Students burn Charest in effigy

One day after student demonstrators marched on Jean Charest’s family home, they staged a mock hanging and burned down an effigy of the Quebec premier during street protests Thursday.

MONTREAL — One day after student demonstrators marched on Jean Charest’s family home, they staged a mock hanging and burned down an effigy of the Quebec premier during street protests Thursday.

That fiery stunt was among the multiple signs in downtown Montreal of the bitter feud over tuition hikes that has gripped the province.

During colourful street demonstrations that saw costumes fit for a masquerade ball, student protesters also blocked access to Montreal’s main courthouse, clogged several city boulevards, and vandalized police cars Thursday.

The daily battle over tuition began with a crowd infiltrating the courthouse, while a group of 200 students also briefly occupied the lobby of a National Bank office in the city’s financial district.

Student unions then held larger demonstrations in the afternoon, when four separate marches were making their way through the downtown core, snarling traffic.

The police reported graffiti on city buses and at an Old Montreal CEGEP, part of the province’s network of free pre-university institutions. Two patrol cars parked outside the downtown police headquarters were also vandalized, splattered in paint and marked with anarchist symbols.

These events occurred one day after about 150 people marched through the tony Westmount district and converged outside Charest’s home, shining flashlights into the house and shouting slogans. The crowd left peacefully and, throughout Wednesday’s protest, the lights remained off inside the house.

One protester, his face covered in a purple mask, said students who burned the effigy were just letting off a little steam.

“There’s a lot tension and it was just a way of expressing our frustration,” said the man, who did not want to provide his name.

The government has refused to budge from its planned tuition hikes, despite the near-daily pressure from boisterous student crowds.

Education Minister Line Beauchamp said she would be willing to sit down and negotiate with student leaders — but only if they drop their key demands. She said she would not sit down with them as long as they were demanding a tuition freeze or free education.

“There’s always openness to talk about the loans and bursaries program,” Beauchamp said Thursday.

“(But) their position is intransigent. Their reaction is always the same — it’s either a the freeze (they want) or free diplomas. You can see that’s untenable.”

Several recent demonstrations have been marked by altercations with police and have ended with dozens of arrests, although there were no immediate reports of scuffles at the afternoon marches.

The four separate afternoon protest crowds were dressed in shades of either blue, green, yellow or orange, like the lines of Montreal’s subway system. There were colourful signs and even a brass band at one of the marches. Many protesters wore masks, as if off to a traditional ball.

The student groups are opposing the Quebec government’s plans to raise tuition annually by $325 over the next five years.

That amounts to 75 per cent increase, taking provincial tuition rates from $2,168 to $3,793.

Recent protests have blocked bridges, government buildings, the office of the Quebec Liberal party and there was even a protest outside Premier Jean Charest’s home.

The government is refusing to back down from its fee hikes and is urging the students to get back to class, lest they have their semester cancelled.

About 130,000 students have walked out on their classrooms, calling cheap education a matter of principle and key to an egalitarian society.

The government notes that, even with the planned increases, Quebec will have among the lowest tuition rates in Canada.

Among the reasons students reportedly chose to protest Thursday outside the courthouse in Old Montreal was that more than two dozen fellow activists were being arraigned there for their role in an unruly overnight demonstration several weeks ago.

After court proceedings were interrupted in the morning, they got back underway well before noon, reports said.

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