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Quebec schools reopen under cloud of uncertainty as CEGEPs vote to end protests

Police officers detain protesters opposing Quebec student tuition fee hikes during a demonstration in Montreal on Aug. 1, 2012.

Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The number of students on strike in Quebec has dwindled considerably, with people at several colleges voting Monday to end protest actions that have drawn international attention.

Following three more votes Monday to end the strike, the tally of junior colleges — called CEGEPs in Quebec — where students have chosen to return to class now stands at six. Just one CEGEP has voted so far to continue striking. However, some university faculties have also voted against returning to class.

More votes are scheduled in the coming days.

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At Montreal's College de Maisonneuve, a spirited debate took place Monday before students voted to return to class. Thousands streamed peacefully into the school as police officers kept a watchful eye from the edge of the school's grounds.

School officials would only permit students to enter the college during the vote, not media. 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.

Before the vote, based on the atmosphere, 19-year-old student Yacine Mahdid had predicted: "I think people are going to vote in favour of the strike ... There are lots of red squares in there."

About one-third of Quebec students had their spring session interrupted by the strikes. The controversial law passed by the Liberal 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 during the week. As for universities, they return to school later.

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

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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.

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