Tens of thousands of Quebec students descended on downtown Montreal Thursday afternoon for the latest in a series of escalating protests against proposed tuition hikes.

An imposing crowd, considerably larger than the one at Montreal's famous 1995 pre-referendum rally, formed a kilometres-long sea of opposition to Quebec's tuition increases, scheduled to take effect later this year.

In a spring laden with student demonstrations against the Quebec government, this was easily the largest.

The parade of protest was so long that its front end would be a full neighbourhood – or even two – away from the tail end.

An organizing group boasted that the protest spanned 50 city blocks.

There were no violent incidents involving the chanting, placard-waving throng.

There were, however, reports of some protesters carrying sticks, that police confiscated.

And there was a threat from a major protest group:

"If the government doesn't announce a retreat on the [tuition] hike today the next step will involve actions that disrupt the economy," the C.L.A.S.S.E. student group posted on its Twitter page.

The demonstration came two days after the provincial budget and a blunt refusal by Premier Jean Charest's government to back down on the hikes.

Students have been staging almost daily protests for the last several weeks and blocked a major commuter bridge on Tuesday.

Police have also ramped up tactics and have used chemical sprays against the demonstrators.

Protesters out in streets hours before march

A smaller group of students started the day of action early, gathering at the Berri/UQÀM metro station just before 8 a.m. ET. About 100 protesters said they were planning a surprise action that would have an "economic disruption."

Just before 9 a.m., the group moved into the metro. A half-hour later, they emerged from the Honoré-Beaugrand metro station in the city's east end and marched toward the Port of Montreal, blocking its entrance for about 30 minutes before moving on. Port officials said operations were not significantly affected.

Just before 11 a.m., the group headed into the metro system at the l'Assomption station.

Montreal police warned motorists to leave their cars at home and avoid the downtown area if at all possible once the main demonstration got underway at 1 p.m.

The march started at the corner of Peel Street and René-Levesque West then moved north towards Sherbrooke Street, before turning east.

Concordia University closed down both of its campuses in anticipation of the demonstration.

Transit rerouted

The STM rerouted downtown buses throughout the day because of the protest, and advised people to use the metro.

Students from Quebec City and Gatineau were bused to Montreal to join the march.

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Protesters provided their march route ahead of time. (Courtesy of the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec)

In the past few weeks, students have blocked bridges and major roadways in an attempt to increase pressure on the government to reverse its position on the proposed tuition increases.Tactical police have been called in to disperse crowds on several occasions.

The annual $325 hike in tuition proposed by the government would result in an overall increase of $1,625 for Quebec students. 

However, the tuition fees in the province will still be among the lowest in Canada even after the hikes.

Students argue that increases will limit access to education in the province and have vowed to continue demonstrations until the hikes are abandoned.

The government dug its heels in this week, insisting the increases are in the best interests of students and will improve the quality of the province's universities.

Charest said Thursday the rising fees are inevitable and that the government's decision reflects a "fair policy."

It's taxpayers who will continue to assume most of the bill,  he argued, while the share students pay will be only 17 per cent of the total cost of their training.


Read more about tuition fees across Canada

With files from The Canadian Press