MONTREAL — Nearly 700 people were arrested Wednesday night after a protest over higher university tuition in Quebec erupted into another night of violence.
The student protests have only grown since the provincial government last week passed emergency legislation in an attempt to end Canada’s most sustained student demonstrations ever.
The protest was declared illegal by police the minute it was scheduled to start as demonstrators didn’t provide an itinerary, disobeying the new law that requires police be informed eight hours before a protest and told the route of any demonstration that includes 50 or more people.
The protests began with an almost party-like atmosphere in many Quebec neighborhoods but turned serious after protesters began throwing objects at police in Montreal. Officers encircled the thousands of protesters and squeezed them into a confined space.
Police said 518 people were arrested in Montreal and 176 were arrested in Quebec City. Many of those arrested were carted off onto city buses, which have recently been converted into police holding pens.
Independent filmmaker Emmanuel Hessler who had been following the march for a few blocks said from inside the police encirclement that he was surprised by the action.
“Suddenly, there were police all around us,” he said.
Montreal police spokesman Daniel Lacoursiere said an order to disperse was given because police had been pelted by projectiles and other criminal acts had been committed.
Montreal police said those arrested will face charges, some under minor municipal bylaws and others under the more severe Criminal Code.
The protesters are demanding that Quebec Premier Jean Charest roll back the tuition hikes of $254 (US$254) per year over seven years. Quebec has the lowest tuition rates in Canada, but even after such an 80 percent increase, it would remain among the lowest in the country.
The conflict has caused considerable upheaval since it began in February in the French-speaking province known for having the country’s most contentious protests.
Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois on Thursday called it the worst social crisis in Quebec’s history.
“That’s where the Quebec Liberal Party has taken us: mass arrests, more often than not arbitrary ones, to silence opposition,” she said.
While the new legislation aimed at stopping the protests is unpopular among students and rights groups, a poll published the day after legislation was passed showed two-thirds of Quebecers supported it.
Student groups have said they would challenge it in court and continue demonstrations.