More than 3,000 demonstrators disrupted Friday's Quebec Liberal Party meeting in Victoriaville with a violent protest that sent at least 11 people to hospital.
Protesters reported being hit by rubber bullets fired into the crowd and provincial police said at least four of their officers were sent to hospital, including one who had been struck in the head with a billiard ball. At least seven protesters were also sent to hospital, three of whom were injured seriously, according to police.
The standoff started with people tossing projectiles like smoke bombs, paint bombs and sticks in the direction of provincial riot police guarding the Victoriaville facility that was hosting the Liberal gathering.
When protesters pulled down a metal barrier outside the building, police pushed back. Using riot gear including stun grenades and chemical irritants, they shoved the crowd into surrounding streets.
"More and more people were there, not just to protest, but to make some criminal acts. So we had to push back all the protesters," said Captain Jean Finet, a spokesman from the Sûreté du Quebec.
Protesters and provincial police rained physical abuse on each other, which led to multiple injuries on both sides — including a provincial police officer who was kicked, punched and beaten with a stick. In an attempt to protect him, a police vehicle plowed through a projectile-tossing crowd. One protester was reportedly struck in the face with a rubber bullet.
"For the moment, we don't exactly know who was injured by who," Capt. Finet said.
Police intercepted three buses travelling away from Victoriaville after the demonstration, but would not say how many arrests were made or whether any charges were laid. Passengers had their identification checked and they were released on a promise to appear in court, Quebec police said.
Police have only confirmed four arrests so far, but said it was possible the total number of arrests could reach 100 or more by Saturday morning.
During the protest, worried delegates looked on from the safety of the well-guarded convention centre.
"This is revolting to see all those riot squad police. I think it only makes matters worse," said Jehu Hernandez, a delegate from Montreal.
"I find this outrageous," said Transport Minister Pierre Moreau. "This violence does not reflect what Quebec is all about."
Premier Jean Charest told party members that its time for postsecondary students to end their three-month strike.
"It is high time that the boycotting students go back to their classes," he said in a speech Friday evening.
He added that it is his job to make tough decisions in Quebec's best interests regardless of the reaction they provoked.
"Decisions that we have taken have not been easy. They have not always been popular. Politics is not a long quiet river," Mr. Charest said in reference to the tuition-fee hikes that sparked the protests.
But for students to go back to class, however, the government needs to strike a deal with student groups. Talks that also included the presidents of Quebec's three most important labour organizations went late into Friday night, suggesting that union leaders who have backed the students could play a decisive role in ending the dispute.
If Mr. Charest succeeds, it could pave the way for a spring election. Two public opinion polls published on Friday reached different conclusions on public support for the Premier: One gave Mr. Charest the lead and showed that three out of four Quebeckers supported the tuition-fee hike; the second found the Parti Québécois is leading in popular support and two-third of voters are opposed to way the Charest government has handled the crisis.
It was perhaps with an election campaign in mind that Mr. Charest criticized his opponents, claiming that PQ Leader Pauline Marois and Coalition Avenir Quebec Leader François Legault, a former PQ minister, were two of a kind.
"We have before us two sovereigntist parties," Mr. Charest said. "If it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck, it's a duck.
"There is but one federalist party in Quebec… and it's us, the Quebec Liberal Party."
He warned Quebeckers that should Ms. Marois or Mr. Legault ever form a government they would "put the chainsaw" to funding for health care and education. They were together in the same PQ government that cut spending for social programs, Mr. Charest said, and they will do it again.
With a report from The Canadian Press