MONTREAL — A monster crowd, considerably larger than the one at Montreal’s famous 1995 pre-referendum rally, formed a kilometres-long sea of opposition to tuition hikes Thursday.
The protest began in the same downtown square that hosted the pro-Canada love fest just days before the sovereignty referendum.
This one filled the square — and then some.
In a spring laden with demonstrations against the Quebec government, this was easily the largest. The parade of protest was so long that its front end would be a full neighbourhood — or even two — away from the tail end. An organizing group boasted that the protest spanned 50 city blocks.
There were no immediate incidents involving the chanting, placard-waving throng. There were, however, reports of some protesters carrying sticks.
And there was a threat from a major protest group: “If the government doesn’t announce a retreat on the (tuition) hike today the next step will involve actions that disrupt the economy,” the C.L.A.S.S.E. group posted on its Twitter page.
The demonstration came two days after the provincial budget and a blunt refusal by Premier Jean Charest’s government to back down on the hikes.
The province is nearly doubling tuition fees over five years, to about $3,800. It will reach its target with a series of $325-a-year increases. However, the tuition fees in the province will still be among the lowest in Canada even after the hikes.
Students have been staging almost daily protests for the last several weeks and blocked a major commuter bridge on Tuesday. Police have also ramped up tactics and have used chemical sprays against the demonstrators.
The government has toughened its own tone lately.
The protest that shut down Montreal’s Champlain Bridge prompted Charest’s Liberals to cast that demonstration as an affront to against hard-working taxpayers.
That populist message pitting students against taxpayers was repeated Thursday by the government, which is nearing the end of its mandate and is deeply unpopular.
“We also need to listen to the silent majority — those who can’t be in the streets because they’re too busy working,” Education Minister Line Beauchamp said of the protests.
“(They’re) biting the hand that feeds. The money (for universities) has to come from somewhere…. If they hurt economic activity, if they keep people from going to work, it’s frankly biting the hand of those who pay the bills.”
In the other camp, student-group leaders, union officials and left-leaning politicians from different parties gathered at a news conference to show their united front.
The group included the possible next premier of Quebec, Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois. Leading recent opinion polls, she promised that the tuition increase would be short-lived if she were elected.
“A Parti Quebecois government will cancel it,” Marois said.
But she refused to say how she would pay for universities. Marois simply said she would call a summit to discuss university funding after the election — expected as early as this spring.