MONTREAL (Reuters) - Quebec’s government moved late on Wednesday to end a sometimes violent 14-week mass student strike in the Canadian province that officials fear could harm the economy and deter tourists.
Premier Jean Charest said his government would shortly unveil legislation to ensure students could freely attend classes, although he did not give details. He did not address speculation that the bill would allow strikers to be fined.
Similar to protests in Europe, the students say the Quebec government’s plans are part of a larger austerity campaign and will saddle them with debt upon graduation.
Charest made the announcement about 12 hours after protesting students stormed into a Montreal university in a face-off with those who want to go to class.
“It is time calm was restored ... the current situation has gone on for too long,” he said in a late-night statement to reporters.
Some 155,000 people - more than a third of the college and university students in the predominantly French-speaking province - are striking to protest against a steep rise in what are some of the lowest tuition fees in north America.
Charest said he had been forced to act after what he described as a fruitless meeting on Tuesday between officials and students.
“Despite all these weeks of conflict, despite the injured, the vandalism, the violence ... the meeting last night led us to conclude that the student association representatives are not ready to respond to real overtures,” he said.
The academic term in some of the worst affected colleges will be suspended until August.
Although most of the demonstrations are peaceful, students have clashed with police at times. Last week the Montreal subway had to be closed after protesters set off smoke bombs during the morning rush hour.
Eyewitnesses said around a hundred protesters charged into one of the University of Quebec in Montreal’s campus buildings on Wednesday morning, barging into classrooms and telling students to leave. The university had earlier won an injunction against the demonstrators in an effort to keep classes open.
The strikers, many of them masked, chanted slogans such as “Injunctions won’t make us fold.” Last week Charest’s education minister resigned in frustration.
Quebec officials admit they are worried about the possible impact on the economy, and on tourism, which is especially important in centers such as Montreal and Quebec City, the picturesque provincial capital.
“We are very concerned by this question ... some groups are trying to undermine the economy of Montreal and there is a limit to peoples’ patience,” Finance Minister Raymond Bachand told the National Assembly earlier in the day. He blames what he calls anti-capitalists and Marxists for the troubles.
The crisis is putting more pressure on Charest, who is already on the defensive over allegations of corruption and links between political parties and the mafia.
Polls show the Liberals trail the separatist Parti Quebecois, which seeks independence for Quebec. The party says Charest has not done enough to solve the dispute peacefully.
“He’s soft on corruption and tough on the students,” Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois told the National Assembly.
The strikers are unhappy about plans to increase annual tuition fees by C$1,625 ($1,610) over the course of five years, a 75 percent hike. Tuition fees are now C$2,168 a year, just over a third of the average U.S. public education cost.
Although Quebec students have a history of taking their grievances to the streets and Montreal is no stranger to riots, some tourism officials fear the scenes of violence could deter visitors from the crucial U.S. market.
The website of the U.S. consulate in Montreal urged U.S. citizens to avoid the demonstrations, saying “bystanders can quickly be caught up in unforeseen violence” or arrested.
City officials said visitors had little chance of ending up in trouble and described Montreal as very safe.
Writing and additional reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Janet Guttsman and Lisa Shumaker