Quebec's new education minister, Michelle Courchesne, has called representatives of student groups and post-secondary institutions to two separate meetings set for Tuesday morning, in her first move after her swearing-in late Monday.
Courchesne — who is also Quebec's Treasury Board president and minister for government services — was named to the post shortly after Line Beauchamp's surprise announcement Monday afternoon that she was quitting her education post and giving up politics.
Courchesne was education minister from 2007 until 2010, and she participated in recent failed negotiations with striking student groups.
Beauchamp resigned her cabinet position — and her seat — just hours after a conference call with student leaders, in an apparent last-ditch effort to kickstart negotiations once again.
The premier at her side, Beauchamp said she has done all she can to resolve the 14-week student strike over tuition fee hikes.
Beauchamp said she believes she no longer has the goodwill of student leaders in talks to end the walkout by tens of thousands of students.
"I would never have reached a compromise with the students," Beauchamp said. "So I am making the biggest compromise I can make."
Beauchamp denies she is leaving as a result of violent demonstrations which have erupted over the past several weeks of the conflict.
"To all those who might be tempted to read into my resignation a confirmation that their tactics of destabilization worked, I say this," Beauchamp went on, "You'll find me on the street as an ordinary Quebecer, armed with the respect of the Quebec people ... and the courage of my convictions."
Premier determined to push forward
Premier Jean Charest appeared emotional as Beauchamp made her announcement in Quebec City.
"All that Line did she did with the support of her colleagues," said Charest, adding her decision is a personal one. "I would have preferred that she stay on. But that is something she must determine."
"I want to say to you that we — from the outset — worked on the premise that those on the other side of the table were in good faith. We listened," Charest said. "We moved on a number of things. And quite frankly, I don't think there is anyone who could question the good faith of our government."
Charest said his government remains determined to push through the tuition fee hike.
"We believe in this policy," Charest said. "This policy is going to go ahead."
Student leaders taken aback
Student leaders expressed their surprise at Beauchamp's resignation. Key leaders spoke to her earlier today in another effort to return to negotiations — but they said she gave them no hint of what she had planned.
"We had no clue," said Léo Bureau-Blouin, the president of the federation representing college students.
"The problem for us was never Beauchamp, it was the tuition increases," said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for CLASSE, the most radical of the student federations. "Changing the minister won't necessarily change that."
Bureau-Blouin echoed that. "The problem was the office of the premier did not give enough [room to manoeuvre] to Mrs. Beauchamp to solve this conflict," he said, denying that student groups were not ready to make any compromises on the issue of tuition fee hikes.
Beauchamp ends 14-year political career
Beauchamp was first elected to Quebec's national assembly in 1998, as the Liberal member for Bourassa-Sauvé. She was named to the education post in August 2010, and she became deputy premier on Sept. 7, 2011.
Her replacement in the portfolio was education minister when the Charest government first indicated it planned to hike tuition fees in 2007. Courchesne has also served as minister of family, and minister of immigration, employment and social solidarity.
The MNA for Fabre was elected in 2003.
Courchesne ready 'to evaluate the possibilities'
In a statement released on Monday evening, Courchesne said 70 per cent of post-secondary students have finished their semester and only a minority have decided otherwise, by boycotting classes.
She said it is important for everyone to evaluate the possibilities, to allow those who want to finish their semester to do so under the best possible conditions.
"As education minister, I intend to ensure the right to education is guaranteed," Courchesne said in her statement, "to maintain accessibility to post-secondary education and to maintain the quality of the great teaching institutions that are our universities."