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Charest unbending on tuition fee hikes despite protests

Thousands of striking students march down the streets of Montreal as they demonstrate against tuition hikes Thursday, March 22, 2012.

Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A week after the tabling of his government's budget, Premier Jean Charest remained defiant in refusing to bow to students protesting against steep university tuition fee hikes.

Students were equally unyielding, staging demonstrations in seven cities while building on the momentum of last week's massive show of force in Montreal. The students held a sit-in in front of the National Assembly in Quebec City, disrupted employees at the Ministry of Finance, demonstrated in the streets of Sherbrooke and clashed with police in Montreal.

At the same time, other students were targeting 10 Liberal ridings that the party won by slim margins in 2008, hoping to defeat Mr. Charest's government in the next election.

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However, Mr. Charest remained steadfast in his decision to dip into the students' pockets, increasing tuition fees by 75 per cent over four years, confident public opinion was on his side.

"This is a question of leadership, it is not an election issue," Mr. Charest said. "Governing can't always be about saying yes."

The Premier left the door open to increasing the student loan and bursary program to appease the protesters, but refused to back down on the tuition fee hikes. The government simply can't afford it, Mr. Charest argued.

He was equally unbending about not initiating changes to the Canadian Constitution, despite a Leger Marketing poll released Monday showing that 70 per cent of Quebeckers wanted the province to make the first step to renew the Canadian Constitution. The same poll showed that 44.5 per cent of those surveyed support Quebec sovereignty.

It has been 30 years since the patriation of the Constitution, which Quebec has refused to sign. And it has been 20 years since the referendum proposing constitutional change, known as the Charlottetown Accord, was rejected by Canadians. For Mr. Charest, this is still not the time to reopen a new round of talks aimed at bringing Quebec into the constitutional fold.

"The priority of my government is jobs and the economy … and it will continue to be the position of my government for the foreseeable future," Mr. Charest said.

This week's federal budget will not likely bring the province relief for the several-billion-dollar shortfall over the next decade in federal transfers because of changes to the funding formula imposed by Ottawa. Even that wasn't enough to prompt Mr. Charest to demand constitutional changes to remedy the situation.

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"We are still within a very uncertain world economy," Mr. Charest said. "…We recognize that this issue must be dealt with and that it will one day be resolved. But as I look to the near future, our priority is going to be jobs and the economy."

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

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