Beyond the smashed windows and broken glass spread across the streets of Montreal, Quebec is in the throes of a full-blown crisis that is angering citizens and consuming the Liberal government.
The more than 10-week student strike over tuition fee hikes, the longest ever in Quebec, may have reached its breaking point. Faced with civil disobedience and violent confrontations, Quebeckers are demanding a speedy end to the conflict. After spending millions of dollars on extra policing over the past two months, Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay called on the government and students to find a solution.
“Enough is enough. I don’t accept that my fed-up citizens should be taken hostage,” Mr. Tremblay said. “What are we waiting for, a tragedy?”
Montreal police Chief Marc Parent was also growing weary of all the criticism over the use of tear gas and concussion grenades to disperse crowds – on Wednesday night, police arrested more than 80 people, and six were injured. Chief Parent said he is proud of his force, adding officers have shown “professionalism and restraint” despite being frequently pelted by stones and bricks over the course of about 165 protests during the student boycott.
“I don’t think this has ever been seen in Canada,” Chief Parent said.
Yet Quebec Premier Jean Charest remained firmly entrenched in his position. And the students, well-organized, articulate and persistent, refused to retreat.
The situation has left the government in a delicate position with voters. The conflict has derailed Mr. Charest’s promotion of his Northern development plan called the Plan Nord, the centrepiece of his re-election platform. If the dispute isn’t settled soon, it will likely disrupt a meeting of Liberal members scheduled for the end of next week in Montreal, which has been expected be a final party gathering before an election.
Meanwhile, public opinion polls show a record level of voter disapproval toward the government. Voters criticize Mr. Charest’s handling of the student-strike issue. Allegations of corruption have also become a major hurdle to overcome, according to a recent poll. A public inquiry will begin next month into allegations of corruption in the construction industry, the awarding of public contracts and the financing of political parties.
The hard line taken against the students by the Charest government may be explained in part by the fact that many Quebeckers, especially Liberals, support the tuition fee hikes – more than $1,600 over the next five years, a 75-per-cent increase. Mr. Charest may be consolidating his base of support, but he is also attracting criticism.
Professors, teachers, intellectuals and even prominent Liberals have urged the Premier to temporarily suspend the tuition fee hikes and end the crisis. Some even suggested that Mr. Charest had a hidden agenda and was deliberately polarizing the debate and dividing the students as part of a pre-election strategy.
“It would be a sad state of affairs if students were being manipulated. That would mean they were being used as part of a political agenda,” said Max Roy, president of the federation of university professors.
“With the breakdown of discussions, he [Mr. Charest]knew it would spark protests,” said the president of the college student federation, Léo Bureau-Blouin. “So I think the Quebec government is playing a dangerous game with public opinion as part of its re-election.”
The government’s decision this week to exclude the more militant of the three major student groups, the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, or CLASSE, from the bargaining table, created the recent stalemate.
Mr. Charest portrayed the CLASSE as a radical group, accusing it of being behind the clashes with police. And he went out of his way to suggest that the Parti Québécois’ support of the students was an indication that it condoned their actions.
“None of us who are in a position of responsibility can … do anything else but condemn the violence,” he said, while maintaining the PQ wasn’t vocal enough on this issue.
During National Assembly committee hearings on Thursday, PQ Leader Pauline Marois battered Mr. Charest with questions on how he planned to resolve the crisis.
“Does the Leader of the Official Opposition want us to sit down with the CLASSE,” Mr. Charest responded repeatedly.
Angered by the Premier’s refusal to respond, Ms. Marois lashed out at him.
“These are our children that are in the streets. These are our children getting belly-clubbed and pushed around,” Ms Marois said. “I’m looking the Premier in the eyes and telling him he is responsible.”
When asked by reporters if he had a hidden agenda by discrediting the CLASSE in order to prepare for an coming election, Mr. Charest denied the allegation, saying it was “grotesque.”