The Charest government, abandoning any hope of negotiating a settlement with striking students, announced it is suspending classes in colleges and universities where students are still on strike.
The move will mean that students in affected institutions will not lose their session, but will be able to complete it starting in August, with the next school year beginning in October, Premier Jean Charest said.
He added that it was time to take "a pause" to reduce tensions and allow for a more appropriate learning climate.
"We need to bring down the pressure where strikes are still on. We need to bring back social peace," Mr. Charest said.
The move affects 14 of the 48 colleges where student strikes have closed down schools, as well as certain faculties and departments in 11 of the 18 universities affected by the strike.
But Mr. Charest made it clear he was not backing away from the planned tuition fee hike for this fall and promised a tougher approach to ensure classes can resume in August, with stronger police intervention to guarantee access.
"No student will be forced to attend class. But for others, they have the right to attend classes in a secure environment," he said.
"We cannot accept that access be blocked ... we will not bow to violence and intimidation – our laws need to be obeyed."
Details of the new law-and-order measures will be unveiled when the bill is tabled this week. A government official said the bill will likely be tabled on Thursday and adopted Friday.
The measures were decided after a long debate in cabinet on Wednesday. The suspension will allow the government to reduce tensions at a time when protests were having a serious economic impact on Montreal.
Boisterous late-night protests were already being held in Montreal and Quebec City, and some of the government's most vocal opponents promised further defiance.
Thousands spilled into the streets of Montreal and started marching. Their demonstration was peaceful — right until some people began smashing bank windows and hurling objects at police. There was also a scuffle when an angry passerby reportedly started heckling the protesters, they crowded around him, and police stepped in to split them up. Once again, the acrid scent of police crowd-control chemicals billowed in the cool nocturnal air.
Student leaders called the government measures "unacceptable" and "anti-democratic," saying they will provoke more anger and confrontations in the weeks ahead.
"If there is violence, if there is tension, Mr. Charest will be the only one to blame," said Léo Bureau-Blouin, president of the Quebec federation of college students.
The students said an entire generation has been used as pawns by a government seeking to make political gains. And they warned Mr. Charest that they will be ready for him if he calls an election in August as some observers suspect he will do.
"If he calls an election we have a plan in place and we will be ready for him," said the leader of the university student group, Martine Desjardins. "We now know that Mr. Charest never had any real intentions of solving this conflict."
The more militant student and union coalition known as CLASSE promised to keep mobilizing its 75,000 members and continue demonstrating against the tuition-fee hikes.
"The bill that the government is proposing to table is an anti-union law, it is authoritarian, repressive and breaks the students' right to strike," said CLASSE spokesman Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois. "This is a government that prefers to hit on its youth, ridicule its youth rather than listen to them."
The students are calling on their members to continue holding peaceful demonstrations and plan another massive march in the streets of Montreal next Tuesday.
Mr. Charest's Wednesday night press conference came hours after protesters stormed into a university, many of them with their faces covered by masks, moving through the hallways in a hunt for classes to disrupt.
With a list of scheduled classes in hand, about 100 protesters marched through pavilions at the Université du Québec à Montréal and stopped at a few choice spots along the way.
The conflict has lasted three months and caused considerable damage – with numerous injuries, countless traffic jams, a few smashed windows, subway evacuations, clashes with law enforcement, a heavy police bill and of course disruptions to the academic calendar.
The Parti Québécois said Wednesday night that the government adopted measures that continue to divide Quebeckers rather than solve the conflict. PQ education critic Marie Malavoy said Mr. Charest did nothing to personally intervene and has only delayed more violent confrontations.
The leader of the Coalition Avenir Quebec party, François Legault, said Mr. Charest's lack of leadership has meant he has failed to permanently resolve the crisis.
"The only way now to settle this is for Mr. Charest to call an election," Mr. Legault said.
With a file from The Canadian Press