All-night tuition negotiations end in agreement
QUEBEC CITY - Students leaders and government officials struck a deal at around 3 p.m. Saturday after almost 24 hours of negotiations on the tuition issue, however no details were immediately revealed.
A complete set of student leaders, union officials and government negotiators sat through the night in an attempt to negotiate a solution to the 82-day tuition disturbances.
Student leaders said that they would present the proposal to their constituents and hopefully have it settled in the evening. Further details were expected at around 8 p.m.
"In the aim of ending the current conflict, we have arrived at common ground. I wish to thank all parties for the respectful tone of the discourse over the last hours," said Education Minister Line Beauchamp in a press release.
At a press scrum around 4:00 p.m. Beauchamp said that she would not reveal details of the agreement out of respect to the students.
"What makes me the most satisfied is knowing that the students who want to go back to class will be able to do so," she said.
Some have speculated that the tuition hikes remain intact but other fees have been cut down, but that remains to be confirmed.
It is believed that the deal, which government officials describe as an "agreement in principle" and students are calling "an offer," would get students to return to class as soon as possible.
Louis Roy, President of the Confederation of National Union (CSN) said that "all parties involved have signed a road map to get out of the crisis."
Education Minister Line Beauchamp was present for the marathon negotiations that lasted approximately 23 hours. She was accompanied by Treasury Board President Michelle Courchesne, Finance Minister Alain Paquet and chief government negotiator Pierre Pilote.
A broad coalition of student associations were present, including Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois of CLASSE which had been excluded from the previous round of talks. His representative said that CLASSE would make no statement Saturday.
The president of the Quebec Federation of College Students (FECQ), Leo Bureau-Blouin, his colleague from the Quebec Federation of University Students (FEUQ), Martine Desjardins and the Secretary-General of Quebec Student Roundtable (TACEQ) Paul-Emile Auger also signed onto the deal.
Desjardins said that, "it's not an end to the protests but it's the beginning of the end."
Representatives from colleges and universities were also in attendance as well representatives of the Federation of Labour (FTQ), the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN), as well as the CSQ.
Throughout the talks all parties remained tight-lipped about the discussions.
The student leaders emerged only occasionally through the night to purchase snacks, but all declined media invitations to reveal details of what was going on at the closed-door chinwag.
At about 8:30 p.m. Friday all four student leaders emerged to denounce the violent protests taking place in Victoriaville. They all returned immediately to the meeting, leaving some with the impression that what seemed like orchestrated statements might have been agreed to at the negotiations.
The students did not, however, specify whether they were condemning violence perpetrated by police or demonstrators.
At around 9 p.m. a small crowd of peaceful demonstrators showed up outside, chanting "peace, love and free tuition."
As a precaution journalists were temporarily ushered out of the building and the doors were locked.
Chief negotiator Pierre Pilote convened the three major student groups to the meeting, which was also attended by teachers, union representatives and a lesser-known student group called TACEQ.
The FEUQ and FECQ expressed optimism going into the meeting.
"Ministers Line Beauchamp (Education) and Michelle Courchesne (Treasury) will be there and that means that they want to settle the issue and find an end to the crisis," said Martin Desjardins, representative of the FEUQ.
"I'm assuming they're acting in good faith," said Leo Bureau-Blouin, her counterpart at the FECQ. "I think that the government has understood that it's urgent to act."
"We hope it's not a PR exercise," he continued. "The Liberals have a habit of calling meetings and bringing big ministers to appease public pressure while making no concessions on the tuition issue."
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, co-spokesperson for CLASSE, said he was happy to attend but warns that nothing will change until the government agrees to not only freeze tuition, but eliminate it.
Premier Charest was not in attendance, as he is attending the Quebec Liberals' annual general meeting in Victoriaville. He did, however, appear to seek to lower expectations about the meeting.
"It is important to talk and we've always felt that's an important thing, we can't go wrong if we're sitting around the same table and talking and sharing our views," said Charest. "We don't always have to agree and I certainly don't think we'll all agree on everything but we certainly have the right to talk to each other."
Government officials met Thursday with CEGEP administrators who are worried that the semester must be cancelled.
Authorities have delayed making that drastic move given the chain reaction of logistical challenges that would follow widespread cancellations.
But after 12 weeks of walkouts, the student leaders and provincial government remain far apart and there has been little sign of a possible negotiated remedy.
Meanwhile, only about one-third of the province's post-secondary students remain on a declared strike; the others have never joined the movement, or gone back to class.
Polls suggest the weeks of unrest have not harmed the Charest government -- whose call for tuition increases appears to have actually increased its public support.
The protest movement has proven persistent, however. Daily and nightly demonstrations remain a recent fact of life in Montreal, and in other pockets of the province.
Residents of the city are becoming accustomed to sudden traffic jams and the sound of police helicopters buzzing overhead at night.
With a file from The Canadian Press