Quebec will introduce emergency legislation aimed at ending a three-month-old boycott by university and community college students that has sparked violent clashes and vandalism in Montreal and other cities.
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 today at a televised news conference in Quebec City. The law will guarantee students access to education while planned tuition increases are maintained, Charest said.
About 155,000 university and high school students across Quebec have been boycotting classes since Feb. 13 to protest against a planned increase in tuition fees 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.
Even with the boycott, 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 yesterday when her predecessor, Line Beauchamp, resigned after negotiations with student unions failed, saying she hoped to spark “an electrical shock.”
“It’s time for calm to return,” Charest said. “We will propose a solution that allows for the tension to abate. Access to education is a right. The current situation has lasted long enough.”
Charest urged student leaders, politicians and union leaders to “clearly and unreservedly” back “social peace” in the province. He declined to say 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.
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 closure of Montreal’s subway system.
Opponents of the tuition increase have held nightly marches in Montreal, the province’s largest city, for the past three weeks.
The conflict even prompted the U.S. consulate 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 unveiled plans last year to boost tuition fees as part of a plan to plug a budget gap. Finance Minister Raymond 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.
Leo Bureau-Blouin, chief spokesman for one of the three main students unions, told reporters in Quebec City today that his group would contest any legislation aimed at ending the boycott.
Quebec’s bar association today 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 the press release.
Student leaders agreed to a settlement with the government earlier this month after round-the-clock talks in Quebec City, only for their members to later reject the deal.