MONTREAL - Tens of thousands of university and CEGEP students, along with others who oppose a tuition hike, took part in a massive and orderly three-hour march that launched from Peel St. just before 2 p.m. Thursday.

A sea of protesters jammed the area near Place du Canada and eventually started walking north on Peel in what was to become a roughly three hour march ending at the Old Port.

The marchers appeared relaxed and orderly in the unseasonably warm and humid 24 degree, overcast weather, which briefly turned to rain at about 3:30 p.m., without any noticeable decrease in participation.

Police did not report any problems or arrests, other than that they had confiscated a few sticks that some protesters were carrying unattached to any placards.

The total number of demonstrators could not be determined, but one student representative claimed that about 200,000 were in attendance.

Police, as per custom, declined to offer a crowd estimate but other observers pegged the crowd at somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000.

A number of protesters were from other Canadian provinces. One said that, while it might be true that Quebec has low fees, it's a principle worth fighting to keep.

"Where I was from before we were trying to fight the same idea (of fee hikes) -- but a lot of people didn't get together like they have in Quebec," said Parker Dorris of Cranbrook, B.C., who studies at Montreal's Concordia University.

"That's one of the main reasons I came to Quebec, because it's such a liberal province and they fight for these kinds of rights."

Another student from Newfoundland and Labrador, 21-year-old Laura Battcock, said she came to Montreal to study dance because the program she wanted didn't exist back home. Now she's afraid she won't be able to afford it if fees increase.

Students who come from other Canadian provinces pay a premium to study in Quebec, where in-province students are offered the lowest rates.

Premier Charest said in an interview Thursday that he was not planning on changing his position and said that students themselves bear responsibility for turning their back on dialogue after they stormed out of a 2010 meeting to discuss tuition hikes.

"They chose to boycott the discussion, unfortunately," said Charest. "Since then we chose to have a world class post-secondary education system with the means to achieve it."

The government has toughened its own tone lately.

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

"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."

Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois expressed support for the protesters.

"Young people have every reason to fight against the increase," said Marois. "Nobody would accept an increase of 75 percent increase in taxes, electricity rates, or other fees," she said at the march.

Marois has promised to reverse the tuition hike if her party gains power and then hold a summit on higher education, which could, in turn, lead to tuition hikes as well.

"Jean Charest is showing that his idea of leadership is being stubborn and refusing to listen. But by refusing the chance to have a dialogue, he's showing weakness. Real leadership is about getting results," said Pauline Marois.

Ironically, Marois was an education minister in the 1990s PQ government that tried hiking tuition before backing down in the face of widespread protest.

Charest criticized Marois as showing a "lack of leadership."

One student leader was able to rouse the crowd with words of encouragement.

"If we want to win, if we want to prove the doubters wrong, we'll have to go further together, we'll have to upset and occupy, we'll have to shake things up in Quebec," said student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, to a cheering crowd.

There was also a threat from a major protest group: "If the government doesn't announce a retreat on the (tuition) hike today the next step will involve actions that disrupt the economy," the C.L.A.S.S.E. group posted on its Twitter page.

For additional photos of the march, please click here.

Smaller rallies preceded the big march

Smaller rallies began Thursday morning at Place Emilie Gamelin, with another group at Concordia University at 10 am., while high school students are supposed to meet at Phillips Square in downtown Montreal.

Other groups met in the Old Port and blocked drivers from coming in, then began marching along Notre Dame St., while another group marched west along Hochelaga.

Police followed both groups in vans and patrol cars, and rerouted traffic around the protesters.

Some music students at McGill university who do not support the strike found themselves unable to attend class after protesters prevented people from entering a building.

Concordia University cancelled classes for Thursday and locked down its buildings out of fears of violence.

Organizers expected people from those small rallies, as well as members of several large labour unions, to join up in a massive group at Place du Canada during the lunch hour, then to march east along Sherbrooke St. and south on Berri St. for a demonstration in the Old Port, in front of the Science Museum.

Montreal police warned the public avoid driving in downtown Montreal Thursday and provided constant updates about the protest via Twitter. 

The events were slated to finish at the Metropolis and the National showbars with shows by a number of Quebecois musicians, including Dan Bigras and Paul Piche.

Government policy set in stone

The protesters say the tuition hikes of $325 per year for the next five years, bringing tuition fees in Quebec up to $3,800 still below the national average, will put university out of reach for the middle class.

"What we found is that one-third of families that earn between $30,000 and $60,000 don't contribute to a student's studies, not because they want to, but because they don't have the financial means right now to help their children," said Leo Bureau-Blouin of the Federation etudiante collegiale du Quebec.

Students say all they want is the chance to talk to the government, but near-daily protests including blocking the Champlain Bridge have not convinced the government to change its mind about the hikes announced a year ago.

"The whole policy of tuition fees is founded on our policy to have a world class education system in Quebec and we've had years of debating on this," said Premier Jean Charest. "Not months, not weeks, literally years. And so hopefully those who choose to express themselves today will do it peacefully and respectfully."

"The decision has been made," said Education Minister Line Beauchamp.

Student organizers have planned a weekend meeting to discuss strategy if the provincial government refuses to discuss the tuition increases.

They say they will debate how to hold protests that hurt the government, without affecting the public.

With a file from The Canadian Press