MONTREAL (Reuters) - Thousands of people marched through central Montreal on Tuesday to mark the 100th day of student protests over tuition increases, a campaign that is turning into a broader movement against the Quebec government and aspects of the capitalist system.
The government in the predominantly French-speaking Canadian province, fed up with sometimes violent demonstrations, last week unveiled a tough proposal that would make protests more difficult to organize and impose stiff fines on those who disobey.
Quebec’s bar association, trade union leaders and other commentators quickly denounced the draft legislation - known formally as Bill 78 - and said the Liberal government of Premier Jean Charest had gone too far.
“We don’t care about the special law!” some marchers chanted as they set off in the light rain to the sounds of horns and trumpets. One marcher held an umbrella on which the number 78 was painted with a line through it.
“Charest, you have met your Waterloo,” read one banner. Many protesters wore small red cloth squares, which have become the symbol of the campaign.
A Leger Marketing poll released on Tuesday showed 73 percent of Quebecers felt the law would not help quell the protests against planned tuition increases. Many students say they would ignore the legislation once it is adopted.
“We deplore the fact that the Charest government has chosen repression rather than discussion,” said Leo Bureau-Blouin, head of the moderate Quebec College Student Federation, speaking as the marchers set off.
Police arrested hundreds of people during clashes over the weekend in Montreal, Quebec’s largest city and a popular tourist destination.
Quebec Public Security Minister Robert Dutil called for calm, and urged opponents of the law to take it to the courts.
“Right now the situation is very polarized ... the debate has become very emotional,” he told reporters in Quebec City, the provincial capital, on Tuesday.
Charest’s government prompted the anger three months ago by saying it would impose a 75 percent increase in what are some of the lowest tuition fees in North America.
Students said the hikes smacked of European-style austerity and would leave them deep in debt when they graduated.
“We’ll do a deal - you pay for my education and I’ll pay for your retirement,” said a sign held by a marcher.
The protest has since evolved and organizers issued a 71-point list of grievances for Tuesday’s event, including the province’s debt, taxes, alleged corruption, the environment and Charest’s plan to develop the resource-rich north.
Christian Bourque of Leger Marketing said both sides had painted themselves into a corner.
“(For) the students ... it’s not about the tuition increase any more, it’s about the capitalist system to a certain extent, and it’s hard to see how the two sides could actually sit down with one another,” he told Reuters.
In a sign of the international attention the protest is gathering, Canadian rock band Arcade Fire wore red squares during a performance on the U.S. television show Saturday Night Live over the weekend.
The protests come at a bad time for Charest, who is under pressure over allegations of links between political parties and the mafia. A formal inquiry opened on Tuesday into possible corruption in the powerful construction industry.
Charest must call an election by the end of next year and could well lose to the separatist Parti Quebecois, which backs the students. The party wants independence for the province of 8 million people.
About 155,000 students - more than a third of Quebec college and university students - are striking against plans to increase annual tuition fees by C$1,625 ($1,595) over five years to around C$3,800.
Additional reporting and writing by David Ljunggren