Police in Montreal clubbed protesters late on Sunday and arrested dozens of them as students rallying for months over tuition increases used the Formula One Grand Prix to highlight their plight.
Police spokeswoman Annie Lemieux said about 30 arrests made on Sunday morning were pre-emptive in nature and another six people were charged with criminal offenses including “intimidation and threats made to police.”
Shield-wielding riot police had also pushed back and chased hundreds of protesters amassed in the downtown shopping district late on Saturday, making 28 arrests and shoving several demonstrators, some in masks, to the ground.
Protesters — mixed in with thousands of race fans and -passers-by — booed and cursed before confronting police, who shouted and unleashed pepper spray. Sirens blared and people occasionally screamed from the panic of being crushed.
Later, demonstrators broke windows at the Caisse de diptt et placement du Quibec and the Banque Nationale.
Authorities quickly declared the protest illegal and used clubs to beat back and put down a crowd of more than 1,000 protestors, as the Grand Prix took place under tight security.
For four months, students, joined by anti-capitalists, have held protests against plans by the Quebec Provincial Government to increase tuition fees by 75 percent.
“We are in a real social crisis in Quebec and at the moment we are witnessing police brutality, for no purpose, really,” University of Montreal student Zac Daoust Lefebvre said.
Negotiations between student groups and the provincial government have broken down and the protest movement has since morphed into a larger campaign of perceived government corruption, mismanagement and injustice.
Student groups were eager to take advantage of the expanded media presence and international visitors in Montreal for Sunday’s Grand Prix — won by Britain’s Lewis Hamilton — to publicize their tuition fight.
Police responded with a bigger footprint, deploying numerous officers in the metro system and around the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve with sniffer dogs to search bags and check identification documents.
“We can’t reach the site if we have pink hair and no ticket,” said Melopee Montminy, who dyed her hair scarlet, the symbolic color of the student movement.
“I was escorted [out] by several policemen. It was frightening, I got the heebie jeebies. They’re traumatizing people who had no intention of raising hell. I wanted to protest peacefully, but now I want to raise hell,” she said.
Asked for their reactions to the protests, ticket holders unleashed a tirade of insults, sometimes in multiple languages to be sure they were understood.
Shortly before 8am, a bomb alert in the metro system nearby briefly interrupted traffic before it turned out to be false. A man in his 50s was arrested in connection with the incident.
A significant police presence also kept guard at the Jacques Cartier Bridge leading to the race track.
Several dozen police officers, including mounted patrols, kept watch as fans made their way onto Saint Helen’s Island, next to Ile Notre-Dame where the track is located.
Far from the speedway, between 500 and 600 protesters on bicycles circled empty streets, sounding whistles, foghorns and banging pots.
“The student crisis has turned into a social crisis with many causes that had been muted by Quebec’s tradition of non--confrontation,” said Sebastien Grenier as he cycled along.