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quebec protests

A protester a painted face takes take in a rally to mark the 100th day of the Quebec students strike, in Montreal, Tuesday, May 22, 2012.

The NDP is professing strict neutrality in the ongoing battle over tuition fees in Quebec, even as party MPs and staffers participate in demonstrations in Montreal and clearly express their support for the striking students.

The drawn-out battle in Quebec is posing a particular problem for the NDP, which has historical ties to the student movement, their union backers and the campaign for lower tuition fees. However, the debate over tuition increases is a clear matter of provincial jurisdiction and student protestors don't have as much sympathy outside of Quebec as they have in their home province, which could fuel a divide within the party.

In that context, the federal NDP is insisting that it is not siding with the "reds" (who oppose the tuition hikes), the "greens" (who support the Charest government's position) or the "whites" (who want a moratorium on any increases).

"Wearing the red square would be a sign that we are interfering in a file that is not within our jurisdiction," said NDP MP Robert Aubin, who is the chair of the party's Quebec caucus. "As citizens, we can have personal opinions, but being elected officials at the federal level imposes a duty of impartiality that we have tried to preserve since the start."

While the NDP is calling on its MPs to stay out of the debate, a number of them have vocally supported the student protests, including wearing the red square that has become the emblem of the movement.

At least two NDP MPs, Alexandre Boulerice and Ève Péclet, participated in Tuesday's massive demonstration in downtown Montreal that was organized by the various student bodies. The event marked the 100th day of the student strike, and was held in defiance of the provincial government's attempts to impose new legal limits on such mass gatherings.

Neither Mr. Boulerice nor Ms. Péclet could be reached for comment, as rank-and-file NDP MPs in Quebec are proving hard to reach to comment on the student protests this week.

Still, Ms. Péclet took to Twitter during Tuesday's demonstration, saying that she couldn't find her friends because of the size of the crowd.

Mr. Boulerice used his website last week to denounce the province's special law, Bill 78, which is designed to crack down on the student strike and the constant demonstrations in and around colleges and universities. In a blog posting, Mr. Boulerice said he was worried about the threats to fundamental rights in the province.

"The situation in Quebec is troubling," he said. "The right to express political thoughts, to gather, to assemble and peacefully demonstrate are essential elements of a healthy and balanced democratic life."

The participation in Tuesday's demonstration was the latest in a series of NDP shows of support for the students, including messages of support on social media and statements on their websites.

Last month, MP Pierre-Luc Dusseault officially expressed his "solidarity" with protestors in his riding who are seeking "to improve their financial situation and the accessibility to university."

Dany Morin, a young chiropractor who won a seat in the Saguenay region in the 2011 election, proudly posed for a picture holding a large red square last year at the start of the movement. However, when a local paper called for comment, the NDP MP said he did so "for personal reasons."

Speaking in Montreal on Tuesday, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair expressed concerns that the protests will eventually lead to a human tragedy, while staying clear of the ongoing public debate. Officially, the NPD is calling for the resumption of talks between the Quebec government and the student bodies and an $800-million increase in federal transfers to the provinces for post-secondary education.

"Negotiations are the only way to find a solution to the current situation," Mr. Aubin said. "These people have to gather around a table, listen to one another and come to an agreement."

The Conservative Party, meanwhile, is condemning the violence and intimidation that have erupted in Montreal, stating that the party will not interfere in an area of provincial jurisdiction.

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