Police in Quebec have arrested almost 700 in the latest demonstrations against the government's plan to increase tuition fees. The protests came despite a new law restricting freedom of assembly in the Canadian province.
A growing social crisis in the Canadian province of Quebec claimed its second political victim on Thursday, when Premier Jean Charest sacked his top aide, replacing him with a former chief of staff. It's believed that Daniel Gagnier's main job will be to attempt to find a way of ending months of student unrest on Quebec's streets.
The move came just hours after police arrested almost 700 demonstrators in the mainly French-speaking province's two major cities, Montreal and Quebec City, the website of Canada's public broadcaster, CBC reported.
This was the highest number of arrests since a series of protests began in mid-February over the government's plans to increase the tuition fees students pay at Quebec universities by about 75 percent over the next five years. In negotiations so far, the government has offered to spread out the increase over seven years. Currently Quebec students pay some of the lowest tuition fees in North America, at an average of around CA$2,500 ($2,430, 1,900 euros) per year.
Most of those arrested in the early hours of Thursday were held for unlawful assembly, but a few were also detained for armed aggression or assaulting police. A police spokesman in Montreal said all of those arrested had been issued with a CA$600 fine and released on Thursday.
Controversial new law
Those arrested were among several thousand who took to the streets of Montreal and Quebec City on Wednesday night in defiance of a controversial new law the government passed just days ago which restricts the right to freedom of assembly. Bill 78 requires organizers or demonstrations to give the authorities at least eight hours notice and information about the route they intend to take. The authorities declared Wednesday's demonstration illegal because organizers had failed to reveal their route, but police said they only moved in to break it up after some officers felt they were in physical danger.
Tens of thousands had taken to the streets on Tuesday to mark 100 days since the at times violent student protests began, in what many saw as a sign that the premier's attempt to crack down on the unrest has backfired.
An opinion poll published by the Journal de Montreal daily on Tuesday found that 53 percent of respondents believed the new law went too far, while just 32 percent believed it was fair. Eight percent said it didn't go far enough.
"People are backing the students because Charest went too far," Jacques Hamel, a sociology professor at the University of Montreal told the AFP news agency. "It's a threat to fundamental rights, freedom of expression, freedom of association."
The crisis claimed its first political scalp earlier this month when Education Minister Line Beauchamp announced that she was not just stepping down but quitting politics entirely after failing to resolve months of student unrest.
pfd/msh (AFP, Reuters)