Tuition hike negotiations continue in Quebec

Leaders of Quebec's student associations and the Quebec government have reconvened for a fourth day of negotiations in the tuition debate on Thursday.

Pauline Marois pressures Charest to join discussions

Student association leaders, from left, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois of CLASSE, Martine Desjardins of FEUQ and Léo Bureau-Blouin of FECQ leave Wednesday's bargaining session in Quebec City with a call for a 'clear' answer from the government on their latest offer. (CBC)

Leaders of Quebec's student associations and the Quebec government have reconvened for a fourth day of negotiations in the tuition debate on Thursday.

After Wednesday's talks in Quebec city, Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ), one of four umbrella student organizations participating in negotiations, said the student associations were looking for "a more positive answer" and that they hope "the government will take the time to look at the details, take the time to analyze the number."

"After four days, I think this is a really decisive day," said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, president of the Coalition Large de l'Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Etudiante (CLASSE). "We hope to get something very concrete."

The CLASSE is an organization built around the Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Etudiante (ASSE) that offers to represent non-members in the fight against tuition hikes.

Sources tell CBC News that education minister, Michelle Courchesne, has canceled her appearance at an evening gala in order to dedicate all of her time to student negotiations.

The discussions have been held privately and information has yet to emerge from either sides.

Premier says "it takes two"

On Wednesday, student reprentatives rejected the government's proposal to increase tuition fees by about $220 a year for the next seven years, down from its previous offer of $254 a year. As part of that scheme, the province would have made concomitant cuts to the income-tax credit on post-secondary tuition, so that the whole deal would remain cost-neutral to taxpayers.

More than 3,000 people marched in Montreal's streets Wednesday evening banging pots and pans as part of the now-nightly 'casseroles' demonstrations against Bill 78. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Léo Bureau-Blouin, president of the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec, which represents students at Quebec's CEGEP preparatory colleges, did acknowledge that the students' latest offer was "within the parameters" the government has set for the negotiations. Finance Minister Raymond Bachand has said any deal must not cost the provincial treasury more money but could still ease tuition hikes by reconfiguring other parts of university financing.

In the Quebec National Assembly, Opposition leader, Pauline Marois, urged Quebec Premier Jean Charest to take part in the debates. Charest told Marois "it takes two" to negotiate, suggesting students are refusing to budge with their demands.

7 hours of talks

The government and student groups spent seven hours in talks on Wednesday, broken up into two sessions. The province is being represented by Courchesne and MNA Alain Pacquet, the junior cabinet minister for finance, and has hired pricey Montreal lawyer Pierre Pilote as its chief negotiator.

Students are mainly represented at the table by the 125,000-strong FEUQ, the 100,000-member CLASSE and the 80,000-member FECQ. The smaller Table de concertation étudiante du Québec, or TaCEQ, is also taking part.

The Liberal government's original plan, announced in its March 2011 budget, was to raise tuition by 75 per cent over five years, to $3,793 a year before ancillary fees. It then softened its position somewhat in negotiations with students last month and said it was willing to spread out a slightly higher increase of 80 per cent over seven years, and to not implement it until 2013.

That offer also caved to a student demand to provide greater oversight of university budgets, and called for the creation of a 19-person council to enforce cost-saving measures in areas of university spending such as advertising, campus expansions and real estate deals. The latter has been especially contentious, following the construction boondoggle in 2007 that saw the University of Quebec in Montreal blow $500 million in taxpayer cash on a failed attempt to build a new residence and classroom complex atop Montreal's new bus terminal.

Students roundly rejected the offer, however, in a ratification vote May 5.

What began as a revolt over tuition hikes has ballooned into a wider social cause encompassing labour, environmental and social justice groups and grabbing global headlines. Bill 78 has spurred the movement even more, bringing in tens of thousands of people to rallies denouncing the emergency legislation.

Protests peaceful

For the 37th night in a row, protesters took to the streets of Montreal in support of the student cause on Wednesday. There were also "casserole" marches against Bill 78, and rallies in Quebec City outside the student-government negotiations.

Organizers had notified authorities of their route, making the march legal for the first time since the instalment of Bill 78.

Though supporters deviated from the route, police did not interfere and about 400 people marched from their regular gathering point in Place Emilie Gamelin into the Plateau and back to downtown, the crowd gaining size as it went. By the time the rally reached the Montreal offices of Premier Jean Charest, more than 3,000 people were clanging pots and pans.

The protest petered out near midnight with no arrests.