Protest inquiry begins as student leader blames violence on Charest government
MONTREAL – Blame for the violence that erupted during last year’s student protests was laid squarely at the feet of the Charest government as an inquiry looking into the demonstrations began Monday.
The accusation came from Martine Desjardins, the former president of FEUQ, a federation representing university students on the first day of hearings at the Menard Commission.
Serge Menard, a former public security minister for the Parti Quebecois is leading the inquiry, along with former CSN president Claudette Carbonneau and retired judge Bernard Grenier.
During her testimony, Desjardins outlined the events that led to the adoption of a strategy to oppose the tuition fee hikes.
She blamed the former Liberal government for the crisis.
The raucous protests were staged against tuition increases by the former Liberal government, which were eventually pared back when the Parti Quebecois came to power.
“It was very clear to us that the government was looking simply to make the crisis worse or to generate more malcontent or violence,” she said.
Desjardins said things went downhill in May, and blamed intransigence on the part of the government in negotiating with students.
"Up to then, almost all the demonstrations, with the exception of two, were peaceful," she said.
As many as 200,000 people demonstrated peacefully in March but in April police and protesters clashed violently outside the Palais des congres, and there was more violence on May 4 in Victoriaville, where members of the Quebec Liberal Party were meeting.
Desjardins told the commission the Charest government was to blame.
"Everything happened because they didn't want to sit at the negotiation table with us," said Desjardins.
The public inquiry is not getting any cooperation from the two major parties to the protests: the student group ASSE and the Montreal police department.
Several senior police officers, including Montreal police chief, have agreed to talk or have already talked to commissioners, but the union which represents rank-and-file officers said the inquiry is a waste of time that will likely smear their actions in controlling protests.
Student group ASSE, which co-ordinated many of the protests and was instrumental in organizing the red square movement, is refusing to participate. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, who was the spokesperson for the group and widely seen as a student leader, has said he will not talk to the commission.
ASSE had demanded a public investigation, but said it is extremely disappointed in what appears to be the highly partisan manner in which it is being led.
There were more than 700 student protests in Quebec in 2012, with one-third of them ending in arrests.
On Monday, Menard shared statistics about the so-called “Maple Spring.”
It saw more than 2,000 protest-related arrests and dozens of complaints against police for alleged abuses, injuries, property damage, cancelled classes, and millions in law-enforcement costs.
The Victoriaville protest, he said, led to 250 ethics complaints filed against police. One protester lost an eye during the violent clash, which also saw some demonstrators beat a Surete du Quebec officer with a stick.
Surete du Quebec officers were involved in a total of 413 demonstrations at a total of $6.8 million in overtime costs.
Menard said that in Montreal, between February and September 2012, 532 demonstrations were held involving around 750,000 demonstrators and 34,260 police officers. There were 2,225 arrests by police. But there were also 211 complaints filed against police.
Montreal police operations required more than $17 million in overtime costs for extra police services. There were also incidents in Sherbrooke, Quebec City and Gatineau.
The commission, which has already interviewed 61 "key actors." It will hold two more weeks of hearings; one in October and one in November.
It is expected to submit a report to Quebec's public security minister before Dec. 20.
With files from The Canadian Press