Montreal - Hundreds of protesters gathered in downtown Montreal on Thursday night for the latest in a long string of night marches, as Quebec's provincial government prepared to introduce emergency legislation aimed at ending three months of demonstrations against university tuition hikes.
Wearing the familiar red colour of the what has been the most sustained student protest in Canadian history, demonstrators - some wearing masks - blew horns and called the provincial premier's name mockingly. They were closely watched by nearby patrol cars.
Authorities said 122 were arrested late Wednesday as thousands of demonstrators spilled into the streets of Montreal, with some smashing bank windows and hurling objects at police. Protests have been going on for three months.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest said the proposed legislation would not roll back the tuition hikes. Rather, it would temporarily halt the spring semester at faculties paralysed by walkouts and push up the summer holidays. Classes would resume earlier in August.
The government also suggested it could include some harsh measures - like stiff financial penalties for anyone preventing classrooms from opening.
“We have the conviction this decision is important not only for our youths but for the future of the Quebec people,” Charest said in the provincial legislature on Thursday.
The Quebec National Assembly is being convened on Thursday evening for a debate expected to last through the night into Friday.
Dozens of protesters on Wednesday stormed into a Montreal university, breaking up classes. Tensions continued on Thursday in Gatineau, Quebec, the site of previous protests against the hike that resulted in hundreds of arrests, where three junior colleges were evacuated after a bomb threat. Courses resumed later in the day.
The government has pointed out that a majority of students in Quebec have quietly finished their semester and aren't striking.
But many remain angry over the proposed tuition hikes.
The three-month conflict has caused considerable social upheaval in the French-speaking province known for having more contentious protests than elsewhere in Canada.
There have been numerous injuries, countless traffic jams, a few smashed windows, subway evacuations, clashes with law enforcement and disruptions to the academic calendar.
The protests have at times mushroomed beyond the cause of cheap tuition, attracting a wide swathe of other participants who dislike the provincial Liberal government or represent a variety of disparate causes ranging from environmentalism, to Quebec independence and anarchy.
Charest said he would table emergency legislation aimed at ending the disorder, while sticking to the planned tuition hikes.
“It's time for calm to be restored,” Charest said on Wednesday. He added: “The current situation has lasted too long. Quebecers have a right to live in security.”
Charest's re-election prospects have been placed further in doubt, raising the prospect that the pro-independence Parti Quebecois could gain power in an election expected later this year or next. Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois opposes any legislated crackdown on the protests and has been wearing the red square of the protest movement.
She blames Charest and his government for mismanaging the crisis.
“The premier is the first person responsible for the mess we're in,” Marois said on Thursday.
Marie Desjardins, President of the Quebec Federation of the University of Students, called on Charest to sit down with students and negotiate.
“Quebecers are holding their breath,” Desjardins said.
Biomedical student Sebastien Potvin, 30, wearing a red cowboy hat and holding a red banner, the colour of the protest, said from a Montreal street corner that he fears the new law will only bring more violence.
“I don't think it will solve the problem, I think it will anger students twice as much,” Potvin said.
He said the coming tuition hikes could jeopardise his remaining studies.
Under the latest version of its tuition plan, the government would increase fees by $254 per year over seven years.
Quebec has the lowest tuition rates in Canada. The provincial government bought ads in Thursday's newspapers explaining how it has already made several adjustments to its tuition plans to soften the impact on the poorest students.
The dispute has claimed the province's education minister, who announced her resignation from politics earlier this week
Antonia Maioni, a political science professor at Montreal's McGill University, said while there were large student protests in the mid-1990s in Quebec over fee hikes, and then again in 2005, the current Quebec protests are notable for their longevity and the number of arrests.
“I don't think student protests have ever lasted for months like this before,” she said.
Those in favour of the tuition increases say they will improve the quality of universities, devolve more personal responsibility to students and ease the burden on taxpayers.
Opponents argue higher fees will undercut universal access to education.
In addition the city of Montreal will be looking into a bylaw that would regulate wearing masks during protests when council convenes on Friday. Officials say people wearing masks have been causing the most problems. A similar measure was being considered in Quebec City, where fewer protests have taken place. Rights groups have protested this limits their democratic right to demonstrate.
With some degenerating into violence the US consulate in Montreal issued an alert last month warning visitors and US expats to be wary of demonstrations and exercise caution. - Sapa-AP