A phone call Friday morning from Pierre Pilote, chief negotiator for the Charest government on the issue on tuition fee increases, has been the starting gun that sent representatives of Quebec’s three student federations speeding from Montreal to Quebec City to attend what appears to be a Friday-afternoon, last-ditch attempt by the government to end a three-month impasse over the issue that has seen Montreal turned into the site of nearly 200 protest marches over the past 11 weeks.
While federation officials are not reacting publicly to the timing of government’s invitation, there’s no denying Friday’s meeting – and whatever results it may produce – will have an impact on the scale and duration of demonstrations planned to coincide with the Quebec Liberal Party’s convention scheduled to begin Friday evening in Victoriaville.
Originally scheduled to take place in Montreal, the convention was moved to Victoriaville in an effort to avoid demonstrators.
The demonstrators arrived shortly after Premier Jean Charest and his wife, Michèle Dionne, accompanied by six Sûreté du Québec bodyguards in civilian clothes.
The police presence in Victoriaville was fairly light compared to recent events in Montreal. The Sûreté du Québec is in charge of policing the municipality.
Earlier reports out of Victoriaville depicted an otherwise tranquil city preparing for a state of siege, the centre where the convention is to take place surrounded by a security fence and police perimeter while local merchants board up their windows against the possibility of clashes between protesters and the Sûreté du Québec, which provides police services for the municipality.
Heading into the meeting, the leader of the Fédération étudiante collégiale (FECQ) Leo Bureau-Blouin said he hopes this is more than just a public relations exercise on the government’s part.
“There’s a general council of the Liberals this weekend, there’s a lot of pressure from the public to negotiate. Maybe he wants to use this negotiation process to calm down the protests in Victoriaville,” he told reporters in Quebec City.
“But we hope the government has a real willingness to solve the crisis,” Bureau-Blouin said.
Martine Desjardins of the FEUQ appeared clearly open to a compromise as she walked into the meeting, which started at about 4 p.m.
"We need to stop polarizing the debate around tuition fees and whether we are for or against it," she said.
"We need to look at universities financing, that's the key for a consensus and we're going to push for that at the (negotiating) table," she added.
Union leaders, Louis Roy of the CSN, and Rejean Parent of the CSQ arrived at the meeting at a government building in downtown Quebec City Friday sporting the ubiquitous symbol of the student strike, the red square. The two workers unions - who represent a lot of teachers - support the student movement and have backed them financially.
But Michel Arseneau of the FTQ however wasn't wearing the red square and said his union is attending the meeting in hope of finding a solution for all Quebecers.
"It concerns all of Quebec. We hope our students can go back (to class)," he told reporters.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, co-spokesperson for CLASSE, stressed the student associations won’t put an end to their strike until the government agrees to freeze or eliminate its tuition hike.
“Our demand is clear: we don’t want a tuition hike. If there is an offer that doesn’t include a hike, it will be a much more acceptable offer,” Nadeau-Dubois said in a phone interview.
He noted the student associations will vote on the government’s latest offer, if one is indeed tabled Friday.
Nadeau-Dubois will not be at the negotiating table, but is traveling to Quebec City for the last-minute meeting.
“We are hopeful and going into the meeting with the willingness of finding a solution,” he said.
FECQ’s Bureau-Blouin said he welcomes the presence of the province’s three big union leaders at the meeting.
“We have the support of the workers’ unions so I think it’s going to be helpful,” he said.
Friday afternoon’s meeting also coincides with a pair of intriguing surveys published by Montreal newspapers. A CROP survey published by La Presse suggests that while 68 per cent Quebecers favour Charest’s tough stand on tuition hikes, 67 per cent remain dissatisfied with his government.
Survey results in both La Presse and the Journal de Montréal reported that if an election were held this week, it would be a three-way race between the Liberals, Parti Québécois and the newly formed Coalition pour l’avenir du Quebec.
An offer by the government last week to spread the tuition fee hikes over a period of seven rather than five years has been rejected by the federations. A counter-proposal from the federations that retained a freeze on tuition at present levels was described as “disappointing” by the government. Meanwhile, nightly protests continue to draw thousands through downtown Montreal, sometimes diverting from the city core to picket in front of Premier Jean Charest’s Westmount home.
Meanwhile CEGEPS have been developing scenarios about how to complete the winter semester when students return to class.
Students at Cégep André-Laurendeau in LaSalle have been boycotting classes since Feb. 29.
The college is now looking at the month of August, Hervé Pilon, its director-general, told The Gazette on Friday.
“We’ve always refused to look at the month of August because it presents a ton of problems,” Pilon said. But now they’re obliged to look at it,” he said.
“If we come back in August to finish the current semester it’s clear it will have an impact on all of the next (school) year,” Pilon said.
One of the problems that August poses involves the students who have been accepted to university who must finish their studies, he said.
If the college offers courses in August it would finish the winter semester at the end of that month or at the beginning of September, Pilon said. If it doesn’t start next fall’s semester on Aug. 29, it can’t finish it before Christmas, he said.
For the moment, there are only bad scenarios and they’ll have to choose the least bad one, he said.
But if the conflict is resolved imminently, Pilon suggested the college would find a way to complete the semester by June 30.
CEGEPs face certain constraints: they must offer a minimum of 82 days of courses and evaluation per session. And the two-month holiday for teachers must fall between June 15 and Sept. 1.
Pilon called the conflict very difficult to manage because it goes beyond strictly the tuition issue. He believes there is a social movement behind it, involving people who oppose the government and its Plan Nord and financial institutions, for example.
When you combine all that it becomes very complex, he said. To settle it, you have to come back to the debate about the tuition question, Pilon added.
Now it’s not a conflict about loans, bursaries and tuition – it’s a much broader conflict than that, Pilon said. And he believes that aspect was poorly grasped by everyone.
In that sense, Pilon said he is not ready to throw stones at the minister or the government for the management of all that, he said.
Source: montreal gazette
Author: James Mennie, Brenda Branswell and Marianne White