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Quebec schools reopen under cloud of uncertainty

Quebec students at several junior colleges have begun the return to class Monday under the provisions of a special law imposed by the Charest government.

It’s unclear how smoothly the return will go.

Students at three colleges have opted to end their strikes, which made international headlines last spring, or they have opted to call a truce during the Quebec election campaign. They have voted to continue the boycott at only one of the four institutions to have already voted.

Thousands streamed peacefully into Montreal’s College de Maisonneuve as several police officers kept a watchful eye from the edge of the school’s grounds Monday.

School officials would only permit students to enter the college during the vote. A spokeswoman said some 2,500 students were listening to debates about the strike in the school gymnasiums.

One student described the event as raucous — people expressing support for ending the strike were swiftly booed by others.

“I think people are going to vote in favour of the strike,” said Yacine Mahdid, 19, who was one of dozens of students who stepped outside of the school for a break from the hot gymnasium.

“There are lots of red squares in there.”

Mahdid, who will return later in the day to vote, said students inside the school were becoming impatient waiting for voting to begin.

About one-third of Quebec students had their spring session interrupted by the strikes. The controversial law passed by the Charest government, Bill 78, mandates their return to complete the semester over the coming weeks and sets stiff fines for people blocking schools.

Other votes will be taken Monday and during the week. As for universities, they return to school later.

Federations representing junior college and university students have said they are leaving it up to each association to decide whether to continue the boycott or return to class.

Jean Beauchesne, the president of the Federation of CEGEPs, warns that sessions could be cancelled if students are slow to return to class.

The students face major strategic dilemmas as they vote.

There are personal concerns about what impact continued strikes might have on academic progress. There are also electoral concerns — such as whether continued strikes will only help the Charest Liberals, by making the student conflict a key ballot-box issue.

And, finally, there is an ideological tug-of-war over the nature of democracy.

The more hardcore student activists believe their strike votes are eminently more democratic than a parliamentary election, and are adamant that their “direct democracy” movement not be subservient to the concerns of provincial electoral strategy and “representative democracy.”

A prominent anarchist and participant in the protest movement, Jaggi Singh, has posted messages on Twitter that the strikes aren’t about opposing one party or government — but about opposing a “destructive system.” The veteran activist is among those urging that the strikes continue during the election.