MONTREAL - Frustrated after a breakdown in negotiations, thousands took to the streets of Montreal Saturday and promised a summer full of demonstrations unless the dispute over tuition fees is resolved.
Quebecers young and old joined students at a festive afternoon march through the city, despite scattered showers. At times it seemed more like a parade, with protest songs blaring from a truck and the clanging of pots and pans that has become customary at recent protests.
The event, organized by the hardline student group CLASSE, was a chance for supporters to express their anger with the lack of progress in ending a crisis that has gripped Quebec for nearly four months, and with Bill 78, the province's new emergency law that limits protests.
Talks between students and the government over planned tuition increases broke down on Thursday.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the group's spokesman, said it would continue to hold demonstrations even if it means disrupting the tourist season _ and getting fined under the new legislation.
"We are going to hand out (pamphlets) so that tourists who visit Quebec will know what's going on here, and so they understand why they see images of protests on television every day," Nadeau-Dubois told reporters prior to the march.
He acknowledged, however, that it could be difficult to keep the pressure on the government as students leave Montreal for the summer and take on jobs.
"There might be smaller protests, but more of them across the province," he said. "We will be announcing several large protests in Montreal throughout the summer to keep up momentum."
Many at Saturday's march said they were upset not only with the government's policies, but with the way Premier Jean Charest handled negotiations.
"It seems more that they are trying to save face than anything else, and not really trying to negotiate in good faith," said Kevin Lo, a part-time faculty member at Concordia University.
Lo was arrested at an earlier protest and faces a fine over $600 for breaking provisions within Bill 78. He said he plans to fight the charge.
The long list of grievances offered by protesters was further evidence the conflict extends far beyond tuition fees.
"This isn't a student strike, it's a society waking up," read a huge banner at the front of the march.
That opinion was echoed by Mehmet Yayla, an unemployed oceanographer who said he's still paying off his student debt after graduating two years ago.
"It started with the tuition fees, but I think the population started to rise up because we were feeling the corruption in our lives," said Yayla, 40, who has been demonstrating for the last two weeks.
Charest's Liberal government passed Bill 78 last month in hopes of calming student protests, which have at times turned violent. Student leaders can face stiff fines under the new law for supporting illegal demonstrations, and Charest says it's up to student leaders to establish the parameters of their protests.
Saturday's afternoon march was declared illegal as soon as it began because CLASSE hadn't provided a route. The demonstration was allowed to continue, however, and police kept their distance. No arrests were made.
A few hundred more took part in a protest amid heavy rain Saturday night, for the 40th night in a row. That march was also declared illegal but police allowed it to proceed.
Charest has accused student groups of "hurting Quebecers" if they disrupt major events such as the Canadian Grand Prix, which brings millions of dollars to the province each year.
In particular, he took aim at CLASSE for suggesting the upcoming international car race could be used as a platform for the student cause. Charest said students should leave Grand Prix fans alone given the financial importance of the race.
On Saturday, Nadeau-Dubois said the group would use the event as a forum to raise its grievances with the province, but wouldn't prevent people from going to the race. At the nightly demonstrations, though, members of an anti-capitalist group have handed out pamphlets calling on protesters to make their presence known during Grand Prix weekend.
Business leaders have weighed in, expressing fears that fewer tourists will come to Montreal this year after seeing footage of nightly marches and hundreds of arrests that have been made during the demonstrations. Citizens also question whether the nightly police operations will end up costing more than would be realized from the proposed higher tuition fees.
- with files from Ross Marowits and Nelson Wyatt
Note to readers: Fixes spelling of Gabriel in 5th para