MONTREAL - A monster crowd that evoked memories of Montreal's famous 1995 pre-referendum rally formed a kilometres-long sea of opposition Thursday to higher university tuition fees.
The protest began in the same downtown square that hosted the pro-Canada love fest just days before the independence referendum.
Like that historic rally, this one filled the square. But it went on, and on, for blocks.
In a spring laden with demonstrations against the Quebec government, Thursday's was easily the largest. The parade of protest was so long that its front end would be a full neighbourhood — or even two — away from the tail end. An organizing group boasted that the protest spanned 50 city blocks; media estimates of its length varied from two kilometres to more than four.
There were no incidents involving the chanting, placard-waving throng. There were, however, reports of some protesters carrying sticks.
There was also a threat from a major protest group: "If the government doesn't announce a retreat on the (tuition) hike today the next step will involve actions that disrupt the economy," the C.L.A.S.S.E. group posted on its Twitter page.
The demonstration came two days after the provincial budget and a blunt refusal by Premier Jean Charest's government to back down on the hikes.
The province is nearly doubling tuition fees over five years, to about $3,800. It will reach its target with a series of $325-a-year increases. However, the tuition fees in the province will still be among the lowest in Canada even after the hikes.
A number of protesters were from other Canadian provinces. One said that, while it might be true that Quebec has low fees, it's a principle worth fighting to keep.
"Where I was from before we were trying to fight the same idea (of fee hikes) — but a lot of people didn't get together like they have in Quebec," said Parker Dorris of Cranbrook, B.C., who studies at Montreal's Concordia University.
"That's one of the main reasons I came to Quebec, because it's such a liberal province and they fight for these kinds of rights."
Another student from Newfoundland and Labrador, 21-year-old Laura Battcock, said she came to Montreal to study dance because the program she wanted didn't exist back home. Now she's afraid she won't be able to afford it if fees increase.
Students who come from other Canadian provinces pay a premium to study in Quebec, where in-province students are offered the lowest rates.
Police did not provide a precise crowd estimate Thursday. Numbers cited in reports varied wildly, just as they did at that now-historic demonstration of Oct. 27, 1995. But police did say that the turnout Thursday was probably closer to 100,000 than the 200,000 claimed by protest leaders.
Demonstrations have occurred almost daily and 300,000 students have voted to abandon their classrooms. One day earlier this week, students blocked a major commuter bridge. Police have also ramped up tactics and have used chemical sprays against the demonstrators.
The government has toughened its own tone lately.
The protest that shut down Montreal's Champlain Bridge this week prompted Charest's Liberals to cast the demonstration as an affront against hard-working taxpayers.
That populist message pitting students against taxpayers was repeated Thursday by the government, which is nearing the end of its mandate and is deeply unpopular.
"We also need to listen to the silent majority — those who can't be in the streets because they're too busy working," Education Minister Line Beauchamp said of the protests.
"(They're) biting the hand that feeds. The money (for universities) has to come from somewhere.... If they hurt economic activity, if they keep people from going to work, it's frankly biting the hand of those who pay the bills."
In the other camp, student-group leaders, union officials and left-leaning politicians from different parties gathered at a news conference to show their united front.
The group included the possible next premier of Quebec, Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois. Leading recent opinion polls, she promised that the tuition increase would be short-lived if she were elected.
"A Parti Quebecois government will cancel it," Marois said.
But she refused to say how she would pay for universities. Marois simply said she would call a summit to discuss university funding after the election — expected as early as this spring.
Ironically, Marois was an education minister in the 1990s PQ government that tried hiking tuition before backing down in the face of widespread protest.
Charest described her as lacking courage; the premier said the province should aspire to developing world-class universities and needs help from students to carry more of the financial load.
University tuition in Quebec has been mostly frozen for the last 40 years, and previous governments have either avoided touching the subject or retreated as Marois' PQ did under then-premier Lucien Bouchard.
Supporters of the freeze also call it a question of societal values — saying nobody should ever be discouraged from pursuing an education because of financial constraints.
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