Quebec college students may seek separate deal with government

Quebec City — The Globe and Mail

Leo Bureau-Blouin, left, president of the college student union FEUQ, speaks at a news conference about the conflict between students and the Quebec government over tuition hikes on May 16, 2012. (Jacques Boissinot/Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Quebec college students are considering striking a separate deal with the Charest government urging it to return to the bargaining table to discuss a proposal the group said would end the three-month-old student strike.

The message from the college students may signal the first sign of a breach within a protest movement that has so far mounted a forceful attack on the government’s plans to increase tuition fees by more $1,700 a year over the next seven years.

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College and university students have worked hand-in-hand throughout the strike to achieve a single deal on tuition fee hikes that would be acceptable to both. But pressure is mounting on college students to complete their sessions, which are required in order to attend university. For the first time Wednesday, college students left the door open to striking a deal without their university counterparts.

“We as a student federation presented to the government a precise scenario that could be acceptable for us and that we could recommend [for ratification]” said the president of the Quebec federation of college students, Léo Bureau-Blouin. “If the Quebec government gave us an ultimate chance to negotiate, we could come to some deal in a few hours.”

Ministers are holding their weekly cabinet meeting Wednesday to adopt what are expected to be tough new measures, including special legislation in order to end the conflict. That could mean calling on more police and anti-riot squads to maintain order and allow classes to be held.

Newly appointed Education Minister Michelle Courchesne said student leaders had hardened their positions during a meeting she held with them on Tuesday night, suggesting that the government decided it had no choice but to adopt a tougher line.

Mr. Bureau-Blouin denied students had hardened their position. On the contrary, he said, students made reasonable compromises that could settle the crisis.

He warned the government against increasing police intervention on campuses to allow classes to be held against the will of striking students. Using police to force a settlement on the students would be irresponsible on the part of Premier Jean Charest, he said.

“A responsible father doesn’t call the police when he has to settle a family matter with his children. A good father talks to his kids,” Mr. Bureau-Blouin said. “A negotiated deal is better than an imposed deal. A special law would have a negative impact on the social climate right now in Quebec. It would create more violence, more tensions, and everyone wants to avoid this.”

It was one of the first times that the college students held a news conference without the presence of the federation of university students. Until now the two groups have been tied to the hip, often making similar demands and pursuing identical strategies.

Mr. Bureau-Blouin explained that it was urgent to speak out now against the anticipated hard-line approach the government was considering and to signal his group’s desire to reach a compromise.

The student college federation left the door open to a compromise that may not sit well with the university students or the more militant CLASSE, which represents a coalition of students and unions.

Mr. Bureau-Blouin refused to elaborate on the type of deal his group was considering. But it became clear that college students, who may have the most to lose, are willing to be flexible in order to reach a settlement.

There were still 14 colleges on strike representing 67,000 college students. A number of university faculties and departments were also on strike for a total of about 150,000 students.

When a vote is taken in a college it applies to an entire campus. Votes in universities are taken in each faculty or department. Without a required two-year college degree in Quebec a student cannot enter university, leaving several thousand with the prospect of having to wait another semester before being admitted.

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