Quebec Liberal Leader Jean Charest is still touting himself as the law-and-order candidate in the Quebec election, but he is refusing to vow any crackdown on illegal student protests or any sanctions against teachers who refuse to work next week.
“Let’s wait and see for the back-to-school to happen,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “We’re not into sanctions, we are into preparing the reopening of the schools.”
Mr. Charest did not go as far as François Legault, the leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, who is calling for sanctions against any teachers who do not show up for work when the colleges reopen next week.
In fact, Mr. Charest went as far as he could to bring down lingering tensions inside the province, resisting any urge to fuel the student movement with veiled or formal threats of another police crackdown on strikers.
With a vote on Sept. 4, the student issue could be a major factor in the election campaign, especially if violence returns to the streets of Montreal. The Parti Québécois is the major party that is most closely aligned with the student movement, while the CAQ and the Liberals are wrestling for the support of Quebeckers who favour tuition increases and want to stop any violence in the province’s streets.
On Wednesday, Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois said a PQ government would result in an immediate end to the student crisis and restore a new climate of dialogue.
She said that her party would immediately abolish the tuition fee hike introduced by the Liberals and would scrap Bill 78, which restricts the holding of demonstrations. The PQ also promises a summit to examine university funding.
"With the PQ position we will find serenity and calm because our proposal settles in large part the problems raised by the Charest government," Ms. Marois said.
"If you want chaos you vote for Mr. Charest," she warned. The same goes for the Coaltion Avenir Quebec party, she added.
Scrapping Bill 78 may not solve the social crisis created by Mr. Charest, she said, but it would restore a favourable climate for an open dialogue.
The Quebec government shut down classes in 14 colleges last spring amid a series of disruptions related to student strikes fuelled by planned increases in tuition fees.
The colleges are set to reopen on Monday to allow for the completion of the winter semesters in the affected colleges, which comprise about a third of the province’s institutions.
However, some student groups are promising to continue the strikes, although the strength of any contestation movement remains unclear. Some strike votes have been held, but turnout was low.
Mr. Charest said his government has come to an agreement with the teachers’ union to facilitate the reopening of the colleges. In addition, he said he is confident that his controversial Bill 78 will be respected, thus stopping strikers from blocking willing students and teachers from returning to their classes.
However, it remains to be seen how the colleges and police forces will react to any attempts to disrupt the re-opening of the colleges. Mr. Charest said he is confident that police will continue to rely on their judgment.
“It’s up to everyone to act responsibly,” Mr. Charest said. “We’re asking [the teachers] to collaborate, it’s in the interests of the students to finish their semesters.”
Mr. Charest has accused the CAQ of buckling in the face of the student movement, pointing to Mr. Legault’s promise to repeal parts of Bill 78 if he forms the next government, even though his MNAs voted for the legislation in the spring.
Still, Mr. Legault’s comments on Wednesday highlighted how the CAQ will also challenge the Liberals as the standard-bearers for a law-and-order response to the strikes.
“Mr. Charest would pay teachers who don’t show up to work?” Mr. Legault asked on his Twitter account after the Liberal Leader’s news conference.
Mr. Charest is continuing with his series of morning announcements as the election campaign heads into its second week. On Wednesday, he said that a Liberal government would extend free dental care to kids under the age of 16, prolonging the coverage that currently includes children who are 10 and under.