Quebec government rejects plan to resume student talks

The Quebec government has rejected a new round of discussions with student groups proposed by the province's federations of CEGEP and university students.

More student demonstrations planned for Thursday

The Quebec government has rejected a new round of discussions with student groups proposed by the province's federations of CEGEP and university students.

FEUQ and FECQ, two groups representing university and college students, said today they would return to the table but wanted to bring members of the more militant CLASSE group as part of their delegations.

Beauchamp had said she was willing to negotiate with two of Quebec’s student groups, but the third group, CLASSE, would not be invited to the table.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for CLASSE, said they are ready to return to the negotiating table with the other student associations tomorrow. They would take two of the seats reserved for the other student groups.

Talks broke off Wednesday, 11 weeks after the student strike began, after CLASSE was expelled from negotiations with the province.

"We can’t ask the government to negotiate with those who use violence as a form of blackmail," Beauchamp said.

The two other major student groups walked away from negotiations when it became clear the province wouldn’t come back to the table if CLASSE was there.

The three groups have maintained they are united and won't negotiate if any one of them is excluded.

Violent protests

After talks broke down, Nadeau-Dubois warned: "All this does is pour oil on the fire."

The trouble then erupted over several hours as students swarmed the streets of Montreal and clashed with police.

Banks and other businesses, cars, even a police station had their windows shattered by an angry mob that spilled out from a larger crowd of thousands of student protesters.

Montreal police declared the protest illegal just before 10:30 p.m., and deployed chemical irritant and teargas while arresting 85 people.

Several police officers and civilians were reportedly injured.

"As a police officer, as a father, as a Montrealer, am I proud of what I’ve seen? Not at all," said Montreal police Sgt. Ian Lafrenière.

"It’s sad to see something like that. And I had a number of students write me emails this morning saying, ‘You know what? We're sad. We were there yesterday in a peaceful way but unfortunately some people took advantage of it.'"

Montreal police said there have been more than 160 student demonstrations to date this year in the city.

Unclear when negotiations will resume

Charest stays firm

Some pundits suggested that, in the interest of social peace, the Charest government should back down from its planned $325-a-year, five-year tuition hikes.

The government has repeatedly said it will do no such thing.

Some students are now casting this as a deeper struggle with the phrase, "Quebec Spring," emanating from the lips of several protesters who Wednesday issued a medley of demands: the resignation of Premier Jean Charest, a general election, the complete elimination of tuition, and even broader social change.

The very idea of a negotiated settlement remains moot, for now. It took weeks just to get the government and students to sit at a negotiating table.

Student leaders said it may be time for the province's premier to step in and ensure both sides come to a resolution.

FEUQ leader Martine Desjardins told CBC Thursday that if Beauchamp is taking the student action personally, it may be time for someone else to come to the table.

"Maybe he is the one that is going to let us get to a resolution in this conflict," she said of Premier Jean Charest.

Charest said Thursday his government is still willing to talk to student groups to try to settle the dispute over tuition fees.

However, Charest maintained Beauchamp was right to expel CLASSE from the negotiating table.

"Nothing justifies violence and intimidation," Charest said Thursday morning.  "It must be said [that] the student leaders have a responsibility to denounce violent acts and do so without reservation."

The government blames CLASSE for either implicitly condoning or failing to control vandalism.

CLASSE has said it opposes the kind of vandalism and violence seen on the streets of Montreal in the last few weeks, but still believes in civil disobedience, such as demonstrations and symbolic occupations of politicians' offices.

Sabotage accusations

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Protest groups say a negotiated settlement was never in the cards, and they accuse the government of sabotaging the talks.

They say the government only cares about diverting public attention away from the planned tuition increase, and onto the issue of social unrest.

Recent surveys suggest the dispute hasn't hurt the Charest government politically.

Some pundits, even those who accuse the Charest government of incompetence, or cynicism, suggest it might even help.

Fee hike generally supported

However, right now, polls indicate Quebecers generally support the fee hikes. And one survey this week showed the poll-leading PQ, which has staunchly endorsed the students, losing support and seeing its lead evaporate in recent weeks.

Charest has taken to repeatedly pointing out that his political opponents are wearing, on their lapels, those iconic red squares that have come to symbolize the student movement.

A provincial election must be called between this spring and late 2013.

But with a corruption inquiry set to begin in a few months, speculation is rife that Charest might be tempted to beat an earlier path to the polls and call an election this spring.

That could transform social unrest into a Quebec election issue.

More student demonstrations are planned for Thursday, including an event billed as a "peaceful protest," organized by the FEUQ and FECQ.

With files from Canadian Press