OTTAWA, Ontario – Quebec college and university students and the provincial government returned to the bargaining table on Monday in an attempt to put an end to a months- long dispute over tuition hikes that has led to clashes with police and mass arrests.
Student leaders said Monday the tuition hike and an emergency law put in place to limit protests would have to be on the table. The two sides are meeting in Quebec City.
Students have called for a tuition freeze, but the government has ruled out that possibility.
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. But opponents consider the raise an affront to the philosophy of the 1960s reforms dubbed the Quiet Revolution that set Quebec apart not only from its U.S. neighbor but from the rest of Canada.
Analysts have said Quebecers don't compare their tuition rates to those in the U.S. or English-speaking Canada, but to those in European countries, where higher education is free.
More than 2,500 students have been arrested since the demonstrations began, including nearly 700 this past Wednesday, but arrests are down markedly since.
Student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said his group wasn't going to rush a decision and would take the time to ponder any agreement. He said if the government refused to budge on the two issues, his group would reconsider participating in negotiations. "Since the beginning of the strike the organizations agree on the objective to cancel tuition hikes," he said. Student leaders Leo Bureau-Blouin and Martine Desjardins agreed tuition fees have to be on the table and said the ball was in the government's court.
Education Minister Michelle Courchesne said she was showing up at the meeting "open" to discussions but didn't know how long meetings would last.
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.
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, including 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 protest 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.
The latest round of talks comes at a crucial time for the Quebec government, with thousands taking to the streets nightly in protest and 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.
Event organizers have expressed concern about the impact the continuing protests could have on the festivals, which include nightly outdoor shows on stages surrounded by lucrative concession stands that draw thousands into the streets for weeks.
Students have been holding nightly protests, some of whom have ended in clashes with police. The latest manifestation of dissent has been protesters pouring to the streets banging pots late into the night, creating a cacophony of noise some fear could disrupt festival performances.