MONTREAL - Seventy-two days, 160 protests, hundreds arrested, multiple injuries, multimillion-dollar costs for law-enforcement _ and zero solutions in sight.
Those were the bleak numbers that emerged Thursday from Montreal, the epicentre of a Quebec student-protest movement that has begun making international news.
While CNN showed its viewers riotous scenes from the streets of Canada’s second-biggest city, and newspapers in other places picked up the story, local authorities pleaded for a resolution.
Mayor Gerald Tremblay pointed to dangerous events in recent days _ namely the tossing of bricks in the city’s subway system and rocks off a downtown overpass.
This week there have also been windows shattered on a number of cars and businesses, and physical confrontations between police and protesters. Thousands of students continue to boycott their classes. One group promises nightly demonstrations.
Tremblay pleaded with the provincial government and students to make peace, before something really bad occurs.
“Does a tragedy have to happen?” Tremblay told a news conference.
“Montrealers ... are fed up. They don’t want to go through this. This stuff always happens in Montreal. It’s the same thing for the businesses affected... It’s the same thing for Montreal’s reputation on the world stage.”
He was speaking after an eruption of unrest late Wednesday, as the government and students broke off negotiations that few had expected would have made much progress, anyway.
Montreal’s police chief said his troops were getting tired. He rattled off a list of numbers _ like the 160 protests he says have occurred in the city in recent weeks _ to illustrate his point. He said those events had occurred over 72 days during the 11-week fight over tuition.
Those numbers increased with yet another protest in downtown Montreal on Thursday night that drew an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 people.
Police said projectiles were tossed in the direction of officers, forcing authorities to declare the march illegal. It was then allowed to resume shortly after, then fizzled out by about 12:45 a.m..
Police said there were isolated incidents and one person was arrested for lighting pyrotechnics, but it nothing along the lines of Wednesday night.
There were increasing signs the protests aren’t just about tuition anymore.
Many marchers have taken to calling these events the, “Quebec Spring,” or, “Maple Spring,” casting their cause as part of a broader, international Occupy-style fight for a new economic order. A number who marched in Montreal this week also demanded the resignation of Premier Jean Charest _ or general elections.
“A lot of people have stopped calling it a student movement; now it’s a social movement, and I think that it affects people in a much deeper way than just tuition fees,” said Catherine Cote-Ostiguy, a French literature master’s student at McGill University.
Another French literature student at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal, Martin Gendron, added: “The whole protest is against the neoconservative and neoliberal point of view of doing politics... People in Quebec are using this movement as a means of venting against the current government.”
The government, meanwhile, doesn’t appear to be hurting politically as a result of this, so far.
Already deeply unpopular and facing an impending election, the Charest Liberals have actually seen their fortunes improve, according a recent survey. While their own popularity score didn’t increase, they gained ground on the Parti Quebecois _ which has been deeply supportive of the protests and has seen its numbers drop.
Surveys also suggest Quebecers generally support the idea of hikes.
A number of pundits have begun accusing the premier of cynically using the unrest for his own political aims. One columnist called it odd that a government renowned for backing down in the face of any fight appears so determined to keep up a battle now, against students, with unrest in the streets.
Premier Jean Charest reacted angrily when asked Thursday about the notion that he might be planning an election campaign on the issue.
“I find that grotesque,” he snapped at reporters in Quebec City.
“Let me point something out to you: Who talks about elections? The PQ, CAQ (party), the media? And I never do. This (tuition) decision was taken a year ago _ so when I read things like that, I mean, come on...
“I have never raised the issue of an election. It’s never raised by me, it’s raised by others.”
His main antagonists, however, accuse the government of intentionally sabotaging talks. Students say there’s never been any indication the government might be willing to yield an inch on the tuition issue.
In fact, a brief three-day attempt at negotiations went so badly that the sides now find themselves arguing over who’s responsible for the fact they’re no longer talking.
No resumption has been planned yet.
Education Minister Line Beauchamp rejected further talks with the students Thursday because of their demand that two members from a more radical group be involved.
Beauchamp has said there would be no negotiations with members of a student federation known as the C.L.A.S.S.E. The government believes the group has not done enough to condemn the violence over the past two months.
Talks between the two sides aimed at settling their bitter tuition dispute ended Wednesday when the C.L.A.S.S.E. was kicked out for not respecting a truce on protests.
That prompted the other student groups to walk out and, with negotiations suspended, protesters instantly spilled out into the streets with one Montreal demonstration degenerating into window-smashing, rock-tossing vandalism late in the evening.
Banks, cars, a book store, and even a downtown police station were attacked. Police fought students with chemical irritants and riot gear.
Protesters said they over-reacted, with a one-size-fits-all response that attacked many peaceful protesters along with the few masked troublemakers in the crowd.
On Thursday morning, there appeared to be a brief sliver of potential for progress.
The government and two protest groups appeared set to resume discussions. One of the groups said it would invite representatives of the C.L.A.S.S.E. to replace some of its own members.
Not so quick, was the reply from a government spokeswoman. Such guests were unwelcome at the talks _ not even by proxy.
”You can’t have something indirectly if you’re not getting it directly,” said Helene Sauvageau, a spokeswoman for Beauchamp.
The Liberal government wants to hike tuition by $325 a year for the next five years. That would mean annual tuition fees of about $3,800, which would still be among the lowest in Canada.
Students say they’re fighting for principles, starting with easy access to education.
They also received support Thursday from a number of Ontario unions, social movements and student groups who signed a petition in favour of the protesters’ cause.
“It shows how it’s possible to fight back,” said Alan Sears, a spokesman for the group, which comprises CUPE-Ontario, the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario and groups at Ryerson and York universities.
“That can help inspire movements here to have a different kind of action, and a more effective kind of action.”