Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Quebec students, police battle in streets

Protesters follow Liberal convention out of Montreal

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VICTORIAVILLE, Que. -- A violent standoff erupted on the streets here where Quebec's governing party was holding its weekend convention, as protesters and provincial police rained physical abuse on each other Friday.

Some protesters beat up a provincial police officer -- kicking, punching and levelling blows with a stick. A police vehicle, being pelted with projectiles, plowed through a hostile crowd.

With that, the epicentre of Quebec's stormy student protest movement shifted to Victoriaville, the small city where the Liberals had moved their meeting.

It became instantly clear as the convention kicked off that the attempt to escape demonstrators by moving the event from Montreal would meet with limited success.

The standoff started with people tossing projectiles like smoke bombs, paint bombs and sticks in the direction of provincial riot police guarding the Victoriaville facility hosting the Liberal gathering.

When protesters pulled down a metal barrier outside the building, police pushed back. Using riot gear including stun grenades and chemical irritants, they moved protesters into surrounding streets.

By the time it was over there were reports of multiple injuries to protesters and police -- including one of a demonstrator being shot in the face with a rubber bullet.

With that, a community of 43,000 nestled between farmers' fields and the Trans-Canada Highway was transformed into an unlikely battleground, with people dancing to notes from a protester's brass instrument while a flurry of objects rained through the sky.

It was a scene all too familiar to Montrealers. Downtown dwellers have become accustomed lately to human traffic jams and the sound of police helicopters buzzing overhead every night.

Protest groups responded to the Liberals' shift in venue by organizing rides in yellow schoolbuses for the 170-kilometre journey to Victoriaville.

The disquietude forced a nearly one-hour delay in the convention, as some delegates complained of irritation from gases that had seeped into the building.

But when Premier Jean Charest finally took to the stage he was greeted with wild applause from his partisans. He defended his decision to hike tuition by more than 75 per cent and exhorted students to "end their boycott and get back to class."

The premier also cast his principal opponent as a popularity hound unwilling to make difficult decisions. He made sure to point out that PQ Leader Pauline Marois and her party have been wearing, on their lapels, the iconic red square that symbolizes the protest movement.

"Governing means making decisions that aren't easy, or popular.... We've chosen to defend the future of all Quebecers," Charest said.

"Pauline Marois made a choice to wear the red square." He concluded his speech with the words, "Leadership, leadership, leadership."

Meanwhile, only about one-third of the province's post-secondary students actually remain on a declared strike; the others have either never joined the movement or have gone back to class.

Polls suggest the weeks of unrest have not actually harmed the Charest government, whose call for tuition increases appears, on the contrary, to have actually improved its public support.

Amid the clouds of smoke at Friday's standoff came a sliver of light. Student leaders were convened to Quebec City for emergency talks with the provincial government aimed at ending the three-month standoff.

With the semester at risk of being cancelled, the three main student groups and several union leaders were invited for talks with the government negotiator.

Authorities have avoided wiping out the semester so far, given the logistical challenges that would follow widespread cancellations.

After 12 weeks of walkouts, the student leaders and provincial government remain far apart and there has been little sign of a possible negotiated remedy.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 5, 2012 A19

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