Tuition talks break off
Published Thursday, May 31, 2012 4:16PM EDT
MONTREAL - Three protesters were arrested at the evening protest march in Montreal for violating the recently-passed municipal demonstration bylaw and another two were arrested in evening demonstrations in Quebec City after tuition negotiations between student leaders and government representative broke off in the afternoon.
The talks came to a halt between student leaders and the Quebec government Thursday afternoon when Michelle Courchesne left the table at around 4:00 p.m. in the fourth day of negotiations.Afterwards Premier Jean Charest participated alongside Education Minister Michelle Courchesne in a tense press conference also attended by the four student association leaders, who watched on, showing occasional signs of disagreement.
The government officials offered their take on the details of the negotiations and answered pointed questions from journalists.
When asked whether the repercussions of the collapse in negotiations could lead to public unrest, a tense Jean Charest said, "we consider those to be threats."There had been speculation that if these latest negotiations failed the provincial government might call a snap election and ask Quebec voters to help settle a dispute that has made international news.
Premier Jean Charest said that day will indeed come -- but he downplayed the imminence of a vote. The government is into the fourth year of its mandate and must head to the polls by late 2013.
"Ultimately there will be an election within 18 months," Charest told reporters. "It'll happen in a democratic context that will allow us to state our case on these issues."
It would be Charest's fifth election as a provincial politician, if he runs again. He is already positioning the tuition hikes as a central issue of any future vote.
And he suggested that the voters of Quebec might not take their cue from the red-square-wearing protesters who have been in the streets every day for months.
"It's up to the silent majority to express itself," Charest said, repeating: "There will be an election within 18 months."
Early in the day, students had issued a mild threat to walk away from the negotiating table. But surprisingly, later Thursday, it was Education Minister Michelle Courchesne who announced talks had been suspended.
"The sides have shown some openness," she told reporters. "But we have to conclude we're at an impasse... It's really an impasse."
The students later confirmed to reporters that talks had broken off -- against their wishes, they said.
They said the government had offered nothing except for a $35 discount on tuition hikes, and was unwilling to rescind a controversial law that sets limits on protests.
They said the government appeared more concerned with political optics than with finding a solution. However, they said they're willing to go back to the negotiating table whenever the government wants.
"We're still here. We're always ready to negotiate," said one of the four main student leaders, Martine Desjardins. "We'll wait."CLASSE spokesman Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said the government never wanted a deal: "It was bad faith from the start."
One of Charest's principal opponents, Francois Legault of the Coalition For Quebec's Future, suggested the premier should calm tensions by announcing plans to hold an election in the fall.
In the meantime, both the government and student groups said they were willing to speak again if the other side was ready to make an offer.The government also proposed a public forum to discuss the quality and future of Quebec universities, including how they're managed and financed.
The minister said the students wanted to reduce education tax credits and even suggested abolishing an education savings incentives program for middle class families.
Cutting education tax credits would have helped university students but not those in technical or professional training, she said.
"There was a limit about what we could accept on a tax reduction and we couldn't ask that it be done for the sole benefit of university students."
Ultimately, Courchesne said talks reached an impasse because the students rejected all increases of tuition fees.
"For them it was the freeze, the moratorium or nothing."
The festive, pot-banging atmosphere of previous marches appeared to have been replaced by a more urgent tone Thursday evening in Montreal.
The Thursday night march was fast-paced but largely peaceful and few banged on pots. When the marchers walked by Crescent St. some bar patrons gestured signs of disrespect at the demonstrators passing by. The crowds were considerably larger than in previous nights.
While there were expressions of hope that a deal might be within reach a day earlier, students were expressing frustration as they entered talks Thursday.
The range of potential outcomes from the negotiations was vast: an imminent provincial election, renewed unrest in the streets, or a peaceful resolution were all possible results, depending on how talks conclude.
During question period on Thursday, Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois called on Premier Jean Charest to take over the government's side of negotiations—Charest sat in on the talks for an hour on Tuesday.
One prominent student protester suggested the talks could collapse.
"If there's progress we might come back tomorrow," Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said while entering Thursday's meeting. "If it doesn't progress we might leave today."
Student leaders refused to disclose the contents of their latest proposal but said reducing a planned tuition increase -- which is at the heart of their dispute with the province -- was the key priority.
"There were exchanges of offers, like ping-pong, throughout the day. That ended with our last offer and we wait for the reaction," Nadeau-Dubois, a co-spokesman for the more hardline CLASSE student group, had told reporters Wednesday night.
Nadeau-Dubois said several areas were being considered as places where money could be found to lower the planned tuition fee increase. One option presented by students was to adjust tax credits.
Student leaders said the talks with the province have been up and down. But they added that the pressure is all on the government now.
The students have all summer to negotiate because their school semesters have been suspended, while the province is desperate to calm the protest-filled streets before Montreal receives tourists for its summer festivals.
An offer to cut the province's proposed tuition fee increase by $35 was dismissed unanimously in talks Tuesday night, said two of the heads of students groups involved in negotiations.
The government had already lowered the yearly increase previously, by offering to spread it out over seven years for an annual jump of $254, a move rejected by students.
Education Minister Michelle Courchesne's Tuesday proposal would have reduced the yearly hike to $219 over seven years.
The original increase, which kicked off the dispute in February, was for $325 a year over five years—a move that would bring annual fees to about $3,800 in 2017.
As the two sides tried to reach a deal to end the crisis, pot-banging protests in support of the Quebec student strikers were seen in New York City and several Canadian cities last night in an event dubbed Casserole Night in Canada.
Protesters in Calgary filled half a city block and held up traffic as they banged pots and pans on a march to city hall. Police officers walked alongside the peaceful demonstrators, many of whom waved signs calling for support for the Quebec students.
In Vancouver, protesters clanging on their casserole cans wove through the city streets as police looked on. A few in the largely young crowd wore black masks as they marched, but the demonstration stayed peaceful.
Demonstrators in Toronto made their way from a city park through residential streets, drawing out curious onlookers who lined the sidewalk to watch. Some residents came out onto their balconies to clang pots of their own in support of the noisy protest.
There were also marches in Halifax, London, Ont., and Kingston Ont.
Even the United Nations has weighed in on the issue, following in the footsteps of Amnesty International.
Two UN independent experts on freedom of expression have raised concerns about Quebec demonstrations which took place on May 24 that involved "serious acts of violence" and the detention of up to 700 protesters.
They urged the provincial government to respect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, expression and association of students.
"The recently adopted legislation unduly restricts students' rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly in Quebec," warned Maina Kiai, the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
Kiai said fines ranging up to $125,000 that are included in the law are "disproportionate" and warned that a municipal regulation requiring protesters to provide their itinerary in advance should not be "misused to restrict the legitimate right to freedom of peaceful assembly."
With files from The Canadian Press