May 17 (Bloomberg) -- Montreal police arrested 122 people overnight after demonstrators took to the streets and smashed shop windows to protest the Quebec government’s decision to suspend classes and draft legislation aimed at defusing a three-month dispute over tuition fees.
Five bank branches had their windows shattered, Montreal’s police department said on its Twitter feed. Police used pepper spray to break up the demonstration, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported. Protesters were arrested for taking part in an “illegal gathering,” police said.
Semesters at 11 universities and 14 community colleges, known as CEGEPs, will be suspended until August unless agreements can be reached with student organizations, Quebec Premier Jean Charest said yesterday evening at a televised news conference in Quebec City.
The proposed law would guarantee students access to education while planned tuition increases are maintained, Charest said. The students would finish their semester in August before a new year begins in October.
Charest “is pouring fuel on the fire” by proceeding with the emergency legislation, Martine Desjardins, president of the Quebec Federation of University Students, said late yesterday in a press release. “To solve this situation he must have a discussion with the elected representatives of the students. You cannot impose the diktats of a party to the youth of a nation.”
Lowest Fees in Canada
About 155,000 university and high school students across Quebec have been boycotting classes since Feb. 13 to protest against the tuition fee increase due to take effect in September. Quebec, which has the lowest student fees in Canada, was initially planning to boost fees by C$1,625 ($1,607), or 75 percent, over five years before offering to spread a larger increase over seven years. The dispute is the longest in provincial history.
“Most students are non-violent, so I don’t have any major fears on that front,” Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand said today in the provincial capital, Quebec City, in comments that were broadcast by RDI television network. “However there are also people in our society -- let’s distinguish them from the vast majority of students -- who are radicals and have other intentions. That’s a job for the police.”
About 70 percent of all university and community college students in Quebec have either finished or are in the process of finishing their school year, Education Minister Michelle Courchesne said. Courchesne was named to the post earlier this week when her predecessor, Line Beauchamp, resigned after negotiations with student unions failed, saying she was quitting because “I no longer believe I am part of the solution.”
Charest declined to say yesterday when the law will be introduced, saying only it will be “soon,” adding his government will “keep open the lines of communication” with student organizations.
Quebec unveiled plans last year to boost tuition fees in an effort to plug a budget gap. Bachand in March reaffirmed his goal to balance the budget by 2013-14. Pauline Marois, who leads the separatist Parti Quebecois, has said she would cancel the tuition increase if elected.
Drafting emergency legislation is “unworthy of a Quebec Premier,” Marois told journalists in Quebec City today.
Demonstrators in Montreal and elsewhere have blocked bridges, roads and access to colleges and universities at various times since the dispute began, dominating television and newspaper coverage in Canada’s second-most-populous province. Four students were arrested this month after smoke bombs forced the closing of Montreal’s subway system.
The conflict even prompted the U.S. Consulate in Montreal to issue a “security message” on April 27, urging U.S. citizens to avoid the areas of demonstrations and to “exercise caution” if within the vicinity of any protests.
Quebec’s bar association yesterday called on the government and the students to give negotiations “a new chance.” Both parties should resume talks under the supervision of a mediation panel made up of three independent experts, Louis Masson, the association’s chairman, said in a press release.
Student leaders agreed to a tentative settlement with the government earlier this month after round-the-clock talks in Quebec City, only to see their members to later reject the deal.
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