MONTREAL – Montreal police clamped down on any attempt to disrupt the subway line running to the city’s Formula One Grand Prix race Sunday, arresting 34 people and forcing dozens more from the off-shore island where the race was held.
There were no major incidents despite plans by an anti-capitalist group – and promoted on a student association website – to disrupt the subway line that shuttled thousands of fans to the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve.
Officers were posted at throughout the subway system, with sniffer dogs and a line of police at the station only steps from the track.
But police were criticized for searches and arrests that police called “a preventive measure.”
“Some of those arrested were people police recognized from earlier student demonstrations that had been deemed illegal,” district commander Alain Simoneau told reporters.
“In the interest of public safety, we decided to detain these people.”
Masks, rocks and knives were among the objects seized by those arrested. Most of those arrested will be released without charge, while others arrested in neighbouring suburbs could be charged, Simoneau said.
As another day of tumultuous protests unfolded, Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand hinted – not for the first time – that the students’ dispute would soon be settled at the ballot box.
“I think the people of Quebec want to settle this issue and they want to talk, they’re scared to talk,” said Bachand, the architect behind Quebec’s increasing reliance on the user-fee model and the author of the student tuition fees written into the 2011 budget.
“But in a democracy, you have one major right you can do silently – you can vote.”
There is speculation Premier Jean Charest could call an early fall election, but Bachand wouldn’t speculate on a date. The premier didn’t attend the Grand Prix on Sunday.
Police presence was high leading up to the race. A Canadian Press reporter who didn’t have a Grand Prix ticket wasn’t allowed onto the island where the race is being held and was forced back onto the subway along with several other people.
Several people, many of them wearing red squares, the emblem of the student movement, were seen being forcibly escorted back onto the subway by police.
One young woman in tears said she was planning to get her ticket when she met up with a friend in front of the track. The woman, who had dyed red hair, accused the police of “profiling.”
Police said about 40 people were forced back in all.
An Ottawa man headed to the race said he felt the police had an obligation to ensure the event went off smoothly. He said while he supports the right to protest, disrupting the transit system was out of line.
“It should be a peaceful event,” said Ali Fadelalla.
“Lots of tourists come from all over the world. If people start to disrupt the race it’s not good for the country or the province.”
The focus on protesters led police to ignore scalpers, who called out offers for tickets just steps away from a line of officers.
There has been a heightened police presence throughout the four-day Grand Prix festivities in downtown Montreal and at the racetrack itself. The event has become the target of demonstrations against student tuition fee increases and capitalism in general.
The anti-capitalist group organizing Sunday’s protest suggested packing the subway with as many people as possible, making it difficult for fans to get to the race.
“We’re all going to the Grand Prix … AT THE SAME TIME!” reads a posting on the group’s website.
The subway protest was also promoted on a website calendar of the province’s largest student group, CLASSE.
“Don’t get aboard the trains until you receive the signal,” the post says.
That signal appears to have been a fire alarm set off on the subway line Sunday morning. Several people were removed from the metro following that incident.
The subway system has been a target before. A group is facing charges for setting off smoke bombs in the subway last month.
Demonstrations on Saturday night ended in clashes between protesters and riot police in the downtown area. Police say 28 people were arrested Saturday night and at least four police cruisers were vandalized.
A taxi driver could be among those facing charges after Saturday night’s clashes. Police said he got out of his cab to argue with a crowd of protesters and his vehicle rolled down a hill, injuring three people before the 22-year-old driver fled the scene.
Fireworks were seized from one person Sunday morning near the track, police said.
– with files from Peter Rakobowchuk