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A protester opposing Quebec student tuition fee hikes is arrested during a demonstration in Montreal on Sunday, May 20, 2012. (Graham Hughes/Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A protester opposing Quebec student tuition fee hikes is arrested during a demonstration in Montreal on Sunday, May 20, 2012. (Graham Hughes/Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Emergency law, celebrity support giving oxygen to Quebec protesters Add to ...

Quebec’s emergency law aimed at reining in protest marches and restoring social peace failed to stop outbursts of violence during its first test over the weekend, while the months-long student movement gained some big-name support on the global stage.

For the second night in a row, police clashed with protesters repeatedly into the late hours Sunday in a chaotic scene that left at least 300 arrested and 20 injured, including 11 police officers. At least one person was taken to hospital with what emergency services called “non-life threatening injuries.”

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Windows were smashed, construction cones and signs tossed into the streets, and there were reports a fire hydrant was burst open at the same spot where a bonfire was lit a night earlier.

Riot police used tear gas and sound grenades to try to break up the protest, which was deemed illegal moments after it began for not complying with the new law. The result was a series of violent exchanges between small groups of protesters and police in pockets throughout the downtown core.

One video circulated online captured what appeared to be a police cruiser moving forward briefly with a protester on the hood, before the protester jumped off to the side and the cruiser sped away. Police later denied a rumour that a person had been run over.

Two journalists from local newspapers also reported being arrested and later released.

A protest in Montreal on Saturday was marked by bonfires on downtown intersections, the pepper-spraying of patrons on a bar patio, rock-throwing at police and 69 arrests. Another protest – the 27th nocturnal march in a row – was scheduled for Sunday night.

The violence raises questions about Premier Jean Charest’s ability to break his government’s deadlock with students.

There are already signs that Bill 78, the controversial law adopted by the National Assembly on Friday that sets rules for demonstrations, may have given the protest movement more oxygen. Students interviewed in Montreal on Sunday indicated they are ready to defy fines and continue a movement that has grown beyond a dispute over tuition fees to what appears to be a generational expression of discontent.

Their fight is getting some star backing. Quebec film director Xavier Dolan wore a red square, the symbol of the student protest movement, on the red carpet at Cannes last week. U.S. filmmaker Michael Moore called the Quebec “uprising” an inspiration and “one of the most amazing mass protests of the year” on Twitter.

And Montreal band Arcade Fire sported the red squares while performing alongside Mick Jagger on NBC’s Saturday Night Live; at least two of Arcade Fire’s band members attended Montreal universities. (Mr. Jagger wore a red shirt, though it’s a matter of speculation whether it was a show of support or a fashion choice).

Polling suggests Mr. Charest has public opinion on his side: A CROP survey published on Saturday said two-thirds of Quebeckers, tiring of a conflict that has beamed near daily images of helmeted riot police and masked protesters into their homes night after night, back the Charest government’s hard line.

The law imposes heavy fines on protesters who fail to stay away from campuses and who prevent people from trying to go to class. But the section of the law requiring groups of 50 or more to give police at least eight hours’ notice of the time and route and duration of their marches has been criticized as going too far – and likely being ineffective. Only a third of those polled by CROP thought the law would resolve the conflict.

Montreal police on Saturday showed they were ready to allow some flexibility about applying the law; they declared the march illegal as it began at 9 p.m. because organizers did not supply the itinerary, but allowed the protest to proceed anyway. Though largely peaceful, it degenerated as the night went on; some protesters clashed with police and several wore masks in violation of a new Montreal bylaw.

The unrest prompted yet another expression of exasperation from Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay, who termed the violence “intolerable.”

“This is an appeal for calm,” he said Sunday. “We’re getting the impression that repeating the same things all the time isn’t influencing some people, who are committing unacceptable acts.”

On the streets, meanwhile, students say they’re not about to pack up their placards. In interviews on Sunday at a festive protest during a free concert at Mount Royal, several said their movement has been galvanized by Bill 78, which they interpret as an attempt to muzzle them.

“This started out as a protest about education, but by going to war with us Mr. Charest diverted it into something much bigger. Now it’s about social equity and fundamental rights,” said Pierre-Luc Gingras, 23, who is not even a student – he’s a computer programmer with a job.

“All the Premier did was cut off Hydra’s head. Others will grow in its place,” Mr. Gingras said.

Marie-Gaëlle Lacasse, an industrial relations student at the Université de Montréal, says she was not very politicized before but now attends almost all demonstrations and plans to continue to do so.

“I’m supposed to be working on my thesis but now I’m at all the protests,” the 24-year-old said. “We have to change the government and convince the public that tuition hikes are not inevitable. It’s not true we’re spoiled kids. This is about neo-liberal policies of slowly withdrawing public financing from education.”

Still, not all students are ready to keep fighting. At the Université du Québec à Montréal in downtown Montreal last week, some students who had initially supported the movement to block tuition-fee increases said the time had come to go to class. Some said they were upset after striking students burst into their classrooms at the university, known as UQAM, on Wednesday and succeeded in getting classes suspended. Hundreds of students spread through university pavilions at UQAM, where the administration had obtained a court injunction to allow the resumption of classes for law students.

Marie-Catherine Côté said about 50 protesters filed into her classroom, banging chairs and desks on the floor and shouting slogans. The protesters, many of them masked, blocked the two entrances to the classroom.

“It was too violent and too intimidating,” she said. “I have to admit I was really scared.”

Squares: The colour-coded accessories marking the protests' players

Red square: The red square has become the emblem of the Quebec student strike since it began as a protest through the winter and spring against tuition hikes brought in by the Charest government. The square, typically made of felt, is usually pinned to lapels, T-shirts and backpacks. Parti Québécois Opposition Leader Pauline Marois has worn a red square in support of the student strike.

The colour and shape are meant to be a wordplay on being “squarely in the red,” or in debt. The use of the symbol was popularized by a previous student-protest movement in the province in 2005.

Green square: Over the course of the student protests that have shaken Quebec for months, other squares have also appeared. Some students have worn a green square to symbolize their support for ending the boycott of courses and returning to class; they took no official position on whether they supported the tuition hikes or not.

White square: A coalition backed by some Quebec doctors has promoted wearing a white square, to call for a truce between the Charest government and the students.

With files from The Canadian Press

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