Just hours after the Quebec government responded to student groups with an offer to resume negotiations, it unveiled legislation Thursday night that would crack down on protesters – and especially the student groups that endorse demonstrations.
Premier Jean Charest is proposing tough new measures that would bar demonstrations inside and within 50 metres of college and university buildings.
As well, any individual protester found guilty of an offence that forces the cancellation of classes would be liable to a fine of $1,000 to $5,000. If the offence is committed by a senior officer or representative of a student group or federation, the fine could be as much as $35,000; the student association or federation could face a fine as high as $125,000.
The legislation, which is expected to be passed Friday, has a time limit, expiring on July 1, 2013.
The measures will ratchet up an already nasty fight between the Quebec government and post-secondary students over tuition-fee hikes. The province, which has proposed raising tuition fees by $1,700 over seven years, has had to contend with massive protests for more than three months, especially in Montreal.
The bill also removes the legal requirement for colleges to deliver 82 days of classes to complete a session, giving colleges the flexibility to re-organize their schedule in order to have students to finish this session. The government this week suspended classes in 14 of the province's 48 colleges where strikes were still continuing as well in certain departments and faculties in 11 of the province's 18 universities.
Student associations reacted immediately, announcing they will challenge the bill in the courts. With this legislation, they said, the Charest government is violating their Charter rights and creating a police state in Quebec.
"This bill transforms all civil protests into a crime and transforms a state that has a tradition of openness into a police state," said the president of the Federation of college students, Léo Bureau Blouin. "It is an unreasonable limit on our right to demonstrate and aims at killing our associations."
Students leaders also said they will not stand by and have the government take away their right to protest.
"This bill is far from encouraging discussions," said Martine Desjardins, president of the Federation of university students in Quebec. "This amounts to a declaration of war on the student movement."
CLASSE spokesman Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said that with the legislation, the Charest government is completing a major right-wing transformation of Quebec society that started with an assault on the publicly funded health-care system, followed by an attack on universities and now a major breach to democracy.
"He has changed our health-care system, he has changed our university system and now he is changing democracy itself," Mr. Nadeau-Dubois said. "It is partly because of student mobilization that Quebec has a bit more social justice [than elsewhere] By imposing this law it breaks this tradition and it is changing a lot of reasons why people are proud to be Quebeckers."
His group anticipates widespread opposition to the bill, figuring it will result in a major demonstration being planned for next Tuesday in Montreal.
The legislation unveiled Thursday night also targets student groups themselves. If a group attempts to disrupt classes, it will lose its funding. For each day classes are disrupted by actions taken by a student group, the penalty will amount to cessation of funding for a term. The measure could virtually bankrupt student associations or federations that condone strike action for any lengthy period of time.
If an institution is damaged during a protest organized by a student group, it will be held liable for the damages. The same goes for members of a union working in the colleges and universities, meaning professors will have to think twice before supporting any further student action on campus.
The leader of the Official Opposition urged the Charest government "to come to its senses" and withdraw the bill, which it said strikes at the heart of fundamental rights.
"This bill is abusive. We have never seen anything like it before," Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois said. "It is a frontal attack against the student associations.
Ms. Marois accused Mr. Charest of being tough on the students in order to make political capital as he prepares for the next election campaign.
"The Premier does not have the moral authority nor the legitimacy to flout our rights," she said.
Before the legislation was tabled Thursday night, Education Minister Michelle Courchesne announced that a meeting with the students could be held soon.
"Even if special legislation will be adopted Friday, there will always be room to strike a deal," she said. "We will always be able to discuss with the student groups."
That announcement followed a press conference by a number of student groups with opposing views, who banded together to urge the Charest government to negotiate a settlement rather than adopt special legislation.
They were backed by Ms. Marois, as well as Quebec Solidaire, Option Nationale and independent members of the National Assembly, who warned Mr. Charest that he will have a heavy political price to pay for tabling what they called a "repressive" bill.
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," Mr. Bureau-Blouin said. "Parliamentarians were elected to ensure social peace...we are open to compromises, we are open to discussions."
"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 federation of university students in Quebec.
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.
Editor's note: The Quebec government has proposed raising tuition fees by $1,700 over seven years. Martine Desjardins is president of the federation of university students in Quebec. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.