MONTREAL – Thousands of students and their supporters huddled under umbrellas and banged on pots as they marched in the streets of Montreal in the rain Saturday, two days after talks collapsed between student groups and the Quebec government aimed at ending weeks of protests over proposed tuition hikes.
The failed talks came at a crucial time for the Quebec government, with Montreal's peak tourism season fast approaching with international events such as the Grand Prix F-1 race and international jazz and comedy festivals that bring millions of dollars in tourism revenue.
Student groups called for a tuition freeze, but the government ruled out that possibility. Students also object to an emergency law put in place to limit protests.
Quebec's average undergraduate tuition — $2,519 a year — is the lowest in Canada, and the proposed hike — $254 per year over seven years — is tiny by U.S. standards. But many Quebecois are more likely to compare themselves to European countries where higher education is mostly free, rather than the U.S.
"The attitude is to send a message to (Quebec Premier Jean) Charest that, at this moment, it is not only a student struggle but a popular struggle," said student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, who had called for more protests after the talks collapsed on Thursday.
"We see a lot of people going in the streets every night in Montreal and now all over Quebec."
Students mixed with families gathered at a central park near downtown Montreal, listening to speeches before the march started Saturday afternoon.
Josee Mercier, 30, with her family of five in tow, said she was there for her kids' education, but also for her own immediate study plans.
"I'm a single mother, I can't afford tuition of thousands of dollars," she said. "I'm also trying to head back to school to become a nurse but because it's too expensive and I have a family to support just I can't."
"We need a government that cares about the poor, about kids," she added.
It was the latest daytime rally in Quebec's largest city. On May 22 over 100,000 marchers marked the 100th day of student protests. An even larger crowd gathered on March 22.
More than 2,500 people have been arrested since a student strike at more than a dozen Quebec colleges and universities began in February. Most have occurred during marches in Montreal and Quebec City.
Quebec officials said Nadeau-Dubois' group has threatened to disrupt the lucrative F-1 racing Grand Prix next weekend, but the student leader reiterated Saturday he was merely going to use the publicity generated by the racing event to make his cause visible.
Charest said the students were hurting the Quebecois with their actions and hindering the very people from whom they seek support.
Charest's government passed emergency legislation on May 18 restricting protests and closing striking campuses until August. The law requires that police be informed eight hours before a protest begins, including details on the route of any demonstration of 50 or more people. It also prohibits demonstrations within 50 meters (165 feet) of a college and declares that anyone who incites or helps another person break the new regulations can be fined.
Amnesty International said the law breaches Canada's international human rights obligations and called on Quebec's legislature to rescind it. On Wednesday, two United Nations officials expressed concern about the law and "urged federal and provincial governments of Canada and Quebec to fully respect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, expression and association of students affected by two new legislations."