MONTREAL – A river of red-clad protesters rippled through downtown Montreal to mark the 100th day of Quebec’s student strikes, while smaller events were held in other cities Tuesday.
Tens of thousands of people clogged Montreal’s city core in a festive, multi-headed march designed to make a mockery of a new provincial law that demands protest routes be approved in advance.
For the first time, police invoked Bill 78 and a Montreal anti-mask bylaw as they made multiple arrests during a rowdy protest late Tuesday.
Even a famous provincial politician, Independent MNA Pierre Curzi, joined the crowds that strayed off the announced path in a mass demonstration of defiance against the law. A prominent student organizer wandering in the throng went further, practically daring authorities to punish him.
Organizers said the crowd size rivalled the massive protests held the two previous months, on the 22nd of March and April.
While polls in recent weeks suggested the striking students had lost considerable public support, they appeared to have been galvanized in recent days by the new Quebec law.
Since that law passed, people in central Montreal neighbourhoods have appeared on their balconies and in front of their houses to defiantly bang pots and pans in a clanging protest every night at 8 p.m.
Related events were organized Tuesday in New York, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver, which saw only a tiny group of people show up to protest. In France, a few hundred congregated near Paris’ famous Notre Dame Cathedral.
A stone’s throw from the Seine River, people in Paris waved flags in a crowd that included many Quebecers, some of whom had brought their own signs, like one that read: “Quebec is becoming a dictatorship.”
There were two demonstrations scheduled in New York – one at Rockefeller Plaza where Quebec government offices are located, and another at Washington Park later in the day.
Organized by the Occupy Wall Street movement and by the group Strike Everywhere, the first New York event was designed to raise awareness about the Quebec protests while the second was about opposing anti-protest laws all over the world.
Between 20 and 40 people gathered in front of Quebec’s government office in New York. A few handed out red squares, the symbol of the student protest movement.
The events came several days after the Quebec law set conditions on protests, with stiff financial penalties for transgressors – a move that appears to have fanned the flames of the Quebec student movement.
“An increase in the powers of police and the state anywhere is an attack on us everywhere,” said the release for the New York event.
Within Canada, organizers of the Calgary gathering described Quebec’s law as draconian, and encouraged people to meet in support of Quebec students.
There are other hints the student unrest could spread outside the province. The Canadian Federation of Students wants to call an Ontario-wide strike vote this fall in a show of solidarity with Quebec students.
“A campaign of mass educationals, solidarity delegations and mass mobilizations should be used to lead up towards a student strike in Ontario,” the federation said in a recent letter.
While the protest in Vancouver was much smaller Tuesday, participants expressed solidarity with the Quebec student cause.
Oliver Harwood, 42, arrived early and handed out red fabric squares that he had cut out moments before.
Harwood said the protest, like the Occupy Movement, is really about the injustice and the growing sense in society that “things are not right.”
Meanwhile, in Montreal, tens of thousands of people of all ages were marching, while wearing the iconic red square. The crowd ranged from hardcore elements carrying posters with revolutionary slogans, to elderly marchers, students’ parents, and groups of people bused in from the Ottawa area.
While less than one-third of Quebec’s post-secondary students are actually on strike, they have attracted some support from people angry at the provincial government.
The new law requires organizers to give police eight hours’ notice about when and where a protest will happen, and sets fines for offenders.
There was some debate in the crowd Tuesday over whether to stick to the pre-approved route supplied to police, or whether to wander off in defiance of the controversial law.
Under encouragement from the more hardline C.L.A.S.S.E. student group, a minority of protesters broke off from the main crowd in a symbolic slap at the Bill 78. Then the crowd continued to disintegrate into additional factions.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, co-spokerperson for the group, called the demonstration a historic act of widespread civil disobedience.
He said he was prepared to suffer the consequences.
“We are ready to act according to our constitutional rights and if this has judicial consequences we will assume those consequences,” he said.
“So personally I will be ready to face justice, if I need to.”
Having taken a beating over four days from people accusing it of trampling democratic rights, the Quebec government began a counter-offensive in support of its law Tuesday.
At a news conference, Public Security Minister Robert Dutil read from a list of cities with equally tough, or even tougher, rules for organizing protests.
Dutil listed Geneva, Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, France and Spain as jurisdictions that require far more than eight hours’ notice – up to 40 days, in the case of L.A. – in order to hold a protest.
“Other societies with rights and freedoms to protect have found it reasonable to impose certain constraints – first of all to protect protesters, and also to protect the public,” Dutil said.
But the Charest government’s critics accused it of badly mismanaging the crisis.
One opposition party suggested a solution to the impasse: an election.
The Coalition For Quebec’s Future said the government, following a series of corruption scandals, had lost the moral authority to lead. It suggested Premier Jean Charest should promise to call an election in September to help ease the tension immediately.
For its part, the Parti Quebecois urged Charest to head back to the bargaining table with the students. It said the premier had made things worse with his decision to legislate instead of negotiate.
“This law, sadly, didn’t solve anything and won’t solve anything,” Marois said.
“The premier has lost control of the situation… Can the premier tell us how he intends to put an end to this crisis rattling Quebec? What happens now?”
There was a show of solidarity from the Montreal transit workers union as hundreds of people turned out for the 29th evening protest, which was a rowdy but mainly peaceful march.
The powerful union, which denounced the law, urged its members not to drive buses used to transport police during the demonstrations. City buses are used to shuttle riot squads during the marches and often to house prisoners after arrests.
_ with files from Nelson Wyatt in Montreal and Kevin Drew in Vancouver.