MONTREAL – Montreal is waking up to a morning of smashed windows, vandalized cars and questions about how a protest degenerated into yet another violent clash between police and demonstrators.
Anger over a short-lived effort to put an end to the tuition crisis through negotiations bubbled over Wednesday night when a hastily-organized demonstration turned ugly and police used batons, pepper spray and percussion bombs to disperse the crowd.
After two hours of peaceful protest, police declared the march illegal and the situation unravelled quickly.
Percussion bombs and pepper spray exploded at the corner of Peel and Ste. Catherine Sts., a car was set on fire at the corner of Stanley and Ste. Catherine Sts. and chaos ensued as the police started to push the crowd back using whatever tools they had in their arsenal.
Onlookers blamed a small group of protesters for instigating the trouble.
A standoff between mounted police and taunting protesters brought the crowd, estimated at about 5,000, to a dead halt at Drummond and Ste. Catherine Sts. and then the police intervention squad moved in banging their shields.
Officers in full riot gear marched up Peel St. and the air in the area was thick with pepper spray.
The crowd then split into two groups, some heading back up to Sherbrooke St., where they had come from, while others went east on Ste. Catherine.
Within the crowd, some people were wearing ski goggles and masks as they ran away from police who had ordered the protesters to disperse around 10:15 p.m., not long after the vandalism started.
Windows of banks and several stores were shattered while cars were vandalized and bricks were also reportedly thrown at mounted police. The windows at Police Station 21, on Ste. Elizabeth St. and René Lévesque Blvd. were also smashed.
Police arrested a total of 85 people – 69 men and 16 women.
Three police officers suffered minor injuries, police said, and a handful of protesters were also taken to hospital with minor injuries. There were reports of one television cameraman being hit in the eye with a paintball.
Police are now reaching out to the public for help in the aftermath of the protest. On Thursday morning, they urged anyone who witnessed acts of violence or vandalism being committed to be in touch with investigators. Anyone who had their property vandalized is also be urged to come to their local police station and file a formal report.
There was no denying the anger last night at Education Minister Line Beauchamp’s decision to exclude the most militant student association – CLASSE – from talks, a move that was viewed as callous and divisive, but student leaders called on their members to demonstrate peacefully.
Billed as the “Ostie de Grosse Manif de Soir,” the demonstration was scheduled hastily after talks broke down in Quebec City.
“We want students to understand the principle is to stay peaceful,” said Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec. “We won’t go where the government wants us to go.”
Still, it was a violent demonstration on Tuesday night during what was supposed to be a truce that originally sparked Beauchamp’s strong stance to exclude CLASSE from the talks – which forced the FEUQ and the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) to show their solidarity with CLASSE.
There was a palpably angry mood at an afternoon demonstration that came minutes after the collapse of negotiations.
Organizers of what had been billed as a student march timed to coincide with what would have been the end of the semester sensed the mood of the hundreds of demonstrators who assembled at Place Émilie Gamelin on Wednesday afternoon.
“Today I applaud your courage, your determination and our resistance,” UQAM political science student Chloé Domingue-Bouchard told the crowd before it began the march. “It was that courage that led to the negotiating table … and we will not be intimidated by Line Beauchamp.”
The afternoon march which, while noisy, wove through the city core without incident, followed a hectic 24 hours for police.
The Wednesday morning commute was disrupted by smoke bombs thrown in the Lionel-Groulx and Henri Bourassa métro stations.
A third smoke bomb was later thrown the atrium of Complexe Desjardins.
Asked about the disruptions of the past 24 hours, Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay urged the Quebec government to fast-track a resolution to the conflict as quickly as possible.