The student strike known as Printemps 2015 may be over, but for many Quebec students the consequences are still unfolding.
Student leaders at Concordia University are crying foul after the university administration joined academic charges against as many as two dozen students involved in picket lines. They say the administration promised not to charge students involved in “peaceful strike activity.”
The university lied to student leaders and engaged in “predatory behaviour,” allege seven elected leaders who say they represent “every level of student government” at Concordia, including the Concordia Student Union, the Graduate Student Association, the Arts and Science Federation of Associations and the Fine Arts Student Alliance.
The allegations are contained in a blistering statement released today by the student associations. Ricochet obtained an advance copy of that statement.
The signatories, including CSU president Benjamin Prunty, allege they were told by members of the President’s Executive Group (consisting of the president and the university’s eight vice-presidents), individually and in dialogue meetings involving all seven students, that the university would not be filing charges against students involved in peaceful strike activity.
The students allege all parties were clear in these meetings that “a peaceful strike entailed the cancellation of teaching activities, or the cessation of academic labour.”
Instead an unknown number of students are now facing charges under Concordia’s Code of Rights and Responsibilities for peacefully blocking classes. They could face expulsion.
These charges were brought in April by one or more professors whose classes were disrupted. On Monday students received letters informing them that the school has joined the professors as a co-complainant in the cases.
Conflicting versions of events
In a short emailed statement, Concordia spokesperson Chris Mota initially told Ricochet that “the university, as an entity, and individual senior administrators never said complaints would not be filed. To the contrary, in all communications, verbal, print and online, it was made clear that all members of the community had the option to make complaints under the code.”
Prunty said that response is misleading. “The administration was always clear with us that they couldn’t prevent community members from filing individual complaints against students. The issue here is that the university has joined these professors as a co-complainant. That means they’re filing complaints against students for peaceful strike activity, which is what they told us they wouldn’t do.”
Ricochet asked Mota for clarification on whether members of the President’s Executive Group told student leaders that the administration would not be pursuing complaints against students involved in peaceful strike activity. This time, the denial was categorical.
“There were never any promises made that the administration would not file complaints.”
Poisoning the well
On one side are seven student leaders who allege that the university administration repeatedly made a commitment, and on the other senior university administrators who flatly deny making it.
No matter where the truth lies, it’s clear the relationship between student representatives and the university has been seriously damaged.
“Unless reversed,” reads the students’ statement, “the Concordia administration has shown that what they presented as an openness to meaningful dialogue and discussion with students regarding our strike was in reality predatory behaviour.”
The statement also accuses the administration of “packaging these co-complaints in the rhetoric of support for professors” despite the fact that both the Concordia University Faculty Association and the Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association publicly supported striking students and promised to respect their democratically voted strike mandates.
Jess Lelièvre is a fourth-year honours student in political science and one of the strikers facing charges. A student representative on the university’s Senate and a past president of the Political Science Students’ Association, she participated in her department’s general assembly, where students voted to strike on April 1 and 2. She told Ricochet that at that general assembly students decided to leave the use of tactics like hard picket lines and class disruptions to the discretion of the strike committee, in which Lelièvre was active. She says the committee was given a clear mandate to enforce the strike and ensure classes could not be held.
After the university cancelled classes on April 2, the day of a major protest against austerity, Lelièvre and her cohorts were left with the task of enforcing the strike mandate on April 1. In an attempt to minimize confrontations, she says they chose to use hard picket lines against professors (which the professors’ union usually asks them not to cross) and soft picket lines against students, allowing them to enter classes.
After using this tactic to successfully disrupt classes across the department without incident, she says they encountered a class where the professor had arrived so early they were unable to prevent him from entering the class. Students offered to allow the class to proceed if it could become a discussion of the government’s austerity policies. The professor refused.
For the next two and a half hours students occupied the classroom, enforcing their strike mandate through what they call “noise disruption” (chanting). According to Lelièvre, despite heightened tensions between students who wanted class to proceed and those who did not, there were no physical confrontations of any kind.
“I am a student representative, and many of the people who have been charged are also elected student representatives. We have a mandate to uphold whatever is voted by the students. We have these mechanisms in place, to truly be democratic, to call upon general assemblies to disseminate the information to our members and have a decision made collectively. And that was done.”
Lelièvre feels there’s a disconnect between the university’s claims to recognize student democracy and their actions to punish student leaders acting on democratic mandates.
“The administration sees the institution more and more as a commodity, rather than a right.”
‘A step backwards’
David Douglas is the president of Concordia’s Part-Time Faculty Association and a professor of cinema at the school. He told Ricochet that his association supports the right of students to strike in principle and wishes government would enshrine that right in law, in order to provide some ground rules that all parties could agree upon.
“The administration, I thought, was very forward-thinking, looking back at the last strike [in 2012], to stake out a position respecting students’ rights. [Concordia President Alan] Shepard didn’t quibble about using the word ‘strike.’ That was a positive step. In that context I find the present action to be a step backwards. This is a political issue, and the code of rights and responsibilities is the wrong tool to use to settle it.”
Many student leaders at Concordia will find themselves on trial in the fall for their role in the strike, with consequences up to and including expulsion on the table. Meanwhile, the relationship between the university administration and elected leadership of Concordia’s student associations appears to have hit a new low.
It’s all quite the fall from grace for Shepard, who was once seen as a champion of students and seemed to bring a fresh approach and a renewed respect for student rights to the role in 2012, when he cancelled charges against students who had participated in that strike. Three years later, and the elected leadership of Concordia’s largest student associations is calling his administration’s behaviour “predatory.”
Nevertheless, Prunty tells Ricochet students are still holding out hope that Shepard will reverse his decision and withdraw from the complaints.