POLITICS

Quebec unrest gets noticed around the world, in a variety of ways

05/24/2012 05:14 EDT | Updated 07/24/2012 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL - The world is becoming increasingly aware of the social tumult rattling Quebec, which has begun to affect the province's interactions with outsiders in a variety of ways.

Premier Jean Charest has just cancelled a meeting with a foreign politician — this time the governor of Vermont — for the second time this month.

Foreign newscasts are carrying Montreal scenes of streets ablaze and billy clubs being swung, while prestigious newspapers abroad are carrying analysis of what this conflict means.

Tourists have been hassled, even detained, by riot police. Some are reconsidering whether to travel to Montreal for the city's upcoming Canadian Grand Prix.

Then there are the diplomatic notices, ranging from a mild warning from the U.S. government to American travellers, to a more stinging rebuke from Russia's foreign ministry.

The province is now getting more attention than anyone could have imagined.

For some, that publicity stokes concerns that Montreal's economically critical tourism season is under threat. For others, the interest generated by the months-long protests is positive and instructive, as social activists elsewhere are drawing inspiration for their own movements.

There was more proof Thursday of the challenges the unrest has placed on Quebec's international relations. Charest postponed a trip scheduled to the neighbouring state of Vermont, where he was supposed to meet with Gov. Peter Shumlin.

The premier had planned to sign a trade and environmental protection agreement with Shumlin, followed by events with the state's business community and at the University of Vermont.

Vermont activists, including Occupy Burlington, had planned to protest Charest's visit in solidarity with Quebec students demonstrating against tuition increases. James Haslam of the Vermont Workers Center called the cancellation of Charest's visit a victory for the people.

But a spokesman for Charest said the premier stayed in Quebec City on Thursday to attend national assembly debates on the tuition fee and student protests, in part because some Liberal MNAs were absent. Hugo D'Amours added that Charest phoned Shumlin on Wednesday to postpone their meeting.

D'Amours disagreed with the idea that the student crisis has impacted Charest's commitments with foreign politicians because, he said, the premier intends to reschedule his trip to Vermont.

Earlier this month, Charest reportedly cancelled a scheduled meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Montreal. At the time, the premier's office said he had a commitment to speak as a meeting of Quebec municipalities in Gatineau. D'Amours said Charest's office never confirmed that he would be available to meet with the Israeli president.

Diplomatic disruptions are only a small example of the potential impact on Quebec.

The province has been the subject of an unflattering opinion piece in the New York Times, written by Quebecers critical of Charest, while scenes of Montreal's downtown mayhem have captured the attention of foreign TV news outlets — from the BBC to CNN to Al Jazeera. There have been prominent newspaper articles in major international papers like Le Monde in France and The Guardian in the U.K.

Tourists, meanwhile, are complaining about being hassled in Montreal by riot police; the U.S. government has issued a security message that warns American tourists heading to the city about "unforeseen violence," "vandalism" and "arrests."

There were reports Thursday of a stunned tourist being detained in a mass arrest. Another visitor, from Morocco, watched nervously during that same incident as armoured riot officers encircled protesters and proceeded to close in on them in the heart of the city.

The man asked a nearby officer if he could leave the area — but he said the policeman just shook his head from side to side.

"I was just walking by and all of a sudden this happened. Why do I have to stay here?" the man said. "It's not fair, I'm not part of this."

Police in Quebec rounded up over 650 people in different parts of the province overnight Thursday, including 518 during a mostly peaceful march in Montreal. A number of those detained in Montreal for municipal infractions were slapped with $634 fines.

Some tourists planning to travel to Montreal for next month's Canadian Grand Prix are expressing second thoughts about coming, given threats from hardline protesters to disrupt the event.

The founder of Formula1blog.com said the website's readers have been watching headlines from the Quebec protests very closely.

"The overarching message I'm getting from our readership is that yeah, they're pretty concerned about it," said Todd McCandless, chief executive of what he describes as the largest independent Formula One blog in North America.

McCandless said he hasn't heard from anyone who's planning to cancel their trip to Montreal over the unrest, but said many have told him they're "playing it by ear."

He added that this is an important year for the future of the Montreal race, which, on and off, has been the only North American stop on the circuit for many years.

Formula One is adding an event in Austin, Texas, this year and another U.S. race in New Jersey in 2013. He noted that many American race fans love Montreal's unique culture, but proximity and uncertainty could change their minds going forward.

"It doesn't help if the protests this year turn out to be... violent when a lot of fans have a choice, and in another 12 months, will have two choices," said McCandless, who notes that his blog gets more than 500,000 page views per month.

Concerns over the situation in Quebec have also come from overseas. A member of one foreign ministry — Russia's — has reportedly criticized the disproportionate use of force by riot police and the mass arrests of protesters.

Some people from abroad, meanwhile, have applauded Quebec's protest movement.

High-profile activist and filmmaker Michael Moore gave his support to the students by posting links about the issue prominently on his website.

Protests in solidarity with the Quebec student movement sprang up in Paris and New York, where there were reports of some participants being arrested.

The striking students even found support in another prominent American publication in a piece in Salon magazine, titled "Dissent, a la Quebecoise." That article also takes aim at controversial emergency legislation, known as Bill 78, adopted last week by the Charest government with a goal of ending the protests.

It compares the students' struggle to the Occupy movement and commends thousands of individuals in Quebec for taking risks "to engage in a radical political experiment with no clear endpoint."

"If people in this country look to Canada and see the defiance of Law 78 as strong grounds for hitting the streets, they too should see those grounds in the various crackdowns and in the persecution of Occupy participants and anarchists," reads the article, from a prominent activist.

- With files from Myles Dolphin and The Associated Press