Quebec passes law in effort to end daily protests

Associated Press
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Protesters opposing Quebec student tuition fee hikes demonstrate in Montreal, Sunday, May 20, 2012. Quebec's student movement gained some high-profile supporters over the weekend in the fight against tuition fee increases as anger mounted against a new law aimed at curbing violent protests. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Graham Hughes)

MONTREAL (AP) — Quebec's provincial government passed an emergency law Friday restricting demonstrations and shutting some universities as the government seeks to end three months of protests against tuition hikes. Outraged students reacted by calling it an act of war.

Among the controversial provisions of the law, which passed 68-48, is a requirement that police be informed eight hours before a protest and told the route of any demonstration that includes 50 or more people. Critics called that an affront to civil rights.

Hours after the vote thousands of protesters marched in downtown Montreal to condemn the legislation, which students and supporters say limits their ability to demonstrate their disapproval of the fee hikes.

"They pulled the plug instead of trying to develop something constructive through talks, " said participant Felix Siry, 22. "I think this will just make things worse."

Police officers in riot gear, and others on horseback watched as the loud and energetic crowd made its way downtown, chanting "No special law will break us!"

A number of molotov cocktails were tossed causing police to declare the demonstration illegal. Police used pepper spray and one man was arrested after the crowd got too close to cops. Some people threw objects at a small group of helmeted cops were forced to retreat. The angry crowd followed the retreating cops who then charged back firing tear gas.

The crowd was much larger than the hundreds who gathered Thursday night as the government introduced the bill to quell the most sustained student protests in Canadian history. On Wednesday, protesters smashed windows and more than 120 people were arrested. Both police and protesters were injured.

  Earlier Friday, the city of Montreal passed an ordinance restricting protesters from wearing masks during demonstrations, levying fines between $500 and $3,000. The city also said demonstrators will have to provide details of their itineraries beforehand.

  Officials have said they believe protesters wearing masks have been causing the most trouble. A similar bylaw was under consideration in Quebec City.

"Our cities can no longer become targets," Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay said. "It's time to reclaim our streets, our neighborhoods, our cities."  Rights groups also have protested that bylaw, calling it a restriction on their democratic right to demonstrate.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest said the provincial legislation would not roll back the tuition hikes of $254 per year over seven years. Rather, it would temporarily halt the spring semester at schools paralyzed by walkouts and push up the summer holidays. Classes would resume earlier in August.

The law imposes harsh fines on protesters who block students from attending classes. 

Proposed fines range from $1,000 to $5,000 for a student, $7,000 to $35,000 for a student leader and between $25,000 and $125,000 for unions or student federations if someone is prevented from entering an educational institution.

The Quebec Bar Association said it had serious concerns about the law and said the scale of the restraints on fundamental freedom wasn't justified.

Opposition Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois called Friday "one of the darkest days of Quebec democracy," and said Charest should hold elections because of the unpopularity of the law.

Martine Desjardins, one student leader, blamed the government for "letting the conflict deteriorate" and said it was seeking to "drown the conflict in the tribunals."

Student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois called the law the "murder of the right to demonstrate."  

He said his group would challenge the law before the courts and called on protesters to take part in a march in great numbers next Tuesday, which will mark the 100th day of protests.

But embattled Education Minister Michelle Courchesne said before the vote that despite the legislation, talks would go on and an agreement could still be reached with the students.

"Even if there is a special legislation tonight, tomorrow, there can still be an agreement after the law," she said.

She stressed that the law doesn't prevent students from protesting, and said she remained open to a dialogue with students.

Some of the loudest cheers early on Friday were reserved for one man who stood on a garbage can and burned what looked like a copy of the government bill.

The conflict has caused considerable social upheaval in the French-speaking province known for having more contentious protests than elsewhere in Canada — and the country's the lowest tuition rates.

The U.S. consulate in Montreal last month warned visitors and U.S. expatriates to be wary of demonstrations.

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