Negotiations between the Quebec government and the four student associations broke down yesterday as disagreements emerged over a proposed reduction in tuition fees.
Both sides blamed each other for the deadlock, with mutual accusations of intransigence. Students have been on strike for almost four months, the longest student strike in Quebec history.
At first, the government offered to cut the impending hikes from $254 a year to $219. The loss in revenue would be offset by a reduction in tax breaks on tuition fees. Under this proposal, the hikes would amount to $1533 over seven years instead of the original $1625 over five.
After students rejected the deal, the government offered to revise the annual hikes and reduce the first year increase in tuition to $100. $254 would be paid annually for the remaining years. In total, the hikes would amount to $1624 over seven years.
The four student associations argued that the government did not go far enough.
“The offer we got – and this isn’t a joke – is a tuition hike of $1624. It’s a bit insulting,” Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a spokesperson for the Coalition large de l’association pour une solidarité syndicale (CLASSE), said in French at a press conference.
For their part, the students offered to scrap the hikes for the first two years. A $1270 hike in tuition fees would then be spread over the remaining five years. To offset the hikes, tax breaks for tuition would have been adjusted accordingly.
Since Jean Charest’s term as premier of Quebec is set to end next year, students were hoping that the incoming government would abolish the hikes, according to Martine Desjardins, the president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec.
Education minister Michelle Courchesne rejected the offer, arguing that the reduction in tax breaks needed to offset the hikes would be unfair for students enrolled in CEGEP technical programs because they would not be pursuing university studies.
The impasse comes nearly a week before Montreal is set to host its annual Formula One (F1) Grand Prix race. According to Courchesne and Charest, CLASSE has threatened to disrupt the event. In a press conference yesterday afternoon the Premier called the student association a “threat to all Quebecers.”
The F1 event has already been a target of hacking by the activist group Anonymous, which leaked personal information of ticket buyers, in support of the Quebec student movement.
Protesters throng the streets
Anger over the breakdown in talks was felt through the streets of Montreal last night as thousands of demonstrators marched peacefully through the downtown area as part of the 38th consecutive nightly protest.
While many protesters expressed frustration with the stalemate, some were not surprised by the government’s decision to leave the negotiation table.
“I’m sure that the decision was taken a long time ago,” Sylvain, a father-of-two, told The Daily in French. “Charest called a meeting with his ministers a while ago. I think he made the decision with his ministers.”
Protesters walked for hours – sometimes in circles – amid the clanging of pots and pans.
The march merged with two smaller demonstrations during the night. At one point, the crowd swelled to around 8000 protesters.
At 11:00 p.m., a group of protesters tried to block the entrance to the Champlain Bridge. However, most of the crowd continued their march on Notre-Dame Street.
The Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) was mostly absent from the protest although several lines of riot police blocked access to St-Denis.
The SPVM told the Daily that two arrests were made for violations of municipal bylaws. One individual was arrested for assault against an officer.