Protest at Quebec Liberal party convention turns violent
Monique Muise & Christopher Curtis, National Post, May 4, 2012
VICTORIAVILLE, Que. — What began as a peaceful and well-organized demonstration in Victoriaville, Que., on Friday evening quickly degenerated into a chaotic scene as hundreds of protesters clashed with police for more than two hours in the small town just east of Montreal.
Police said they arrested four people, but more arrests were likely as the investigation continued. Some protesters tweeted that a bus carrying students from McGill and Concordia universities back to Montreal was pulled over by police and everyone on board arrested.
Surete du Quebec spokesperson Ingrid Asselin said she couldn’t confirm the reports, so as not to reveal any police action that was underway.
She said four police officers were injured during the protest — two seriously after being hit in the head with rocks. Seven protesters were also injured, most after being hit by objects being thrown by other demonstrators, she said.
Many people were doubled over, coughing, as police lobbed dozens of canisters of chemical irritants into the crowd in an effort to push the demonstrators away from the Victorin hotel and conference centre, where the Quebec Liberal party is holding a general council meeting this weekend.
The event began peacefully at 5 p.m., with about 1,000 protesters turning up in the town to voice their discontent with various government plans, including the Plan Nord, shale gas exploration, and the impending tuition fee hike.
As protesters reached the conference centre, however, they started shaking the waist-high security fence. A group of masked men also began throwing rocks, projectiles and fireworks at the police and the building. One window was smashed, and moments later, the protesters breached the fence and were a few feet from the doors.
About 200 Surete du Quebec officers in riot gear responded with the chemical irritant know as CS gas, and the air quickly became nearly unbreathable.
What followed was two hours of violent confrontation that spilled into the parking lot behind the hotel and onto the properties of several residents of the town, who watched nervously from their living room windows. Projectiles flew, dozens of gas canisters were deployed and rubber bullets were fired as the protesters were slowly but surely pushed back toward a store parking lot, where the event began. The worst seemed to be over by 9:30 p.m.
Quebec student leaders unanimously condemned the eruption of violence, stepping out of their negotiating meeting with the provincial government to call for more peaceful protests.
“We saw violence against people and this is something that we strongly condemn,” said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a spokesman for the federation Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarite syndicale etudiante (CLASSE), which represents half of the roughly 180,000 students boycotting classes in the province.
“The escalation of violence and confrontation doesn’t help at all our negotiations,” added Nadeau-Dubois, condemning violence for the first time since the beginning of the strike.
He said the student associations are continuing their discussions with the government to resolve the conflict “as soon as possible.”
Leo Bureau-Blouin of the Federation etudiante collegiale du Quebec, urged students and police officers to remain calm.
“I’m very concerned by the situation,” he said briefly.
FEUQ’s leader Martine Desjardins said the protest needs to quiet down in order for negotiations with the province to continue.
Inside the convention centre, Quebec Transport Minister Pierre Moreau deplored the resort to violence.
“It’s outrageous,” he told reporters. “Democratic people don’t like that kind of violence.”
Student leaders, meeting with a government negotiator in Quebec City in a last-ditch attempt to bring an end to the weeks-long impasse, emerged briefly to condemn the violence and called on both the students and police to stay calm.
But frustration among the protesters was palpable.
“I’m tired of not being heard,” said Universite de Rimouski student Judith Savoie. “I came to protest, but I wasn’t prepared for this. Everyone is being gassed.
“I don’t support violence, but it has reached that point. We’re very angry.”
She said she felt the use of flimsy barricades at the beginning of the protest was “a trap,” to give police an excuse to use force when the fences were toppled.
“The police even gassed the community organizations that came out,” Savoie said.
Friday’s demonstration began about one hour after representatives from Jean Charest’s government sat down in Quebec City with representatives from the province’s main student associations to try to find a way to end the longest student strike in Quebec’s history, now in its twelfth week.
Representatives of Quebec’s three student federations, the three largest unions and university rectors met with government officials late into the night.
Pierre Pilote, chief negotiator for the Charest government on the issue, called the group together Friday morning.
Heading into the meeting earlier in the day, Bureau-Blouin of the FECQ, said he hoped it would be more than just a public relations exercise on the government’s part.
“There’s a lot of pressure from the public to negotiate. Maybe (Charest) wants to use this negotiation process to calm down the protests in Victoriaville,” Bureau-Blouin told reporters in Quebec City.
“But we hope the government has a real willingness to solve the crisis.”
CLASSE’s Nadeau-Dubois, emphasized the student associations won’t put an end to their strike until the government agrees to freeze or eliminate its tuition hike. The student associations will vote on the government’s latest offer, if one is indeed tabled Friday, Nadeau-Dubois added.
Martine Desjardins of the FEUQ appeared clearly open to a compromise as she walked in the meeting.
“We need to stop polarizing the debate around tuition fees and whether we are for or against it,” she said. “We need to look at university financing, that’s the key for a consensus and we’re going to push for that at the (negotiating) table,” she added.
Earlier in the afternoon, when asked if he was concerned about possible violence outside the Liberal meeting, Charest said he was “not too concerned. I think everyone hopefully is chilling out.”
All of the 55 buses that ferried the protesters into town from Montreal, Quebec City and other urban centres were slated to head back out of Victoriaville on Friday night, said event organizer Veronique Laflamme.
Montreal Gazette, with files from James Mennie and Marianne White, Postmedia News