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Quebec Government Walks Out on Student Negotiations

Government's offer 'a bit insulting after 16 weeks of a strike'

Common Dreams staff

Quebec Education Minister Michelle Courchesne pulls plug on talks with student groups. (Photo: Clément Allard/ Canadian Press)

Quebec government officials walked out of negotiations with student groups on Thursday as the two sides came to a standstill over proposed tuition fee hikes.

Quebec students have been protesting since February over Quebec premier Jean Charest's move to sharply increase university tuition. The movement has become the longest and largest student strike in the history of North America and led to the single biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history, as students continue to defy Charest's 'emergency law', which made the student street protests and campus strike illegal.

Education Minister Michelle Courchesne, 'suspended' negotiations after four days of talks with the student activists, rejecting student negotiators' 'bottom line' -- a tuition freeze.

Leo Bureau-Blouin, president of the federation of Quebec college students, said they had offered the government solutions "that would not have cost the government or taxpayers a thing."

"But for political reasons, the government could not accept our demands," Bureau-Blouin stated.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, from the student group Classe, said the government's offer on the table, was “a bit insulting after 16 weeks of a strike.”

Nadeau-Dubois said the government's suspension of talks will result in more street protests, calling for the “biggest casserole demonstration in the last two weeks," which will be a rally at Montreal’s Parc Jeanne-Mance on Saturday starting at 2 p.m.

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The Guardian/UK: Quebec government walks out of student negotiations

The failure of talks come at a crucial time for the Quebec government, with Montreal's peak tourism season approaching along with international events such as the Formula One grand prix and international jazz and comedy festivals worth millions of dollars in tourism revenue.

Charest said he hoped the break would bring calm but student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois called for "a return to the streets".

Charest said Nadeau-Dubois's group had threatened to disrupt the F1 race but the student leader said he was going to use the publicity generated by the event to make his cause visible.

Quebec's average undergraduate tuition costs $2,519 a year, the lowest in Canada. The proposed rise is $254 a year over seven years. Opponents consider this an affront to the philosophy of 1960s reforms dubbed the Quiet Revolution that set Quebec apart from the rest of Canada and neighboring US. Many Quebecois identify with European countries, where higher education is mostly free.

Students said a proposal to drop the yearly rise by $35 to $219 was unanimously rejected. The education minister, Michelle Courchesne, said that while students insisted on a complete freeze it made it difficult to negotiate. A student leader, Martine Desjardins, countered: "We're still here. We're always ready to negotiate."

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Montreal Gazette: Tuition talks reach an impasse

After Courchesne announced the end of negotiations, the student associations invited her to a makeshift bargaining table, scrounged from a Tim Hortons on the ground floor of the building the talks were held.

“There is a chair for Madame Courchesne,” said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante. “We are waiting for her." [...]

“Madame Courchesne never agreed to talk about Bill 78. It was bad faith from the beginning to the end,” he added. “We believed in her, we still do, we are still there, we are ready, we are waiting.”

Bill 78, the special law forced through the Quebec National Assembly by Charest’s Liberal majority, includes limits on freedom of assembly and association that Quebec’s human rights commission says raise “serious concerns.” The law seems to have amplified the protests, changing the focus from tuition to dissatisfaction with Charest’s government.

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