The surprising resignation of Quebec’s education minister has dealt a major blow to Premier Jean Charest’s efforts to end a bitter months-long battle with students over tuition fee hikes.
For Canada’s current longest-serving Premier, the resignation of Line Beauchamp, who was one of his most trusted advisers, is a devastating political loss when he can least afford it. She is the second deputy premier to step down in less than a year.
With Ms. Beauchamp’s departure from politics, the Liberal Leader’s deteriorating majority stands at 63 – just four more than the total of the opposition parties – and an election is looming as early as this year.
In spite of Mr. Charest’s increasingly tough talk, he appears unable to bring an end to 14 weeks of public disorder marked by sometimes violent and destructive demonstrations over the province’s plan to hike fees by more $1,700 over seven years.
Tensions in the protracted battle with the students reached a boiling point across Montreal on Monday, the same day Ms. Beauchamp, who has held several cabinet positions since the Liberals took office in 2003, announced she has “lost confidence in the student leaders’ will to end this conflict.”
Mr. Charest replaced her with Treasury Board President Michelle Courchesne, whom he said will maintain the government’s uncompromising stand in dealing with the students, who have turned down several proposals from the government over the past few days.
“This conflict has already lasted long enough. The patience of Quebeckers has reached its limit,” Mr. Charest said. “I want to assure all Quebeckers that all means will be taken to ensure their security, the respect of our laws and also of our democracy.”
But while saying he is no longer going to accept “violence and intimidation to negotiate an agreement,” he wouldn’t give details of what steps he might take to get students back in class.
He said the new Education Minister’s first task will be to meet with the representatives of student groups on Tuesday and then the directors of the colleges and universities to assess the situation and propose a solution.
“We have been very patient. We acted in good faith. We’ve extended our hand many, many times,” Mr. Charest said. “And what has been the response up until now? All has been rejected. … Time is of a premium and a very rare commodity. And that is something that will be taken into account.”
Protests were planned immediately after Ms. Beauchamp’s news conference. Earlier in the day, students blocked access to CEGEPs and prompted administrators to cancel classes even though other students had obtained court injunctions to let them return.
At Montreal’s Collège de Rosemont, students obtained two injunctions last week to allow them resume their studies on Monday morning. Administrators decided to open the door to all students wishing to come back and salvage their semesters.
The situation quickly deteriorated. Protesting students, some wearing masks, blocked the doors of the school. Police were called in. Tensions spiked and at least one student was taken away by ambulance. Fearing violence, administrators cancelled classes for the day.
Similar scenarios have played out across the province as the student strike, begun in February, has dragged on; at Collège Édouard-Montpetit on Montreal’s South Shore, administrators cancelled classes on Monday in defiance of a court injunction because, they said, they couldn’t guarantee everyone’s safety.
Ms. Courchesne, who has served as education minister before, embraced the Premier’s get-tough approach, adding that the crisis has lasted long enough. She said that tuition-fee hikes are here to stay and that they will not be abandoned.
“We can’t let this situation last any longer,” Ms. Courchesne said. “We are clear on the fact that a moratorium [on fee hikes]was not an answer. “We were clear and firm on that and we will keep the same position.”
There were even scuffles on Monday outside the Montreal courthouse in which supporters of people accused of smoke-bombing the metro last week tried blocking journalists from grabbing images. A fringe student group is under investigation in connection with the incident. A bail hearing for the four accused was postponed until next week.
Ms. Beauchamp was recently caught up in a controversy over a party fundraising event she attended where one of the guests was a prominent organized-crime figure in Montreal.