MONTREAL - Quebec's striking student groups have been warned to respect provincial election laws if they want to make good on their promise to help defeat Jean Charest's Liberal government.
The student groups, which have received considerable funding from unions inside and outside the province, have been told they will need to abide by laws that set strict limits on contributions.
The warning from Quebec's elections watchdog was prompted by a recent public pledge from the major student associations to launch an offensive against the governing Liberals in the next election.
The Canadian Press reported this week that tens of thousands of dollars in donations have already been shipped to student activists from unions outside and inside the province and, as the conflict drags on, new financial contributions are pouring in.
That raises the prospect that funds from outside Quebec could indirectly pay for political activities in the province — where the law sets strict rules including a $1,000 maximum for individual donations; limits on what a candidate can spend; and rules for calculating the value of goods and services provided.
Regardless of where the money originates, student groups would have to follow the province's financing law to fund any partisan election-campaign activities, says a spokesman for the Directeur general des elections du Quebec.
"We contacted them and we explained that there are rules — we reminded them," Denis Dion said.
"Our aim was not to keep them from expressing themselves. The goal was to ensure that the law is respected."
Premier Jean Charest must call an election before the end of 2013, but many observers expect him to drop the writ by this fall.
Charest's own popularity has taken a beating in recent years over allegations from opposition parties that his Liberals have repeatedly violated the province's political-fundraising laws, while members have occasionally been reprimanded by the DGEQ.
Now Dion says the Quebec election authority has contacted the large federations representing college students (FECQ) and university students (FEUQ) after they made a joint announcement in March to help topple the Liberal government.
He said the agency also warned CLASSE, the more radical of the province's three main student associations.
The FECQ and FEUQ outlined plans to kick off an organized, anti-Liberal operation during the next election campaign. They repeated the pledge in an appearance on the popular talk show "Tout le monde en parle."
Because the Liberals had ignored their requests, they said, the groups promised to target the party at a time they believed politicians would best understand: during elections.
The students said their action plan would put full-time volunteers on the ground in 10 Liberal-held ridings, where they would knock on doors and distribute flyers.
The ridings were carefully selected as districts where the groups believed the Liberals would be most vulnerable. The students have also indicated they will create videos and maintain a website dedicated to getting rid of the Liberals.
But Quebec electoral law, designed to level the playing field, requires any spending during a campaign to be authorized by a candidate's official agent.
The amount spent would then be deducted from that candidate's campaign spending limit, Dion said.
The electoral authority does not actively investigate potential financing infractions unless it receives a complaint or notices what appears to be a flagrant offence.
"We don't have a systematic chase strategy for offenders," said Dion, who added that electoral officials are available to respond to any student questions.
Dion said the agency also contacted student groups that oppose the protest movement as well as those that support the government's plan to hike tuition fees — the primary trigger for months of regular protests across Quebec.
"We're neutral, we didn't target one side over another," he said.
A FECQ spokeswoman said the groups are well aware of the laws regulating electoral expenditures. Charlotte Watson said the election plan is on standby until the vote is called.
"But for sure we're going to have a complete strategy for the next election," Watson said.
She said her federation, which has around 80,000 members, receives most of its money from dues: $2.50 per semester, per student.
Very little of the cash, Watson said, comes from donations.
"It's pretty rare that we have donations... It's a very small percentage," she said.
Quebec is already in a campaign period ahead of two June 11 byelections, which means the election-expense rules are currently in effect.
Watson said her federation does not have plans to enact the anti-Liberal strategy during the byelections. "But for the (general) election, yes, we will be very, very present," she said.