For three days, there was the faintest sign of potential that Quebec's student unrest might find an imminent and peaceful resolution.
Any such hope was dashed Wednesday as talks broke off between the provincial government and Quebec's main student groups.
Their three-day attempt at negotiation was always a long shot: the sides were an ideological chasm apart, with the government refusing to back down on tuition hikes and student groups demanding exactly that, and perhaps more.
So the discussion ended as it began — with riotous scenes in the streets of downtown Montreal, numerous smashed windows, scuffles between police and protesters, and no solution in sight.
The unravelling began with an uproarious protest in Montreal late Tuesday that saw five arrests, an injured police officer and the window of a bank smashed.
There were more disruptions Wednesday morning.
A pair of smoke bombs tossed in the Montreal subway system slowed down service, while there were several protests in the city. One of them saw student demonstrators team up with laid-off workers to block the street outside an Air Canada shareholders' meeting.
Those events were taking place despite the so-called “truce” declared by the Quebec government and student leaders.
The sides had been meeting in Quebec City, hoping to hammer out some sort of compromise on the contentious issue of tuition hikes.
Given that the groups had agreed to stop organizing any disruptive actions during the talks, the latest events prompted questions about whether the student leaders actually control the movement they've spearheaded.
Education Minister Line Beauchamp said the fact that those protests were announced on the website of the most hardline student group — nicknamed the C.L.A.S.S.E. — made it clear they were not to be trusted at the negotiating table.
She said student groups were supposed to abide by the ultimatum she had issued earlier this week: Rein in the rowdy protests, or be excluded from talks.
“You can't play both sides,” Ms. Beauchamp said.
“I regret that this C.L.A.S.S.E. has chosen its camp.”
She booted the hardline group out of the negotiations. Within minutes, the two other student groups at the table voiced their solidarity with the C.L.A.S.S.E. and announced they were also walking away.
Minutes later, there were protesters spilling into the streets of Montreal and Quebec City. By day's end, thousands were marching in Montreal, denouncing the Charest government and demanding general elections.
A few members of the crowd masked themselves. Some fired paintballs. Cars were vandalized. Windows were smashed at several banks and other businesses. Police responded by pepper-spraying protesters and media in their path — a response some protesters called excessive.
Even a downtown police station was attacked by protesters. A Twitter post from police read, “The windows of (station) 21 ... were completely shattered.”
The spokesman for the more militant group, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, said the minister's actions had “extended the (student) strike by quite a bit and poured oil on the fire.” He accused Beauchamp of sabotage, saying she never really wanted to negotiate in good faith.
He said the government has only been working to divert public attention — away from the planned tuition increase, and onto the issue of violence.
As for the heart of the dispute, the Charest government has repeatedly said it will not back down on the 70 per cent tuition hikes it's planning over the next five years.
The student groups, for their part, are demanding a freeze or even a complete elimination of tuition.
Some students are also casting their struggle in broader terms, arguing that this battle isn't just against tuition hikes but also against capitalist practices.
The C.L.A.S.S.E. website lists the group's principles as including the struggle against globalization that emphasizes the profit motive above all other concerns; the group also says it's in favour of union with all international progressive struggles seeking the betterment of society.
Its website has several pages of detailed positions the group has adopted over recent years, including:
— Opposing a Free Trade Area of The Americas.
— Opposing all Canadian military intervention in Afghanistan “or in any other country.”
— Supporting the “anti-capitalist revolution” in Pakistan in 2007.
— Wanting sanctions and a boycott of Israel's “apartheid regime.”
— That courses, lesson plans and reading lists be “feminized.”
— Support of squatter's rights and low-cost housing.
— A guaranteed minimum income of at least $1,000 a month.
— And lower RRSP tax ceilings and higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
Recent surveys suggest the unrest hasn't hurt the Charest government politically.
Polls indicate Quebecers generally support the fee hikes. And one survey this week suggested the poll-leading Parti Quebecois, which has staunchly endorsed the students, has lost support and seen its lead evaporate in recent weeks.
In a sign of how he might view the issue as a potential political winner, Premier Jean Charest has taken to repeatedly pointing out that his political opponents are wearing, on their lapels, the iconic red squares that have come to symbolize the movement.
A provincial election must be called between this spring and late 2013.
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