In the roughly 100 days that Quebec's students had been on an unlimited general strike, prior to Monday, the government of Jean Charest had deigned to sit at the table and negotiate for three or four days in total. So it was with a great deal of optimism that students returned to the negotiating table with Eucation Minister Michelle Courchesne this past Monday.
Both sides waxed poetic about their cordial relations, and desire to see a deal made that could end the longest student strike in Canadian history. Both sides promised to make compromises and bend, but not break, in their pursuit of a resolution.
Things got off to a rocky start on Monday however, when Quebec City police decided to start arresting the peaceful protesters who had gathered outside the negotiations. Over 100 were arrested, loaded into buses, and dropped off in the middle of nowhere at 3AM with a hefty fine. When a negotiator for the CLASSE came outside to try to negotiate with police, and dissuade them from yet another mass arrest of peaceful protesters, he was promptly arrested. He too was fined.
Not a tremendous sign of good faith when you arrest the other side's negotiator, and 100 supporters, on the first day. Many suggested the students pull out at that point, but they stayed on and continued to try to negotiate a deal.
All week both sides made, for the most part, encouraging noises until tonight, when the government announced that it was unilaterally withdrawing from negotiations.
At a press conference to explain the government's decision, Premier Charest said that there was a "big gap" between the two sides, and although he was disappointed, he didn't see a point to further negotiations.
According to Education Minister Courchesne, the government made two offers to the students. Both amounted to a reduction of less than $100 on the original increase of almost $1625. In other words, they offered to reduce the hike from 75% to 71%. The government would also have reduced the tax credit students receive on tuition to compensate. Not much of a compromise really.
The government refused to even discuss Loi 78, the repeal of which students had made clear was a top priority. When asked at the press conference why the government refused to even discuss the special law, Charest tersely responded "It's for their own security".
Charest went on to get into a testy exchange with a journalist who asked why the government had walked away, when students still wanted to talk. When the journo suggested mediation, and Charest blew him off, he responded with "That's how it works in the real world!" prompting an angry "Excuuuse me?" from the Premier.
But if even journalists are becoming frustrated by Charest's obstinancy, they're hardly to blame. While Courchesne claimed students refused to consider anything other than a tuition freeze, they came out telling a different story.
The student leaders explained that they had made four counter offers, none of which were seriously considered by the government. All had respected the government's demand to be revenue neutral (in other words, put the amount of the hike into the treasury by one means or another).
In fact, the proposals students made, to cut the Education Tax Credit and Education Savings Plan programs in order to keep tuition down, were proposals I have made in several policy documents. Both these programs are inherently regressive, and primarily benefit the upper, and upper-middle class.
Charest bristled at the suggestion the RESP program be cut, insisting that it was there to help the middle class and he represents the middle class.
I long since gave up trying to figure out Charest's motivations, but this latest move seems almost as foolhardy as the introduction of Bill 78. With the pressure of impending festival season, not to mention a widespread rebellion on the streets, you'd think he would have been willing to meet the students half way, at least.Especially when polls show around 70% of the province want a negotiated settlement.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for CLASSE, argued that the government was unable to negotiate in good faith because they were more concerned with their image than with resolving the situation.
"Such a gesture would be interpreted as a retreat, and [Courchesne] cited the front pages of the newspapers," Nadeau-Dubois said. "What we were told inside was that a tuition hike was a goal. Madame Courchesne said her goal was to raise tuition, because if she didn’t, then the government would lose face."
Heaven forbid, a democratic government would compromise in the face of massive public opposition, because if they did they might "lose face". So despite the fact the student's proposals would put just as much money into the treasury as the hikes, they were dismissed out of hand.
I've often said this has nothing to do with money and Charest has now clearly demonstrated that he is more interested in "winning", and by extension breaking the social movement, than in finding a resolution, even if it provides the cost savings he claims this is all about.
The students, despite clearly having the stronger negotiating position at this point, came to the table ready to compromise, and ready to explore alternatives. The government came with an insulting offer, and flounced when it was rejected. It will be interesting to see if that's what comes out in the media, or if some of the pro-government pundits will find a way to spin this as the students being obstinate and inflexible.
At this point it is looking less and less likely that Charest will call an early election this summer. Unless he does, or something else changes, it'll be a long, hot summer of casseroles and protests. Not that I'm complaining, I love casseroles!
A massive protest has been called by the student groups for this Saturday, June 2, at 2PM. Set to start in Jeanne Mance park, the protest is billed as a family event, and people are encouraged to bring their children. Student reps hope to see a huge crowd in order to send a message to Charest that he must compromise.
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