By Michel Viatteau
MONTREAL — Faint hope for renewed talks between the government and students in Quebec flickered Sunday as the top tourism official in the Canadian province warned of possible fallout from months of protests.
While no specific date or time have been set, student representatives could meet with the provincial education minister as early as Monday to discuss their gripe over tuition hikes, according to local media.
“If the government is prepared to move, there could be an area where we can find common ground,” Leo Bureau-Blouin, one student leader, said Saturday, further suggesting another round of talks may not be far off.
A tentative deal reached earlier this month after marathon talks soon fell apart, as demonstrations continued unabated. Since February, hundreds of protesters have been arrested, and clashes have erupted sporadically.
The students initially launched protests, boycotting classes, in response to the government’s plan to raise annual fees at Quebec universities by $1,700, with the increase gradually introduced over a period of several years.
Efforts to reach a compromise in the French-speaking province of eight million have been complicated by the recent passage of an emergency law pushed through by Quebec Premier Jean Charest to restrict demonstrations.
The measure, passed May 18, 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.
Amid criticism by Amnesty International and others, authorities have used the law to declare demonstrations illegal, clearing the way for police to disperse those who take to the streets.
“The government made a big mistake adopting Law 78… we have gone from a debate about university financing to a debate about fundamental rights,” Jocelyn Maclure, professor of political philosophy at Laval University in Quebec City, told AFP.
However, “aside from snap elections, I don’t think there’s a way out of this crisis without the resumption of talks between the student movement and the government,” Maclure added.
Among those insisting on specific talk of the emergency law is the most radical wing of the student movement known as CLASSE, whose members have described the measure as “abusive.”
While it seemed unlikely that Charest would agree to such a discussion, pressure from the province’s powerful tourism industry to resolve the standoff is mounting ahead of the Formula 1 Canada Grand Prix in Montreal on June 8-10.
Admitting she was worried, Quebec Tourism Minister Nicole Menard told AFP on Sunday: “I’m concerned about how this might look to people abroad,” mentioning how potential tourists might be put off by protest footage.
Organizers of a multitude of festivals set to take place in Montreal later this summer have also expressed concern after 15 weeks of unrest.
“It’s clear that this is bad for the economy,” said Gilbert Rozon, president and founder of the group “Juste pour Rire” (Just for Laughs), whose festival is scheduled for July.
The economic risk to the region is indeed considerable.
According to a 2011 study, Montreal’s festivals create more than 6,000 jobs and contribute CAN$320.6 million (US$312 million) to Quebec’s GDP.
On the streets of Montreal Sunday, Quebec residents remained divided about the continued stalemate.
Luc Gagnon, a barber with a shaved head who was sporting several tattoos, said the tuition increases “only” amount to a few hundred dollars per year. And as for the special law, it “doesn’t keep people from protesting,” he said.
But David Barbeau, a doctor, sees the developments in a different light.
“The students have awakened the people. People were fed up but were remaining on the sidelines,” he countered.
His colleague Danielle Gauthier said the new law made her “furious” and prompted her to join the protests.
Photo AFP, Rogerio Barbosa