MONTREAL - Student demonstrators temporarily blocked access to a Montreal bridge amid protests over tuition-fee hikes Thursday, triggering a brief showdown with riot police.
The shutdown of Jacques Cartier Bridge, a key access point to Montreal, compelled riot police to move in and clear the area to avoid a monster rush-hour traffic jam.
Police banged batons against their protective shields as a warning for the students to move along, and the bridge gradually reopened. Some protesters who got too close, linking arms and taunting the officers, were pepper-sprayed or shoved away.
The incident at the bridge involved a small crowd of students and it came after a far larger, more orderly protest throughout the afternoon.
A much bigger group comprising thousands of students had been marching peacefully through the downtown streets while police kept their distance.
Officers decided to step in once they detected potential for traffic chaos.
"(Protesters) blocked the bridge in both directions so the bridge wasn't open at all, so the riot team just dispersed the people," said Montreal police spokesman Daniel Fortier.
Organizers said they planned to take their protest to Quebec City next week to the steps of the national assembly; they said 55,000 students had agreed to support their ongoing general strike, joining the ranks of those who have already left their classrooms.
Those striking students oppose the provincial government's move to nearly double tuition fees over a five-year period, to $3,800 from the current in-province rate (Canadian students from other provinces pay significantly higher rates to study in Quebec) of $2,200. They say the increase will limit access to education, which should be a fundamental right.
"Increasing tuition fees means rejecting thousands of people from the universities of Quebec — persons who have the talent to study but may not be able to pay," said protest spokesman Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois.
"We think education is a right, we think everyone should go to university if they have the talent to do it and increasing tuition fees that fast is totally blocking that right."
The government points out that tuition fees in Quebec are so much lower than in most other provinces that — even with the hikes — they will still be among the lowest in the country, well below the national average for in-province students.
Only a minority of Quebec university students have joined the strikes.
Other students have expressed frustration with them and voiced sympathy for the tuition increase as a necessary step to improve the quality of universities.
Quebec has embarked on a university funding spree thanks partly to the tuition hikes; but student protesters say there's plenty of money available elsewhere, perhaps in the form of higher mining royalties, to pay for better universities without increasing tuition.