11/13/2012 05:22 EST | Updated 01/13/2013 05:12 EST

Quebec groups demand inquiry into police behaviour during student protests

MONTREAL - A coalition of Quebec organizations is demanding a public inquiry into alleged police brutality during the province's recent student protests.

The group of 50 organizations said Tuesday that the springtime events constituted one of the greatest examples of police repression in Quebec history.

Led by the Quebec-based League of Rights and Freedoms, the coalition said the PQ government appeared receptive to an inquiry when it was in opposition and should now act.

"This police impunity needs to stop," said Nicole Filion, a co-ordinator with the group. The coalition includes a number of unions, including teachers' unions; a climate-change group; the Occupy movement; and the francophone arm of Amnesty International Canada.

"That's what stayed with us the most during the events of the spring. It's what continues to stay with us the most — as in the cases where a police officer hurts or beats someone."

The province's public safety minister, Stephane Bergeron, said he was surprised by the request. He said he had already indicated that he would examine the possibility and promised to have an answer soon.

"I'm evaluating this request that was made to me several weeks ago," Bergeron said. "I'm examining it on its merits. But, as minister of public safety, I also have a responsibility to protect the process that's already underway in terms of police ethics (investigations)."

A number of protesters were injured this spring. One student lost an eye. Hundreds were kettled, rounded up, and fined over municipal bylaw violations. Some officers were seen pepper-spraying crowds, including people who appeared to pose no physical threat.

The events took place during daily protests that, while remaining for the most part peaceful, regularly saw objects tossed at police and business windows smashed.

The anti-tuition protests drew international media attention and led to the cancellation of planned tuition hikes in the province.

Now the current PQ government must manage the competing demands of student groups — including one faction that would settled for a tuition freeze, and another that demands zero tuition.

It must also manage broader public opinion, which surveys suggest was mostly onside with the tuition increases.

The government is organizing an education summit to discuss the issue early next year. It's unclear whether the more hardline student faction will boycott the summit; some zero-tuition classroom walkouts are already planned this fall.

Quebec has the lowest university tuition in Canada and the previous government called tuition hikes the fairest way to increase post-secondary funding.

But protesters looked outside Canada's borders. They noted that some jurisdictions offer tuition-free education and they called the issue one of societal priorities.