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Students on strike in Montreal. Photo: Yanik Crépeau
Students on strike in Montreal. Photo: Yanik Crépeau

Montreal tense after months of student unrest

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Austerity measures in Europe have sparked protests and political chaos. But belt tightening has also sparked unrest closer to home. In the province of Quebec, a plan to hike university tuitions has led to weeks of violent rallies, civil disobedience, and clashes with police.

As North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, the US Consulate in Montreal has issued a security warning to American travelers in the city.

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Smoke bomb attacks last week disrupted Montreal's Metro. Photo: Nicholas Mann

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Students march late at night down a dark, rainslicked street past the University of Quebec.  They're surrounded by police cars.

The young people wear red ribbons safety-pinned to their coats, the symbol of a protest that has shaken and at times paralyzed Montreal since March. 

The students are fighting the provincial government's plan to phase in a 75% tuition hike over the next five years.

Maxim is a history student.  Like many protestors, he refuses to give his last name because he says he fears being arrested.  He says the government shouldn’t make it harder to attend university: "Of course we want free school, but the thing that we could have right now is a moratorium—no hikes on tuition fees"

Hundreds of students have been arrested in recent weeks and on this night, there’s a heavy police presence underground at the nearby Metro station, with cops in riot gear on the platforms and guarding the doorways.

Montreal mayor Gerald Tremblay gave a press conference late last week broadcast on CTV television after smoke bomb attacks shut down the Metro during the morning commute. He said, "When you have a smoke bombs in the subway, at three subways at the same time, what do you think is happening?  It is escalating."

Four students were arrested over the weekend and have been charged with perpetrating a terrorism-related hoax.  In a sign of just how tense things have become, Tremblay was asked by a reporter whether it was time to bring out Canada’s army. 

Tremblay, speaking through an interpreter, said "Certainly not, certainly not – but I’m calling for people as a parent, I have responsibility for my own children."

Tremblay urged parents to demand that their children suspend the protest and return to class. So far that hasn't happened and negotiations with student organizations have gone nowhere.

Quebec’s government has long offered a more generous package of social and education programs than other Canadian provinces.  Those programs are hugely popular here.

But now Quebec is deep in debt and aid from the national government is being cut back. 

The province faces a deficit this year of roughly three and a half billion dollars and students say the tuition hike is part of a larger austerity campaign.  Hoping to convince the government to change course, student groups have blocked access to Montreal’s massive sea port, blockaded bank entrances, vandalized businesses and clashed with police.

A student, who only gives his name as Adam, says the smoke bomb attack was an efficient way to disrupt Montreal’s economy, blocking the metro and causing big traffic jams. 

But even some students who oppose the tuition hikes are clearly uncomfortable with the unrest and the potential for more violence. 

At the Occupy Montreal encampment at Victoria Square near the city's commercial district.  A student named Samuel Champagne says he thinks the latest protests have gone too far: "There has been a lot of very tense struggle between the students and the government.  And it's very difficult for the public to understand what are their aims and if they can trust their aims." 

There are signs that a lot of Montrealers are already fed up.  The Montreal Gazette published an editorial this week warning of anarchy in the city.  Mayor Gerald Tremblay said the protests have to end before the city’s lucrative summer tourist season:  "We don't have a month.  We have days to find a solution.  It's not a question of threatening the Grand Prix, threatening our festivals.   It's finding a solution as soon as possible."

Yesterday, some students tried to go back to class, but they were blocked by protesters.  Students also rejected another deal offered by Quebec’s government that would have delayed the tuition increase and led to a public inquiry into the province’s university system.  After Monday’s talks broke down, Quebec’s education minister announced that she’s resigning immediately.

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