Students from University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM) gather for silent march
Montreal - AFP
An ongoing student protest in Quebec is boiling over following clashes with riot police, arrests and significant damage to a university campus, reminiscent of 2012 demonstrations that gripped the Canadian province.
Students, often wearing masks, have held demonstrations at the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM) since late March when several of their unions voted to strike over cost-cutting measures in the Quebec government's recent budget.
Twenty-two students were arrested by police who stormed in with tear gas, following a protest on the campus where hallways were barricaded, vending machines smashed and desks overturned.
They were charged with violating a court injunction obtained by the school administration to prevent protestors from blocking access to classes, and ordering them to "cease and abstain from all forms of intimidation both physical and mental, making threats, harassment or provocations."
But the tough measures backed by the Quebec government have divided local residents.
"I support the students' demands but I'm against their blockading classrooms," said first-year law student Marie-Perle Nadeau.
She told AFP the demonstrations against the government's austerity measures felt "much more politicized" than in the past.
- History of protests -
In 2012, more than 100 sometimes violent protests were held over rising university tuition costs. More than 165,000 students refused to attend class and tens of thousands took part in demonstrations.
The protest movement eventually morphed into a larger campaign against government corruption, mismanagement and injustice that helped oust the Liberal government after snap elections.
Another Liberal government, with a new leader, returned to power last year.
As his Liberal predecessor did before him, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard denounced the latest demonstrations, calling protesters' conduct "inacceptable."
"If a hooded person entered my place to cause a ruckus, I'd call the police," he said Wednesday.
His education minister, Francois Blais, held a press conference Thursday afternoon to offer public support to the university chancellor who has come under fire from professors and others for calling in the police to restore calm.
"Chancellor, we support you and are confident that your university will recover from the affront that is was made to suffer by a few individuals," he said.
UQAM chancellor Robert Proulx said there was "a lot of vandalism and broken windows" and a huge mess to clean up after the Wednesday night fracas.
He ordered the temporary closure of a campus building that saw most of the damage, and asked professors to hold classes even if students who claimed to be on strike didn't show up.
But the union representing teachers balked, saying professors were effectively being asked to cross a picket line. They called for Proulx's resignation.
Michele Nevert, president of the professors' union, denounced what she called Proulx's hypocrisy for implementing budget cuts ordered by the government while claiming to oppose them.
For student Marie Tremblay, the focus should not be on the chancellor's actions, but rather on the violence that makes "UQAM look like a bunch of anarchists."
Her friend Vanessa Collin, who is more focused on passing her upcoming exams, defended students' right to strike but suggested that protests not be held at night in order to avoid clashes with police.
"I can't support violence from either side," said another student who declined to give his name.