Facing the most sustained student protests in Canadian history, Quebec's provincial government introduced emergency legislation Thursday that would shut some universities and impose harsh fines on pickets blocking students from attending classes as the government looked to end three months of demonstrations against university tuition hikes.
Hundreds of protesters gathered in downtown Montreal on Thursday night as the government introduced the bill. The protest spilled into an expressway between stalled cars. Police told them to clear the way or be arrested. Tuesday will mark 100 days since the demonstrations began.
Wearing the familiar red color of the protest, demonstrators - some wearing masks - blew horns and called the provincial premier's name mockingly. They were closely watched by nearby patrol cars and police followed on foot in full riot gear.
Authorities said 122 were arrested late Wednesday as thousands of demonstrators spilled into the streets of Montreal, with some smashing bank windows and hurling objects at police.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest said the proposed legislation would not roll back the tuition hikes. Rather, it would temporarily halt the spring semester at faculties paralyzed by walkouts and push up the summer holidays. Classes would resume earlier in August.
The legislation contains provisions for heavy fines for students and their federations. Fines range from $7,000 to $35,000 for a student leader and between $25,000 and $125,000 for unions or student federations if someone is prevented from entering an educational institution. The bill also lays out strict regulations governing student protests, including giving eight hours notice for protest itineraries.
The Quebec national assembly is being convened Thursday evening for a debate expected to last through the night with a vote expected on Friday.
Student reaction to the bill was damning.
"This legislation strikes a blow to the freedom of expression," said Leo Bureau-Blouin, considered one of the more moderate student leaders.
Dozens of protesters on Wednesday stormed into a Montreal university, breaking up classes. Tensions continued Thursday in Gatineau, Quebec, the site of previous protests against the hike that resulted in hundreds of arrests, where three junior colleges were evacuated after a bomb threat. Courses resumed later in the day.
The government has pointed out that a majority of students in Quebec have quietly finished their semester and aren't striking.
But many remain angry over the proposed tuition hikes.
The three-month conflict has caused considerable social upheaval in the French speaking province known for having more contentious protests than elsewhere in Canada.
There have been numerous injuries, countless traffic jams, a few smashed windows, subway evacuations, clashes with law enforcement and disruptions to the academic calendar.
The protests have at times mushroomed beyond the cause of cheap tuition, attracting a wide swath of other participants who dislike the provincial Liberal government or represent a variety of disparate causes ranging from environmentalism, to Quebec independence and anarchy.
Charest said he would table emergency legislation aimed at ending the disorder, while sticking to the planned tuition hikes.
Charest's re-election prospects have been placed further in doubt, raising the prospect that the pro-independence Parti Quebecois could gain power in an election expected later this year or next. Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois opposes any legislated crackdown on the protests and has been wearing the red square of the protest movement.
Marie Desjardins, President of the Quebec Federation of the University of Students, called on Charest to sit down personally with students and negotiate.
Biomedical student Sebastien Potvin, 30, wearing a red cowboy hat and holding a red banner, the color of the protest, said from a Montreal street corner that he fears the new law will only bring more violence.
"I don't think it will solve the problem, I think it will anger students twice as much," Potvin said.
He said the coming tuition hikes could jeopardize his remaining studies.
Under the latest version of its tuition plan, the government would increase fees by $254 per year over seven years.
Quebec has the lowest tuition rates in Canada. 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 dispute has claimed the province's education minister, who announced her resignation from politics earlier this week
Antonia Maioni, a political science professor at Montreal's McGill University, said while there were large student protests in the mid-1990s in Quebec over fee hikes, and then again in 2005, the current Quebec protests are notable for their longevity and the number of arrests.
"I don't think student protests have ever lasted for months like this before," she said.
Those in favor of the tuition increases say they will improve the quality of universities, devolve more personal responsibility to students and ease the burden on taxpayers.
Opponents argue higher fees will undercut universal access to education.
In addition the city of Montreal will be looking into a bylaw that would regulate wearing masks during protests when council convenes on Friday. Officials say people wearing masks have been causing the most problems. A similar measure was being considered in Quebec City, where fewer protests have taken place. Rights groups have protested this limits their democratic right to demonstrate.
With some degenerating into violence the U.S. consulate in Montreal issued an alert last month warning visitors and U.S. expats to be wary of demonstrations and exercise caution.
Associated Press Writers Sean Farrell, Rob Gillies and Charmaine Noronha contributed to this report.