03/01/2012 02:13 EST | Updated 05/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Police, students clash near Quebec legislature in protest over tuition fee hikes

QUEBEC - Quebec provincial police unleashed a volley of tear gas against a group of rowdy student demonstrators who tried to shove past them on Thursday and take their tuition-fee protest into the legislature.

The group was a breakaway segment of the thousands of student demonstrators who gathered mostly peacefully on a snow-covered lawn to decry a plan to nearly double student fees over the next five years.

Metal barriers lined with helmeted riot squad officers had separated the thousands of demonstrators from the historic building but one group tried to skirt them to get up the driveway.

Police ran to the spot and lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, shoving back with shields and clubs as the mob surged.

At one point, the smoke of stinging tear gas wafted over the crowd, which retreated with some students and journalists rubbing their eyes and coughing.

About a dozen tear gas grenades were fired by police, with some officers digging them out of satchels hanging off their belts and flipping them toward the crowd.

Quebec City police backed up provincial officers at the demonstration. Police dogs were also on hand and a provincial police helicopter hovered over the demonstration.

Marie-Pierre Desilets, a third-year Universite Laval student, said sending out the riot police was an extreme measure.

"I think the fact that they were shooting pepper spray when the students are just trying to walk towards the parliament, it's kind of extreme," she said.

"They're trying to send a message to the rest of the population but, I mean, we're not harmful," the 26-year-old said as the smoke from the tear gas wafted through the air.

"Things go a lot more crazy when we win a Stanley Cup or something and you don't see them there."

The scene did not seem to interrupt the other demonstrators, who listened to organizers slam the government over loudspeakers.

The students had been bused in from across the province for this latest in a series of pressure tactics.

Between 50 and 70 buses were used to transport the protesters, who came via routes which organizers refused to divulge to authorities.

The students have staged mass walkouts at universities and junior colleges to protest the government's plan to raise tuition fees to $3,800 from $2,200 over the next five years.

Even with the increase, the fees would still likely be among the lowest in Canada.

But students argue they can't afford it and insist the hikes aren't fair.

Opposition parties sided with the students in debate in the legislature, with Parti Quebecois members wearing small red squares similar to the emblem sported by the protesters.

"They're digging into the students' pockets," PQ education critic Marie Malavoy insisted.

"It's a bad decision and that's why the mobilization is increasing."

She demanded to know if the government would work with the student associations to resolve the situation.

Education Minister Line Beauchamp replied that students must pay their fair share and will contribute only about 17 per cent toward the cost of their degrees under the increases.

"This decision is understood by most of the population and also by some of the students," she said, describing the hikes as reasonable.

Desilets said students who haven't joined the strike are afraid of losing their semester or their diploma.

"But we have to do something," she said. "We can't just let it go."

More than 80,000 college and university students are on an indefinite strike over the increases, which amount to $325 per year for the next five years.

About 37 students were arrested two weeks ago when they occupied a junior college in Montreal and hurled projectiles at police who tried to remove them.

(By Nelson Wyatt in Montreal, with files from Patrice Bergeron and Peter Rakobowchuk in Quebec City)