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tuition-fee hikes

Protesters opposing Quebec student tuition fee hikes demonstrate in Montreal, Saturday, May 26, 2012.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

On the day when student leaders and the Quebec government reopened negotiations to try to break the deadlock over tuition fee hikes, police arrested close to 100 protesters and bystanders - including the negotiator for one of the student groups involved in the talks.

Philippe Lapointe, the negotiator for CLASSE, had just left the bargaining table at the end of Monday's meeting in Quebec City to witness the arrests of protesters outside the building where the talks were being held. He was promptly taken away by riot police.

Léo Bureau-Blouin, the leader of another student group, tried to negotiate with police to stop the arrests and allow the protesters to disperse. But police ignored Mr. Bureau-Blouin, president of the federation of college students, and continued to round them up.

Mr. Bureau-Blouin feared the arrests could derail the fragile negotiations that are set to continue Tuesday.

Student leaders refused to comment on how negotiations with the government had fared so far.

At the outset of the talks on Monday, the college and university students demanded that the government re-examine its plans to hike tuition fees by more than 80 per cent over seven years beginning next September and lift provisions in the emergency legislation known as Bill 78, adopted ten days ago.

The bill suspended the winter semester of classes until next August and imposed controversial limits on the holding of public demonstrations. The students contend that the constraints violate the right to freedom of speech and lawful assembly.

"There can be no resolution of this crisis unless we debate the tuition fee hikes ... and also Bill 78, more precisely the provisions that limit freedom of speech, the right to legal assembly and the right to peacefully demonstrate. These two issues are intrinsically linked and must be addressed at the table," said Martine Desjardins, president of the Federation of University Students.

Education Minister Michelle Courchesne appeared optimistic about reaching an agreement. She entered the meeting with a mandate to make a new proposal to the students but refused to give details as to what might be put on the table.

"We all have an obligation to produce results," Ms. Courchesne said as she arrived at the meeting. "So you can understand that I won't tell you here on a street corner the discussion I intend to hold with the student organizations."

In their battle against the government, the students believe that the suspension of the winter session means that the pressure is now on the government to strike a deal, especially after demands by the business community in Montreal who don't want the lucrative summer tourist season jeopardized by daily demonstrations.

"The political situation has changed," said Mr. Bureau-Blouin earlier in the day. "The mobilization of citizens has begun. It is no longer just students in the streets but people from all walks of life. The ball is now in the government's court and it is up to it to propose scenarios that will resolve this crisis."

The leaders of the student groups held meetings in the past few days to define a common strategy, which they hope will force the government's hand.

"We have here a government that has sent contradictory signals in the past few weeks. On the one hand, Ms. Courchesne said she was open to discussions and dialogue, which was good news. Then on the other hand, she was the minister that tabled one of the most repressive laws in our history. So we are proceeding with a great deal of caution," said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for the student group CLASSE.

Meanwhile, more protests took place in different parts of Quebec including Montreal, which played host to its its 35th consecutive night of demonstrations. Lawyers dressed in their courtroom gowns paraded in silence from the city's main courthouse through the streets of Old Montreal to join the nightly march.

"It is one of the first times I've seen lawyers protest in public like this ... and I've been practising for almost 30 years," Bruno Grenier said outside the building surrounded by about 250 people, some carrying copies of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

As they arrived at a downtown park, bystanders surged to shake their hands. Organizer Remi Bourget addressed the crowd using a loud speaker before the legal protest ended.

The nightly demonstration then began with people walking through the streets banging pots and pans. The Montreal police quickly declared the march illegal, prompting a big cheer from the crowd. Police said the march could continue as long as no criminal acts were committed.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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