QUEBEC CITY — Quebec's premier Jean Charest said Thursday he suspended negotiations with university students aimed at ending weeks of protests over proposed tuition hikes, a development that could lead to a long summer of demonstrations and clashes with police.
Charest said the talks reached an impasse and a huge gap remains after four days of talks. Charest said there will be an election in the French-speaking province within 18 months and that it will be "up to the silent majority to express itself."
Student leaders said Quebec's education minister stepped away from the table, saying it wasn't politically possible to reach an agreement. One student leader called for more street protests and said he planned a large rally in Montreal for Saturday.
Student groups called for a tuition freeze, but the government has ruled out that possibility. Students also object to an emergency law put in place to limit protests.
More than 2,500 people have been arrested since a student strike at more than a dozen Quebec colleges and universities began in February.
At least three demonstrations took to the streets of Montreal hours after the talks broke down, all at one point merging into one that police said was at least a few thousand strong. Two people were arrested. Two demonstrators were also arrested in Quebec City after throwing items at police but police spokeswoman Catherine Viel said more were expected in the city where the talks collapsed.
The failed talks comes at a crucial time for the Quebec government, with Montreal's peak tourism season fast approaching, a period of international events such as the Grand Prix F-1 race and international jazz and comedy festivals that bring millions of tourism revenue.
Charest said he hoped the break would bring some calm to the streets, but student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois called for "a return to the streets."
Charest said Nadeau-Dubois' group had threatened to disrupt the lucrative F-1 racing Grand Prix next weekend, but the student leader said he was merely going to use the publicity generated by the event to make his cause visible.
Quebec's average undergraduate tuition – $2,519 a year – is the lowest in Canada, and the proposed hike – $254 per year over seven years – is tiny by U.S. standards. But opponents consider the raise an affront to the philosophy of the 1960s reforms dubbed the Quiet Revolution that set Quebec apart not only from its U.S. neighbor but from the rest of Canada.
Many Quebecois are more likely to compare themselves to European countries where higher education is mostly free, rather than the U.S.
Students said a proposal to drop the yearly rise by $35 to $219 was unanimously rejected.
Education Minister Michelle Courchesne said it takes it takes two to tango and as long as someone still wants to freeze the fees it makes it difficult to negotiate.
The student said they're willing to go back to the negotiating table whenever the government wants.
"We're still here. We're always ready to negotiate," said Martine Desjardins, one of the four main student leaders . "We'll wait."
Charest, who has vowed to shake up the debt-ridden province's finances since he was elected nearly a decade ago, has refused to cave in. But he attended Monday's talks with the students for the first time since the conflict began, after being urged to do so by student leaders.
Charest's government passed emergency legislation on May 18 restricting protests and closing striking campuses until August. The law requires that police be informed eight hours before a protest begins, including on the route of any demonstration of 50 or more people. It also prohibits demonstrations within 50 meters (165 feet) of a college and declares that anyone who incites or helps another person break the new regulations can be fined.
Amnesty International says the law breaches Canada's international human rights obligations and called on Quebec's legislature to rescind it. On Wednesday, two United Nations freedom Special Rapporteurs expressed concern about the law and "urged federal and provincial governments of Canada and Quebec to fully respect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, expression and association of students affected by two new legislations."