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On Saturday, several tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Montreal in answer to the Quebec government breaking off negotiations two days earlier with the province's striking student movement.
According to the CLASSE student association, which called the march and is the largest of the four student groups that were involved in talks, the march began with 5,000 or so people rallying at Parc Jeanne Mance and then swelled to 25,000 as it wound its way through city streets. A banner at the front of the march read, "This isn't a student strike, it's the awakening of society."
Prior to the march departing, CLASSE co-leaders Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and Jeanne Reynolds explained to journalists that protesters would not bow to the province's draconian Bill 78 which requires organizers of public protests to submit their intentions and route of march to police eight hours in advance. (The law also threatens student leaders and organizations with a host of other obligations to control the actions of their members.) "We are going up against Bill 78 and we're very proud of that, " said Nadeau-Dubois.
He was asked by the Quebec City daily Le Soleil of CLASSE's plans now that classes are over. On May 18, the Quebec government suspended the school year at striking post-secondary institutions; it will resume in mid-August. "It will be a challenge to maintain the mobilizations at the same level during the summer," he said.
"I think we will see a regionalization of the struggle, given that students will be returning to their families. The demonstrations will be smaller, but there will be more of them, all across Quebec.
Nadeau-Dubois said CLASSE would soon announce several more large events in Montreal.
CLASSE met in its annual convention yesterday in the city of Valleyfield, just outside of Montreal. It elected a new executive council and members of the nine committees of the group, and it adopted a plan of mobilization for the summer, including calls to action on June 22 and July 22. It is planning for the period following the resumption of the school year at strike-bound institutions in August, and is proposing to the burgeoning anti-privatization movement in Quebec the idea of an across the province 'social strike' that would include the trade union movement.
Le Soleil reports that several plainclothes police walked in the Saturday march. They said they were there to improve "communication" with the student movement and "calm the waters." For example, they told the newspaper that if they saw someone wearing a mask, they would inform the person that it could be a violation of the law and could lead to an arrest. Montreal city council rushed in a new municipal regulation last month which bans the wearing of a mask at an event declared "illegal" by police or other authorities. (The Canadian government is considering adding such a proscription to the federal criminal code.)
Radio Canada broadcast an exclusive report yesterday that the Division des enquêtes sur la menace extrémiste (Office of Inquiry into Extremist Threats) of the Quebec provincial police (SQ) conducted an 80-minute interview with Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois on April 27. The police asked to meet him because it said it had discovered a threat against his life. But he says the meeting quickly became a probe into his private life as well as the functioning of CLASSE.
The interview came at a time when the government was accusing CLASSE of fomenting violent protest. The SQ has refused to talk to media about the story and the police agent who conducted the interview told Radio Canada that she has no recollection of the meeting. Nadeau-Dubois told the broadcaster that he was given the clear impression during the meeting that the request for the interview came from Minister of Public Security Robert Dutil.
Tensions in Quebec are high as the government and corporate interests are getting spooked over student demonstrations to take place during the busy summer tourist festival season. They are issuing dire warnings of "security" concerns, urging students to put demonstrations on hold in the interests of the Quebec economy. Premier Jean Charest has issued subtle warnings of consequences should demonstrations become too forceful.
The Hotel Association of Greater Montreal says hotel booking are down 25 percent this summer compared to last. The Montreal comedy festival says ticket sales to French language events dropped 50 percent in the past ten days as negotiations between the government and student associations became front page news and then collapsed.
The Montreal Grand Prix auto race, set to run this coming weekend, has cancelled its traditional "open door" event this Thursday in which spectators are permitted to wander the grounds of the race, see the racing cars up close and meet the drivers.
The director of the Just For Laughs comedy festival is urging student leaders to keep issues of public education away from his event. He has asked to meet with several of them to make his case. CLASSE says it was not invited.
For their part, CLASSE leaders say they have no intention of preventing people from attending summer events. But they say they have every right and duty to take the case for public education to them. Nadeau-Dubois says the summer events will be "tribunes" for students to get their message across.
While businesses in the province are unhappy with the effect of protests on their bottom line, they are apparently are firmly in support of the government's effort to crush the student movement. The Conseil du patronat du Québec (Employers Council of Quebec) issued the results of a survey of its members on June 1 showing 95 percent support for the government's proposed hike in tuition fees that sparked the student strike last February and 68 percent support for Bill 78, which was adopted on May 18 and has led to the mushrooming of support for the student cause.
Another unhappy voice is that of former Governor General of Canada Michaëlle Jean. She told a graduation ceremony at the University of Ottawa on June 2 that students in Quebec should be happy with their lot in life and suggested they should get back to class.
One of the expressions of the broadening support for students has been the ‘pots and pans' movement that has erupted in neighbourhoods across the province and is now spreading in the rest of Canada. In Quebec, that movement is beginning to take a more organized form. Montreal-based writer Marc Bonhomme has reported on a first meeting of 100 people in the Montreal neighbourhood of Hochelaga-Maissoneuve.
Many participants took up the call of CLASSE and of many trade union activists to organize a "social (general) strike" against the entirely of the Quebec government's anti-social and anti-environmental policies. One of the five committees formed at the meeting is dedicated to this proposal.
Roger Annis is a Vancouver-based writer and can be reached at rogerannis[at]hotmail[dot]com.