Protests break out as Charest reveals emergency legislation to suspend semesters
MONTREAL - Thousands of students took the streets of Montreal on Wednesday evening only moments after Premier Jean Charest announced emergency legislation aimed at ending three months of disorder in the province.
After a day of speculation, Charest announced that the spring semesters at 25 universities and colleges impacted by the 14-week old student boycott would be suspended under legislation slated to be tabled soon.
"It's time for things to calm down," said Charest, flanked by newly appointed Education Minister Michelle Courchesne. "The current situation lasted too long."
That suggestion was ignored by thousands of people.
Instead protesters gathered at Emilie Gamelin park at 11 p.m. and marched through the streets.
Police say they asked protesters many times to stop committing criminal acts, but windows at five banks were broken and other establishments were vandalized.
122 people were arrested, mostly for participating in an illegal march, but others for assaulting officers.
Meanwhile in Quebec City Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the co-spokesperson for CLASSE and a symbolic leader of the student movement, led a thousand people in a peaceful march after Charest announced the special law.
Trouble continued in the morning, as a bomb threat was made at the CEGEP de l'Outaouais.
All three campuses were closed for about an hour while police investigated. No device was found and classes resumed.
Legislation will target those who interfere with school
Hinting at severe penalties for anyone who tries to picket or otherwise prevent students from entering classrooms, Charest did not answer when asked about reports of stiff fines. He simply said those details would be revealed when the legislation is tabled—perhaps as early as Thursday.
Charest did make it clear that the legislation will target the crowds of protesters who have blocked access to schools, and even stormed into classrooms in an attempt to enforce what they call a legal strike.
Under the proposed legislation, classes would resume in August and continue for two months.
"Access to education is a right. Nobody can pretend to defend access to education and then block the doors of a CEGEP or university," said Charest.
Polls suggest Charest's unpopular government, facing a longshot re-election bid, might actually have public support for its tuition hikes. But the premier has responded angrily in recent weeks when accused of encouraging a climate of confrontation for his own political benefit.
Bracing for more of that criticism, the Charest government has bought ads in Thursday's newspapers explaining how it has already made several adjustments to its tuition plans to soften the impact on the poorest students.
But his critics won't easily be quelled and some of the government's most vocal opponents promised further defiance.
There were even whispers of worse trouble, potentially.
Student leaders furious
"If there is violence, if there are serious injuries, Premier Jean Charest will have to carry the blame for the rest of his political career," said a visibly furious Leo Bureau-Blouin, who had gained a reputation in recent months as perhaps the most composed and moderate student leader.
Seated next to him, Martine Desjardins said: "If Jean Charest wanted to reduce tensions with this proposal, I'm really afraid that it will increase them instead... Young people will remember."
Both student leaders were furious, feeling as though a goodwill meeting with Courchesne on Tuesday was a publicity stunt by the government.
"This decision is something that will impact Quebec for a long time," said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the spokesperson for the CLASSE. "The Liberals just spat in the face of an entire generation of Quebecers, we will remember that."
The tumult in Quebec has repeatedly made international news. It happened again Wednesday morning. Foreign media picked up reports about groups of protesters storming into Montreal university classes and forcing students to get out.
The conflict has lasted three months and caused considerable damage—with numerous injuries, countless traffic jams, a few smashed windows, subway evacuations, clashes with law enforcement, a heavy police bill, and of course disruptions to the academic calendar.
"With the decision that we are announcing tonight, this is an opportunity for people to cool down and take a breath," said Charest.
The dispute claimed the province's education minister, who announced her resignation from politics earlier this week. Her replacement, Michelle Courchesne, said Wednesday she'd noticed a hardening of demands from student leaders.
"There is no openness to make the necessary compromises," she said.
Students say they were open to compromise
Her remark came as a surprise to the student groups, who had emerged from a meeting the previous night saying they'd had a constructive dialogue with her.
Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois made it clear even before the announcement that she would oppose any legislated crackdown. Wearing the iconic red square of the protest movement, Marois said negotiation would always work better than coercion.
"I think the best way is to discuss," she said.
She picked up on an analogy used earlier in the day from a student leader. One student-group leader, Bureau-Blouin, had urged Charest to do the right thing as a "family father" and deal with problems in the house, not call in the police.
Marois said that, speaking as a "family mother," she hoped for a peaceful resolution.
Quebec's bar association appeared to hold the same hope.
In a very nuanced, cautious statement, it called for mediated discussions between the students and government. It added that both parliamentarians and student leaders were democratically elected, the latter under provincial law governing student votes.
However, it also expressed concern over some protesters' disregard for the law. It called it "unacceptable" that legal injunctions, as well as the right to protest, appeared to have been ignored during occasionally violent clashes.
"For almost 14 weeks we've been watching growing social tensions and disruptions that are harmful to our social peace and legal democracy," the bar association said in a statement.
Under the latest version of its tuition plan, the Charest government would increase fees by $254 per year over seven years and then peg future increases to the level of inflation.
That would mean tuition increases of more than 75 per cent for Quebec students, who pay the lowest rates in Canada. The change would still mean some of the country's lowest rates.
But the antagonists in the dispute are casting this as much as a battle of principle as of public policy.
To the hike defenders, it's about improving the quality of universities, about students' personal responsibility, and about sparing Quebec's long-suffering taxpayers from an even heavier burden. To its opponents, it's about defending universal access to education against any future attempt to whittle it away.
With files from The Canadian Press.