Quebec student talks collapse and more protests loom

The Quebec government has pulled out of talks with student leaders meant to end the province's tuition crisis, with students saying the government is reluctant to lose face.

'The only place left for people to be heard is the street,' student group spokesman says

Junior Finance Minister Alain Pacquet, Education Minister Michelle Courchesne and Premier Jean Charest discuss the break-off of negotiations with student leaders Thursday in Quebec City. (CBC)

The Quebec government has pulled out of talks with student leaders meant to end the province's months-long tuition crisis.

Premier Jean Charest said a "big gap" remains between the province and students on the issue, and he's "the first to be disappointed" at the lack of a deal.

Student leaders, however, say the government is image-obsessed and is refusing their cost-neutral proposals because it doesn't want to lose face over the issue.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois of Quebec student alliance CLASSE, centre, briefs the media Thursday with Martine Desjardins of the group FEUQ, left, and Léo Bureau-Blouin of FECQ. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

"I would have preferred that we could have reached an understanding, but unfortunately, and even though discussions were productive, there's a big gap," Charest said in a news conference Thursday afternoon outside his office in Quebec City.

"We made great efforts, and in the end, we came to the conclusion that there’s an impasse."

Education Minister Michelle Courchesne said the government made two offers to students. The first would have lowered a planned tuition hike to $219 a year for seven years from $254 a year; the second would have limited the hike to $100 in the first year, but kept it at $254 annually thereafter.

Both proposals would see tuition rise to nearly $4,100 by 2020, an increase of 70 per cent overall.

"They refused all hikes in tuition, so it wasn’t possible to arrive at a solution that would have respected taxpayers, since this notion of a tuition freeze was non-negotiable for them," Courchesne said.

Government afraid to be seen to retreat: students

Student leaders said, however, that they had made four counter-offers to the government, none of which it seriously considered, and all of which respected its requirement that any proposal be cost-neutral for the provincial treasury.

The latest of those proposals would have avoided tuition hikes for two years by instead reducing the income-tax deduction for post-secondary tuition. It would have also curtailed the Quebec Education Savings Initiative, a tax credit implemented by the Liberals in 2007 that gives money to people who open savings accounts for their or their children's education.

Charest fiercely denounced that idea in an interview Thursday evening, saying the tax credit was designed to help middle-class families save for their kids' education.

For the 38th night in a row, protesters took to Montreal's streets on Thursday. Three separate marches of about 10,000 people converged into one around 10:15 p.m. ET. (CBC)

"We’re not going to butcher that. It was done for middle-class families," the premier said. "We speak for the middle class and represent them."

But Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, the biggest of the student groups at the table, said the tax credit actually mostly benefits well-to-do families.

"Once you realize who benefits from this program, you have to ask, isn’t it better to do something that helps everyone?"  Desjardins told CBC's French-language service. "It’s the wealthy that can afford to put money aside. Lower- and middle-class students are mostly ignored by this program."

The real reason Courchesne wouldn't entertain the students' latest proposal was to protect the government's image, said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesman for student group CLASSE, the second-biggest student organization involved in the talks.

"Such a gesture would be interpreted as a retreat, and she cited the front pages of the newspapers," Nadeau-Dubois said. "What we were told inside was that a tuition hike was a goal. Madame Courchesne said her goal was to raise tuition, because if she didn’t, then the government would lose face."

Doors open

Both parties said they're still amenable to more talks.

"My door remains open if students want to return, if they have offers," Charest said.

Desjardins echoed that students are willing to meet, too. "We’re still here. We’re always ready to negotiate. We have plenty of proposals. So we’ll wait," she said.

But both parties were also bracing for their disagreements to be taken up once more in the kind of huge public demonstrations that have gripped Montreal, sometimes resulting in mass arrests. As CLASSE's Nadeau-Dubois put it Thursday night in calling for renewed protests, "When the government cuts off discussion, the only place left for people to be heard is the street."

CLASSE is organizing a major "family-friendly" demonstration Saturday afternoon in Montreal's Jeanne Mance Park. Previous rallies in Montreal saw 200,000 people take to the streets on March 22, and a further 110,000 on May 22.

Courchesne and Charest both said CLASSE has also specifically threatened to "disrupt" next week's Montreal Grand Prix auto race, but Nadeau-Dubois said those statements were made in jest. The Montreal Formula One has already been the target of the international internet activist group Anonymous, which on Wednesday leaked personal information on 130 people who had bought tickets to the race with a threat to release more and to make the event "embarrassing." 

The public protests stemming from the 3½-month-old Quebec student strike and Bill 78, the province's emergency legislation to tamp down the crisis, have grabbed headlines around the world and spurred solidarity rallies across Canada. On Wednesday, people marched in ReginaWinnipegHamilton and Toronto.

High-profile figures like documentary filmmaker Michael Moore and Quebec indie band Arcade Fire have also lent their support to the cause.