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Students, Quebec government hold 'last chance' talks

29 may 2012, 13:16
Leo Bureau-Blouin. ©AFP
Leo Bureau-Blouin. ©AFP
Talks between students and the government of Canada's Quebec province aimed at ending more than three months of protests over tuition hikes paused for the night and were set to resume on Tuesday, AFP reports.

After eight hours of negotiations, Leo Bureau-Blouin, a student leader, briefly announced that negotiations would continue Tuesday after midday.

He declined to provide more details. It was not immediately clear whether any progress at striking a deal had been made.

Since February, hundreds of protesters have been arrested, and clashes have erupted sporadically as more than 165,000 students refused to go to classes and took to the streets to protest the planned increase in school fees.

A tentative deal was reached after marathon talks a month ago but soon fell apart, and nightly protests in Montreal and other cities resumed.

The meeting between Education Minister Michelle Courchesne and student leaders has been touted as a "last chance" to resolve the conflict that has gripped Quebec before the start of summer festivals and other major tourist draws.

Courchesne was expected to put a new offer on the table, but will not likely budge on the start in September of the staggered increases in tuition at the mostly French-speaking province's universities.

Going into the meeting, she told reporters she was "confident" that the talks would be fruitful.

Another student leader, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, said key demands for a tuition freeze or at least a smaller hike and the repeal of a controversial law that restricts protests must be part of the negotiations.

If Courchesne "refuses to discuss school fees and Act 78, our meeting won't last long," he said. "These are our priorities."

Act 78 regarding protests was passed on May 18 in an effort to quell the unrest but has only served to galvanize opposition to the government.

The measure requires organizers to give police at least eight hours advance warning of times and locations of protest marches, with hefty fines imposed for failing to do so.

Monday evening, as talks continued, hundreds of legal professionals -- some dressed in black robes with polished shoes, others decked out in suits and ties -- took to the streets of Montreal to protest the measure.

In silence and carrying a banner expressing their opposition to the law, they marched along a major boulevard surrounded by supporters.

Organizers described the measure as an infringement on the freedom of expression and right to demonstrate.

Premier Jean Charest became the first Quebec premier in 2008 to win three back-to-back mandates since the 1950s. But his popularity has plummeted amid the student unrest, on the heels of corruption allegations.

The students initially launched protests, boycotting classes, in response to the government's plan to raise annual university fees by 82 percent or $1,700, with the increase gradually introduced over a period of several years.

Officials are desperate for a quick end to the protests that otherwise could put at risk hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism revenues, notably before the Montreal Grand Prix on June 8-10.

For Charest, a resolution might also help turn around his political fortunes before he has to go the polls again, between now and December 2013.

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