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charbonneau commission

A protester opposing Quebec student tuition fee hikes demonstrates in Montreal, Sunday, May 20, 2012.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The explosive issue of corruption in Quebec returns to centre stage Tuesday as a long-anticipated public inquiry gets under way into the shadowy workings of the province's construction industry.

The commission headed by Quebec Superior Court Justice France Charbonneau opens at a time the province is already rocked by relentless student unrest. Close to 400 people were arrested after a chaotic weekend of street demonstrations in Montreal and a mega-march is planned downtown on Tuesday to mark the 100th day of the student protest over tuition fee hikes.

The province's most radical student group, CLASSE, announced on Monday it intends to keep up protests throughout the summer without prior clearance from police, an act of civil disobedience to Quebec's new emergency law intended to restore public order.

The two volatile issues – corruption allegations and student strife – could raise the political heat on the Liberals of Premier Jean Charest. The corruption probe is being streamed in real time on the commission's website, and there are negotiations for it to be broadcast live, prompting comparisons with the Gomery commission that gripped the province and contributed to the political collapse of the federal Liberals in Quebec.

Ms. Charbonneau is expected to call her first witnesses in early June, but hearings get into high gear in September after a summer hiatus. The timing could become politically risky for Mr. Charest, who must call an election before December of 2013.

"Nobody could have predicted the impact of Gomery before it happened either, so the effects [of the Charbonneau commission]remain to be seen," said Antonia Maioni, a political scientist at McGill University in Montreal.

Sylvain Lussier, who was the federal government's lawyer at the Gomery inquiry and will act as the chief prosecutor for the Charbonneau commission, says the province's political calendar will have no impact on the hearings.

"The commission is independent of political, government, and police powers," he told TVA. "There is no interference."

Mr. Charest announced the inquiry last fall after resisting repeated calls for a probe into allegations of corruption and criminal collusion involving organized crime groups such as the Mafia.

Bruce Hicks, a political scientist at Concordia University in Montreal, says the political impact of the Charbonneau hearings depend on how far they go to uncover the connections between construction companies, engineering firms and political party financing.

"The students and the downturn in the economy are a given, they are going to be trouble for Charest," Mr. Hicks said on Monday. "The Charbonneau commission is the wild card."

Polls indicate Mr. Charest's Liberals have won strong backing for their hard-line approach with the students, but it hasn't translated into popularity for his party. The Parti Québécois, meanwhile, has embraced the students' cause and Leader Pauline Marois has vowed if elected to rescind the tuition hikes that sparked the protests; however, critics say her close alliance to the student groups and her adoption of their emblematic red square have also linked her to the protests' violent excesses.

Mr. Hicks noted that if the students decide to channel their street protests into the voting booth, it would be a positive outcome.

"Charest may have given Quebec the greatest gift he could by mobilizing young people," he said. "The young generation is just not politically engaged, so if students become not just mobilized on the street but at the ballot box, this generation may get re-engaged."

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