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PQ leader pledges to scrap tuition hikes

Rides subway with candidates to show support for students

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LAVAL, Que. -- The Parti Québécois says it's uniquely suited to restore social peace in Quebec and it plans to achieve that by scrapping controversial tuition hikes within its first 100 days in office.

PQ Leader Pauline Marois sought to illustrate that case on the first full day of the provincial election campaign by riding the Montreal subway system Thursday with her candidates -- one of them a 20-year-old who helped organize Quebec's student strikes.

The party is seeking to turn the student issue from a potential liability into an asset. After several quiet weeks during the summer, the polarizing debate has resurfaced with the election call.

Thousands marched through the streets of Montreal in support of the striking students Wednesday night and the demonstration ended in tussles with police and more than a dozen arrests.

Student groups face a dilemma: return to class or vote to keep striking. They are due back at school in mid-August under the Liberal government's controversial protest law and must hold votes in several days on whether to respect that timetable.

Some activists are considering calling a truce during the campaign, fearing any social unrest might solidify Premier Jean Charest's case for re-election on his theme of law and order.

The Liberals cast their refusal to back down on tuition hikes as a principled stand and, indeed, polls have suggested a majority of Quebecers support fee increases.

But Marois says that has come at the cost of social peace. She describes Charest's antagonism toward the students as a ploy to gain political benefit from the unrest.

"I'm sorry, but Mr. Charest is profoundly responsible for what is going on right now," she said.

"The Liberals decided to use this conflict to mask their record. It's a cynical and premeditated attempt to manipulate public opinion."

The PQ's plan adopts many of the measures the more moderate student groups have demanded. Marois promised to eliminate tuition hikes, cancel Bill 78 and call a summit on how to better fund universities if she won the Sept. 4 election.

She cautioned if the summit recommended raising fees, her government would keep the increases indexed to inflation.

Quebec has the lowest tuition in the country and the government calls the hikes necessary. However, its opponents note the 82 per cent fee hikes over seven years will take a heavy toll on students while representing only a drop in the bucket -- about $330 million a year -- for the provincial treasury. The annual budget is about $71 billion.

Marois made her announcement while flanked by several candidates from the region just north of Montreal, but the candidate standing closest to her was Léo Bureau-Blouin, the 20-year-old former student leader and now star candidate for the PQ.

Bureau-Blouin characterized the PQ's position as an effort to find a comprise, in contrast to the hard line taken by the Liberals.

"(Charest) is trying to profit from social contestation rather than solve it," he said. "Our political party has taken a number of engagements that aim to return social peace to Quebec."

He added the PQ has "a real desire to end the crisis and bring people together." Charest has been attempting to turn Marois' proximity to the students into a liability. He accuses her of tacitly supporting violence by wearing the students' iconic red square and has been dismissive of Bureau-Blouin's candidacy.

Before the campaign, the Liberals released an attack ad featuring Marois taking part in a pots-and-pans protest.

But the PQ says it's unfair to equate legitimate protest with acts of violence and vandalism, which they condemn.

"I think it's better to be in the streets with real people, than at Sagard with the richest of this world," said Bureau-Blouin, referring to the palatial estate owned by the powerful Desmarais family, where Charest has been a guest.

To underscore that point, Marois and her young charge boarded the metro for downtown Montreal. Though she was surrounded by bodyguards and a sweaty horde of journalists, she still managed to chat and shake hands with a few surprised passengers.

In aligning herself with the street, Marois is entertaining certain risks.

Support for the student movement trailed off during the spring as picket lines were formed outside several colleges and court injunctions to reopen schools were openly defied.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2012 A16

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