Quebec protest leaders hint at compromise

College leader willing to discuss amount of hike

Leaders of at least two of the three large student groups who organized Quebec’s student “strike” movement suggest that a compromise could soon end the 106-day conflict.

Martine Desjardins, leader of university group FEUC, told CBC News on Sunday that negotiations with the provincial government will resume this afternoon.

Leo Bureau-Blouin, president of college student group FECQ, told The House on Saturday that if Premier Jean Charest lessened the planned tuition increase—most recently proposed at $1,778 over seven years—then students may end their protests. He did not suggest a specific amount.

Desjardins also sounded conciliatory when she said that her group will not try to hurt Montreal’s summer festivals by scaring off tourists, although it’s clear damage to Quebec’s $600-million tourism industry has already been done. They will instead target upcoming by-elections, she said.

As of Friday, at least 2,500 people had been arrested in relation to the students protests, in which a minority of students took it upon themselves to boycott classes after meetings where small numbers of them showed up to vote by show of hands. Those who support the movement often succeeded in having classes cancelled or physically blocked fellow students who tried to attend.

Near nightly protests in Montreal, which were often marred by vandalism, prompted the Quebec government to enact Law 78 ten days ago. The law prevents anyone from blocking others who try to go to classes. Controversially, the law also requires those organizing public demonstrations of 50 or more people to register an itinerary with police or else face fines from $1,000 to $125,000.

Many lawyers suggest parts of the law are unconstitutional. Student groups commenced their challenge of the law on Friday, focusing in particular on how it impacts Freedom of Association.

The movement is gaining support outside Quebec too, where tuition is mostly much higher.

The Canadian Federation of Students in Ontario, where undergraduate tuition averages $6,640, is planning a Day of Action against tuition on June 5.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty reacted by pointing out that his province recently began offering a 30 per cent tuition rebate. “It’s interesting to note that here in Ontario even though we have higher tuition fees, we have a higher rate of participation in post-secondary education in Ontario,” he said.

The University of British Columbia’s student union passed a resolution last week calling on Charest’s government to respect the financial, legal and intellectual autonomy of Quebec student unions.

Quebec’s tuition hikes will bring per-student revenue at Quebec universities more in line with the average in the rest of Canada. In 2011-2012, Quebec undergraduates paid an average of $2,649, compared to the $6,640 Ontario’s students paid and the nationwide average of $5,366.