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Quebec students, government to resume negotiations over tuition increases

Quebec students and the provincial government will return to the bargaining table today in a high-stakes attempt to end the months-long dispute over tuition fees.

The latest round of talks comes at a crucial time for the Quebec government, with thousands of protesters taking to the streets nightly, and Montreal's peak tourist season fast approaching.

Representatives from the province's four largest student associations are scheduled to meet with the province's education minister in Quebec City. Leo Bureau-Blouin, the head of one student group, said Sunday the talks represent a "last chance" for the government to resolve the conflict.

"If we don't succeed in coming to an agreement acceptable to both sides, I think it will be very hard to come out of this crisis, because the students are no longer in class and the social climate is becoming more and more heated," he said.

Bureau-Blouin indicated earlier in the weekend the students could be prepared to compromise on the government's tuition increases, which has been the key issue in the conflict.

Jeanne Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the hardline student group C.L.A.S.S.E., said she's hopeful the government has something substantial to offer and that the talks aren't just a public relations stunt.

The last round of negotiations was a marathon session that went more than 24 hours straight, ending in a government offer that was overwhelmingly rejected.

Monday's talks come at a pivotal moment. The first of Montreal's major summer festivals is fast approaching, and tourism and business groups are worried the nightly protests in the city's downtown core could scare visitors away. Mayor Gerald Tremblay and the province's finance minister took part in a closed-door meeting with the local chamber of commerce on Sunday evening.

"We're trying to find concrete solutions as soon as possible," Tremblay told reporters outside the meeting.

Former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau waded into the debate for the first time on Sunday, saying the Charest government has let the dispute drag on far too long.

The former Parti Quebecois leader told reporters in Quebec City that the province's youth "aren't always right," but it's always wrong to beat them into submission.

It's not clear whether a resolution to the conflict over tuition increases would put an end to the ongoing unrest.

The movement has grown into an ideological battle that goes far beyond the government's education policy and a new emergency law designed to limit the scope of protests. Many at the nightly marches say they're upset with the general direction of the province.

Late Sunday, thousands again flooded into the streets of Montreal, clanging pots and pans. As with previous nights, the march was declared illegal before it began because no route was provided beforehand, but police allowed it to continue. The protest was peaceful and there were no major incidents for the fourth straight night.

Students have called for a tuition freeze but the Charest government has ruled out that possibility. The government originally announced it would hike tuition fees by $325 a year over five years, beginning this coming September.

It later offered to spread the hikes over seven years, which works out to annual increases of about $254, and to cut some other fees.

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