Quebec students and the provincial government return to the bargaining table on Monday in a high-stakes attempt to put an end to a months-long dispute over tuition hikes that has led to clashes with police and mass arrests.
The latest round of talks comes at a crucial time for the Quebec government, with thousands taking to the streets nightly in protest and Montreal’s peak tourism season fast approaching.
Representatives from the province’s four largest student associations are scheduled to meet with the province’s education minister in Quebec City.
Leo Bureau-Blouin, the head of one of student group, said Sunday the talks represent a “last chance” for the government to put an end to the conflict.
Students have called for a tuition freeze. The government has ruled out that possibility. The last round of negotiations was a marathon session that went more than 24 hours straight, ending in a government offer that was overwhelmingly rejected.
The French-speaking province’s average undergraduate tuition — $2,519 a year — is the lowest in Canada, and the proposed hike — $254 per year over seven years — is tiny by U.S. standards. But opponents consider the raise an affront to the philosophy of the 1960s reforms dubbed the Quiet Revolution that set Quebec apart not only from its U.S. neighbor but from the rest of Canada.
Anaylsts have said Quebecers don’t compare their tuition rates to those in the U.S. or English-speaking Canada, but to those in European countries where higher education is free.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest, who has vowed to shake up the debt-ridden province’s finances since he was elected nearly a decade ago, has refused to cave.
More than 2,500 students have been arrested since the demonstrations began more than 100 days ago, including nearly 700 this past Wednesday alone. The total is five times the arrests during a period in the 1970s when soldiers were deployed to the streets in Quebec because of a spate of terrorism by a group demanding independence from Canada.
The tuition hike is part of a broader effort to shift Quebec’s fiscal burden away from taxpayers — the province has some of the steepest personal income taxes in North America and the highest per-capita debt in Canada— and onto the shoulders of each person who uses a service.
In an effort to restore peace, Charest’s government passed emergency legislation on May 18 restricting protests and closing striking campuses until August. The law requires that police be informed eight hours before a protest begins, including details on the route of any demonstration of 50 or more people. It also prohibits demonstrations within 50 meters (165 feet) of a college and declares that anyone who incites or helps another person break the new protest regulations can be fined.