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The opening salvo in a promised, summer of protest by Quebec’s student movement was delivered at the annual, Montreal Grand Prix auto race and surrounding festivities from June 7 to 10. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of students and their allies used the high-profile event to press demands for a freeze in post-secondary tuition fees and an end to police and state repression.
The government of Premier Jean Charest answered with an unprecedented police mobilization that one Montreal Gazette reporter called “staggering.” Thousands of police were omnipresent in the Montreal’s subway system and at major intersections throughout the four days. They arrested or detained scores of protesters, particularly those wearing the symbol of the student movement – red cloth squares pinned to clothing.
The short subway line connecting downtown Montreal to two island parks in the middle of the St. Lawrence River where the race was run carried two police officers on every subway car on race day, June 10, and the preceding day. Entrance to the parks was by police permission only, with officers declaring that the public space was a “private park” for the duration of the race weekend. Those who challenged that call, especially if they were being turned away, risked being roughed up or arrested for their troubles.
The tensest moments of the weekend occurred on the Saturday evening. Several thousand pro-student demonstrators brought their message and their noisemakers to the center of the city and mixed in with tens of thousands of Grand Prix revelers. Tense standoffs with police went on until well after midnight. According to Radio Canada, there were 27 people arrested, of whom 16 face criminal charges.
Numerous witnesses told the broadcaster of police violence they witnessed.
Earlier on Saturday, several hundred women’s right supporters mobilized to express anger at the decadence they say the Formula One race symbolizes. They staged a march against the trade in women’s’ bodies that accompanies the event each year.
They tried to take their case to the Sheraton Montreal Hotel, which they say is the preferred hotel for what they call the “international jerk-offs” that purchase sex during the weekend. The march was blocked and broken up by Montreal police.
The image of the race took a dive at the outset when former F1 driver and hometown hero Jacques Villeneuve publicly thumbed his nose at striking students, calling them spoiled because tuition fees in Quebec happen to be lower than in other provinces in Canada and some countries in Europe. Perhaps not coincidentally, the race failed to sell all the spectator seats for the first time in its 35 year history.
Post-secondary students in Quebec began a massive strike in February against a proposed 75 percent increase in tuition fees. The strike is on hold since May 18. That’s when the Quebec government adopted the draconian Law 78 which suspends the school year at strike-bound institutions until mid-August and seeks to cripple protests and the student associations organizing them.
Unprecedented targeting by police
Police have come under intense fire for their now-routine practice of profiling for detention or arrest those wearing the red square. News websites are full of testimonials of people, mostly young, telling stories of harassment or assault by police while wearing the square. Some 40 people wearing it were detained on June 10 while entering the park from the subway at the Grand Prix site.
To test the hypothesis, the French-language daily Le Devoir sent two reporters on assignment on June 9 wearing red squares and backpacks. Sure enough, they were frequently stopped and searched. At the park/race site, they were illegally detained by police for 20 minutes.
When the undercover journalists asked one officer why they were detained, he replied, “Because you’re wearing a revolutionary symbol and I’m fed up with people like you.” They wrote that others they observed or interviewed wearing backpacks but without the red square were not searched or detained. They titled their article, “Red square? Papers, please.”
The most prominent of the preventive arrests that have taken place was that of 19 year old Yalda Machouf-Khadir and four other students on June 7. She was arrested during a police raid on her family home at 6 am and spent five nights in prison before being released on bail. She and the others faces charges of mischief and property damage stemming from several protests in April. Her lawyers say detention for such charges is unheard of.
She is the daughter of Amir Khadir, the leader and sole elected member in Quebec’s National Assembly of the left wing Quebec solidaire party. He was himself arrested and detained while participating in a peaceful, pro-student protest two days earlier in Quebec City.
Inspiration, if not direction, for the police targeting of opponents of the tuition hike and Bill 78 is coming right from the top. Quebec Premier Jean Charest declared last month that student protests were damaging the economy of the province and should cease.
His minister of culture, Christine St-Pierre, stated on June 8: “…we know what it means, the red square. It means intimidation, violence and preventing students from studying [referring to student picket lines that shut down education institutions during the three-month strike.] That’s what it means to us and to the big, big majority of Quebecois.” Nearly three thousand people in Quebec’s vibrant arts and culture scene have signed an open letter denouncing the minister’s remarks.
Montreal’s English language daily, The Gazette, editorialized on June 12 in favor of police actions: “…the student protests have engendered vandalism, and thus it is not unreasonable for the police to assume that anyone wearing a red square could be a potential troublemaker. It appears the student protests have been infiltrated by violent radical elements, piggybacking on the student movement to indulge their penchant for anarchic vandalism. While student leaders have dissociated their cause from such actions, they have been reluctant to forcefully denounce them. Thus…the student movement must bear some responsibility for it.”
Bill 78 challenged
The infamous Bill 78 requires advance police approval for any act of political or social expression involving 50 or more people. It imposes severe fines on participating individuals and organizations for actions declared “illegal” by police. It prescribes penalties against the organizers of protest events for the actions by individuals deemed illegal.
The law aims to weaken if not destroy student associations through financial penalties for violations of its provisions, including denial of membership dues check-off and denial of access to on-campus facilities.
A court challenge to Bill 78 on behalf of 70 organizations opened on June 12. The challengers include all four of Quebec’s post-secondary student associations, several of Quebec’s largest trade union centrals, and community and environmental organizations. They are seeking an immediate suspension of the application of the law and a ruling that it is unconstitutional.
Lawyers for the student-led challenge say the law is crafted in part to hobble student and other protests during an election that the government must call sometime between now and the end of 2013.
By all appearances, the government recognizes the dubious legality of Bill 78. Police have not laid any charges under it. Instead, they have used municipal or highway traffic regulations in the hundreds of arrests they have conducted since the adoption of the law. But they are using it to declare every student or Bill 78-related protest “illegal,” possibly setting the stage for post-facto charges.
More than 3,000 people have been arrested since the beginning of the student strike.
At a recent convention of FECQ, one of the associations of junior college students, newly elected leader Éliane Laberge declared, “It’s clear that we do not want to see a Quebec where elected members of the National Assembly are arrested, where young people are arrested in their homes, and where students spend days in prison.”
“Neither do we want a Quebec where the government dismisses with a wave of its hand the heartfelt wishes of an entire generation…”
This is the first of a two-part update on the Quebec student strike. Tomorrow, Part II will examine strategic debates within the student and wider movements, as well as the issue of a possible election call by the Charest government later this year.
Roger Annis is a social justice activist and writer based in Vancouver, BC.