Quebec, student leaders agree to talk

QUEBEC — From Friday's Globe and Mail (includes correction)

Quebec Premier Jean Charest responds to Opposition questions Thursday, May 3, 2012 at the legislature in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

A breakthrough may be in the making between the Quebec government and the province’s striking students after Premier Jean Charest hired Dan Gagnier, one of his closest advisers, as his new chief of staff to resolve the escalating crisis.

It’s no coincidence that Mr. Gagnier’s appointment comes as the government and the students announced they will return to the bargaining table next week. For several days, Mr. Gagnier has been working behind the scenes with another close adviser, John Parisella, in trying to bring an end to a conflict that has grown from a fight against tuition fee hikes into a much broader social protest.

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Education Minister Michelle Courchesne confirmed that her government has been communicating with student leaders, including the more militant student group known as the CLASSE. No date has been set for the meeting but Ms. Courchesne said the parties will take whatever time is necessary to make sure the next round of talks resolves the conflict once and for all.

“We want to make sure that everything was in place for a successful round of talks,” Ms. Courchesne said. “The situation is quite serious. We need to put an end to it both for the students and for Montreal. We are quite preoccupied with the situation in Montreal because of the economic impact this was having.”

Montreal has been hit hardest by the protest movement where, every night for the past 30, students have been taking to the streets to demonstrate their anger against the Charest government. A massive demonstration of more than 200,000 people was held Tuesday and the protest movement now threatens to disrupt the city’s two huge summer tourist attractions, the Grand Prix festivities next month and the internationally renowned Montreal Jazz Festival.

The historic scope of the unrest was illustrated in statistics compiled early Thursday: More people were detained within a few hours on Wednesday night – at least 650 of them in mass roundups – than were arrested in all of the October Crisis.

Altogether more than 2,500 people have been arrested in the dispute that has lasted more than 100 days – at least five times the number jailed during the 1970 FLQ crisis that saw martial law declared in Quebec. The protests continued in Montreal Thursday night, the biggest one being in Montreal. Another protest hit the streets in Quebec City as well.

The protests spread beyond the major cities, with people taking up the percussive protest in several towns and cities including Sorel, Longueuil, Chambly, Repentigny and Abitibi, which is several hundred kilometres from Montreal.

Police wasted no time in declaring Montreal’s march illegal on Thursday, saying it violated a municipal bylaw because the route was not provided beforehand. The demonstration was allowed to continue as long as it remained peaceful and police warned they would sound a siren 10 seconds before making any move to disperse the crowd.

On the political front, Mr. Gagnier replaces Luc Bastien, another casualty of the crisis that has shaken the Liberal government and led to the resignation of education minister and deputy premier Line Beauchamp only 10 days ago.

Mr. Gagnier returns to a post he held from September, 2007, to October, 2009, during which time he helped steer Mr. Charest through the difficult months when the Liberals formed a minority government. He also played a key role in masterminding Mr. Charest’s return to majority government status in 2008.

Since leaving public life, Mr. Gagnier has worked for the shale gas industry and served as a government negotiator on native issues. His astute skills and long experience in government circles are expected to help the Charest government end the crisis.

“What is taking place in Quebec is inconceivable, it is beyond comprehension, it is unprecedented in our history,” Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois said in the National Assembly. “The Liberal regime is becoming more radical and this radicalization is at the expense of our citizens.”

Mr. Charest defended his government’s law-and-order policy, Bill 78, insisting on the need to impose social peace when necessary. “That is where we are today as parliamentarians by having the laws respected as well as the right to demonstrate but making sure that it is done peacefully,” Mr. Charest responded.

The government, however, is giving no indication it will suspend the $1,778 tuition fee increase over seven years, nor does it want to suspend the enforcement of Bill 78. The students have insisted that everything should be on the table when negotiations resume next week, including a possible moratorium on tuition-fee hikes.

“I can only hope that we won’t be the only ones offering solutions but that the government also makes proposals to end this conflict,” said Léo Bureau-Blouin, the president of the federation of college students.

With a report from The Canadian Press

Editor's Note: The Quebec student group CLASSE does not include labour organizations. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this article, which has been corrected.