MONTREAL - Traces of optimism emerged Tuesday that a resolution might finally be at hand to end Quebec's 107-day student dispute.
A second day of negotiations ended just before 11 p.m. with students saying progress had been made and they would study several proposals presented by both sides.
"We will take the night and probably tomorrow morning to evaluate the different scenarios and restart the negotiations during the day in the hope of presenting an offer to our members," Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a co-spokesman for the more hardline CLASSE group, told reporters.
Asked if a deal was imminent, Martine Desjardins, the head of one of the university student groups, said "it depends how many hours you consider to be imminent."
The tone of the negotiations appears to have changed after Premier Jean Charest finally sat down for a face-to-face meeting with protest leaders for about 50 minutes on Monday night.
It was an abrupt change in approach for a premier who had repeatedly resisted opposition calls to get personally involved in talks with students — and who had even avoided shaking the hand of student leaders during a recent event at the legislature.
The apparent thaw came as the government and protest leaders returned to the negotiating table for a second consecutive day, following a nearly one-month hiatus.
Earlier, the premier characterized his meeting with students as representing a new stage in the dispute; he described the exchanges as respectful and courteous.
"We all want to turn the page and move onto other things," Charest told reporters. "I hope it helps send a signal that the government wants to arrive at the best possible solution."
The premier added that even if he hadn't met students in person before this week, he was always heavily involved in the government's decisions in the tuition dispute.
Students said the government had budged on the central issue of tuition hikes.
"That's on the table," Nadeau-Dubois said earlier in the day.
"The strike is about tuition fees. For us, that's already a very good start."
Another student leader offered broad hints about how the process was unfolding: the government had provided "parameters" to work with, the students had made an offer along those guidelines, and the government was making a counter-offer late Tuesday.
There were no other comments about the specifics of the offer and counter-offer. The second day of negotiations Tuesday had begun at 1 p.m., with a break for supper and a return to the bargaining table at 8 p.m.
The main opposition party ridiculed the premier for taking so long to meet the students.
"After 106 days of strikes, 106 days of strikes, the premier has finally accepted to meet the students — and you'll notice that the premier is still in one piece," PQ Leader Pauline Marois quipped during a legislature exchange.
"In the end, it wasn't so hard. I'd even guess that the students were polite to the premier. Are you, (Mr. Charest), sitting down and seriously negotiating on the real issue here at the heart of this social crisis: (tuition hikes)?"
Talks resumed in a bid to finally end months of disruption and nightly demonstrations.
The media savvy student leaders demanded changes in two areas: on the question of tuition increases, and on the emergency law the government tabled two weeks ago.
The stalemate began in mid-February with students upset with the government's decision to hike tuition fees by $325 a year over five years, a move that would bring annual fees to about $3,800 in 2017.
The government later offered to spread the hikes out over seven years — an annual increase of $254 —but that was also rejected.
This isn't the first time the two sides have negotiated. Another session in early May ended with a deal that was eventually rejected by student assemblies.
The two sides were driven even further apart on May 18 when the government passed Bill 78, 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.
The young leaders now say they won't feel pressured to accept a deal in a hurry.
Earlier this month, following an all-night negotiating session, there was an agreement that was ultimately rejected by voters at student assemblies.
This time, the students say the pressure is all on the government. They say they have all summer to negotiate, because their school semesters have been suspended; the government, on the other hand, is desperate to calm the streets before Montreal receives tourists for its summer festivals.
Even after a torrential rain flooded parts of Montreal and triggered power failures and caused buildings to be evacuated, people were marching again on Tuesday night. However, the numbers of protesters were among the lowest since the nightly demonstrations began.
"We can't give up," said 50-something marcher Suzanne Dessureault.
"We're waiting for important news (from Quebec City)... We're anxious to hear what's been decided. I think this movement is here to stay. I think, like many others, we can't turn back now."
In Quebec City, protesters returned to the scene of mass arrests on Monday. They used spoons and pot lids to bang on the doors of the building where talks continued.
Nearby a protester walked amid the crowd wearing a large Charest mask with red patches over this eyes.
No arrests were made in either city, a day after 84 were removed and fined $500 by police in the provincial capital.
Meanwhile, protesters in Ottawa lent their voices of support to Quebec students.
Joining major student organizations were the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the Canadian Auto Workers' union and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.