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Montreal police have struggled to cope with three months of continuing demonstrations. Photo: Monica Eileen Patterson
Montreal police have struggled to cope with three months of continuing demonstrations. Photo: Monica Eileen Patterson

In Montreal, student protests target Quebec's Liberal government

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Massive demonstrations in the city of Montreal have continued for more than a hundred straight days.

The protest began when Quebec's Liberal Party tried to hike tuition rates for college students. But the sometimes violent street rallies have exploded into a much wider debate in French Canada over civil liberties and the future of popular social programs.

As Brian Mann reports, some students are now calling for the resignation of Quebec's premier.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Thousands of students march through Montreal’s commercial district, chanting, pounding on pots and pans.

Most, like Gretchen King, a communications student at McGill University, wear a bright red ribbon – the symbolof a movement that has rocked this city for three months.

"I’m here to protest the tuition hike, which has yet to be negotiated in any way by the Liberal government," she says.

On this night, the march continues well past midnight, the crowd swelling as it snakes through neighborhoods and parks.

One young man wearing the black jersey of the anarchist movement sets off a massive firecracker.  The crowd seethes as cops in riot gear move in to make an arrest.

Protests like this one have become commonplace here, with two or three demonstrations each day.  Earlier this month, students shut down the Metro with smoke bombs.

"So I don’t think there are a lot of police services in North America that have lived through 260 protests in 120 days.  It’s a lot," says Ian LaFreinere, a commander with Montreal's city police. 

YouTube videos have circulated widely, showing cops in riot gear hosing crowds with pepper spray and using what critics describe as excessive force.

More than 2,500 people have been arrested so far, a handful on terrorism-related charges.  LaFreienere acknowledges that police are exhausted and frustrated.  But he says the city is doing its best to maintain order.

"It’s hard also because you face people throwing raocks at you.  So you need a lot of tolerance, a lot of patience."

But a growing number of political observers say Quebec’s government has mishandled the protests.  In a speech broadcast last month on RDI television, the province’s Premier Jean Charest seemed to mock the students.

Montreal’s Mayor, meanwhile described protestors as kids, who should be brought to heel by their parents.

"In effect, they treated the students like children.  And the students are not children.  They are adults, and many of them idealistic, many of them impassioned by this struggle," says Antonia Maioni is a professor of political science at McGill University. 

After first discounting the protests, she says, the Charest government then over-reacted the opposite direction, pushing through an emergency measure called Law 78 that set sharp limits on protests and political rallies.

"So there are many people who are saying now, I’m not for or against tuition hikes – it’s not about tuition hikes anymore.  It’s about what the provincial government is trying to do to our freedom of expression."

Maioni says the protests have also widened to include a debate over other austerity measures that the Charest government has proposed, as a way to ease the province’s growing budget deficits.

For their part, protestors seen delighted at what they view as Charest’s missteps, and have taken up mocking him in return.

Protestor Gretchen King says a movement that began over tuition hikes now hopes to topple the provincial government.

"A growing number of people say that Charest should resign.  That’s what the conclusion has been – not that he’s messed up, but that he should be gone," she insists.

Political pressure is growing here as Montreal moves toward its crucial summer tourist season and hotels are reporting a drop-off in visitors. 

Charest has already sacked two top officials in his cabinet, including Quebec’s education minister.  Negotiations with students continued yesterday and are set to resume this morning.

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