MONTREAL – The historic scope of the unrest in Quebec was illustrated in surreal scenes and statistics Thursday: more people were detained within a few hours — at least 650 of them, in mass roundups — than were arrested in the entire October Crisis.
More than 2,500 people have been arrested in a months-long dispute that has catapulted the province onto international news pages.
That is at least five times the number jailed during the 1970 FLQ crisis that saw martial law declared in Quebec.
While nobody has died, unlike in 1970, and most people arrested have been simply ticketed and immediately released, unlike those left to languish in jails back then, critics of the provincial government have spared no adjective to describe current events.
“The government has led us to the worst social crisis we have ever known in Quebec,” Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois scolded the premier during a legislature exchange Thursday.
“Six-hundred-fifty-one — that’s the number of arrests yesterday … of ordinary citizens, men, women, young people arrested because they wanted to voice their opposition to decisions of the Liberal regime…
“That’s where the Quebec Liberal party has taken us: mass arrests, more often than not arbitrary ones, to silence opposition.”
In that gloomy atmosphere, rays of hope emerged Thursday for possible progress.
There were plans for the government and student leaders to meet again, likely early next week. Education Minister Michelle Courchesne said she expected a “very, very important” session after having had positive discussions over the phone.
A new point man has also been assigned to help resolve the crisis: Premier Jean Charest has replaced his chief of staff with a well-regarded veteran who once served in that same role for him, bringing back Daniel Gagnier from political retirement with a mandate to make peace.
Restoring order in time for the tourist-filled festival season, which starts in only a few weeks, appears a monumental task given the events that unfolded in the wee hours Thursday.
A peaceful evening march that began with people festively banging pots and pans ended with police using the controversial “kettling” tactic on a crowd of demonstrators and arresting 518 people in Montreal. Scores of others were arrested elsewhere in the province.
The pot-banging continued before the start of Thursday’s marches, the biggest one being in Montreal. Another protest hit the streets in Quebec City as well.
The clanging spread beyond the major cities, with people taking up the percussive protest in several towns and cities including Sorel, Longueuil, Chambly, Repentigny and Abitibi, which is several hundred kilometres from Montreal.
Police wasted no time in declaring Montreal’s march illegal on Thursday, saying it violated a municipal bylaw because the route was not provided beforehand. The demonstration was allowed to continue as long as it remained peaceful and police warned they would sound a siren 10 seconds before making any move to disperse the crowd.
One man on Twitter offered a cheeky response to the demand for a route, posting a map of the city with a route marked in red that formed into a design of a hand flipping the single-digit salute.
The march retained its defiant tone but also some of the circus-like tone of the other 30 nights it’s been held. Fireworks were set off and four solemn clowns wearing red noses and long coats walked among the marchers carrying a coffin.
The boisterous march, which could be heard from a kilometre away, soon split into two long processions that seemed to keep their distance initially from the downtown core where police made mass arrests on previous nights. One group went through trendy Outremont, skirting the area where Mayor Gerald Tremblay lives.
While thousands packed the streets in support, the Twitterverse exploded with reactions and observations.
Christina Stimpson offered a different glimpse of the average protesters, who have tended to be young students, saying, “Spotted a man in an Armani suit banging a pot. Feel the love people.”
Others noted that the students seemed outnumbered by other people during the march which drew smiles and encouragement from people in bars along St-Laurent Boulevard. There was even some variety among the pot-bangers as one man was seen rolling a small barbecue along the street and hammering away at its lid.
One of the popular chants was “Charest, get out! We will find a job for you in the North,” a reference to the premier’s recent crack about student protesters being able to find work in northern Quebec as part of his ambitious economic development plan.
Not everyone on Twitter was supportive — some asked the protesters to get out of their neighbourhood and protest in the provincial capital — but at least one man was concerned.
“Be careful out there MTL,” tweeted Tristan Lalla. “Don’t get Charrested. keep it peaceful.”
The Montreal march stretched into early Friday morning with only four arrests reported as it maintained its peaceful tone.
In Quebec City, there were several sit-ins in front of police but as of late Thursday night only a man in a banana costume was arrested after he was peeled from the crowd.
The Quebec protests have received worldwide media attention, with the unrest receiving prominent play in some of the biggest international news outlets.
Some of that coverage has depicted the protests favourably, as an example of youth mobilizing for a brighter future, while other play has focused on the scenes of disorder like those that occurred overnight Wednesday night when police used a tactic dubbed “kettling” before arresting more than 500 people.
The tactic is used extensively in Europe where riot cops surround demonstrators and limit or cut off their exits. It has been widely criticized because it often results in the scooping up of innocent bystanders as well as rowdies. A recent report by Ontario’s police watchdog blasted Toronto police for their use of kettling during the G20 summit two years ago.
Wednesday’s march was also quickly declared illegal but allowed to proceed peacefully with riot squad officers shadowing it from the sidelines all evening. Around midnight, the tone changed as police said they had been the targets of projectiles.
Montreal police said those arrested will face charges, some under minor municipal bylaws and others under the more severe Criminal Code. Many of those detained for municipal infractions will face $634 tickets. Some protesters are encouraging others to contest the fines.
The mass arrests came after five days of escalating violence in a dispute that began months ago over tuition fees and evolved partly into a struggle against capitalist practices. In recent days, it has mushroomed thanks to opposition to the Charest government’s Bill 78, which is aimed at cracking down on the protests.
That bill has not been invoked in any Montreal arrests — although it has been used elsewhere in Quebec, and Montreal police say it could still be used to arrest some protest organizers.
— with files from Jonathan Montpetit, Myles Dolphin and Jocelyne Richer