QUEBEC CITY – Quebec student representatives and provincial government officials emerged from a second day of talks to end a bitter dispute over tuition hikes short of an agreement but confident talks were progressing to possibly end weeks of student protests.
Both sides agreed to meet again Wednesday. Student leaders said progress had been made and they would evaluate several proposals presented by both sides.
Students have called for a tuition freeze, but the government has ruled out that possibility. Students also object to an emergency law put in place to limit protests.
"We will take the night and probably tomorrow morning to evaluate the different scenarios and restart the negotiations during the day in the hope of presenting an offer to our members," Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a co-spokesman for the more hardline CLASSE student protest group, told reporters.
Asked if a deal was imminent, Martine Desjardins, the head of one of the university student groups, said "it depends how many hours you consider to be imminent."
Student leaders said tuition hikes were on the table while the matter of the law was "broached" but left to be dealt with in greater detail in the future.
Any agreement would have to be put to the various student associations for approval. The government was hoping to avoid a repeat of previous talks that ended with an agreement in principle with the leaders that was later rejected by the associations.
The French-speaking province's average undergraduate tuition — $2,519 a year — is the lowest in Canada, and the proposed hike — $254 per year over seven years — is tiny by U.S. standards. Opponents consider the raise an affront — a manner of thinking that has its roots in the philosophy of the 1960s reforms in Quebec dubbed the Quiet Revolution.
The social movement set Quebec apart from the rest of Canada, and has the Quebecois comparing themselves to European countries where higher education is mostly free, rather than to the neighboring United States.
Protesters in Montreal and Quebec City were back in the streets again Tuesday evening in the latest in a string of consecutive night protests, banging pots and chanting against tuition hikes and the new law. A number of demonstrators gathered again in front of the building where the talks were taking place.
Police were noticeably absent Tuesday evening, some protesters going as far as banging on the door of the building with pots and wooden spoons.
On Monday, riot police were deployed as about 200 protesters stood in front of the building where the talks were held. Quebec City Police Lt. Stephane Dufresne said 84 were arrested. It was the first incident of mass arrests since last Wednesday when nearly 700 protesters were arrest. More than 2,500 people have been arrested since a student strike at more than a dozen Quebec colleges and universities began in February.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest, who has vowed to shake up the debt-ridden province's finances since he was elected nearly a decade ago, has refused to cave in. But he attended Monday's talks with the students for the first time since the conflict began, after being urged to do so by student leaders.
Charest said Tuesday he participated in the talks to show the government speaks with one voice at the table and because discussions had reached a new stage.
"We all want to turn the page and move onto other things," Charest said. "I hope it helps send a signal that the government wants to arrive at the best possible solution."
Charest's government passed emergency legislation on May 18 restricting protests and closing striking campuses until August. The law requires that police be informed eight hours before a protest begins, saying organizers must provide details on the route of any demonstration of 50 or more people. It also prohibits demonstrations within 50 meters (165 feet) of a college and declares that anyone who incites or helps another person break the new regulations can be fined.
Amnesty International says the law breaches Canada's international human rights obligations and called for it to be rescinded by Quebec's legislature.
Groups outside the province have condemned the new law. In Ottawa, labor unions joined major student organizations in a demonstration in support of the Quebec students' demands. In France, meanwhile, the far left New Anti-capitalist Party also supported Quebec's students and condemned what it considered an unprecedented law "criminalizing all social movements."
The latest round of talks comes at a crucial time for the Quebec government, with Montreal's peak tourism season fast approaching, a period of international events such as the Grand Prix F-1 race and international jazz and comedy festivals that bring millions in revenue.