POLITICS
03/29/2012 10:59 EDT | Updated 05/29/2012 05:12 EDT

After march on Charest's house, students hang and burn effigy of Quebec premier

MONTREAL - One day after student demonstrators marched on Jean Charest's family home, they staged a mock hanging and burned down an effigy of the Quebec premier during street protests Thursday.

That fiery stunt was among the multiple signs in downtown Montreal of the bitter feud over tuition hikes that has gripped the province.

During colourful street demonstrations that saw costumes fit for a masquerade ball, student protesters also blocked access to Montreal's main courthouse, clogged several city boulevards, and vandalized police cars Thursday.

The latest battle over tuition, which has now become a daily affair, began with a crowd infiltrating the courthouse in the morning. A group of 200 students also briefly occupied the lobby of a National Bank office in the city's financial district.

Student groups staged larger demonstrations in the afternoon, when four separate marches were making their way through the downtown core, snarling traffic.

Graffiti was reported on city buses and at an Old Montreal CEGEP, part of the province's network of free pre-university institutions. Two patrol cars parked outside police headquarters were also vandalized, splattered in paint and marked with anarchist symbols. Three women were arrested in connection with the vandalism.

These events occurred a day after about 150 people marched through the tony Westmount district and converged outside Charest's home, shining flashlights at the house and shouting slogans. The lights remained off inside the house throughout Wednesday's protest, and the crowd left peacefully.

One protester explained why students burned down the Charest effigy Thursday. Her face covered in a purple mask, she said students were just letting off a little steam.

"There's a lot tension and it was just a way of expressing our frustration," said the woman, who did not want to provide her name.

Students also plan a major rally on Friday in the Gaspe when Charest visits the region to promote his northern development plan.

The government has refused to budge from its planned tuition hikes, despite the daily pressure tactics from boisterous student crowds.

Education Minister Line Beauchamp said she would be willing to sit down and negotiate with student leaders — but only if they drop their key demands. She said she would not sit down with them as long as they were demanding a tuition freeze or free education.

"There's always openness to talk about the loans and bursaries program," Beauchamp said Thursday.

"(But) their position is intransigent. Their reaction is always the same — it's either a the freeze (they want) or free diplomas. You can see that's untenable."

Several recent demonstrations have been marked by altercations with police and have ended with dozens of arrests, although there were no immediate reports of scuffles at the afternoon marches.

The four separate afternoon protest crowds were dressed in shades of either blue, green, yellow or orange, like the lines of Montreal's subway system. There were colourful signs and even a brass band at one of the marches. Many protesters wore masks, as if off to a traditional ball.

The student groups are opposing the Quebec government's plans to raise tuition annually by $325 over the next five years.

That amounts to a 75-per-cent increase, taking provincial tuition rates from $2,168 to $3,793.

Recent protests have blocked bridges, government buildings, the office of the Quebec Liberal party and there was even a protest outside Premier Jean Charest's home.

The government is refusing to back down from its fee hikes and is urging the students to get back to class, lest they have their semester cancelled.

About 130,000 students have walked out on their classrooms, calling cheap education a matter of principle and key to an egalitarian society.

The government notes that, even with the planned increases, Quebec will have among the lowest tuition rates in Canada.

Among the reasons students reportedly chose to protest Thursday at the courthouse in Old Montreal was that more than two dozen fellow activists were being arraigned there for their role in an unruly overnight demonstration several weeks ago.

While court proceedings were interrupted in the morning, they got back underway well before noon.

But there was one student at the courthouse, swimming against the tide. He was fighting for his right to return to class.

A Universite de Montreal law student was seeking an injunction from Quebec Superior Court against the leaders of the so-called strike, arguing that those students who organized the walkouts shouldn't be allowed to cancel classes for everyone.

Guillaume Charette said in a court filing that students who have paid for classes have the right to attend without obstruction or harassment. His motion targets his student union, a larger umbrella student group and the university itself.

He claims was unable to go to class on two specific days. A judge is to rule on his motion Friday.

Some students have voiced opposition to the strikes, and even acceptance of the fee hikes. They have been drowned out by the far larger contingent of student protest groups; some said they faced threats for speaking out against the student leadership.

-With files from Sidhartha Banerjee and Alexander Panetta