QUEBEC — The Quebec government will table emergency legislation tonight in an effort to stamp out a turbulent student crisis that has gripped the province for months.
If passed, the Charest government’s law would pause the current academic session for striking students while hoping to restore order.
There are hints it will also include some harsh measures like stiff financial penalties for anyone preventing classrooms from opening.
The national assembly is being convened for 8 p.m. for a debate expected to last through the night.
“We hold the conviction that this decision is important — not only for our young people, but for the future of the Quebec people,” Premier Jean Charest told the legislature 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, late-night demonstration. 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.
As for the rest, Charest’s legislation would:
—Temporarily halt the spring semester at faculties paralyzed by the walkouts.
—Push up the summer holidays, with students being reconvened earlier in August.
—Allow students to complete their previous semester, before starting the fall one in October.
The protests, however, 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 in expletive-laden exchanges.
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 to 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.