The adoption of emergency legislation to end Quebec's escalating student crisis stoked fiery debate across the province overnight, from highly charged street protests that lasted into the wee hours to harsh editorials and some calls for civil disobedience.

Legal experts, civil-rights groups, unions and student groups blasted the Liberal government's hardline Bill 78, which sets strict regulations for public demonstrations and student groups that organize gatherings, with heavy financial penalties for violations.

A full-page advertisement paid for by the Quebec government to explain the law was flanked by other ads from civil society groups alarmed by what they call "draconian" measures to contain the tuition hike crisis.

'They're telling us to shut up, they're telling us we can't say what we want to say, we can't do what we want to do, but I don't think it's going to work.'

—Arianne Papillon, Quebec student

One of Quebec's teachers' unions – FAE –placed an ad with Premier Jean Charest's face and a headline that says "shame has a face."

"We don't have that many means to express our indignation," said FAE president Pierre Saint-Germain, in an interview with CBC's French-language service on Saturday.

"I'll tell you, frankly, that with this bludgeon law, it's becoming harder and harder for people and organizations, from students to unions, to express themselves publicly."

Montreal newspaper Le Devoir published an editorial titled "Abuse of power" and called on the Liberal government to seek mediation in the ongoing student protest.

Constitutional lawyer Julius Grey calls Bill 78 a  "terrible law" that suspends the freedom to association, express and protest, without sufficient reason.

"What I note in this law is that there is no opening for discussion — what kind of education we want to have, is higher education a question of preparing for the job market, or a more academic question, to promote learning? There is none of that.

"This is simply an attempt to end a debate, to appear strong and determined."

John Gomery, the former Quebec Superior Court judge, described the legislation as part of the "extreme reaction this debate has provoked."

Bill 78 does limit freedom of expression, Gomery said, but the question is "whether or not that limitation is reasonable."

Law's passage met with protests across province

The law has three prongs — it suspends winter semesters at schools where students have boycotted classes; stipulates steep financial penalties for those who try to block access to schools; and restricts public protests.

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At least 10,000 people joined the Law 78 march in Montreal Friday night. (CBC)

Politicians debated through the night on Thursday, finally voting the legislation in late Friday.

Hours later, an estimated 10,000 people took to the streets in Montreal, where nightly protests have been held during the three-month old tuition crisis.

The Montreal march flared up midway when police reported Molotov cocktails, and responded with tear gas.

But the long procession continued its winding path from downtown to the Plateau Mont-Royal, where firecrackers exploded and helicopters hovered past 2 a.m.

Montreal's protest was fuelled also by the passage of a controversial municipal  bylaw banning masks at public demonstrations.

The bylaw officially takes effect Saturday.

Protests were also held in Quebec City, Sherbrooke, Trois-Rivières and the Saguenay.

Critics blast Law 78

Quebec's special legislation reminds the province's nurses federation of their bitter 1999 conflict with the province, when the Parti Québécois government made it illegal for members to strike.

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A protester gestures during rally, which lasted past 2 a.m. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Nurses faced heavy fines, both as individuals and as a union.

"That government was very rigid, and the openness wasn't there, and that's what we feel is creating difficulties today," said Roberto Bomba, treasurer of the Fédération interprofessionelle de la Santé du Québec.

"People have to sit down and find a compromise, and find a solution."

The current Liberal government says Law 78 will "allow our students the right to go to their classes," said Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier.

But many students are deeply offended by the government's ultimate response in the conflict.

"They're telling us to shut up, they're telling us we can't say what we want to say, we can't do what we want to do, but I don't think it's going to work," said Quebec student Arianne Papillon, who marched Friday night.

Student group CLASSE vows to take legal action against the legislation as early as Tuesday.

"It's one of the basis of democracy, that citizens are allowed to go [in the streets] whenever they want, wherever they want.

With this law, this government is consciously breaking, destroying this fundamental right," said CLASSE spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois. "It's unacceptable, and if we need to break this law, we will seriously consider it." 

Loi 78 (version amendée)