QUEBEC - After weeks of battle against the Quebec government, public rifts are increasingly emerging within the province's restless student ranks.
A season of anti-tuition protests, featuring red-clad students marching in unison, has given way to more divisive scenes as the semester winds down.
Now there are legal fights and, on Tuesday, even a bomb threat that cleared out one school.
The latest developments centre on one general question: Should striking students go back to class, or continue mass walkouts and risk having their semester extended or cancelled?
Several students have taken legal action in recent days to force an immediate reopening of their classrooms, with one such move finding success in Alma, Que., one failing in Montreal, and there was one mixed result Tuesday in Quebec City.
There has been a chaotic response this week after a court ordered the reopening of a junior college in Alma, with students now struggling over how to respond. Some students have stacked up piles of desks in protest, others have urged peers to leave their classrooms and, on Tuesday, the school had to be evacuated after someone reported a bomb threat.
One student-group spokesman blames the government for these problems. If only the government would sit down and negotiate with the protest groups, he says, such scuffles wouldn't be happening.
Because the government refused to meet with student leaders, and ignored the will expressed in peaceful protests, he said some young people are now starting to "radicalize."
"If we want to ease tensions, the government needs to sit down at a discussion table with student associations, so that this doesn't transform into a social crisis," said Leo Bureau-Blouin.
"This (situation) clearly risks creating conflicts among students — and we, on the contrary, want to avoid them."
Meanwhile Tuesday, a university student in Quebec City became the latest to file a court challenge against the protest movement; he won an injunction to have one of his classrooms reopened.
Laurent Proulx convinced a Quebec Superior court judge that the strikes, declared by various student associations after votes at public assemblies, should not be able to keep him from going to one of his classes.
The court granted him an injunction that reopened an anthropology class he's enrolled in at Laval University in Quebec City.
His University Laval class — titled "Anthropology of conflicts and violence" — had been shut down since Feb. 14.
When Proulx returned to class Tuesday afternoon, he was not obstructed physically but he was subjected to taunts from fellow students who accused him of selfishly selling out their cause. Standing in the hallway, a crowd of students chanted, "Me! Me! Me!" after he walked in. Other pro-strike students filled the classroom, and some blocked or shoved media members trying to get images.
Proulx had successfully argued in court that he needed to finish his class immediately, because he has a job lined up this summer. He also argued that a delay could harm his chances of getting into law school.
The 24-year-old, a former soldier, has drawn parallels between his current struggle and his past deployment in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008.
"I risked my life so that women and Afghan children could go to school (without) coercion by a social cause or ideology," he said outside the courthouse this week.
"And now, I return to Canada to try educating myself with the money I saved, to become a better asset to society, and they tell me: 'We have a just social cause to defend, so you don't get access to education.' That's something I'm denouncing."
Proulx only won a partial victory in court, however.
The court granted him an injunction that applies to one anthropology course, but not to the rest of the shuttered Universite Laval classes.
Tens of thousands of students have walked out on their studies to protest the Quebec government's move to increase tuition by 75 per cent over five years.
Students say they want the government to negotiate with them, although their demands have varied. Some want the $325-a-year, five-year, hikes cancelled. Others are asking for tuition to be eliminated altogether, as has happened in some jurisdictions in Europe.
The provincial government says it's willing to discuss more generous bursary-and-loan programs — but won't back down on the tuition hikes.
Even with the increases, five years from now, the government says Quebec will still have among the lowest tuition in Canada.
And it warned students that time is running out on their semester.
Education Minister Line Beauchamp warned that it would require "organizational gymnastics" to save the semester if strikes dragged on past the upcoming Easter weekend.
She also took a shot at the democratic legitimacy of the protest leaders. Beauchamp suggested that the public assemblies where groups have voted to strike fall short of democratic standards, and that some students may have felt pressured to go along with the very vocal protest movement.
She said the government — not protest leaders — are an expression of the people's voice. If students want to be truly democratic, all strike votes should be held by secret ballot, as normal elections are, she said.
"We're ... talking about a (tuition) decision made by a democratically elected government, supported by another party in the national assembly (the Coalition For Quebec's Future)," Beauchamp told reporters.
"The (student) votes should be held secretly — and be held without intimidation."
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