GATINEAU, Que. – Increasingly nasty skirmishes in Quebec between police and student protesters resulted in 150 arrests in one spot Thursday, in a province filled with politically charged anti-tuition demonstrations.
The arrests came at the Universite du Quebec at Gatineau, where authorities described scenes of vandalism and considerable damage.
The protesters were released but the majority will face serious charges — including acts of criminal mischief and illegal occupation, which are much more severe than the tickets for municipal violations that have been handed out so far.
Quebec students have been in the streets this spring protesting against tuition hikes, which would raise university fees 75 per cent over five years but still leave the province with rates lower than the Canadian average.
While many students have returned to their classrooms, the ongoing protests have become increasingly radical, including acts that have disrupted subway service in Montreal.
Meanwhile, baton-wielding police have also become aggressive in dealing with crowds. Even some teachers have been arrested.
“I feel like I’m living in a dictatorship,” said student Laurent Paradis-Charette, pointing at the riot squad blocking access to a university pavillion.
There were warnings Thursday that the conflict is getting costly — aside from the potential price tag of extending or cancelling school semesters.
Provincial police said the protests have already cost them $1.5 million just in overtime — and that’s without patrolling the biggest hotbed of the dispute, Montreal, which has a separate police force. Provincial police boss Richard Deschesnes said the dispute has required more than 28,000 hours of overtime.
Public opinion polls have suggested Quebecers generally support the fee hikes. However, they also suggest Quebecers would like to see some sort of middle-ground compromise that would calm the situation.
There has been hardly a whisper of conciliation between the Charest government and the protest groups, who have so far not even managed to agree on conditions to speak with one another.
The government has repeatedly said any talks with students would not succeed, anyway, at getting it to back down on the hikes. Past Quebec governments have retreated from, or avoided, hiking tuition fees in fear of protesters.
This dispute is playing out with a provincial election approaching, perhaps as early as this spring. Premier Jean Charest must hold a vote by late 2013.
“There are people organizing these protests who have lost control of them,” Deschesnes said.
“I’d say that’s a responsibility of anyone organizing a protest: when you have a public demonstration, you need to be able to ensure that you have control over the people participating.”
The protest groups don’t all have the same demands, which range from a tuition freeze to zero tuition.
There have also been hints that the student protests might graft themselves onto other movements comprising people unhappy with the government, such as environmentalists opposed to Charest’s northern-development plan.