Students have protested for 100 days against planned tuition fee hikes in the country’s second-largest province.
Tens of thousands of people defied an emergency law restricting protests by marching in Montreal to mark the 100th day of student protests over plans to raise tuition.
Demonstrators slowly winded through the downtown streets of Canada’s second-largest metropolis on Tuesday, occasionally booing Quebec Premier Jean Charest and his “truncheon law.”
With placards in hand, blowing horns and beating drums, festive students and their supporters – some of them first-time protesters angered by the government’s recent crackdown – made their pitch for low-cost education accessible to all.
“Today, we’re all students,” Chloe Domingue-Bouchard, a political science student at the University of Quebec, shouted over a bullhorn to the crowd.
“We’re here not only to denounce a hike in school fees but also an unjust and brutal truncheon law … that has turned us all into criminals.”
Charest is a “tyrant,” another protester said.
The new law requires groups larger than 50 to alert police if they plan to hold a demonstration, and provide the location, time and duration of the event ahead of time. It also suspends classes interrupted by the strikes until mid-August.
The measure was passed last Friday in response to ongoing student unrest after students rejected a deal with the provincial government that would have gradually raised tuition fees over a seven-year period, instead of five.
On its heels, the city of Montreal also passed a bylaw prohibiting the wearing of masks after several cloaked protesters smashed storefronts and clashed with police in recent weeks.
Those failing to comply with either law face fines.
Protests have raged here since mid-February over a plan by the provincial government to raise tuition fees at Quebec universities by 82 per cent, or more than $1,700.
Before the emergency law was unveiled, a majority of Quebecers backed the government on the need for an increase in school fees to rein a budget deficit.
But many now say Charest has mismanaged the crisis, and support for the students is growing.
The Grammy Award-winning band Arcade Fire pinned symbolic red squares of cloth to their chests for a performance on US network NBC television’s “Saturday Night Live” program over the weekend, to show support for the student movement.
And the global group of internet activists known as Anonymous threw its support behind the demonstrators by downing a dozen government websites on Monday.
In the wake of the government action, thousands of students donning gas masks and ski goggles took to the streets of Montreal on Friday, opposing the measure meant to muzzle their movement.
On Sunday, protesters smashed store windows, opened a fire hydrant that flooded a downtown Montreal office building and flung several Molotov cocktails.
But the first arrests under the new law were made only Monday night, in the town of Sherbrooke, where 36 protesters faced fines of up to $5,000.
In contrast, Tuesday’s march was peaceful. Organisers said they informed police of their plans in order to avoid fines.
However, by late afternoon several groups had broken off from the main protest, and their movements could be declared illegal by police.