Tuition talks to resume between Quebec minister, students

Student leaders say a compromise over the tuition crisis is within reach, but Quebec is firm that its emergency protest law will not be part of new talks.

Minister excludes special law but student leaders firm on repeal

A massive crowd marched through Montreal on May 22, to mark the 100th day of Quebec's student protest movement. (Luc Lavigne/Radio-Canada)

Student leaders say a compromise over Quebec's tuition crisis is within reach, after the province's education minister opened the door for new talks on Wednesday.

The declaration of possible new negotiations came as another protest got underway in Montreal Wednesday evening, the 30th night in a row people have taken to the streets.

Education Minister Michelle Courchesne said she hopes to meet with student leaders "any time" to break through the tuition crisis impasse, but stayed firm on the Liberal government's position that its emergency protest legislation – Bill 78 –  is not on the table.

Courchesne told reporters Wednesday she is prepared to "discuss real issues, and identify pragmatic solutions," with student leaders to bring an end to Quebec's divisive tuition crisis.

"It's around the table we will find those real solutions, talking face to face."

But Bill 78, the special law adopted last week that restricts student protests, will not be part of any discussions, Courchesne said.

"The government has taken its responsibilities. We want security in Montreal, we want security everywhere in Quebec. The law is there to remain."

Courchesne added that CLASSE, Quebec's more radical student group, is welcome to join the talks, "if CLASSE wants to be there." 

Student leaders were undeterred by the minister's refusal to include Bill 78 in future negotiations.

"What we want is to discuss everything to find a compromise," said Léo Bureau-Blouin, spokesman for Quebec's CÉGEP college students association (FECQ).

"We  hope that they are open minded — we hope that [Tuesday's] protest and the fact that the special bill isn't accepted very well by Quebecers is going to have [an impact] on Liberal strategists."

Martine Desjardins, leader of Quebec's university students association (FEUQ), says it's "a matter of days, a matter of hours, but we'll be again at the table of negotiations. This is a condition to solve the crisis."

Bill 78

Talks between student leaders and the Liberal government petered last week, shortly after Courchesne took over the education portfolio, following Line Beauchamp's resignation.

Montreal police arrest protesters during Tuesday's demonstration against the tuition fee hike. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

That meeting saw both sides put their proposals on the table, but didn't lead to formal negotiations as Courchesne suggested student groups were hardening their position.

Three days later, the government introduced the controversial Bill 78, which student leaders described as a "declaration of war."

Political reaction

Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois is blaming the Liberal government for "this crisis that doesn’t seem to end."

Quebec Premier Jean Charest "is himself responsible" for the tuition conflict, and should take the reins and sit down with students himself, she said.

Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault called on students to meet the government half way.

"The student, since the beginning, haven’t accepted one dollar in tuition free increases,"he said Wednesday. "They also have to make some compromises."

Amir Khadir called on the government to resume talks — but wants to see student obey the rule of law.

"We promote civil obedience," said Khadir, the sole Québec solidaire MNA at Quebec’s legislature.

"We need negotiations, we need to give the government the opportunity to save their face, sit down and solve the problem."

Gilles Duceppe took part in Tuesday's march. (Marc Appolonio/CBC)

Former Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe was among tens of thousands of protesters out for Tuesday’s 100th day march.

But Duceppe, a former student union leader in the 1960s, is not wearing the movement’s iconic red square.

In an interview with CBC News, he said it’s not fair for students to make demands on the government to freeze tuition, without being prepared to give something in return.

Young people in the movement should be celebrated for speaking out, Duceppe said, adding that Quebec political leaders have a duty to own up to their role in the conflict. 

"The government, they’re not in their twenties, they are completely irresponsible not asking people to sit and negotiate. This is the only way out of the crisis."

Civil disobedience has its place, Duceppe noted, citing the former apartheid regime in South Africa — but said it isn’t the right path in Quebec.

Police response

Protesters and police have faced off in near-daily clashes as demonstrations are declared illegal and riot squads move in to move crowds.

Montreal police have faced criticism, however, by some who accuse officers of being overly aggressive toward demonstrators or too quick to deploy crowd dispersal equipment like chemical irritants.

The toll taken by the 101-day-old student strike provincewide was addressed by Montreal police Chief Marc Parent at a conference in Montreal on Wednesday.

He stressed that Montreal officers will use Bill 78 to target law-defying organizers, and not peaceful protesters.

"We are using it very carefully for now, but we have to understand that it’s not for demonstrators, this law," Parent told an audience of police officers gathered from across Quebec.

Parent told the crowd  that citizens should be proud of their service, which has been strained by the massive daily protests.

Videos of the protests posted to social media show teams of officers taking down demonstrators with seemingly severe physical force and spraying what appear to be passive groups with irritants. Other footage shows protesters launching objects at the officers.

Parent said a team is reviewing those videos to ensure police responded appropriately.

He told reporters that despite the physical and psychological demands the officers are facing, they're performing professionally.

He acknowledged the protests have ramped up since Bill 78 became law, but said the Montreal police have yet to lay charges under its provisions.

Bus union says drivers have a right to say no 

Montreal’s public bus drivers’ union meanwhile has issued an edict to its member, encouraging them to refuse to drive Montreal police or detainees during demonstrations, as is customary in the city.

Last week, a bus driver found himself in a situation where he was driving a tactical squad through a protest, and he was told to go through, said STM driver union spokesman Tom Moutheros.

Drivers should have the right to refuse involvement in potentially tense standoffs.

Moutheros called Bill 78 a law fit for a totalitarian state, said "and it’s not right."

Manifs aux casseroles spread across Montreal

A noisy but peaceful form of protest against Bill 78 has taken hold in some Montreal neighbourhoods since the weekend.

A pots and pans protest inspired by decades-old events in Chile has spread to Montreal. (Thomas Daigle/CBC)

It's a nightly ritual known as les manifs aux casseroles, that sees hundreds of people step out of their homes, armed with pots and pans.

At the stroke of 8 p.m., they start to bang on their kitchenware.

The casserole call is modelled on a popular form of grassroots protest in South America. It began as a way for average citizens to show their displeasure with Chile's repressive regime in the 1970s.

Bets accepted in Quebec crisis 

A sports gambling website has begun taking bets on potential outcomes of the Quebec student strike — and the array of betting scenarios ranges from funny to frightening.

The site sets odds for when the strike will end; whether there will be a referendum on tuition hikes; how many fines will be levied against the most hardline student group; and whether the government will back down.

 It even sets odds on whether martial law will be declared in Quebec by the end of 2012 — a suggestion that has so far been limited to internet chat boards and never come up in mainstream political discussion.

With files from the Canadian Press