Quebec passes law in effort to end daily protests

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By PHIL COUVRETTE, Associated Press

MONTREAL (AP) — Quebec's provincial government passed an emergency law Friday that will shut some universities and impose harsh fines on protesters blocking students from attending classes as the government looks to end three months of demonstrations against tuition hikes.

The law risks inciting students who called it an act of war.

The law passed 68 votes to 48.

Protests were planned in Montreal later in the day to condemn the vote which students and supporters say limits their ability to demonstrate their disapproval of the fee hikes.

Hundreds of protesters gathered in downtown Montreal on Thursday night as the government introduced the bill to quell the most sustained student protests in Canadian history. But there was none of the violence that erupted Wednesday when windows were smashed, more than 120 people were arrested and police and protesters were injured.

On Friday, the city of Montreal passed a bylaw restricting protesters from wearing masks during demonstrations that includes fines between $500 and $3,000. The city also said demonstrators will have to provide details of their itineraries beforehand.

Officials have said they believe protesters wearing masks have been causing the most trouble. A similar bylaw was under consideration in Quebec City.

"Our cities can no longer become targets," Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay said. "It's time to reclaim our streets, our neighborhoods, our cities."

Rights groups have protested the bylaw, calling it a restriction on the democratic right to demonstrate.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest said the proposed provincial legislation would not roll back the tuition hikes of $254 per year over seven years. Rather, it would temporarily halt the spring semester at schools paralyzed by walkouts and push up the summer holidays. Classes would resume earlier in August.

Proposed fines range from $7,000 to $35,000 for a student leader and between $25,000 and $125,000 for unions or student federations if someone is prevented from entering an educational institution.

Opposition Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois called it "one of the darkest days of Quebec democracy," and said Charest should hold elections because of the unpopularity of the law.

Martine Desjardins, one student leader, called the bill a "declaration of war against the student movement."

But embattled Education Minister Michelle Courchesne said before the vote that despite the legislation, talks would go on and an agreement could still be reached.

"Even if there is a special legislation tonight, tomorrow, there can still be an agreement after the law," she said.

Some of the loudest cheers early on Friday were reserved for one man who stood on a garbage can and burned what looked like a copy of the government bill.

The conflict has caused considerable social upheaval in the French-speaking province known for having more contentious protests than elsewhere in Canada — and the country's the lowest tuition rates.

The U.S. consulate in Montreal last month warned visitors and U.S. expats to be wary of demonstrations.

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