Anger mounts over Quebec student crisis
By Rhéal Seguin and Les Perreaux, Globe and Mail, April 27, 2012
Beyond the smashed windows and broken glass spread across the streets of Montreal, Quebec is in the throes of a full-blown crisis that is angering citizens and consuming the Liberal government.
The more than 10-week student strike over tuition fee hikes, the longest ever in Quebec, may have reached its breaking point. Faced with civil disobedience and violent confrontations, Quebeckers are demanding a speedy end to the conflict. After spending millions of dollars on extra policing over the past two months, Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay called on the government and students to find a solution.
“Enough is enough. I don’t accept that my fed-up citizens should be taken hostage,” Mr. Tremblay said. “What are we waiting for, a tragedy?”
Montreal police Chief Marc Parent was also growing weary of all the criticism over the use of tear gas and concussion grenades to disperse crowds – on Wednesday night, police arrested more than 80 people, and six were injured. Chief Parent said he is proud of his force, adding officers have shown “professionalism and restraint” despite being frequently pelted by stones and bricks over the course of about 165 protests during the student boycott. “I don’t think this has ever been seen in Canada,” Chief Parent said.
Yet Quebec Premier Jean Charest remained firmly entrenched in his position. And the students, well-organized, articulate and persistent, refused to retreat.
The situation has left the government in a delicate position with voters. The conflict has derailed Mr. Charest’s promotion of his Northern development plan called the Plan Nord, the centrepiece of his re-election platform. If the dispute isn’t settled soon, it will likely disrupt a meeting of Liberal members scheduled for the end of next week in Montreal, which has been expected be a final party gathering before an election.
Meanwhile, public opinion polls show a record level of voter disapproval toward the government. Voters criticize Mr. Charest’s handling of the student-strike issue. Allegations of corruption have also become a major hurdle to overcome, according to a recent poll. A public inquiry will begin next month into allegations of corruption in the construction industry, the awarding of public contracts and the financing of political parties.
The hard line taken against the students by the Charest government may be explained in part by the fact that many Quebeckers, especially Liberals, support the tuition fee hikes – more than $1,600 over the next five years, a 75-per-cent increase. Mr. Charest may be consolidating his base of support, but he is also attracting criticism.
Professors, teachers, intellectuals and even prominent Liberals have urged the Premier to temporarily suspend the tuition fee hikes and end the crisis. Some even suggested that Mr. Charest had a hidden agenda and was deliberately polarizing the debate and dividing the students as part of a pre-election strategy.
“It would be a sad state of affairs if students were being manipulated. That would mean they were being used as part of a political agenda,” said Max Roy, president of the federation of university professors.
“With the breakdown of discussions, he [Mr. Charest] knew it would spark protests,” said the president of the college student federation, Léo Bureau-Blouin. “So I think the Quebec government is playing a dangerous game with public opinion as part of its re-election.”
The government’s decision this week to exclude the more militant of the three major student groups, the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, or CLASSE, from the bargaining table, created the recent stalemate.
Mr. Charest portrayed the CLASSE as a radical group, accusing it of being behind the clashes with police. And he went out of his way to suggest that the Parti Québécois’ support of the students was an indication that it condoned their actions. “None of us who are in a position of responsibility can … do anything else but condemn the violence,” he said, while maintaining the PQ wasn’t vocal enough on this issue.
During National Assembly committee hearings on Thursday, PQ Leader Pauline Marois battered Mr. Charest with questions on how he planned to resolve the crisis.
“Does the Leader of the Official Opposition want us to sit down with the CLASSE,” Mr. Charest responded repeatedly.
Angered by the Premier’s refusal to respond, Ms. Marois lashed out at him. “These are our children that are in the streets. These are our children getting billy-clubbed and pushed around,” Ms Marois said. “I’m looking the Premier in the eyes and telling him he is responsible.”
When asked by reporters if he had a hidden agenda by discrediting the CLASSE in order to prepare for an coming election, Mr. Charest denied the allegation, saying it was “grotesque.”
Quebec must rethink tuition strategy
Accusations flying over Liberals’ motives for taking hard line on tuitions
By Philip Authier, The Gazette, April 27, 2012
QUEBEC – There was a tear in the Quebec flag flying high over Premier Jean Charest’s office this week, the dangling thread visible for all to see. On Wednesday, student protesters here stormed past the building on their way to staging a sit-in in the neighbouring Complexe G (Edifice Marie-Guyart), home of Education Minister Line Beauchamp, who had announced moments earlier she was excluding the most militant group of students from talks.
And from that point on, if there was a palpable symbol that the government’s strategy with the rebelling students who have thrown the province into chaos was in tatters, the flag was it.
Thursday morning, after another night of retaliatory protests, broken windows and vandalism in Montreal leading to 85 arrests, a grim-faced Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois rose in the National Assembly. “The government is losing control of the situation,” Marois said pointing the finger at an already irritated-looking Charest sitting across the floor. “The tensions are palpable. We are on the edge of the cliff.
“The first responsibility of the premier is to maintain social peace. Images of disorder and chaos have gone around the world. What does he propose concretely to get us out of this crisis?”
Marois, who said the only way out of the impasse now is for the government to ice the tuition increase for 2012 to allow for a cooling-off period, did not get much of an answer except Charest’s accusations that she is playing into the student’s hands. The fact Marois and most of her MNAs wear the student’s red square protest badges irks Charest to no end, and he never fails to mention it when he argues back.
Charest’s response has not changed in weeks. The government has reached out to students, improved offers, tried to dialogue, but will not and cannot be intimidated by violence and threats, he says. “There will not be dialogue in the context of violence,” Charest said. “It is not a reflection of Quebec’s values, certainly not those of my government and the population of Quebec.”
Breaking news: On April 27, Quebec Premier offered to extend the five-year plan of tuition fee increases to seven years. Student associations responded initially by rejecting the proposal.
Or, as Beauchamp put it a few moments later in the legislature: “What is the PQ proposing? To surrender to the violence on the street? That’s out of the question.”
Public Security Minister Robert Dutil, Charest’s go-to man on the hooliganism front, waded in as well, making it clear the government is targeting the more radical group of students, CLASSE (Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicate étudiante). “I think the CLASSE has an operating system that includes violence in the streets,” Dutil told reporters, adding later in the legislature: “Violence leads to violence.”
And so went the increasingly caustic debate over a conflict that, analysts agree, doesn’t actually seem that complicated to fix with a bit of give and take.
The total value of the tuition increase to the Quebec treasury after five years is quite modest – $265 million – and the growing costs of policing Quebec’s now daily demonstrations will rapidly wipe out the gains in the books. Those basic facts have opened the door to all kinds of speculation of what the government’s real intentions are in allowing it to endure.
Is it, as editorialists and columnists have speculated, somehow part of a Machiavellian Liberal plot to get re-elected? Polls show one in two Quebecers support the government’s position on tuition and welcome the hard line it has taken. As if to confirm some threads of the theory, a CROP poll published in La Presse this week shows the Liberals in the lead over the PQ and the CAQ (Coalition Avenir Québec) for the first time in months.
“I find that grotesque,” Charest snapped, responding to a question from The Gazette on the election theory Thursday. “Let me point something out to you. Who talks about elections? The PQ. The CAQ. The media.
“And I never do. This decision (on tuition) was made a year ago. So when I read things like that … I mean, come on. I have never raised the issue of an election. It’s never raised by me. It’s raised by others.”
But politics is politics, and the PQ is running with the theory, adding the student crisis to its list of talking points portraying the nine-year Liberal regime as old, corrupt and out-of-touch.
On Thursday, when Marois and Charest met face-to-face for a second time in the same day to debate the premier’s annual spending estimates, Marois raised it again, accusing Charest of allowing the crisis to drag on because he knows Quebecers are split and it’s helping him. “The premier is using this conflict to make people forget about his record,” Marois fired across the floor at Charest.
“Should we conclude he wished for this crisis? That it was premeditated. That he fed it for partisan reasons?
“The Liberal government and the premier have done their time,” Marois said. “It’s time to put an end to this and go to an election.”
Charest again denied the theory, instead trying to destabilize Marois by asking, three times, whether she would sit down with CLASSE at the negotiating table if she were premier. Marois did not answer. With representatives of the student groups sitting in the back of the room, he accused Marois of being in favour of the tuition increase, but hiding the fact for electoral reasons. “The time has come for students to go back to class,” Charest said.
By late Thursday, with new demonstrations under way, merchants sweeping up broken glass downtown and the public increasingly upset by social disruptions, nobody was negotiating anywhere.
As for the students, the three main leaders were taking their case to an even wider audience and were in Montreal Thursday evening as guests on a taping of the hugely popular Radio-Canada talk show, Tout le monde en parle, a show not known to be especially friendly to the Liberal regime. The show is to be broadcast Sunday evening.*
* On Radio Canada, CBC French-language television, 8 pm Eastern time.