The Quebec government is showing signs of buckling under the pressure of a 10-week student strike over a planned tuition-fee hike.
After several weeks of balking at holding a full meeting with the students, Education Minister Line Beauchamps agreed to meet them, though not before they agreed to call a 48-hour truce to the social unrest that has recently sparked violent clashes with police.
"I am also asking for it [the truce]in the name of the people who are growing weary with the acts of disruption and who want us to give a chance for discussions," Ms. Beauchamps said. "I can't stop the students from raising the question of tuition fees … the idea here is not to close the door, the idea is to keep it open."
The three student associations agreed to the truce, embracing the chance to make their case for a freeze on tuition fees and to examine other means of financing the cash-strapped universities.
The minister even agreed to extend the invitation to the most militant of the student associations, the Coalition large de l'Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, or CLASSE, which had refused to condemn the violent confrontations as demanded by Ms. Beauchamps. On Sunday, the group agreed to condemn certain violent acts but still support civil disobedience.
The partial condemnation of violence was enough for Ms. Beauchamps to accept the CLASSE at the table, given that public opinion was beginning to turn against the government. There was strong criticism of Premier Jean Charest after he publicly joked about the protesters as they clashed with police outside the convention hall in Montreal where he delivered a speech.
The students were convinced the government has been forced to back down from the rigid positions it has held since the start of the strike.
"Ms. Beauchamps has opened the door more than ever to discussing tuition fees. … She is beginning to realize that she has no choice but to negotiate the fee hikes," said CLASSE spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois. "The bargaining power is now on our side."
Mr. Nadeau-Dubois said that the CLASSE, which represents about half of the approximately 170,000 striking students, has the mandate to block the proposed 75-per-cent tuition fee hikes over five years to be implemented next fall. And the longer the strike lasts, the more the students like their chances to force the government's hand.
"What we are beginning to prove is that when students mobilize it is possible to make things change," Mr. Nadeau-Dubois said.
The meeting with Ms. Beauchamps began late Monday afternoon, and the students said they were willing to take whatever time was needed to reach an agreement even if it meant extending the truce.
"We are coming to these discussions with an open mind," said the president of the federation of Quebec college students, Léo Bureau-Blouin. "We are ready to listen to what the Quebec government has to tell us. There is no obligation to resolve it within 48 hours."
The student groups have no intention of calling off the strike action during the talks. They remain convinced that they have the leverage because of the growing urgency to solve the dispute as universities and colleges desperately scramble to find ways to complete the winter session even if that means finishing it in the summer or even next fall.
The group representing university students reiterated that it will remain on strike for as long as it takes to get a settlement.
"We will take the time to discuss what we need to discuss," said the university students federation president Martine Desjardins. " Our associations have unlimited strike mandates. … Our students will remain on strike until we get a clear proposal [from the government]"