(Photo by Philip Miresco)

Quebec is in the throes of mass protests. A prolonged student strike over tuition hikes triggered a law placing broad restrictions on the freedom to protest, and giving the police the power to arbitrarily declare even "approved" protests to be illegal. Over 500 were arrested in a single Montreal protest, after a prolonged and totally unjustifiable kettling incident. Kate McDonnell of the Montreal City Weblog was on that march, and she's graciously written us a piece on the experience:

Downtown Montreal midday Tuesday, thousands upon thousands of people poured into Place des Festivals and the surrounding areas to begin a march. Montrealers march more readily than most Canadians, but this was a special day – the 100th day of the student strike against the tuition increase ordained by the Quebec government under Jean Charest.

Charest has been premier of Quebec since 2003. A Conservative at the federal level, he jumped for the chance when the Quebec Liberal Party needed a new leader. He has nudged the party steadily rightward ever since. In recent years his government has been rocked by multiple charges of corruption and collusion, but it was the party's planned increase in university tuition fees that sparked the real furor in Quebec.

Early 2011, Charest announced his intention to end a tuition freeze with an increase of $325 per year until a university year (two terms) ends up costing $3,793 in 2017. Sporadic protests were held, but the demo of February 17, 2012 was the beginning of daily protests, mostly in the evenings, most peaceful but with occasional outbreaks by "casseurs" breaking windows, throwing rocks and bottles at police, painting things red.

Concerns about access to education were foremost: yes, Quebec still has some of the lowest tuition fees around, but Quebec taxes are very high, a fact that's tolerated because Quebecers have nearly European expectations for collective health care, education and other services. Statistics show that fewer Quebecers progress to higher education than other Canadians, probably the legacy of a time when the Catholic Church dominated the culture (a hegemony that only ended with the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s). Pundits are in disagreement whether rising tuition rates will lower university attendance.

The most recent ratcheting of tension was last week's passage of a new law, Bill 78, the loi spéciale which limits freedom of assembly, protest, or picketing on or near university grounds, or anywhere in Quebec without prior police approval. A more vaguely worded part of the bill would criminalize the act of encouraging people to demonstrate.

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