MONTREAL - Quebec's waning student crisis is threatening to reignite before summer's end, with teachers becoming involved in the newest phase of the tuition battle.
The attention of the province is shifting to Aug. 17, the scheduled return date to school, now that large nightly student demonstrations have shrunk considerably.
But a large chasm in negotiations between teachers and the government could derail Premier Jean Charest's plan to reopen colleges to finish the postponed winter-spring term.
The teachers' union is demanding that Quebec hire a few hundred temporary teachers to help existing professors manage what's expected to be a big workload during the intensive fall schedule.
The union is threatening pressure tactics, which could include refusing to teach.
"We're ready to do our part in all of this," said Micheline Thibodeau, vice-president of the teachers' federation.
"We're just trying to provide the resources so that our students succeed."
The autumn session will be broken up into two accelerated terms: one to complete the remainder of the postponed winter semester, followed by a second phase to cover fall classes. The intensive classes are all scheduled to be finished by Christmas.
Thibodeau said the work agreement does not foresee teachers having to handle two semesters in the fall. As a result, they may decide not to teach one of the two sessions, she added.
Both sides agree that more teachers are needed to deal with the extra work; the actual number of new professors sits at the heart of the dispute.
This isn't the first time Quebec teachers have played a role in the conflict, which was triggered by Charest's plan to increase tuition fees over the next several years.
While the crisis raged for months, numerous professors made individual decisions to side with the students — during marches and on the picket lines. But the union's stance on this latest issue marks the first time teachers have threatened, as a collective, to interrupt classes.
A labour disruption involving teachers would also expand the recent unrest, beyond student groups. Some of those striking students have been hoping that all branches of Quebec's public service might join an unlimited general strike in support of their cause.
The president of the federation that oversees Quebec colleges — or CEGEPS — doesn't expect the divide between the teachers union and the province to disappear any time soon.
"The gaps are still very, very significant," said Jean Beauchesne. "For the moment, we still consider the demands very unreasonable."
Bill 78, the province's controversial protest law, calls for schools to reopen in August for the one-third of students who are on strike — so they can finish their winter-spring session before the fall one begins. It sets steep fines for people who try to enforce the strikes with picket lines outside schools, as they did in some cases during the spring.
Now a new wrinkle, involving teachers, has created additional uncertainty.
If the parties don't reach a deal by the end of Friday, talks are only expected to resume after the union officials return from their month-long holiday break.
The federation, however, is prepared to extend talks to next week, Beauchesne said.
"We're not in an ideal scenario — nobody is in an ideal scenario," said Beauchesne, adding he doesn't think it would be possible to find enough teachers to meet the union's demands.
Even though the fall session will call for an extra effort from teachers, he expects them to show up for work in August.
Quebec's education minister called the union's warnings of pressure tactics unacceptable.
"We live in a society that is egalitarian, we live in a society that is democratic, we should no longer govern by means of threats," Michelle Courchesne said Wednesday in Quebec City.
The dispute surfaces amid speculation that Charest is positioning himself to call an election in August for a Sept. 17 vote.
That would allow him to campaign during the back-to-school period and seek to keep the tuition increases, for which he appears to have strong support, high on the public agenda.
It would also allow him to get the election out of the way before the resumption of the province's corruption inquiry, which starts hearing witnesses again on Sept. 17.
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