MONTREAL – People who thought they’d seen the last of the nighttime protests in Montreal streets against tuition fee increases heard the familiar drone of police helicopters over the city core Tuesday night as the noctural gnashing of teeth by students over the cost of their education was renewed, boiling over into a battle with police.
Montreal’s first nighttime tuition-fee protest in several months was almost a mirror image of the demonstrations that filled the city’s streets last year. The biggest change was that protesters were chanting against Premier Pauline Marois instead of Jean Charest, who also tried to jack up tuition when he was premier.
And like some of last year’s marches, Tuesday night’s protest ended with the crash of breaking plate glass splitting the night, the scream of police sirens and the clatter of batons against riot shields as police charged the thousands of demonstrators.
It was the second repudiation in a week of Marois’ declaration that student unrest had been put to rest.
Social peace was one of the Parti Quebecois premier’s campaign platforms in last year’s provincial election and she declared mission accomplished at the conclusion of a summit on education last week. That was where she also announced her government would increase fees by three per cent, which was less than the Liberals.
Students protested after the summit and Tuesday night they were out in force again, this time rekindling the nighttime march which was a fixture of last year’s student unrest. Most were peaceful, but some of those marches turned violent and led to mass arrests.
The call for Tuesday’s march summed up that little had changed from the marches of the past.
“We are angry,” the organizers declared in a Facebook page urging people to fill the street. They drew thousands.
Although peaceful at first, the march degenerated near its end as vandalism was reported.
Fifty-three people were arrested on charges including mischief and unlawful assembly. Police say a demonstrator and a police officer were taken to hospital, the marcher after being hit in the leg by a stun grenade and the police officer for treatment of a minor wound near his eye caused by a flying projectile.
Montrealers stared from the sidewalks as the marchers wound through the downtown core and offered none of the applause and waves of goodwill they did at some points last year. A few passersby smiled at the fireworks being shot into the air.
Others were not so impressed.
“Going to bed with the gentle sound of buzzing helicopters,” tweeted one woman. “More reliable than the groundhog as a sign of spring.”
Organized by Mouvement etudiant, which translates as “student movement,” the protest on Tuesday harshly denounced the handling of the tuition fee increases by the government.
“The Pequiste increase is almost the same as the Liberals, except over a longer period,” the group said in its call-to-arms. “We are angry.”
They said last year’s nightly marches “were a symbol of that anger and social unrest, brought back day after day.” It was not immediately clear if the marches would continue past Tuesday’s effort.
The march was originally peaceful but tension grew throughout the evening as some demonstrators threw projectiles such as bottles and chunks of ice at police.
Some marchers huddled on the sidewalk before joining the procession to pull black scarves over their faces.
The demonstrators, who called for a tuition freeze or outright free education, also chanted a number of anti-capitalist slogans.
“One, two, three, four, this is a class war,” yelled some protesters in English, while others called on demonstrators to “take to the streets” in French.
They also yelled the name of Marois, who had worn the red square symbol of the student movement and marched in a demonstration before becoming premier. Some still chanted against Charest, who lost the premier’s job on Sept. 4.
Tuesday’s protest drew a heavy police presence from the outset. A police helicopter hovered overhead and officers initially watched from the sidelines as demonstrators chanted, set off noisemakers and waved banners during their march through the city core.
Police declared the march illegal almost immediately because a route had not been provided as required under a municipal bylaw. They let it proceed while it remained peaceful but that changed near the city’s convention centre at the edge of the Chinatown district when some demonstrators began toppling road signs and throwing projectiles, ramping up the tension.
Windows were smashed at a bank and a hotel, and police said some protesters had vandalized patrol cars by smashing windows and defacing them with spray paint.
At one point, what appeared to be a flare or a firework was thrown and exploded on the sidewalk. A riot squad lined up across a street near the protest began to move forward and a noise grenade exploded.
That sent the crowd scurrying down a main street as riot officers charged behind them, slamming their batons against their shields as they ran.
Police on foot and on horseback moved in on protesters from different sides to disperse the approximately 2,000 demonstrators who remained by the time the protest was brought to an end.
Even as the main march dissolved into stragglers, police played a cat-and-mouse game with small pockets of protesters, rounding them up late into the night.
Quebec’s student strikes began in February 2012 after then-premier Jean Charest’s government announced tuition increases of $1,625 spread over five years.
The Parti Quebecois cancelled the Liberals’ plan after it took power following the Sept. 4 provincial election. The PQ’s increase will raise tuition by $70 per year.
Tuesday night’s protest was spurred after last month’s long-awaited summit on education where student leaders had hoped to win a freeze on tuition.
A demonstration took place on Feb. 26 after the government announced its three-per-cent-per-year increases.
Premier Pauline Marois left the summit proclaiming an end to social unrest but within hours student marchers were clashing with police, resulting in 13 arrests.
The scene was reminiscent of Quebec’s so-called Maple Spring, which made news around the world.
Class boycotts followed as did nightly marches which were mostly peaceful, but which sometimes degenerated into projectile-throwing melees and scuffles with riot police.
In at least one case, police rounded up more than 500 people after corralling demonstrators on a downtown street.
One of the most rowdy clashes was during the weekend of the Montreal Grand Prix, when fires were set and windows were smashed as police battled demonstrators.
The nightly demonstrations also gained recognition for their rallying cry, which usually happened promptly at 8 p.m. and saw people banging pots and pans in neighbourhoods around Montreal and in other parts of the province.