POLITICS

Signs point to student dispute continuing in Quebec

05/07/2012 12:15 EDT | Updated 07/07/2012 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL - A deal supposed to end Quebec's student unrest was being emphatically torn apart Monday, threatening to extend the three-month conflict.

About a dozen student associations were said to have rejected the agreement between the provincial government and student leaders — some by massive majorities of up to 94 per cent — on the first of several days of voting.

Those details were being provided by protest leaders across the province. There was word of only one student assembly, in the Gaspe region, agreeing to the deal.

Signs of lingering trouble didn't end there.

For the 14th straight night, demonstrators congregated at a downtown Montreal park and marched to voice their opposition to the Charest government's plan to hike tuition fees.

The nocturnal activities did have a different flavour, however, because of another march, this one featuring about 100 people who support the proposed increase.

Those demonstrators had given police their route ahead of time, allowing authorities to help keep the two groups apart and avert a potentially explosive confrontation.

While students had barely begun voting on the weekend deal, some of the protest leaders involved in negotiating it were demanding a return to the bargaining table, accusing the government of dirty tricks.

One student website even published what it cast as an insider's account of the marathon 24-hour negotiating session that led to the arrangement.

That blow-by-blow description accused the government of using sleep deprivation to get students, in the morning after all-night negotiations, to agree to what was put before them.

It said a few significant details had been changed and that the final agreement wasn't quite what the students thought they had agreed to.

Now some student leaders want the agreement revised. Education Minister Line Beauchamp suggested on Monday there could be further discussion because it was only a preliminary deal.

"Usually when an agreement in principle is accepted there can be texts that make precisions," she said in an interview. "This isn't a deal to settle everything, it's to allow people to get to class and create a space for continuing discussions."

The deal, aimed at ending three months of unrest in the province, uses a variety of mechanisms to keep student costs frozen until the end of the year — but there's a possibility the fees will increase exactly as planned starting next January.

One-third of Quebec's post-secondary students remain on a declared strike.

Any hope of an immediate resolution, however, has been snuffed out since Saturday's announcement of a deal.

Premier Jean Charest took a jab at the students, blaming them for the length of the conflict. Then Beauchamp stoked further student mistrust by reassuring her Liberal colleagues that the deal might not result in any tuition savings.

The student leaders, on the other hand, didn't work too hard to sell the deal to their members. At best, they have played a neutral role in the votes — while some are vocally complaining that the final agreement isn't what they expected.

One of several points of contention was the method for selecting members for a committee that will examine ways to cut costs in universities. That committee's findings will play a key role in determining how much the students pay in administrative fees.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Montreal announced plans for measures aimed at cracking down on raucous protests in a city that has seen its share of them lately.

Under the proposals, protest organizers would be forced to submit their intended route to police. At other events, whenever potential trouble is foreseen, masks will be banned.

"For example, when a masked person has a billiard ball or a brick, a rock, a metal bar, and not to mention Molotov cocktails, there's a responsibility to be proactive," said Mayor Gerald Tremblay.

"Only protesters who threaten peace and public order will be targeted by the new regulations. We're not talking here about the Santa Claus parade, for example, or Carifiesta, or the Just For Laughs festival. This strikes a balance between free expression and public safety."

The regulations set out fines ranging from $500 to $3,000. They must go to a vote at city council on May 14.