Costumed students stage noisy Montreal protest

Protesters blocked access to Montreal's main courthouse, clogged several city boulevards and vandalized police cars.
Hundreds of students wearing masks have set off in four different directions in organized marches against tuition hikes. (Radio-Canada)

On a day of colourful street demonstrations that saw costumes fit for a masquerade ball, Quebec student protesters blocked access to Montreal's main courthouse, clogged several city boulevards, and vandalized police cars Thursday.

The daily battle over tuition hikes began with a crowd infiltrating the courthouse, while a group of 200 students also briefly occupied the lobby of a National Bank office in the city's financial district.

About midday, hundreds of students gathered in Phillips Square with plans to disperse in four different directions and block downtown roadways.

The majority of the protesters were masked, fitting in with the masquerade-theme of the demonstration organizers said was inspired by Charivari, an old folk custom that includes noisemaking and mockery.

It’s the latest in a series of what have become near-daily protests by various student groups across the province over proposed university tuition hikes.

Thursday’s demonstration is being organized by CLASSE, a collective of student associations that represents many of the students. Nearly 309,000 students are on strike over the looming fee hikes, according to student groups organizing the protests.

The plan for the afternoon rally is to divide the protesters into four groups who will march on different paths through the downtown. They're being assigned different routes based on a colour scheme that mirrors Montreal's metro lines.

About 200 protesters started the day on Thursday with a march on Notre-Dame Street, briefly blocking the entrance to the Montreal courthouse, according to city police. They then headed west into downtown.

CLASSE staged a series of demonstrations Wednesday that included a blockade at the Port of Montreal and a protest in front of Premier Jean Charest’s residence.

The students and the provincial government have been in a stalemate over the proposed increases, which would eventually see the average student’s tuition rise by more than $1,600 per year.

That amounts to a 75 per cent increase, taking provincial tuition rates from $2,168 to $3,793 before ancillary fees.

The students say the increases will make university education less accessible. The government says the tuition hikes are necessary and even when they’re fully implemented, Quebec students will pay among the lowest university fees in the country.

A map of the planned route for Thursday’s demonstration was released by Montreal police. Police also released a set of "rules for a successful demonstration," which urged protesters to leave the area if officers declare a demonstration illegal and advised them to listen to police instructions.

The demonstration is expected to last into the evening.

with files from Canadian Press