The Quebec group representing nearly half the striking students in the province has voted to denounce "physical and deliberate acts" of violence, a condition demanded by the government before it would negotiate.
The student group CLASSE said Sunday night that it is opposed to endangering the "physical well-being of members of the public... particularly those who are en route to work. The student movement wants to fight alongside the populace and not against it."
It said it condemned "unacceptable actions" over the last weeks by students but also by "other people."
Spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois clarified that the group opposes the kind of vandalism and pillaging seen in tumultuous protests in Montreal on Friday, but still believes in civil disobedience, such as demonstrations and symbolic occupations of politicians' offices.
"We believe that it's due to these kinds of pressures that the government is moving to negotiate with us," Nadeau-Dubois said.
Quebec Education Minister Line Beauchamp had said earlier that the government was willing to hold talks with the province's student groups, provided that they renounced violence.
About 170,000 post-secondary students have been forgoing classes since mid-February as part of a massive protest against Quebec's plan to hike university tuition by 75 per cent over the next five years.
Near daily street rallies have sometimes resulted in upheaval, with instances of vandalism by some demonstrators but also aggressive suppression by riot police, including firing a tear gas canister in one protester's face and striking others with truncheons.
The decision taken by CLASSE means it will likely join the two other major Quebec student groups — the Quebec Federation of University Students, known by its French acronym FEUQ, and the Quebec Federation of College Students, or FECQ — at the bargaining table with the province.
Charest heavily guarded
Premier Jean Charest intimated as much on Sunday as he attended a political brunch under heavy security at a high school in Gatineau.
"Our position has been the same for a very long time, since the beginning: We want to meet with the student association leaders to have respectful discussions that will allow us to deal with the issues," Charest said. "But the government of Quebec can't accept intimidation or violence."
About 250 people gathered to protest the tuition fee hikes outside the school, École secondaire du Versant. A large crowd had assembled by 10:30 a.m., shouting and chanting, with a sizeable number of Gatineau police officers standing guard behind metal barricades.
Charest addressed a crowd of Liberal Party supporters inside, sometime after 1 p.m., and was escorted out of the building shortly after 2 p.m.
The rally concluded without incident, though a police riot squad was at the school on standby.
On Thursday in Gatineau, 151 people were arrested during protests after busloads of student protesters arrived from Montreal. And on Friday in Montreal, 17 people were arrested after riot police fired tear gas and concussion grenades on crowds of protesters outside a major conference centre.
Average tuition in Quebec has risen nearly 300 per cent since 1989, far outstripping inflation, at a time when student leaders say a university or college education should be kept cheap or even free because it has replaced a high-school diploma as the baseline requirement for most new jobs.
Several major labour federations, unions, environmental groups and women's groups support the students, whose protests have dovetailed with wider social justice campaigns in Quebec. On Saturday, a group of 18 prominent Quebecers, including former labour leader Gérald Larose and onetime Liberal cabinet minister Jean Cournoyer, issued a statement urging the government to negotiate with students and suspend the 75 per cent tuition hike for five years.
The government, for its part, says it needs to raise the province's tuition fees, currently the lowest in the country, to be able to maintain the calibre of university education.