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student protests

Protesters opposing Quebec student tuition fee hikes demonstrate in Montreal, Tuesday, May 22, 2012.Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A sea of students, their numbers swollen by trade unionists, teachers and other supporters, flooded through the streets of Montreal in a massive turnout marking the 100th day of a protest movement that is growing broader and bolder.

Reported estimates placed the number of protesters Tuesday at between 100,000 and 250,000.

The march suggests the Quebec government is losing its battle to end a provincial crisis and curb recurring protests that have disrupted Montreal for months. The demonstration thumbed its nose at emergency legislation passed by the Quebec National Assembly last week that requires organizers to advise police ahead of time of their route.

Although some organizers did submit an itinerary, the largest one, CLASSE, refused.

Rather than helping to restore calm and quell anger toward the Liberal government, Premier Jean Charest seems to have inflamed it.Nearly all the demonstrators wore the red square that has become the emblem of the student protest against tuition-fee hikes that sparked resistance in February. While the vast number of marchers on Tuesday were student-age, others were baby boomers and retirees; such traditional political opponents to the Quebec Liberal Party as labour unions and pro-independence nationalist groups also filled the streets.

"We are all students," a student shouted to the crowd at the start of the march, which began in the heart of downtown Montreal. One student carried a sign reading: "Just watch us."

The focus of the protest was Quebec's emergency law, Bill 78, which has become a new lightning rod for criticism.

Bill 78 is also proving virtually toothless in its aim of reining in marches that have become daily occurrences in Montreal; on Tuesday, motorists fumed and shopkeepers complained while the procession filed through downtown streets in the late afternoon. Police made no arrests, even though in theory tens of thousands of people were marching illegally by not getting prior clearance for their itinerary.

Police spokesman Ian Lafrenière said police considered Bill 78 a "tool" and that officers would use it "judiciously."

The protest, which is garnering worldwide attention in media outlets such as Le Monde and The Economist, has placed the Charest government on the defensive. Throughout the day, the government fended off accusations the emergency law violated the fundamental rights to free speech and lawful assembly.

"There is here a containment of demonstrations that deprives no one of their right to express themselves," Mr. Charest said in the National Assembly after inviting citizens to comply with a law that was adopted by a democratically elected government.

Public Security Minister Robert Dutil insisted other jurisdictions in Europe and North America had adopted much more strict controls on public demonstrations than those in Quebec's emergency legislation. He acknowledged, however, that tensions were mounting as Quebec society becomes increasingly divided over the new law.

"We currently have a very bad polarization of the situation meaning that some people are very much against the law while others are very much for it.… So we must appeal for calm from those who believe in a society, in a mature democracy such as Quebec," Mr. Dutil said.

But Quebec constitutional lawyer Julius Grey, who has fought several high-profile Charter challenges, called the emergency law "draconian, drastic and very disappointing," and said that while a legal challenge is unlikely to reach the Supreme Court before the legislation expires in July, 2013, sections could be struck down eventually.

"It prevents spontaneous demonstrations, which is part of the freedom to demonstrate," he said.

The demonstration Tuesday through Montreal was largely peaceful, though police reported three smashed bank windows from a breakaway group of extremists. Meanwhile, the Quebec protest is showing signs of growing beyond the province's borders. The Canadian Association of University teachers, which represents some 68,000 academic and general staff across the country, is one of several organizations considering backing the student groups with a cash donation when its executive votes Wednesday morning.

The professors' union has been a vocal supporter of the student protests from their early days, having advocated for tuition freezes and reductions for years. But it was Bill 78 – a measure the organization's executive director, Jim Turk, describes as "probably the most repressive legislation in Canada since the War Measures Act" – that spurred the union to consider opening its wallet.

With a report from James Bradshaw in Toronto

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