Quebec Students Clash With Police Over Tuition Costs

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In the Canadian province of Quebec, a plan to hike university tuition has led to weeks of violent rallies and clashes with police. The province faces a deficit of roughly $3.5 billion, and students say the tuition hike is part of a larger austerity campaign.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's turn our attention now north of the border, to Canada. New austerity programs are creating the kind of unrest we most often associate with Europe these days. In the Province of Quebec, a plan to hike university tuitions by 75 percent over the next five years has led to weeks of violent street rallies, often involving tens of thousands of students and protesters.

North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Students march late at night down a dark, rain-slicked street, past the University of Quebec. They're surrounded by police cars.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

MANN: The young people wear red ribbons safety-pinned to their coats, the symbol of a protest that has shaken and at times paralyzed Montreal since March. The students are fighting the provincial government's plan to phase in a 75 percent tuition hike over the next five years.

Maxim is a history student. Like many protesters, he refuses to give his last name because he says he fears being arrested. He says the government shouldn't make it harder to attend university.

MAXIM: Of course, we want free school. But the thing that we cooled off right now is moratory - no hikes on tuition fees.

MANN: Hundreds of students have been arrested in recent weeks and on this night, there's a heavy police presence underground at the nearby Metro station, with cops in riot gear on the platforms and guarding the doorways. Gerald Tremblay is Montreal's mayor.

MAYOR GERALD TREMBLAY: When you have a smoke bomb in the subway, in three subways at the same time, what do you think is happening? It is escalating.

MANN: Tremblay gave a press conference late last week, broadcast on CTV television, after smoke bomb attacks shut down the Metro during the morning commute. Four students were arrested over the weekend, and have been charged with perpetrating a terrorism-related hoax.

In a sign of just how tense things have become, Tremblay was asked by a reporter whether it was time to bring out Canada's army. Here's Tremblay, speaking through an interpreter.

TREMBLAY: (Through translator) Certainly not, certainly not. But I'm calling for people - as a parent, I have a responsibility for my own children.

MANN: Tremblay urged parents to demand that their children suspend the protest and return to class. So far that hasn't happened, and negotiations with student organizations have gone nowhere. Quebec's government has long offered a more generous package of social and education programs than other Canadian provinces.

These programs are hugely popular here. But now, Quebec is deep in debt, and aid from the national government is being cut back. The province faces a deficit this year of roughly $3.5 billion, and students say the tuition hike is part of a larger austerity campaign. Hoping to convince the government to change course, student groups have blocked access to Montreal's massive sea port, blockaded bank entrances, vandalized businesses, and clashed with police.

ADAM: (Foreign language spoken)

MANN: This student, who will only give his name as Adam, says the smoke bomb attack was an efficient way to disrupt Montreal's economy, blocking the Metro and causing big traffic jams.

But even some students who oppose the tuition hikes are clearly uncomfortable with the unrest and the potential for more violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANN: This is the Occupy Montreal encampment at Victoria Square, near the city's commercial district. A student named Samuel Champagne says he thinks the latest protests have gone too far.

SAMUEL CHAMPAGNE: There has been a lot of very tense struggle between the students and the government. And it's very difficult for the public to understand what are their aims - and if they can trust their aims.

MANN: There are signs that a lot of Montrealers are already fed up. The Montreal Gazette published an editorial this week, warning of anarchy in the city. Mayor Gerald Tremblay said the protests have to end before the city's lucrative summer tourist season.

TREMBLAY: We don't have a month. We have days to try to find a solution. It's not a question of threatening the Grand Prix, threatening our festivals. It's finding a solution as soon as possible.

MANN: Yesterday, some students tried to go back to class, but they were blocked by protesters. Student groups also rejected another deal offered by Quebec's government, that would have delayed the tuition increase and led to a public inquiry into the province's university system.

After Monday's talks broke down, Quebec's education minister announced that she's resigning immediately.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

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