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Quebec gets ready to play hardball with student protesters

A few hundred demonstrators walk to a hotel Saturday, May 5, 2012 where the Quebec Liberal Party is meeting in Victoriaville, Quebec.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Quebec government is preparing a new hard line to try to end a months-long student strike, signalling that a riot squad's attempt to open a college Tuesday is only the start of the use of force to get students back to school.

Even as newly appointed Education Minister Michelle Courchesne sat down for fresh talks with student leaders Tuesday evening, Premier Jean Charest consulted caucus and Liberal riding association presidents to make sure he had full party support for a tougher stand.

The so-called hawks within government were promoting the enforcement of court injunctions to open more schools while using police to push back protesters. Others called for special legislation with stiff penalties against protesters who block schools or against teachers who refuse to teach.

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Ministers will decide on precise measures during Wednesday's cabinet meeting, once Ms. Courchesne reports on her encounter with students and college and university directors.

"Enough is enough," Finance Minister Raymond Bachand said, noting the province is witnessing the "upset of the Montreal economy by groups of anti-capitalists and Marxists. It's got nothing to do with tuition."

Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier said it was premature to comment on the adoption of a special law but a way had to be found to stop protesters from blocking schools.

"What we are witnessing is the disrespect of the law, the disrespect of court rulings, the disrespect of the police and we are even witnessing the disrespect of the criminal code," Mr. Fournier said.

After a meeting with Ms. Courchesne Tuesday night that lasted a little more than an hour, student leaders urged the government to abandon any hard-line strategy and impose a moratorium. A truce they argued would be the only way to break the impasse for now. They said that the minister was receptive but refused to commit herself to a position.

However, they said they received assurances from the minister that there would be no special law adopted to force a settlement.

"We can't say that the impasse has been overcome. The minister told us the decision will be taken by the cabinet [on Wednesday]" said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for the more militant student-union coalition CLASSE.

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The crisis, now into its 14th week, has reached the point where even court orders have proved powerless to ensure that students who want to resume classes are able to do so.

At Collège Lionel-Groulx, north of Montreal, administrators called in police to ensure that a group of 53 CEGEP students who had obtained a court injunction were able to get into their classrooms.

Dozens of helmeted provincial riot police confronted a large group of students – along with some parents and teachers – who blocked access to the school entrance in defiance of the court injunction.

The clash with police, who made five arrests, led to chaos, shoving and tear gas – along with an apparent victory by students aiming to resume their courses and save their semesters. But the success was short-lived. In the afternoon, the school administration closed the school at least until Friday, citing the tense atmosphere. Some teachers were reportedly too upset to teach.

A group of parents backed by doctors and scientists for social peace urged members of the Quebec National Assembly to wear white squares in support of a truce. Robert Michaud, whose daughter was injured during the student demonstration in Victoriaville earlier this month that turned into a riot, said the government will soon have blood on its hands if it pursues a hard line.

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About the Authors
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

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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