Quebec education law to impose fines in tuition crisis

Quebec's legislature has gathered for a late-night debate on emergency education legislation Thursday night, as student protests were held in five of the province's biggest cities.

Student groups make plea for new talks

Quebec's legislature has gathered for a late-night debate on emergency education legislation Thursday night, as student protests were held in five of the province's biggest cities.

The special law, known as Bill 78, was crafted by the Liberal government to defuse the turbulent student tuition crisis.

The proposed law lays out strict regulations governing student protests and contains provisions for stiff fines.

Fines range from $7,000 to $35,000 for a student leader and between $25,000 and $125,000 for unions or student federations if someone is prevented from entering an educational institution.

Bill 78 also lays out strict regulations governing student protests. Any group of 10 persons or more to give at least eight hours  notice to police for any demonstration. They must include the time, place and itinerary. Police may change any of the above.

The overnight debate at Quebec's legislature is expected to lead to a vote on the legislation on Friday.

Student leaders call for new talks

Student groups held a news conference ahead of Thursday night's debate to slam  the special law. They called for new negotiations, while urging return to "social peace."

The new law, announced late Wednesday night by the Liberal government, will suspend the winter semester while enforcing "access" to campuses.

Premier Jean Charest described the emergency legislation as a way to provide a cooling-off period for both sides in the tuition hike battle in Quebec.

'We are more ready than ever to compromise.'—CEGEP college student leader Léo Bureau-Blouin

But the province's most prominent student leaders blasted the legal solution, accusing Charest of playing partisan politics.

"Let him come sit with us, and negotiate a solution to this crisis," said Martine Desjardins, spokeswoman for university student association FEUQ. "Let him come show us that he is a head of state, not just a party leader."

CEGEP college student leader Léo Bureau-Blouin also pleaded for a "negotiated" solution to the tuition crisis, while calling for restraint from students across the province.

"Emotion and the desire for vengeance among some can't override reason," he said in French at the Thursday afternoon news conference. "We are this close to arriving at a solution to this crisis." 

Bureau-Blouin called on the Liberal government for an "ultimate negotiated deal" on tuition hikes to "pacify this conflict," that he estimates could take "hours of negotiations," not "days and weeks."

The FECQ spokesman also addressed concerns about social peace, saying he's "concerned" about the impact student actions have had on public order.

"I'm concerned that the strike has a huge impact on thousands of students across the province, and it's not a matter of being in favour or against the strike, it's a question of saving some part of students' lives.

"We are more ready than ever to compromise."

The tuition movement's nightly Montreal protest turned ugly late Wednesday night, ending with the arrest of 122 people. 

The government made another appeal for calm Thursday morning in the wake of the tumultuous protest. 

Students marched in Montreal again Thursday night, the 24th consecutive daily protest against tuition hikes.

The Liberal government says it has exhausted all other options in the 14-week student strike, which has garnered international attention. 

Quebec's tuition plan

Under the latest version of its tuition plan, the Charest government would increase fees by $254 per year over seven years and then peg future increases to the level of inflation.

That would mean tuition increases of more than 75 per cent for Quebec students, who pay the lowest rates in Canada.

The change would still mean some of the country's lowest rates.

Charest's legislation would temporarily halt the spring semester for the minority of faculties paralyzed by the walkouts; push up the summer holidays; and reconvene students in August so they can complete their session before starting the fall one in October.

Education Minister Michelle Courchesne, who was sworn in late Monday to the role, reiterated those details on her way into caucus Thursday morning, but had little comment on the events of the night before.

She said that students have the right to protest and to free expression in Quebec.

"But that protest must be done peacefully, without violence," she said, before walking away from the cameras.

Ads purchased in papers

Polls suggest Charest's unpopular government, facing a long-shot re-election bid, might actually have public support for its tuition hikes. But the premier has responded angrily in recent weeks when accused of encouraging a climate of confrontation for his own political benefit.

Bracing for more of that criticism, the Charest government has bought ads in Thursday's newspapers explaining how it has already made several adjustments to its tuition plans to soften the impact on the poorest students.

The ads emphasize another point Charest is keen for people to understand: the majority of Quebec students have quietly finished their semester and aren't boycotting classes.

International attention

The tumult in Quebec has repeatedly made international news. Foreign media picked up reports about groups of protesters storming into Montreal university classes and forcing students to get out Wednesday morning.

The three-month conflict has caused considerable damage – with numerous injuries, countless traffic jams, a few smashed windows, subway evacuations, clashes with law enforcement, a heavy police bill, and of course disruptions to the academic calendar.

The protests have even mushroomed beyond the cause of cheap tuition.

They have attracted a wide swath of other participants who dislike the Charest government and represent a variety of disparate causes — ranging from environmentalism, to Quebec independence, anti-capitalism and anarchy.

They have also prompted one of the most intense left-versus-right ideological clashes in recent Quebec history.

The dispute claimed the province's education minister, who announced her resignation from politics earlier this week. Her replacement, Courchesne, said Wednesday she'd noticed a hardening of demands from student leaders.

The antagonists in the dispute are casting this as a battle of principle as of public policy.

To the hike defenders, it's about improving the quality of universities, about students' personal responsibility, and about sparing Quebec's long-suffering taxpayers from an even heavier burden.

To its opponents, it's about defending universal access to education against any future attempt to whittle it away.

With files from The Canadian Press