© The Canadian Press/Paul ChiassonA masked student confronts a police officer as they try to block the access to the Port of Montreal during a demonstration against tuition hikes in Montreal on Thursday.
Canada, Montreal - Several thousand students are marching through the streets of Montreal in the biggest protest yet against proposed tuition hikes in Quebec.

The chanting, placard-waving throng is snaking its way along downtown streets and is headed for Old Montreal.

There are no immediate reports of any incidents.

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

The province is nearly doubling tuition fees over five years, to about $3,800. It will reach its target with a series of $325-a-year increases. However, the tuition fees in the province will still be among the lowest in Canada even after 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.

The government has toughened its own tone lately.

The protest that shut down Montreal's Champlain Bridge prompted the Charest Liberals to cast that demonstration as an affront to against hard-working taxpayers.

That populist message pitting students against taxpayers was repeated Thursday by the government, which is nearing the end of its mandate and is deeply unpopular.

"We also need to listen to the silent majority - those who can't be in the streets because they're too busy working," Education Minister Line Beauchamp said of the protests.

"(They're) biting the hand that feeds. The money (for universities) has to come from somewhere.... If they hurt economic activity, if they keep people from going to work, it's frankly biting the hand of those who pay the bills."

In the other camp, student-group leaders and union officials and left-leaning politicians from different parties gathered at a press conference to show their united front.

The group included the possible next premier of Quebec, Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois. Leading recent opinion polls, she promised that the tuition increase would be short-lived if she were elected.

"A Parti Quebecois government will cancel it," Marois said.

But she refused to say how she would pay for universities. Marois simply said she would call a summit to discuss university funding after the election - expected as early as this spring.

Charest described her position as lacking courage; the premier said the province should aspire to developing world-class universities, and needs help from students to carry more of the financial load.

University tuition in Quebec has been mostly frozen for the last 40 years, and previous governments have either backed down or avoided planned hikes out of fear of protests.

Supporters of a freeze also call it a question of societal values - saying nobody should ever be discouraged from pursuing an education because of financial constraints.

Source: The Canadian Press