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The Globe and Mail

Police, students clash in Quebec cities as protests against tuition hike continue

Students hold signs during a protest against tuition hikes in downtown Montreal, Quebec March 22, 2012. The signs read "For sale our education".


Students blocked access to government buildings in several Quebec cities on Tuesday, leading to showdowns with police that saw one of the crowds pepper-sprayed.

Police said a spraying incident in Montreal happened after about 100 people blocked off the offices of the provincial liquor board, preventing people from getting to work.

One liquor board security guard suffered cuts to his face after scuffling with students as he tried to get into the building. Other employees were seen heading home.

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One protester was arrested for allegedly assaulting a police officer.

"We had to intervene because of a request from the owner of the location," Lt. Ian Lafreniere, a Montreal police spokesman.

"There was a lot of physical resistance. The young people didn't want to leave. So there was an intervention with the tactical squad, and eventually we had to use chemical irritants."

Students are up in arms over the Charest government's plan to nearly double tuition fees over five years, to $3,800 per year. The government will reach its target with a series of $325-a-year increases which, it says, will still leave the province with among the lowest fees in Canada even after the hikes.

A similar protest tactic reportedly blocked access to a Hydro-Quebec building in Rimouski. Meanwhile, in Quebec City, about 75 people cut off access to offices of the provincial Finance Department. Some civil servants needed a police escort to get into their offices.

Marie-Christine Trottier, a spokeswoman for the group in Quebec City, says the goal was to disrupt work at the offices.

"It's an office with 400 employees and making them lose a few hours of work might have a significant impact," Ms. Trottier said. "We hope that by disturbing the office it sends a message to (Finance) Minister (Raymond) Bachand."

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Premier Jean Charest said he's still listening to the students — but has no plans to backtrack on the fee hikes.

One thing he did do Tuesday was leave open the possibility of increasing the loans and bursaries program.

Daily protests are being organized by the different associations representing college and university students. The groups behind Tuesday's actions estimate that nearly 130,000 of their members have walked out on their classes.

Protests are scheduled right across Quebec on Tuesday, in Montreal, Quebec City, Sherbrooke, Laval and a few other cities. After they shut off access to the liquor-board offices in Montreal, a crowd of students wandered through the downtown core, temporarily blocking street traffic.

Ms. Trottier said the movement continues to grow after last week's massive demonstration in Montreal, in a crowd police pegged at about 100,000 people. Several student associations say their members have voted in favour of continuing actions.

"The goal is to keep the movement going," Ms. Trottier said. "The movement doesn't seem to be running out of steam."

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