The Quebec government says it is now open to negotiating a deal with protesting students despite plans to table legislation Thursday night that will crack down on demonstrators.
The Education Minister announced that a meeting with the students could be held soon.
"Even if a special legislation will be adopted Friday, there will always be room to strike a deal," Michelle Courchesne said. "We will always be able to discuss with the student groups.
Ms. Courchesne was responding to demands made earlier by students calling for a negotiated settlement.
Students with opposing views banded together earlier on Thursday in an effort to urge the Quebec government to negotiate a settlement to the strike by post-secondary students rather than adopt special legislation.
They were backed by Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois, as well as Quebec Solidaire, Option Nationale and independent members of the National Assembly, who warned the Premier Jean Charest that he will have a heavy political price to pay for tabling what they called a “repressive” bill.
The government will table the legislation Thursday evening using a parliamentary procedure that will require an all-night debate before the bill can be adopted some time Friday evening. The bill is expected to impose tough sanctions and heavy fines against those who attempt to block access to colleges and universities. It will also suspend the current winter session, with students coming back in August and September to finish it. The government made the move to “pause” the student strike, which has continued for more than three months.
The students each wore a red, white or green square that defines them – red for protesters on strike, green for those who want to go back to class and white for those who want a moratorium on tuition-fee hikes.
“You can clearly see it here today. Regardless of the colour of squares we carry, regardless of the political parties, today is not a time to play partisan politics,” said Léo Bureau-Blouin, president of the federation of college students. “Parliamentarians were elected to ensure social peace...we are open to compromises, we are open to discussions.”
The students are upset that the government would consider adopting legislation that could undermine the legitimacy of their organizations to protest against tuition-fee hikes. And they accused Mr. Charest of deliberately trying to divide Quebeckers in order to improve his chances at re-election, perhaps as early as September.
“All the coloured squares are here to say that it would be better to negotiate a deal rather than unilaterally impose a resolution to this crisis,” said Martine Desjardins, president of the Quebec federation of university students.
Even the main spokesman for students demanding the right to return to class, Laurent Proulx, was on hand to tell the government it should listen to the Quebec Bar Association, which stated that special legislation should only be used as a last resort and that a mediation council should be created to resolve the conflict.
“We want to make sure that both sides reach a settlement that won’t require either to surrender,” Mr. Proulx said.
The more militant student group known as the CLASSE was absent from the meeting in part because it never participates in events involving political parties. The Coalition Avenir Quebec Leader François Legault held a separate news conference also calling on the government to negotiate a deal.
But the government gave no indication it will back down from its decision. The precise measures contained in the bill will be unveiled once it is tabled around 9 p.m. Thursday night. Reports indicate it will include tough law-and-order provisions against protesters.
In announcing the need for special legislation Wednesday evening, Mr. Charest said that violence and intimidation against those who want to attend classes can no longer be tolerated. “The other part of the legislation we are tabling in the National Assembly will address the right to have access to your classes in universities, in faculties, in departments,” he said.
The measures amount to taking a “pause,” according to the Premier, who is attempting to buy time, hoping that a truce will appease the tensions and even take some of the wind out of the tenacious and well-organized student movement.
The students responded with a warning that they will challenge the law in court if in any way the legislation limits their right to demonstrate and to block classes if the majority of members of a school or student association votes to do so.
The strike against the tuition hike, which increases rates more than 80 per cent over seven years, has lasted now for over three months and students are poised to continue the battle in August when classes resume.