Quebec Student Protesters Resume Post-Bill 78 Negotiations Over Tuition

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BILL 78 MONTREAL PROTEST QUEBEC
Talks are back on between the Quebec government and student leaders in an attempt to end a months-long conflict. It's the first time the sides have met since the government tabled emergency legislation, Bill 78, almost two weeks ago. (AP) | AP

MONTREAL - A two-week period marked by burgeoning protest and bitter recrimination has now entered a new phase, with Quebec student leaders back at the negotiating table with the provincial government Monday.

Student representatives arrived in Quebec City for their first face-to-face meeting with government officials since mid-May. Eight hours later, they quietly ended for the night and will resume at 1 p.m. Tuesday.

The head of the group representing college students left the meeting unwilling to comment or provide any indication if progress had been made.

Leo Bureau-Blouin later urged about 200 protesters who gathered outside the building to disperse and avoid arrest.

"We have a chance to avoid that things degenerate tonight," he said. "You know that the climate is fragile with the government, if we can avoid things going badly tonight I think it's in everybody's interest."

But riot police deployed in the provincial capital moved in and removed 84 people to waiting buses. Among those reportedly stopped were Philippe Lapointe and Justin Arcand, negotiators for hardline student group CLASSE.

The group said Arcand hadn't been released from custody, but a source said only one negotiator was held and later released.

Also among those reportedly arrested was a protest mascot in a banana costume who waved to the applauding crowd as he was dragged away by two officers. Each of those arrested was fined nearly $500.

Talks broke off two weeks ago when the government tabled emergency legislation aimed at controlling the protests. The move appears to have backfired, however. Festive and largely peaceful demonstrations have spread to other cities — in some cases even outside Quebec and Canada.

As they entered the meeting, students said they expected the government to compromise on the key issue of tuition increases that sparked their movement in the first place. They said any solution would include two elements: a retreat on tuition fees and on the emergency law, Bill 78.

The student leaders also warned that they won't be pressured into hastily accepting a deal this time. A few weeks ago, the sides emerged from an all-night negotiating session with an agreement that was ultimately rejected by voters at student assemblies.

The students are now saying they have more leverage, and less pressure, than they did the last time. At the time, school semesters had been at risk of being cancelled but they have since been paused and will resume in mid-August.

The government, on the other hand, has a more immediate worry: that a prolonged dispute will cause chaos for tourists heading to take in Montreal's big summer festivals.

"What's changed? Now the pressure is on the government," Martine Desjardins, one of the student leaders, said on her way into the meeting.

"All the students have their session suspended... and they can wait until autumn. But the government, they have pressure."

She said her group, the more moderate university students' federation, was willing to spend all week negotiating in Quebec City.

A representative of the more hardline CLASSE group offered a similar take.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a co-spokesman for the group, quipped that there would be no repeat of what happened earlier this month; back then, students were told during an evening, night and morning of talks that nobody could leave until there was a deal.

"We will certainly refuse to have negotiations all night long. We will ask — and we will take — breaks to eat and sleep if it's necessary," Nadeau-Dubois said.

"I mean, after 106 days of strikes it's not a question of minutes. I think we can do a little nap."

He said students hoped the renewed talks would be more than a public-relations exercise. A common accusation opponents have levelled at the Charest government is that it has allowed the dispute to fester for its own political gain.

Polls in recent months had repeatedly suggested that most Quebecers support the fee hikes. Those same polls suggest, however, that Quebecers also want to see the sides negotiate. So there have been several negotiating sessions this spring, without any hint of a climbdown on tuition fees.

The government says it has acted in good faith, and cites several examples.

Over the last few months it has moved to slow the implementation of fee hikes; strengthen loans and bursaries; involve students in a new body to monitor university spending; and reduce school fees outside of tuition.

Monday's meeting comes at a critical time.

Montreal's peak tourist season is fast approaching and there are hints that a faction of the protest movement will seek to disrupt the Formula One Grand Prix.

That car race, in two weekends, is the first of several big events that usually fuel the local economy in the summer, followed by the comedy, jazz and francophonie festivals.

More protests took place in different parts of Quebec including Montreal, which hosted its 35th consecutive night of demonstrations.

Lawyers dressed in their courtroom gowns paraded in silence from the city's main courthouse through the streets of Old Montreal to join the nightly march.

"It is one of the first times I've seen lawyers protest in public like this...and I've been practising for almost 30 years," Bruno Grenier said outside the building surrounded by about 250 people, some carrying copies of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The lawyer said his colleagues wanted to show the public that they oppose a law they "find unjust and which is probably unconstitutional."

Along the route they were greeted by claps of support and people shouting "merci."

As they arrived at a downtown park, bystanders surged to shake their hands. Organizer Remi Bourget addressed the crowd using a loud speaker before the legal protest ended.

Bourget told reporters he felt good about the reception to the march that was spontaneously planned by a few lawyers who are concerned about the provincial law.

"Now to see the support we received from our fellow citizens is really appreciated," he said.

The nightly demonstration then began with people walking through the streets banging pots and pans. The Montreal police quickly declared the march illegal, prompting a big cheer from the crowd. Police said the march could continue as long as no criminal acts are committed.

It grew to number several thousand people, sometimes travelling with the flow of automobile traffic, sometimes facing it. Several other marches took place in other parts of the city, including one in front of Premier Jean Charest's Westmount home.

At the end of the night, none of those protesters were arrested.

Note to readers: The story corrects an earlier version that said both CLASSE negotiators were released from custody.

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