Quebec’s Education Minister has invited student leaders to meet on Monday, after a weekend of further demonstrations in support of striking students and in opposition to the legislative crackdown on marches and protests.
But as the government of Premier Jean Charest seeks a new road to a solution, a former premier has entered the debate about the movement with a warning that its impact could be as great as that of the Quiet Revolution.
Quebec is witnessing the awakening of an entire generation not unlike the one initiated during the that tumultuous period in the 1960s, when social unrest gave birth to a powerful nationalist movement, says former Parti Québécois premier Jacques Parizeau.
Mr. Parizeau made his remarks at a meeting where members of pro-sovereignty groups gathered to prepare for a forum this coming fall on Quebec independence. He was the keynote speaker at the gathering, where delegates debated how to promote and achieve sovereignty.
“When I started working for the government it was to nationalize the electricity companies and I was 31 years old. The atmosphere at the time was irresistible,” said the 81-year old. “Well it feels like that again ... It is an extraordinary awakening of an entire generation. It is quite fascinating,”
He warned governments against clashing with the youth movement, quoting the late French President François Mitterrand in saying: “Young people are not always right. But a society is always wrong to beat them up.”
There is mounting pressure on the government to resolve the conflict soon. Montreal’s lucrative tourist season is beginning and concerned business leaders have been urging the government to act quickly to end the daily standoff between demonstrations and police riot squads.
Meanwhile, Education Minister Michelle Courchesne invited student leaders to the table for a meeting Monday afternoon in what may be a last-ditch effort to negotiate a settlement.
“The last time we met with Ms. Courchesne it was followed by the adoption of the emergency legislation, so we are being very cautious. One thing is certain is that there can be no settlement if the government refuses to discuss the tuition-fee hikes,” said Martine Desjardins, the president of the Federation of University Students.
The government and the student leaders negotiated a tentative agreement three weeks ago with the help of union leaders at the table. The deal was massively rejected by both college and university associations. This time, the labour organizations are being kept on the sidelines. Only student representatives, including the more militant student group known as CLASSE will be at the table with Ms. Courchesne, junior finance minister Alain Paquet and chief government negotiator Pierre Pilote.
The talks begin after yet another weekend of demonstrations spreading from Montreal, to Longueuil, to Lévis, Quebec City, Alma and Jonquière. Citizens took to the streets banging pots and pans in defiance of Bill 78, protesting against what they contend to be an “undemocratic” and “repressive” law that restricts their right to free speech and lawful assembly.
The bill was adopted 10 ago in an effort by the Charest government to impose law and order in the streets of Montreal after weeks of protests. But passage of the law appeared only to spur a surge in demonstrations.
Even Quebec’s legal community will gather for a “silent” march in the streets of Montreal on Monday as lawyers, notaries and others unite to protest against what they call “a disproportionate infringement on the rights of freedom of expression, of association and of peaceful demonstration.”
In recent days and weeks, the youth protest movement has evolved into more than a battle over tuition fee hikes. It has become a rallying cry against Bill 78 as well as a protest against globalization and neo-conservative policies that, according to Mr. Parizeau, may well define Quebec society for years to come.
Leaders of the student movement said it may still be too early to gauge the full impact of their protest movement but recognize that it has politicized thousands of young people.
Mr. Parizeau, in his address to the pro-sovereignty gathering, stopped short of suggesting that the student strike would propel independence back to the top of Quebec’s political agenda. But in a presentation to a pro-sovereignty group preparing a major summit next fall on Quebec independence, Mr. Parizeau did suggest the current social unrest could contribute to the sovereignty debate – and that it has already reinforced attachments to Quebec rather than Canada.
“It’s absolutely fascinating because I’d never seen this before where over 200,000 people could demonstrate in Quebec without waving a single Canadian flag,” Mr. Parizeau said. “These demonstrations have certainly settled the issue of Quebec’s identity.
Editor's Note: The Quebec student group CLASSE does not include labour organizations. Incorrect information apppeared in an earlier version of this article, which has been corrected.