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Charest speech on Plan Nord marred by student protests; 8 arrested

MONTREAL – A chaotic scene unfolded at a high-profile event featuring Jean Charest, with rubber bullets, projectiles and tear gas raining on what was supposed to be the Quebec premier’s political parade.

A speech by the premier was delayed as protesters disrupted a long-planned Montreal symposium on his northern-development project Friday.

A group of students had managed to get into the Palais des Congres convention centre, leading to a standoff with police.

Riot police were guarding the inside of the centre. One protester was being treated for injuries following a scuffle. At least eight people were arrested, as police announced over a loudspeaker that the protest was being declared an illegal assembly.

Outside, the scene was equally messy.

While some protesters hurled objects or built a barricade in the street with construction materials they’d found, police fought them off – with batons, chemical irritants, and even rubber bullets which were fired on some protesters.

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Nicolas Moran, 21-year-old law student at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal, was one of the students who had earlier managed to get into the building.

He had a gash on his forehead and blood on his shirt.

“I wasn’t doing anything violent,” he said. “A police officer hit me over the head… But I doubt the education minister will denounce violence from police.”

Students and environmentalists were joining forces Friday against Charest. They were protesting outside a conference on the Plan Nord, Charest’s cherished political project to develop the province’s north.

The premier is facing heat from all sides as he tries to establish the ambitious plan, intended as a legacy item of his time in power and a key plank in his next election campaign.

About 45 minutes behind schedule, Charest finally began a speech that, for months, some had expected might serve as a launching pad into an election campaign.

The first words out of his mouth: “Thank you for your patience” The premier then quickly slipped into his prepared text, and described northern development as an inter-generational project deeply embedded in Quebecers’ “genes” and “DNA,” sharing his own family history with the north.

He earned a standing ovation as he walked on stage.

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The scene was strikingly different outside the hall.

Converging on the site of the event was a loose coalition of students protesting tuition hikes and environmentalists who oppose mining plans in the north.

Student groups who have been protesting tuition increases say the Plan Nord is another example of a policy that doesn’t reflect the values of Quebecers.

Also in the backdrop is an investigative report that a well-connected political organizer has been peddling cash-for-access schemes related to the Plan Nord.

Charest’s goal is to develop a 1.2-million-square kilometre stretch of the province’s north over the next 25 years.

Charest has said it will create 500,000 jobs, though his claims have been met with skepticism from opponents who call the plan everything from a marketing gimmick to a sellout of Quebec’s resources.

The investigative show on the French-language CBC showed a provincial Liberal organizer – and onetime prominent organizer for the Harper Tories – discussing the Plan Nord while being surreptitiously videotaped.

That organizer, Pierre Coulombe, was videotaped suggesting to reporters, who pretended to be potential clients, that they could have access to Plan Nord decision-makers for a fee.

Instead of handing cash-filled envelopes to political insiders, he suggested clients should simply promise them multi-year jobs on their departure from politics.

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He indicated such jobs might pay them about $25,000 annually, and require that they attend only one meeting a year while being sent on occasional business trips to Europe.

One protester said Quebec’s ongoing anti-tuition demonstrations have morphed into something bigger.

“It’s not just the tuition increase,” said Alexis Remartini, 18, who took the bus from St-Hyacinthe for the protest.

“The movement has grown to include other things we don’t agree with.”