Bill brings heavy fines, protest rules to control students

QUEBEC — Emergency legislation aimed at stamping out a turbulent student crisis in Quebec contains provisions for heavy fines for students and their federations.

QUEBEC — Emergency legislation aimed at stamping out a turbulent student crisis in Quebec contains provisions for heavy fines for students and their federations.

An individual faces fines of between $1,000 and $5,000 for preventing someone from entering an educational institution.

The penalties climb to between $7,000 and $35,000 for a student leader and to between $25,000 and $125,000 for unions or student federations.

In all cases, the fines will double for repeat offenders.

Bill 78 also lays out strict regulations governing student demonstrations, including giving eight hours notice for protest itineraries.

The bill is expected to be voted on in the legislature today.

If passed, the Charest government’s law would also pause the current academic session for striking students and have it resume in August.

Premier Jean Charest is hoping the measures restore order after three months of student walkouts and demonstrations that have turned violent.

“We hold the conviction that this decision is important — not only for our young people, but for the future of the Quebec people,” he told the legislature earlier on Thursday.

Charest announced plans for the legislation a day earlier, in a move met by swift condemnation from student leaders, left-wing opinion-makers and even the provincial bar association.

Thousands of angry protesters instantly swarmed Montreal’s streets for a tumultuous, demonstration on Wednesday night. Windows were smashed, protesters and police officers were injured and more than 120 people were arrested.

But it remains to be seen how the measure will be received by the broader public.

Polls suggest Charest’s unpopular government, facing a long-shot re-election bid, might actually have public support for its tuition hikes. The premier has responded angrily in recent weeks when accused of encouraging a climate of confrontation for his own political benefit.

Bracing for more of that criticism, the provincial government bought ads in Thursday’s newspapers explaining how it has already made several adjustments to its tuition plans to soften the impact on the poorest students. The ads emphasized a point Charest is keen for people to understand: 70 per cent of Quebec students have already finished their semester and aren’t boycotting classes.

The protests have mushroomed beyond the cause of cheap tuition.

They have attracted a wide swath of other participants who dislike the Charest government and represent a variety of disparate causes — ranging from environmentalism, to Quebec independence, anti-capitalism and anarchy.

They have also prompted one of the most intense left-versus-right ideological clashes in recent Quebec history.

Such debates have not been confined to the legislature and to family dinner tables. They have occasionally spilled into the streets, with passersby occasional berating protesters.

Charest’s opponents have adjusted their rhetoric during the dispute. Given several polls showing support for fee hikes, and the ugly scenes occasionally playing out in the streets, the Parti Quebecois is no longer condemning the premier for hiking student fees.

Now they’re condemning his approach.

The PQ and other opponents are working to link the issue to Charest’s true Achilles heel: ethics scandals. There have been a multitude of quips in recent days about how Charest is cracking down on students — acting tougher with Quebec’s youth than he is with the Mafia.

The premier has called a public inquiry into corruption, which begins next week. But he only called it after intense, sustained, months-long political pressure.

“What a mess! What a terrible mess! This is where the premier, the leader of the Liberal party, has led Quebec. We are debating a special law against our children, against our youth — all because of the premier’s stubbornness,” PQ Leader Pauline Marois told the legislature Thursday. “Never, never . . . has the premier taken a minute to meet the students. Never has his government moved on the crux of the issue, and he wants to make us believe he tried everything.”

She demanded that the premier meet with student leaders.

During a legislature debate, Charest attempted to turn the issue against her. As he does on a daily basis, the premier pointed out that Marois and her party have been wearing the movement’s iconic red square on their lapels. He accused her of inflaming the unrest with overheated rhetoric.

The premier did not meet with student leaders, who visited the legislature Thursday.

Two of those student leaders held a news conference billed as non-partisan. They demanded that Charest drop the legislation and try negotiation.

Those students were joined by opposition politicians; Independent MNAs; a parent; and even one student, a former soldier who served in Afghanistan who had fought against the strikers by obtaining a court injunction. All pleaded with the premier to try a more conciliatory approach.