Thousands protest tuition hikes in Montreal

Thousands of people took to the streets of Montreal braving driving rain to protest planned tuition hikes after talks between students and the Quebec government broke down.

Students, along with grandparents, parents and their children, marched peacefully under a sea of colorful umbrellas, many of them wearing costumes and playing music with trumpets, foghorns and pans.

CLASSE, the largest and most militant of the main student groups, said some 10,000 people were marching by late afternoon. It had called for the biggest protest since the start of the tuition crisis in February.

"It's to continue to rally and show that we are still motivated even if summer is on its way," CLASSE leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois told reporters before the start of the protest.

A strong police presence, including dozens of vehicles, served to prevent any flare-up in the protest, after previous clashes in recent weeks. About 700 people were arrested in Montreal and Quebec City in a single night late last month after an emergency law was passed to limit the protests.

"I just paid off a Can$15,000 ($14,400) student loan," said Celine Larfeuille, 46.

"I am here for my children, so that they don't have to owe as much. I am ready to protest every single day, every night, until the talks lead to an agreement."

Jacques Boisvert, 66, wearing a waterproof poncho and a pot on his head, explained that as a taxpayer, "investing in youth is like making an investment that will bring great returns to the community. The government we have right now is doing the opposite."

A hairdresser who said he was against the student movement nonetheless expressed awe at the size of the gathering.

"Quebecers have lost it, they have gone crazy," said Richard, who did not want his last name disclosed. "My children go to school and I pay for it. This user-payer system works for me."

Standing on balconies above and near Richard's salon, locals encouraged the protesters by banging on pots.

Students have rejected a government offer to reduce the tuition hike by Can$35 ($34) per year, which would bring the total increase to Can$1,533 ($1,473) over seven years instead of Can$1,778 ($1,708).

CLASSE warned that the protest's route would not be disclosed in advance to police, contrary to requirements under the emergency law.

"We want to keep pressure on the government with a protest that goes against Special Law 78," said Nadeau-Dubois, the group's leader. "We are very proud of it."

Taking to Twitter, Montreal police called the protest "illegal," saying it had not received the route. However, it added: "People can march if no crime is committed."

Special Law 78 requires organizers to give police at least eight hours advance warning of times and locations of protest marches, with fines imposed for failing to do so.

The measure was passed on May 18 in an effort to quell the demonstrations, but so far it has only served to galvanize opposition to the government.

Quebec Education Minister Michelle Courchesne said earlier that the law had ensured "peaceful demonstrations.

"There is a lull," she told La Presse newspaper.

"As long as there is no agreement with the students, it is necessary," the minister said about the measure.

This week's discussions between Courchesne and student leaders were touted as a "last chance" to resolve the conflict before the start of summer festivals and other major tourist draws such as the Montreal Grand Prix.

After four days of negotiations in Quebec City, Courchesne called off the talks on Thursday. No new meeting has been set.

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