In the face of a series of government legislation cracking down on protest rights and threatening their 14-week student strike, several thousand demonstrators marched through downtown Montreal for almost seven hours Friday night.
This was the 25th consecutive night demonstration protesting planned tuition hikes which – after one short and violent clash with officers from the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) – became by the longest demonstration in what is now the longest student strike in Quebec history.
The demonstration began peacefully around 9 p.m., with thousands leaving Parc Émilie-Gamelin and marching through downtown Montreal.
Around 10 p.m., the arrest of one demonstrator triggered a clash between protestors and police near the entrance to Chinatown at St. Laurent and René Lévesque. Fellow demonstrators reacted by shouting for his release, with some throwing rocks and other projectiles at police, driving police north up St. Laurent towards René Lévesque.
One protestor threw a Molotov cocktail at police at René Lévesque. Police responded with pepper spray, smoke bombs, sound grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets.
Police quickly declared the demonstration illegal, but the majority of protestors regrouped a few minutes later and resumed marching. The march continued through downtown for another six hours and ended around 4 a.m. Thursday morning near Parc Lafontaine.
There was one other incident of vandalism. Marching west on René Lévesque around 1 a.m., protesters passed a line of five police cars and a man standing in his doorway giving protestors the middle finger. Protestors smashed the man’s apartment window in a hail of projectiles, before smashing the back window of one of the police cruisers.
The SPVM reported four arrests and no injuries as a result of the demonstration early Thursday morning.
A frantic day in the municipal and provincial legislature precipitated Friday night’s demonstration.
Late Friday afternoon the Quebec National Assembly passed Bill 78 – a controversial bill proposed by Education Minister Michelle Courchesne – 68 votes to 48. The bill, titled “An Act to enable students to receive instruction from the post-secondary institutions they attend,” suspends the winter and summer semesters for the 11 universities and 14 CEGEPS still effected by the strike until August.
Organizers of the demonstrations of 50 people or more must also provide police with its route and duration at least eight hours before it begins. Police may require organizers to change the venue or route of the demonstration.
Fines for contravening Bill 78 provisions can reach $5,000 for individuals, $35,000 for a senior officer in a student association, and $125,000 for student associations. Fines will be doubled for any subsequent offenses.
The bill has been criticized by several civil rights groups, including the Quebec Bar Association, in part due to its ambiguity in some areas. Section 30, for example, states that anyone “who helps or induces a person to commit an offense” under the bill will also be subject to the fine.
The law went into effect Saturday morning.
The “anti-mask” bylaw
The Montreal city council passed a bylaw on Thursday banning the wearing of masks at demonstrations “without reasonable motive.” The bylaw, drafted following this year’s anti-police brutality march and scheduled to be voted on in mid-June, was fast-tracked in response to the now daily student protests against tuition hikes.
Both opposition parties in city hall, Vision Montréal and Projet Montréal, voted against the bylaw, but with Mayor Gérald Tremblay’s Union Montréal party holding a majority in the council the bylaw passed 33 to 25. The bylaw also went into effect Saturday morning.
Telling the council that the bylaw will be a tool that allows police to “isolate vandals and prevent acts of violence,” Tremblay declared, “It’s time to take back our streets.”
Montreal police chief Marc Parent attended the special council session, saying the bylaw will be used “with discretion, like all the other laws we can already apply to protests.
“When we think there’s a threat to safety it will be used. It’s preventative,” said Parent.
Parent noted that a few years ago only one to two per cent of demonstrations ended in violence, but lately nearly 35 per cent end in criminal acts.