MONTREAL - Student demonstrators symbolically covered their right eyes Thursday as they marched through Montreal to recognize a peer who fears losing sight in one eye.
The demonstration was the latest in a series of protests against Quebec's plans for tuition-fee hikes. It unfolded in an atmosphere of heightened tensions, one day after a fellow demonstrator suffered a partially detached retina following a violent fracas with riot police.
Student groups say Francis Grenier, 20, was wounded following the explosion of a police stun grenade Wednesday in downtown Montreal.
On Thursday, hundreds of protesters, some wearing eye patches and others covering an eye in reference to Grenier, flooded city streets and jammed rush-hour traffic.
Riot police clutched batons and kept careful watch as protesters walked past. The officers were greeted with chants and a variety of hand gestures, ranging from two-fingered peace signs to one-fingered salutes.
"Police is everywhere, justice is nowhere," some shouted during a march that also had another theme: International Women's Day.
The fist-pumping demonstrators gathered in front of a public building near the Jacques Cartier Bridge and shouted their condemnation of the tuition-fee increases.
One by one, dozens of protesters each dropped a long-stemmed red rose into a pile at the feet of armoured riot police guarding the front door. Many held a hand over their right eye as they knelt to place the flowers.
A day earlier, seven people were arrested during a pair of Montreal protests — the latest in a string of demonstrations by students who believe Quebec's rock-bottom tuition rates are a basic right.
In the main protest Wednesday, riot police armed with batons and tear gas charged into a group of demonstrators who were blocking access to a public building. Protesters pelted the helmeted officers with snowballs.
The ambulance service initially reported Wednesday that it had treated four people — including a police officer — for only minor injuries. But Jeanne Reynolds, a spokeswoman for one of the student groups, described Grenier's injury as serious.
"We don't know yet whether he will lose his eyesight or not," Reynolds said. "He's in bad shape, so he's resting right now."
Reynolds maintained that Grenier wasn't causing trouble when he was wounded. She called it "brutal" and unacceptable that a student exercising his rights in a peaceful manner had to be sent to hospital.
Grenier was quoted in media reports saying he was playing the harmonica alongside other protesters, when police moved in swiftly without giving people time to disperse.
"It was a reaction that was totally disproportionate with what was going on," Reynolds said.
Montreal police say they've interviewed the man and are trying to determine what happened.
"Certainly, we're going to investigate to see what caused this man's injuries," said department spokesman Raphael Bergeron, who described Grenier's injury as, "quite serious."
Students have been protesting tuition-fee increases the province plans to implement over the next five years. The tuition rates for in-province students are the lowest in the country, while students who come to Quebec to study from elsewhere in Canada pay much higher fees.
Jean Charest's government says it plans to boost rates by an extra $325 in each of the next five years. Such a climb would still leave Quebec with some of the lowest tuition in the country at $3,793 per year.
The premier appeared to defend police and suggested that students carried some of the blame for the situation getting out of hand. Charest chided protesters who infiltrated the Loto-Quebec building in an incident that helped touch off Wednesday's showdown with police.
Charest said the norm for protest organizers is to share their planned itinerary, and route, with police — then stick to it. But he suggested such precautions weren't being taken by the student groups.
"To occupy a building, to scare people — that obviously has consequences," Charest said.
"Student leaders need to act responsibly, too. Police do their job the best they can but when student leaders refuse to inform them on their itinerary ... well that obviously increases the risks...
"I'm inviting protesters to work with police — to inform them, as normally happens (in other protests)."
The government argues the added tuition revenue will help preserve the quality of Quebec's universities. But students who oppose the increases say higher fees will discourage some people from going to university.