Quebec is bracing for social unrest after talks with the government to settle the tuition fee strike broke down and student organizations vowed massive demonstrations in response to the collapse.
Four days of negotiations ended in an impasse on Thursday when Premier Jean Charest's government refused to budge on its plan to increase tuition fees. It was likely the last chance for an immediate resolution to the social crisis that has gripped the province for almost four months.
Mr. Charest appealed for calm.
"We made important efforts. And we now see that we are at an impasse. So what happens now? We hope that in the coming weeks it will be a period of calm," Mr. Charest said, ruling out calling a snap election to settle the conflict. "Ultimately, there will be an election some time over the next 18 months. And it will be in a democratic context for us to express ourselves on these issues."
A resolution had seemed possible at the outset of the talks, but after examining several proposals, both sides refused to yield. The government insisted on moving ahead with university tuition fee hikes while the students were adamant in their demand for a freeze or moratorium.
The government also refused to suspend provisions in a law adopted two weeks ago that constrains public demonstrations.
Disappointed by the outcome, the student leaders said they believed Minister of Education Michelle Courchesne used them as pawns in a political game and the government had no intention to make the necessary compromises to resolve the conflict.
"The Minister of Education said that for political reasons she could not accept a freeze on tuition fees," said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for the student group CLASSE.
"The government is using the youth to make political gains," said Martine Desjardins, president of the Quebec federation of university students. "They only wanted to sit us down for a public relations move, for a political move, not to negotiate."
Mr. Charest warned that his government will impose law and order when required after it was revealed that CLASSE threatened at the bargaining table to disrupt the upcoming festivities for the Formula 1 Grand Prix race in Montreal if a deal wasn't struck. "These people are threatening Quebeckers," Mr. Charest said.
The Premier insisted his government would not bow to those who plan more demonstrations in the streets as a result of the breakdown in negotiations.
"We interpret that to be a threat," Mr. Charest said. "A government doesn't yield to threats."
The government immediately launched a media offensive, with Mr. Charest giving television interviews to explain the concessions his government has made since announcing an increase of $1,625 over five years in the budget of March, 2011.
During the news conference, Mr. Charest said his government had agreed to improve the province's bursary and loans program. It also extended the increase period to seven years and indexed it to inflation for the last two years. This amounted to a hike of $254 a year over seven years for a total increase of $1,778. In the end, Mr. Charest insisted that Quebec university tuition fees would still be among the country's lowest.
At the bargaining table, the government made a final offer to reduce the tuition hike by a little more than $150 for the first year of the seven-year plan, which would mean an overall increase of $1,624, or $1 less than proposed in March, 2011.
"We certainly couldn't accept being on strike for almost 16 weeks for a $1 decrease in the amount of tuition fees the government had originally proposed," Ms. Desjardins said.
The student organizations promised a major demonstration in Montreal on Saturday. They also began a campaign to explain that their proposal, which would have frozen tuition fees for two years, would not have cost taxpayers any more money.
The students said the cost of eliminating the tuition increase could have been covered by reducing the tax credit offered to post-secondary students and by modifying or eliminating the province's registered education savings plan, which they contend benefits mainly wealthy families.
Meanwhile, Montreal's business community called for an end to the nightly demonstrations, saying they have become a major burden on the local economy.
Both Mr. Charest and student leaders said they are open to further negotiations, an unlikely scenario in the near future given the harsh tone on both sides.