QUEBEC - The tuition increase that triggered such social strife in Quebec was cancelled Thursday during an action-packed first full day in office for the Parti Quebecois government.
The new government repealed the fee hike, by decree, in its first cabinet meeting less than 24 hours after coming to power.
Student leaders cheered the news.
"Together we've written a chapter in the history of Quebec," said Martine Desjardins, head of the more moderate university student association.
"It's a triumph of justice and equity."
Premier Pauline Marois has acted on a promise that she had made during the election campaign. She announced the decision at a news conference after the cabinet meeting.
Marois said tuition will go back to $2,168 — the lowest in Canada. With the planned increases, it would have been $600 higher this year and would have kept growing each year.
Marois said she will not decrease funding for universities and will make good on a promise to hold a summit on how to fund universities within her first 100 days as premier.
The government policy entering that meeting will be to suggest indexing future fee increases to the rate of inflation.
That would raise tuition by a rate of around one to three per cent most years — compared with the 84 per cent increase over seven years planned by the previous Charest government.
But Marois' inflation-index policy is not set in stone. Some students are pushing for zero tuition, as exists in some other countries.
"That's a proposal I'm putting on the table," Marois said. "It's a debate we need to have."
Marois said she will also cancel the Charest Liberals' controversial protest legislation. Huge protests erupted across the province this spring in reaction to the fee hikes, originally planned at $325 per year over five years and later changed slightly to $254 over seven years.
The events — dubbed by some the "Maple Spring" — drew international news coverage.
The increases were part of the Liberals' 2011-12 budget and were cast as a way to put public finances on a more sustainable footing, while guaranteeing better-funded universities.
University fees have remained frozen in Quebec for most of the last 40 years.
However, opponents of the fee hikes warned that they could reduce access to higher education, and do serious social harm, while contributing relatively little to government coffers.
Marois also announced Thursday that she will:
—Shut down the aging Gentilly-2 nuclear reactor in Becancour and create a $200 million fund to diversify the region's economy.
—Cancel a $200-a-year health tax and replace the lost money with income-tax increases for top-income earners.
—Introduce tougher language legislation within 100 days.
—Balance the provincial budget by 2013-14.
—Replace Jean Charest's cherished "Plan nord" on northern development with the "Plan for northern development." She did not discuss past promises to increase mining royalties for companies operating in the region.
—Keep an open mind on shale-gas extraction. Marois played down comments from her national-resources minister suggesting the process will never pass environmental safety requirements. Marois said she will wait for impact assessments before making a long-term decision.
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Laurence Fortin, Coalition Party
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Etienne Collins, Liberal Party
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Jacinthe Sabourin, Quebec Solidaire
Only installed as the party's nominee in Masson riding on Aug. 6, she said she was still reading the platform when asked about her party's education plans. "We were on vacation when Mr. Charest called the election," Sabourin said. The 19-year-old junior college student from Terrebonne says she loves singing Jason Mraz and Celine Dion songs at home. She became involved in politics after being inspired by the student movement. "I was reading on the student movement in the newspaper," said Sabourin, "and started noticing how everything else was mismanaged as well." During her school's student strike she passed out flyers and helped lead the nightly pots-and-pans protest in her usually quiet suburb. She is adamant that education should be free. "Education is a right like freedom of speech," Sabourin said. "We shouldn't have to pay for rights."
Marcos Archambault, Parti Quebecois
The 19-year-old was raised in a predominantly Anglo suburb west of Montreal, attending English schools until junior college. His mother, a born francophone, spoke English with him at home. "I guess you can say she was anglicized," said Archambault, explaining that his grandmother had her educated in English because she thought it was the language of industry. Attitudes have changed, according to Archambault. "Montreal is the second-biggest French speaking city in the world after Paris ... That distinction allows us to thrive economically. Going against that would be bad."