Quebec, students reach tentative deal on fee hikes

VICTORIAVILLE, Canada - Striking students and the government of Canada's Quebec province clinched a tentative deal Saturday on contested tuition hikes after months of sometimes violent protests.

The agreement came after nearly a full day of arduous negotiations and after clashes erupted outside the Quebec Liberal Party's annual convention in Victoriaville.

Nine people were injured and 109 were arrested.

"There is an understanding... Everyone is relieved," said Quebec Premier Jean Charest, whose government has been confronted since mid-February with the unprecedented student protest over fee increases.

The tentative deal calls for a US$1,780 (S$2,235) increase in university fees over seven years, or about US$254 a year, that would eventually bring the total to US$4,000 a year.

The government had wanted a fee hike to rein in the budget deficit.

But additional fees imposed by the universities themselves would be reduced by an equal amount, forcing schools to review their operations and tighten their belts.

The provincial government also will boost scholarship offers.

"The positive thing here is that the students' bills will not go up," said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a spokesman for CLASSE, the movement representing half of the 170,000 students refusing to go to class until the matter is resolved.

"What today's offer shows is that our efforts have been fruitful," he said, adding that the strike would not end until student groups had a chance to review the offer and give their final approval.

The deal came after protests rocked Victoriaville, with skirmishes breaking out late Friday after more than 2,000 students gathered outside the party's annual convention, which had been moved out of Montreal amid fears of violence.

Protesters threw stones and police shot tear gas and fired rubber bullets.

Six student demonstrators and three police officers were injured in Victoriaville, located some 170 kilometers (105 miles) east of Montreal.

Three of the students were rushed to hospital with head injuries, but officials said they were in stable condition.

One protester lost the use of his eye, medical officials said.

The ear of another student was also severely cut, according to witnesses.

"Police used the necessary force to ensure citizens' safety," said provincial police captain Jean Finet.

Hundreds of demonstrators marched on Saturday outside the conference center in Victoriaville, chanting anti-Charest slogans.

The tentative deal also comes amid rumors that Charest - whose party has been in power in Quebec for nine years - will be forced to call early elections in the French-speaking province of eight million people.

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