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Politics Protesters clash with police as Quebec students' grievances grow

A demonstrator throws tear gas canister back towards the police line during a student demonstration outside the Montreal Convention Centre against hikes to university and college tuition fees on April 20, 2012 in Montreal.

Paul Chiasson / The Canadian Press

A spring of discontent in Quebec characterized by scenes of red-clad student protesters erupted into something darker Friday.

Demonstrators hurled projectiles ranging from rocks to flower pots in downtown Montreal, disrupting political events indoors and committing vandalism outdoors. Riot police fought back by swinging batons and firing rubber bullets and tear-gas canisters into the crowd.

Police said some vandals even tossed rocks from an overpass onto a busy downtown expressway. There were no reports of any injuries in those incidents.

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But several people were injured – reportedly including police officers – during protests of a broader nature than the weeks-long anti-tuition demonstrations that have occasionally snared traffic in cities across Quebec.

Provincial police were called in as local officers struggled to handle crowds that disrupted two separate events, including one featuring Premier Jean Charest and, to a lesser extent, one involving federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

A few participants stressed one message: This isn't just about university fees anymore.

"It's not just the tuition increase," said Alexis Remartini, 18, who took a 60-kilometre bus trip from St-Hyacinthe to attend the protest.

"The movement has grown to include other things we don't agree with."

The most chaotic scene unfolded at Mr. Charest's high-profile event as projectiles and tear gas rained on what was supposed to be the premier's political parade.

His speech was delayed by 45 minutes as protesters managed to get into the Palais des congrès convention centre, where he was the headline attraction at a symposium on his highly publicized northern-development plan.

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At least eight people were arrested as police announced over a loudspeaker that the protest was being declared an illegal assembly.

Outside, the scene was equally messy.

While some protesters hurled objects and built barricades in the street with construction materials they'd found, police fought them off – at one point firing a tear-gas canister right into one young man at nearly point-blank range.

Nicolas Moran, 21-year-old law student at the Université du Québec à Montréal, was one of the students who had earlier managed to get into the building.

He had a gash on his forehead and blood on his shirt.

"I wasn't doing anything violent," he said. "A police officer hit me over the head... But I doubt the education minister will denounce violence from police."

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Students and environmentalists joined forces against a conference on Mr. Charest's cherished Plan Nord.

The premier is facing heat from all sides as he tries to establish the ambitious plan, intended as a legacy item of his time in power and a key plank in his next election campaign.

Well behind schedule, Mr. Charest finally began a speech that, for months, some had expected might serve as a launching pad into an election campaign.

The first words out of his mouth: "Thank you for your patience." The premier then quickly slipped into his prepared text and described northern development as an inter-generational project deeply embedded in Quebecers' "genes" and "DNA," sharing his own family history with the north.

He earned a standing ovation as he walked on stage.

Mr. Charest later joked that the protesters might have been trying to get inside because they were clamouring for Plan Nord-related jobs. And he made it clear he will not back down on $325-a-year tuition hikes that will raise fees 75 per cent over five years.

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Even with the increase, Quebec would still have among the lowest tuition rates in the country.

While police, and the protesters themselves, said Friday's worst vandalism was not necessarily tied to tuition protests, Mr. Charest stuck to the theme.

The premier focused his response to the events on his preferred political target: the most radical student protest group, whose acronym is C.L.A.S.S.E.

"The social disruption is unacceptable," Mr. Charest told reporters after his speech.

"I've had ministers' offices ransacked. We've had ministers who have had tanks of gas put on the grounds of their homes. Molotov cocktails in front of their offices. Death threats.

"And they refuse to condemn violence? In 2012, in Quebec? That's unacceptable."

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Students who have been protesting tuition increases say the Plan Nord is another example of a policy that doesn't reflect the values of Quebecers.

Also in the backdrop is an investigative report that a well-connected political organizer has been peddling cash-for-access schemes related to the Plan Nord.

Mr. Charest's goal is to develop a 1.2-million-square kilometre stretch of the province's north over the next 25 years. Mr. Charest has said it will create 500,000 jobs, though his claims have been met with skepticism from opponents who call the plan everything from a marketing gimmick to a sellout of Quebec's resources.

An investigative show on the French-language CBC showed a provincial Liberal organizer — and onetime prominent organizer for the Harper Tories — discussing the Plan Nord while being surreptitiously videotaped.

That organizer, Pierre Coulombe, was videotaped suggesting to reporters, who pretended to be potential clients, that they could have access to Plan Nord decision-makers for a fee.

Instead of handing cash-filled envelopes to political insiders, he suggested clients should simply promise them multi-year jobs on their departure from politics.

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He indicated such jobs might pay them about $25,000 annually and require that they attend only one meeting a year while being sent on occasional business trips to Europe.

Not far from Mr. Charest's event, an announcement by the federal immigration minister was also interrupted by two protesters who had bought tickets to his event.

As Mr. Kenney began his speech, they twice shouted that his immigration reforms would destroy people's lives. They were both quickly escorted out of the hotel room.

Mr. Kenney was in Montreal to announce, in his latest immigration policy reform, that people must prove they can speak English or French to gain Canadian citizenship.

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