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Student leaders' talk turns to compromise in Quebec tuition-fee battle

Protesters opposing Quebec student tuition fee hikes demonstrate in Montreal on Saturday, May 26, 2012.


Quebec student leaders signalled on Saturday they may be ready to compromise on the core of their dispute with the government — the province's plan to raise tuition fees.

That didn't stop thousands from taking to the streets of Montreal for a 33rd night in a row in a protest that again made it clear the conflict has moved way beyond the issue of education.

One student leader, Martine Desjardins, said both sides must be prepared to compromise for the months-long crisis to be resolved.

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Another, Leo Bureau-Blouin, made headlines on Saturday when he told CBC Radio he would be willing to accept some form of tuition increase. Later in the day Mr. Bureau-Blouin tried to clarify his comments, saying the students were willing to make adjustments if the government was prepared to do so as well.

"If the government is prepared to move, there could be an area where we can find common ground," he told The Canadian Press.

Leaders of Quebec's three main student associations could meet the province's education minister as early as Monday.

While the proposed hikes would still leave Quebec with some of the lowest tuition rates in Canada, the issue has flared into a clash of ideologies that goes beyond the debate over education.

The nightly demonstrations continued Saturday with thousands of people pouring into the streets of Montreal, with several neighbourhood protests around the city. The focus at the marches has shifted from the proposed tuition increases to Bill 78, Quebec's controversial emergency law designed to limit the scope of student demonstrations.

One protester said he isn't necessarily opposed to the tuition increases, but feels the government has gone too far in its efforts to end to the conflict.

"Everybody has to stand up at this point," said Mark Sabourin, 26, who drove from the suburbs for the demonstration with his wife and three kids.

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"I believe what they're fighting for is deeper now. It's about the law, it's about the government's tactics, it's about taking back the streets."

The mood was festive Saturday, and the crowd included many families, as people again banged on pots and pans. As in previous protests, Saturday's march was immediately declared illegal because no route was provided, but it continued for hours, with no signs of vandalism or violence. There were no arrests as of midnight.

The latest round of demonstrations came as Bill 78 drew more criticism — this time from Amnesty International. The human-rights organization said the legislation violates freedom of speech, assembly and movement in breach of Canada's international obligations.

"Bill 78 is an affront to basic freedoms that goes far beyond what is permissible under provincial, national or international human rights laws," Amnesty spokesman Javier Zuniga said in a statement.

"It is unreasonable and unacceptable to require citizens to apply to the authorities in advance any time they wish to exercise a basic human right."

The organization first became involved in the conflict in April, when it expressed concern over the tuition increases and called on the government to tone down police measures.

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Police presence on Saturday was minimal. The peaceful demonstrations were in stark contrast to a week earlier, when there were several violent clashes between protesters and police, and a small group built a bonfire out of plastic construction cones in the middle of a downtown intersection.

Julie Pelletier, 44, said she wasn't sure a resolution on tuition would end the demonstrations.

"It's so much more," she said. "It's the tuition increases... it's also the government in general. There's a lot of people like me that came here, alone, and brought a pot and a spoon."

The students have called for a tuition freeze but the government has flatly rejected that. The Charest government originally announced it would hike tuition fees by $325 a year over five years, beginning this coming September. That would have boosted annual tuition to nearly $3,793 by 2017.

The government later offered to spread the hikes over seven years, which works out to annual increases of about $254, and to cut some other fees.

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