The Quebec government has set strict conditions for any resumption of negotiations with student strike leaders: there will be no talk of a tuition freeze, and no question of scrapping a newly enacted emergency law.
Barring that, Education Minister Michelle Courchesne suggested Wednesday that there will be no return to the bargaining table in a dispute that has made international news.
“I’m not giving up. I’m very tenacious, very determined,” Ms. Courchesne said. “I want to talk to them, and it’s up to them to take some steps so that we might talk.”
But within hours of Ms. Courchesne’s tough talk, police also flexed their muscles, making at least 400 arrests after a mainly peaceful Wednesday night march in Montreal.
A combined force of Montreal and Quebec provincial police surrounded hundreds of demonstrators near the city’s downtown before taking at least 400 of them into custody. An undetermined number of other arrests was also made at other points along the demonstration’s route where marchers got the support of crowds of people banging on pots and pans to encourage them.
Montreal police spokesman Daniel Lacoursiere told reporters police made the arrests after officers were pelted with projectiles and other criminal acts were committed.
Ms. Courchesne said earlier in Quebec City she was ready to meet the students immediately — “as early as today” — under the right conditions.
The relationship between student leaders and the government, rocky throughout the conflict, reached its nadir last week when the Charest Liberals enacted emergency legislation that student groups described as a declaration of war. Wednesday night’s arrests will undoubtably be another hurdle.
The emergency bill was designed to severely undermine student groups’ ability to impose school shutdowns at faculties — about one-third of them — where students have voted to strike.
But the sides appeared to be talking Wednesday, with phone calls exchanged between the government and two of the three main student groups.
It’s unclear what the sides might possibly discuss. The government remains committed to tuition hikes, and the student groups remain staunchly opposed to them.
One student leader, Martine Desjardins, joked that if the government didn’t want to discuss a moratorium on increases, she would gladly bring a thesaurus to the meeting: “We could find other words (for it).”
Echoing the tone of his minister, Premier Jean Charest said his government was open to talking with students but not at any cost.
“Let’s ask ourselves this question: What concession have the student representatives made? We slowed down (application of the hikes), we improved the loan system, we improved the bursaries system...
“We’ve taken all those steps and we did it in a spirit of openness with respect to the future of our universities. And we’ll continue to leave the door open that would allow talks with the student group representatives.”
Even if student associations return to the negotiating table, it’s far from clear they can corral the support of the various protest factions.
Many protesters have been insisting that the current unrest is about more than tuition and is actually about broader economic justice.
Among them, one prominent protester is encouraging others planning to spoil upcoming Formula One parties. Linking the jet-setting car-race circuit to capitalism and neo-liberalism, activist Jaggi Singh says: “Rich douchebags are going to be disrupted by night demos.”
During a heated exchange in the legislature, Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois accused the premier of letting tensions slide out of hand.
She said he hadn’t bothered to take five minutes to sit down and speak with the students himself throughout the conflict.
“From the beginning of this crisis we’ve tried to reason with the government and asked it to negotiate in good faith,” Ms. Marois said.
“Now the calls for negotiation are coming from everywhere — even from the most ardent supporters of the hard line. But let’s not see a repeat of that sorry spectacle from last Tuesday, when the student groups were convened only as a pretext for tabling Bill 78.”
Meanwhile, the protests in Quebec have made international news and in some cases this week figured prominently in reports from several of the biggest news outlets in the world.
There was particularly heavy coverage of the large march Tuesday that marked the 100th day of the declared student strike, in Montreal.
That enormous, peaceful march gave way later in the evening to a confrontation between a smaller group of police and protesters.
There were more than 100 arrests.
As the evening march began, police announced that the assembly was illegal because protesters had not submitted a pre-approved itinerary as required under the Charest government’s controversial Bill 78 and under a municipal bylaw. A similar announcement was made at the start of Wednesday’s march.
A large crowd gathered for Wednesday’s march but little of the violence of previous evenings had happened by late evening. As the march went on, it splintered into several groups who went in different directions.
Police kept a close watch on the chanting procession during the evening as it wound through several neighbourhoods and got encouragement from people banging pots and pans. Other support came via Twitter with messages from people marching in Quebec City and others in New York who seemed to be former Montrealers.
There was one brief scuffle between a woman and police on downtown Ste-Catherine Street in Montreal. She was arrested and whisked away in a police cruiser. Another woman passerby down the street shouted insults at the demonstrators, cursing and calling them rats in French and yelling their march was illegal. She got catcalls from the crowd in return.
That new provincial law has not been actually been enforced yet by Montreal police.
People arrested there so far have been detained for criminal acts and other violations, separate from Bill 78. But police add that some protest organizers could eventually face charges under the bill.