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Quebec protests put government on defense

Emergency laws possible as youth fight tuition hikes

ROGERIO BARBOSA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Students protested Thursday in the streets of Montreal against a planned tuition hike of 82 percent as part of the government’s efforts to cut a budget deficit.

MONTREAL - Facing the most sustained student protest in Canadian history, Quebec’s provincial government weighed emergency legislation Thursday aimed at ending rallies and demonstrations against rising tuition costs.

Authorities said 122 were arrested late Wednesday as thousands of demonstrators spilled into the streets of Montreal, some smashing bank windows and hurling objects at police. Protests have been ongoing for three months.

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Quebec’s premier, Jean Charest, said the proposed legislation would not roll back the tuition hikes. Rather, it would temporarily halt the spring semester at faculties paralyzed by walkouts and push up the summer holidays. Classes would resume earlier in August.

The government also suggested it could include some harsh measures, such as 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,’’ said Quebec Premier Jean Charest in the provincial legislature Thursday.

Quebec’s national assembly was convened Thursday evening for a debate expected to last through the night into Friday.

Dozens of protesters stormed into a Montreal university Wednesday, breaking up classes. Tensions continued 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 finished their semester and are not striking.

But many remain angry over the proposed tuition hikes.

The 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 swath 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 Wednesday. “The current situation has lasted too long. . . . Quebecers have a right to live in security.’’

Charest’s reelection 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 Thursday.

Marie Desjardins, President of Quebec Federation of University of Students, called on Charest to sit with students and negotiate.

“Quebecers are holding their breath,’’ Desjardins said.

Under the latest version of its tuition plan, the government would increase fees by $254 per year over seven years.

The provincial government bought ads in Thursday’s newspapers explaining how it has made adjustments to its tuition plans to soften the impact.

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