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Students took to the streets Thursday to fight tuition hikes. ((Peter Akman/CBC))

What started as a peaceful downtown protest by more than 2,000 Quebec students against higher tuition fees turned ugly Thursday just as the demonstration started winding down.

Montreal riot police had to move in and use stun grenades and pepper spray to disperse a rowdy group of students after scuffling with them outside a government building.

The altercations near the Loto-Quebec building came after a three-hour protest by students which snaked through the downtown streets, tying up traffic along the way.

One university student who would only identify himself as "Ben" says it didn't seem to him that the protesters provoked the police.

"They [police] began marching forward and then they started throwing flash-bang grenades over the crowd and a couple of people were arrested," he said.

"It seemed like they just wanted to disperse the crowd but I think it was a little more force than was necessary."

Many of the protesters began dispersing after the noisy march reached Quebec Premier Jean Charest's downtown office.

'We are totally against this drastic measure that is really an historical attack to the right to education and to the accessibility of post-secondary education.' —Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, student spokesman

Police used pepper spray to keep several protesters in check and five people were arrested throughout the protest.

Montreal police spokeswoman Anie Lemieux said they face charges of assault, mischief and uttering threats.

Lemieux said a female employee in the Loto-Quebec building suffered a fractured arm during a scuffle with demonstrators who entered the building.

She also said several luxury vehicles were damaged and two police cars were sprayed with grafitti and dented.

Police used Twitter all afternoon to post updates about the protest, and to warn motorists to steer clear from the downtown core.

Students angry about upcoming tuition hikes

The demonstration coincided with a one-day strike by thousands of junior-college and university students.

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Students say they're worried about affordable access to higher education. ((Canadian Press))

Students in the province have promised to fight the government's proposal to raise university tuition fees  by $325 each year for five years, beginning in 2012.

The planned increases would bring tuition for Quebec students to $3,793 in 2016-17, up from the current $2,168.

That would still leave the province 30 per cent below the 2010 Canadian average.

Students are worried the higher tuition fees will further complicate efforts to fund their education.

"Our demands today are really simple," said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a spokesman for the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ). "We want the Charest government to back off from its intention to raise tuition fees."

"We are totally against this drastic measure that is really an historical attack to the right to education and to the accessibility of post-secondary education."

Quebec has the lowest tuition fees in Canada, Nadeau-Dubois said — and that should be a source of pride.

Nick, a 60-year-old teacher who watched the protest before police moved in, called the Quebec tuition fee increases a compromise and described them as "pretty reasonable."

"But obviously it's going to cause some students at the bottom end of the scale to find it difficult to make the necessary funding," he added.

"If we were really to bring it [fees] up to the level that other provinces charge, it would probably cause more than just a riot."