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Watertown native recounts his experience near Montreal student protests

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As the streets of Montreal rage on a nightly basis with crowds that can be as large as the combined populations of Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties, Watertown native Colin L. Riendeau can only watch from his downtown apartment building.

In the approximately three months of protests and student strikes over a tuition increase, Mr. Riendeau has been unable to complete his class work, including one degree program that he needs only one class to finish.

The 2007 Watertown High School graduate has to complete his final course at Concordia University, which he described as his undergraduate thesis, and is earning another degree at Université du Québec à Montréal .

A new routine has set in for nights in the Quebec metropolis: The rabid yells of student protesters are met with the stomps of responding riot police, the pops of the flashbang grenades they throw combined with the loud whooping sound from the blades of police helicopters.

“It’s become in a weird way normal, but it’s a normalcy that’s quite abnormal,” Mr. Riendeau said.

Though the strike effectively has cleared the campus, Mr. Riendeau said he has had to keep up with class work and professors, some of whom are still required to teach to empty classrooms. He said some teachers have made arrangements with students for them to be graded on essays and other assignments outside of class.

He said the uncertain status of the protests has made it difficult to leave the city for extended periods.

“No one knows what’s going on, and nobody knows how to parse the situation,” Mr. Riendeau said. “At any moment, the strike could be canceled and everyone would be back in class.”

Protests have developed as Quebec Premier Jean Charest has refused to roll back the tuition hikes of $254 per year over seven years. Quebec has the lowest tuition rates in Canada, and even after such an 80 percent increase, it would remain among the lowest in the country.

Unrest in the city also has risen following rules passed by Quebec’s government Friday requiring protest groups of 50 or more to give police eight hours’ notice before they assemble, along with their planned routes.

“It was meant to regain control, but it’s completely backfired,” Mr. Riendeau said.

On Tuesday, a group of protesters the Montreal Gazette estimated at 200,000 flooded the streets. Had the protest taken place in Watertown, Mr. Riendeau estimated Arsenal Street would have been mostly filled from Salmon Run Mall to St. Patrick’s Church.

He originally opposed the protests, noting that his tuition costs as a foreign student came out to about $16,000 per year.

“It’s minuscule amounts compared to what I have to pay,” he said.

His views of the movement changed as he saw his friends incurring large debts while attending American schools, which in many cases are more expensive than their Canadian counterparts. With higher tuition rates, he said, he found worries that students would have to take fewer classes or avoid school altogether.

“I started to look at it not as how it affects me personally, but how it affects the entire society of Quebec,” he said.

Mr. Riendeau has stayed away from protest areas at night, saying any arrest would mean a swift deportation and an end to his studies.

“There’s a side of me that wants to be there, but another side that knows it’s not in my best interest,” he said.

Mr. Riendeau compared the protests to student demonstrations at Columbia and Kent State in the 1960s and 1970s.

“We have a group of young people that are unhappy with the way things are that want change, and it only seems to be getting bigger,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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