Quebec student talks resume amid more protests

The second day of talks between student groups and the Quebec government is underway, with all sides expressing optimism that progress can be made.

Quebec City police arrest 84, detain pair of student negotiators

Quebec City police detained 84 protesters outside the building where student leaders were in negotiations with cabinet ministers on Monday night. (CBC)

The second day of talks between student groups and the Quebec government is underway, with all sides expressing some optimism that progress can be made.

But student leaders deplored Monday night's heavy toll, when 84 people were detained by Quebec City police.

Student leaders and the education minister had few comments about the substance of talks as they headed into a second day of negotiations.

A spokesperson for Premier Jean Charest confirmed earlier Tuesday that the premier joined the Monday discussions for about an hour, although he had no plans to return to the negotiating table.

Quebec police detain student negotiators in sweep

As student negotiators emerged from the first day of meetings at a Quebec City office tower Monday night, outside, 84 protesters who had been surrounded by riot police were detained. The demonstrators had been protesting noisily but peacefully in the street, alongside a couple of hundred others who dispersed and avoided arrest.

Léo Bureau-Blouin, left, president of Quebec student group FECQ, tried unsuccessfully to hatch a deal between protesters and police to let the demonstrators disperse without arrest. (CBC)

Quebec police said the detainees would be charged with violating a city traffic bylaw and face a $634 fine.

One of the main student federations at the negotiating table, CLASSE, said two of their negotiators, Philippe Lapointe and Justin Arcand, were detained by police as they were leaving the building — apparently mistaken for protesters.

CLASSE spokesman Renaud St-Pierre said Lapointe was released soon after because police recognized him as a CLASSE negotiator, but it was 2 a.m. before police released Arcand.  Both are expected to return to the talks this afternoon.

Outspoken student leader to face contempt charge

CLASSE spokesman Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois pleaded not guilty to contempt of court in Quebec Superior Court on Tuesday, in response to a charge brought against him by Laval University student Jean-François Morasse.

Morasse, who obtained an injunction permitting him to return to classes despite the student strike, has accused Nadeau-Dubois of inciting students to disobey the injunction.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois faces a contempt of court charge in Quebec City on Tuesday.

A trial date in the case has been set for late September 2012.

Protest law, tuition on the table, student leaders insist

Negotiators from four student associations sat down with Education Minister Michelle Courchesne, Finance Minister Raymond Bachand and several government officials starting at about 2:15 p.m. Monday, breaking only for dinner.

Nadeau-Dubois said as the talks began that the government must be willing to bargain over its planned tuition fee hike and Bill 78, its controversial legislation that restricts public demonstrations and threatens steep fines for student groups that don't comply.

If the government "refuses to address Bill 78 and tuition fees, it's certain that there'll be considerable doubt about how much time we'll spend at the negotiating table," Nadeau-Dubois said. 

Courchesne went into the meeting saying she was "very, very positive" and "not closed to anything" that might come up in discussions. But Bachand said the government cannot commit to spending any more taxpayer money on post-secondary education, though it is open to rejigging university and college finances to possibly keep down tuition fees if revenue and cost offsets can be found in other areas, such as infrastructure spending.

Unwilling to give a specific time frame to talks, Courchesne said that all sides "have an obligation to reach a solution."

The education minister refused to confirm reports she has a new tuition deal to offer students — although Bachand said that his colleague has a "precise mandate" to "put some things on the table."

The ministers also said they expect student negotiators to take any tentative agreement they reach with the government and promote it to their members. That stance recalls the last round of talks, where both sides arrived at a preliminary resolution on May 5, only to see most students reject it in a required endorsement vote. Since then, students have staged 35 consecutive nights of protests in Montreal and other communities. 

The government bears the brunt of public pressure in these new talks, suggested Martine Desjardins, president of Quebec's university students federation FEUQ.

"All the students have their sessions suspended. Students are just waiting for a resolution, and they can wait until the autumn," she said. "But the government, they have pressure from the chamber of commerce."

Thousands march 

The rallies continued on Monday, kicked off by a 500-strong silent march of lawyers and jurists from the Montreal courthouse through the downtown east end.

The legal professionals wore their courtroom robes and held aloft signs denouncing Bill 78, before ending their demonstration at the park that has served as the staging ground for Montreal's nightly student protests.

About 500 lawyers marched in downtown Montreal against Bill 78, Quebec's student-crisis emergency law. (CBC)

Lawyer Marylène Robitaille said the cause has become "much bigger than the student protests."

"We felt the need as jurists to show the population that we, too, are nervous about what’s happening. We have a duty as lawyers to respect the law, but also a responsibility to contest it and criticize it as necessary," she said.

Robitaille said Bill 78 potentially makes many kinds of public assemblies illegal, including Montreal's weekly summertime tam tam drumming sessions, and poses grave a financial menace to student associations.

Following the lawyers march, several thousand people took part in the regular nightly protest through downtown Montreal from Place Émilie-Gamelin.

Police declared the march illegal shortly after it began, because the demonstrators hadn't notified authorities of their route at least eight hours in advance, as Bill 78 requires. But the Montreal Police Service said it would allow the march to continue as long as it remained peaceful.

The protest wound its way through much of downtown Montreal, including the historic Old City area, without incident. Many of the marchers used cutlery to rap out rhythms on pots and pans in a type of protest that has come to be known as "les casseroles" (the pots), inspired by a similar Southern American protest form called a cacerolazo.

Another march of about 3,000 to 4,000 people snaked through the city's Rosemont and Villeray neighbourhoods before petering out around 10:30 p.m. Elsewhere in the province, 1,000 people demonstrated in Sherbrooke, Que., and there were also protests in Gatineau and in the eastern part of Quebec. By about midnight, all the demonstrations had ended.

Student crisis at turning point

Monday's negotiations come at a critical time.

Montreal's peak tourist season is fast approaching and there are hints that a faction of the protest movement will seek to disrupt the Formula One Grand Prix car race.

All three of Quebec’s major student groups — FEUQ, FECQ and CLASSE — were at the table Monday afternoon, as was the smaller Table de concertation étudiante du Québec, or TaCEQ.

The widespread protests that have gripped many Quebec communities over the past three months began as a revolt against the province's plans to hike university tuition by 75 per cent over the next five years, but have ballooned into a wider social movement encompassing labour, environmental and social justice groups.

The passage of Bill 78 has spurred the movement even more, bringing in tens of thousands of people to rallies denouncing the emergency legislation.