05/17/2012 01:15 EDT | Updated 07/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Quebec Protest Emergency Bill: Charest Government To Table Tough Legislation Thursday Night

QUEBEC - Threats of further student-related mayhem in Quebec have intensified with the government's intention to crack down on the protest movement by hitting it hard in the pocketbook.

As the government announced hefty fines for individuals, student leaders and federations involved in blocking access to colleges and universities, one student leader warned the special legislation will make it difficult to control increasingly frustrated demonstrators.

"I believe my anger is quite representative of the way students are feeling, and I am convinced that will be expressed in the streets....over the next few days and the next few weeks," said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, considered one of the more radical student leaders.

"It's a declaration of war, not only against students but also against anyone who clings in any way to democracy, against anyone who clings to what Quebec was before this legislation was tabled."

Nadeau-Dubois predicted Quebecers would "rise up against such an unacceptable document."

As details of the legislation emerged Thursday night, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Montreal for a 24th consecutive daily protest against the Charest government's plan to hike tuition fees.

There was none of the violence that erupted Wednesday when windows were smashed, more than 120 people were arrested and police and protesters were injured.

Some of the loudest cheers early on Friday were reserved for one man who stood on a garbage can and burned what looked like a copy of the government bill.

At one point, several hundred demonstrators gave the Nazi salute in unison as they stomped their feet in military style. They then made their way to Premier Jean Charest's downtown office.

Earlier, protesters tried to block access to both ends of a Montreal tunnel on a busy thoroughfare, forcing authorities to order them back onto a nearby street. Police said on their Twitter account that the demonstrators complied.

Protesters slammed the legislation, saying it will do nothing to end the three-month crisis and will only lead to increased tension in an already explosive situation.

The legislation provides for fines of between $1,000 and $5,000 for any individual who prevents someone from entering an educational institution.

The penalties climb to between $7,000 and $35,000 for a student leader and to between $25,000 and $125,000 for unions or student federations.

In all cases, the fines will double for repeat offenders.

Bill 78 also lays out strict regulations governing student demonstrations, including having to give eight hours notice for details such as the itinerary, the duration and the time at which they are being held.

Police will also have the right to demand changes "in order to keep the peace and maintain order and public security."

Student reaction was swift — and damning.

"This is an abuse of power," said Nadeau-Dubois. "It's totally unacceptable in a democracy to table such legislation."

Other student reaction was just as critical.

"This legislation strikes a blow to the freedom of expression," said Leo Bureau-Blouin, considered one of the more moderate student spokesmen.

Martine Desjardins, another student leader, derided the bill as a "declaration of war against the student movement."

If passed on Friday, the bill would also pause the current academic session for striking students and have it resume in August.

Charest is hoping the measures restore order after daily student walkouts and demonstrations that have turned increasingly violent.

"We hold the conviction that this decision is important — not only for our young people, but for the future of the Quebec people," he told the legislature earlier on Thursday.

But it remains to be seen how the measure will be received by the broader public.

Polls suggest Charest's unpopular government, facing a long-shot re-election bid, might actually have public support for its tuition hikes. The premier has responded angrily in recent weeks when accused of encouraging a climate of confrontation for his own political benefit.

Bracing for more of that criticism, the provincial government bought ads in Thursday's newspapers explaining how it has already made several adjustments to its tuition plans to soften the impact on the poorest students.

The ads emphasized a point Charest is keen for people to understand: 70 per cent of Quebec students have already finished their semester and aren't boycotting classes.

The protests have mushroomed beyond the cause of cheap tuition.

They have attracted a wide swath of other participants who dislike the Charest government and represent a variety of disparate causes — ranging from environmentalism, to Quebec independence, anti-capitalism and anarchy.

They have also prompted one of the most intense left-versus-right ideological clashes in recent Quebec history.

Such debates have not been confined to the legislature and to family dinner tables. They have occasionally spilled into the streets, with passersby occasional berating protesters in expletive-laden exchanges.

Charest's opponents have adjusted their rhetoric during the dispute. Given several polls showing support for fee hikes, and the ugly scenes occasionally playing out in the streets, the Parti Quebecois is no longer condemning the premier for hiking student fees.

Now Charest's foes are condemning his approach.

The PQ and other opponents are working to link the issue to Charest's true Achilles heel: ethics scandals. There have been a multitude of quips in recent days about how Charest is cracking down on students — acting tougher with Quebec's youth than he is with the Mafia.

The premier has called a public inquiry into corruption, which begins next week. But he only called it after intense, sustained, months-long political pressure.

"What a mess! What a terrible mess! This is where the premier, the leader of the Liberal party, has led Quebec. We are debating a special law against our children, against our youth — all because of the premier's stubbornness," PQ Leader Pauline Marois told the legislature Thursday.

"Never, never ... has the premier taken a minute to meet the students. Never has his government moved on the crux of the issue, and he wants to make us believe he tried everything."

She demanded that the premier meet with student leaders.

During a legislature debate, Charest attempted to turn the issue against her. As he does on a daily basis, the premier pointed out that Marois and her party have been wearing the movement's iconic red square on their lapels. He accused her of inflaming the unrest with overheated rhetoric.

The premier did not meet with student leaders, who visited the legislature Thursday.

Two of those student leaders held a news conference billed as non-partisan. They demanded that Charest drop the legislation and try negotiation.

Those students were joined by opposition politicians; Independent MNAs; a parent; and even one student, a former soldier who served in Afghanistan who had fought against the strikers by obtaining a court injunction. All pleaded with the premier to try a more conciliatory approach.

(With files by Donald McKenzie and Nelson Wyatt in Montreal)

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