POLITICS
02/16/2012 12:47 EST | Updated 04/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Four arrests made, protesters pepper-sprayed at Quebec student demo

MONTREAL - There were four arrests on the ground and the whiff of pepper spray lingering in the air Thursday as hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Montreal against planned university tuition increases and other government fee hikes.

Students, unions and women's groups held a joint protest in a downtown area around the local stock exchange, sealing off access to that spot and a hotel.

Riot police were called in and things became tense as officers unloaded the contents of pepper spray cans into the crowd, which was protesting increased hydro fees and a health tax along with higher tuition.

Four demonstrators were arrested and carted off in police vehicles, which caused other participants to attempt to block the vehicles' path while chanting for the suspects' release. A cameraman from one specific TV network was surrounded by protesters who shouted at him.

Tens of thousands of university students are also planning strikes in a throwback to the kind of unrest in the 1990s that kept the then-Parti Quebecois government from raising tuition fees. Student rates have been largely frozen in Quebec, for most of the last 40 years.

But the current Liberal government of Jean Charest wants to change that.

Quebec's university tuition fees are so low that, even with an annual $325 hike planned over the next five years — which would nearly double current rates — they would still be the lowest in the country.

The protesters argue, however, that the increase will prevent some people from obtaining a higher education and they call it a question of societal values.

Alexa Conradi, a spokeswoman for the protesters, said the Quebec government refuses to budge and that's why the groups decided to take to the downtown centre.

"It's time for all our political leaders to re-examine how they run things," she said in an interview.

"One of the things they've done is they have aligned themselves with international finance, instead of with the people who have the solutions...

"They don't listen to us and hopefully this kind of demonstration will make them listen to us."

Police said those arrested Thursday could face charges of obstructing justice or of refusing to comply with police.

Events started out peacefully Thursday. Eventually, noisy protesters wrapped a huge red banner around the stock-exchange building and blocked all entrances to the huge office tower.

The banner carried a message for those inside the business centre: "It's time for you to tighten your belt."

Another sign said: "Fight poverty — redistribute wealth for a just society."

Protester Lise Cloutier said it was time to stop taxing public services and putting that on the backs of the middle class and the underprivileged: "They should be imposed on the rich and those who are better off."