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Odds slim for Charest's offer on tuition fees as student protests carry on

Protesters opposing tuition-fee hikes demonstrate in Montreal on Saturday night.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The social unrest over tuition increases in Quebec showed no signs of abating Saturday, with several protests held around the province and student leaders saying they expect their members to reject an offer from the Charest government.

For the fifth night in a row, protesters marched through Montreal's downtown core, winding up and down the city's streets for hours and jamming up traffic.

There were several thousand people on hand for Saturday's demonstration, though it was considerably smaller — and less tense — than a night earlier. There were no arrests or incidents reported by midnight, compared with 35 a night earlier.

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The latest round of protests came as Quebec student groups were meeting to decide whether to accept a new proposal from Premier Jean Charest.

The Charest government proposed Friday to spread the $1,625 increase over seven years rather than the original five. His government also offered to bolster the loans-and-bursaries program, while tying future tuition increases to the rate of inflation.

The offer has done little to quell the anger of the protesting students. In fact, it appears to have strengthened their resolve.

"To stop the strike, the premier must accept to talk about (freezing) tuition levels," Leo Bureau-Blouin, one of the student leaders, said Saturday.

Mr. Bureau-Blouin acknowledged the government made some concessions, but he said the main sticking point — the tuition increases — remains.

Martine Desjardins, another student leader, said many of her members had already opted against the proposal, but others were planning to debate its merits throughout the weekend.

"We need to look more closely at the offer, and perhaps submit a counter-offer," she said.

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Mr. Desjardins said there are some positives in the offer, including improvements to the province's bursary program.

The changes proposed by Mr. Charest would mean that, instead of annual increases of $325 for five years, tuition would rise by $254 for seven years.

About a third of Quebec students are still avoiding their classes, but most have chosen to return to school during the 11-week dispute.

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