Hopes of settling an unprecedented 10-week student strike in Quebec vanished quickly after talks between the government and the students over university tuition fee hikes broke down.
Fears that more clashes with the police and acts of violence will result from the impasse were unmistakable Wednesday, given the social unrest caused in recent weeks by the longest student strike ever in Quebec.
No sooner had the talks failed than a few hundred students spontaneously descended on the National Assembly in Quebec City to express their resolve to continue the protest movement. Demonstrations were also held in Montreal.
The negotiations collapsed after the Minister of Education Line Beauchamp unilaterally excluded the most militant group from the table. She claimed that the Coalition large de l'Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante, or CLASSE, had promoted on its website an illegal demonstration marked by violence and vandalism. She said this broke a truce on further disruptions, which students had accepted in order to hold the talks.
"I consider that the CLASSE excluded itself from the discussion table," Ms. Beauchamp said. "You have to choose sides: Either you want to find solutions in good faith or you seek disruptions.… I deplore that the CLASSE chose disruptions."
The students were taken aback by the minister's decision. They claimed that while talks were moving slowly since negotiations began two days ago, the mood at the bargaining table was courteous.
"The government is using the old strategy of divide and conquer," said CLASSE spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, who condemned the recent acts of violence and denied his group had organized the illegal demonstration. "The minister is trying to weaken the student movement.…The decision to exclude us hides the real strategy of trying to avoid discussing tuition fee hikes and to sabotage the talks."
The other student organizations warned the government that without all the groups at the table there would be no discussions. They reminded Ms. Beauchamp that more than 180,000 students were on strike, more than half of them represented by the CLASSE.
The president of the Quebec university student federation Martine Desjardins accused the government of deliberately inflaming the debate and questioned the government's will to end the strike.
"We have had it," Ms. Desjardins said, barely holding back her frustration. "We are not in a classroom here. The minister has to stop acting like a schoolteacher handing out punishments to everyone. She needs to sit down and bargain in good faith. She has shown no signs of being open-minded after spending only one hour with us during the 40 hours we have been here. It's unacceptable."
The Parti Québécois argued that if the Liberal government was serious about ending the confrontation with students, it could suspend the tuition fee hikes for the upcoming school year and hold discussions on the funding of postsecondary education.
But the government was giving no signs of backing down on the planned tuition fee hikes, which will surge by more than $1,600 over the next five years, a 75-per-cent increase. Rather than seek a solution, PQ Leader Pauline Marois said that, rather than seeking a solution, Premier Jean Charest is practising wedge politics.
"The government knows that the population is divided on the fee hikes. It is taking advantage of that to make things worse and divide people even more on this issue," Ms. Marois said.
The student groups said they viewed the talks as being "suspended." That means if the government agreed to reintegrate the CLASSE at the bargaining table, discussions could resume. Otherwise, they warned the impasse may provoke more violence as students become exasperated over the possible loss of the winter session.