least one anthropology professor, who’s class was being blocked by picket lines, and told the professor to continue teaching her class in lieu of Law 12.
According to the Quartier Libre, the professor had attempted to mediate the situation before calling the director of her program. Security agents and a mediation team from the Montreal police force came to the classroom and allegedly threatened demonstrators with criminal charges.
Filion said the university’s decision to call police onto campus was a difficult one to make. “We didn’t call the police with joy,” he said, going on to say that the decision was one made in the moment.
According to president of UdeM’s union for professors, Jean Portugais, at least one professor pushed by the police is looking to file a complaint. He added that many professors were panicked by the situation and unable to teach their classes in a work environment he deemed “unacceptable” due to the presence of police.
“It’s like we’re flies, that’s the image it creates,” he said, pointing to the number of police compared to student demonstrators.
Frédéric Kantorowski, current president of the union representing course lecturers at UdeM, told the Quartier Libre that the university’s directives throughout the intervention varied depending on the employee.
“Several course lecturers came forward with complaints against the police and UdeM security agents,” he said. “Some were even in tears after being mistreated or threatened.”
“That security [agents] at UdeM were given the role of police was excessive,” he added.
The mandated return to class under Law 12 raised widespread concerns within Quebec universities of the role of university security services would assume in policing staff and students.
At the Université du Québec en Outaouais in Gatineau, the professors’ union sought to contest the installation of security cameras in the hallways of some professors' offices as an attack on its members' privacy and a violation of the right to fair and reasonable working conditions.
Days before the Université du Québec à Montréal’s disrupted winter 2012 semester was to recommence, UQAM's professors’ union voted by secret ballot to support its members’ decision to break Law 12 and refuse to teach classes if the professors judge conditions unfit to teach in.
Temporary security agents
The August police interventions at UdeM were not the first time concerns with the actions of the university’s security services have been raised.
In April, the university brought additional security agents onto campus from the private security agency BEST. UdeM typically employs security personnel from the agency Garda.
The additional agents were to assist enforcing an injunction brought against student strikers that aimed to allow for the resumption of classes.
As the strike continued, allegations of racism, sexism and intimidation towards teaching staff and students by the security agents began to surface. Filion said that the situation in April affected how UdeM hired temporary supplementary security agents for the month of August.
Classes for UdeM’s winter 2012 semester, with the exception of eight courses unable to continue due to concerns of the quality of instruction, resumed September 5 and run until September 28. The fall 2012 term will begin on October 2.
Incidents preceding Law 12 within Montreal’s English-language universities has brought the nature and roles of campus security services to the forefront as well.
At McGill University, campus security came under scrutiny due to their involvement in the university’s semester-long strike of non-academic workers and the presence of riot police on campus in November 2011.
At Concordia University, the alleged assault of a McGill student by a security agent while she was picketing classes last March prompted scrutiny over how Concordia’s security services operates.