MONTREAL - Faced with public threats of protests and disruption, the Canadian Grand Prix has cancelled the event's free opening day, a major tourist draw that has traditionally kicked off the race weekend in Montreal.
The open house would offer Formula One fans access to Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve on Thursday, giving racing lovers a chance to see cars up close, tour the pit lanes and get autographs from some of the drivers. Instead, it was scrapped due to security concerns.
Francois Dumontier, president of the Canadian GP, said that while organizers had no choice in the cancellation, the race itself will proceed under increased surveillance.
"Considering the various disruption threats made public recently, the free admission and the naturally openness character of the open house day, revealed some risks that we could not neglect," Dumontier said in a statement Sunday.
"Under these circumstances, cancelling the 'Open House' day was the only action we could take. Unfortunately, for the fans and our spectators, it was impossible to escape from such responsibility."
There have been suggestions student groups could use the race as a platform for the demonstrations over tuition fees. Quebec's Education Minister Michelle Courchesne last week accused the group CLASSE of threatening to "fix" the Grand Prix.
Spokesman Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois tried to clarify his group's position over the weekend, saying it would use the event as a forum to raise its grievances with the province but wouldn't prevent people from going to the race. Martine Desjardins, the head of another student association, said the threat to the Grand Prix was exaggerated.
"I don't think this was a real threat," Desjardins said, adding that the Quebec government had blown the issue out of proportion to "discredit the student movement."
Student groups aren't the only ones who have had their eyes on the race.
An anti-capitalist group known as CLAC promised to hold disruptive demonstrations throughout the event. The group has handed out pamphlets encouraging protests against what it calls a "crass elite," including one outside a Formula One cocktail party on Thursday.
The online activist collective Anonymous has also been involved. The group is being investigated by Montreal police for an email threat sent to more than 100 people with tickets to the June 10 race. The group also hacked into a website selling tickets to the race that contains personal information on buyers, including names, phone numbers, email addresses and ticket details.
Protests over university tuition hikes have caused major traffic headaches and hurt downtown businesses over the past several months. There has been a march every night in Montreal for the past 41 consecutive days.
The Grand Prix is the first of several major summer events in Montreal, and there are concerns ongoing demonstrations could keep tourists away. The head of the city's Just for Laughs festival announced Sunday he wanted to meet with student leaders early this week to come up with a plan to avoid disruptions.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest has been critical of threats toward the race that generates an estimated $100 million in revenue for the city. More than 300,000 spectators are expected to attend the June 8-10 event.
Maude Couturier, a protester at the city's late-night march on Sunday, said the movement was too important to be concerned about the loss of a car racing event.
"If it means losing a tourist season, I'm for it," she said. "I know the Grand Prix brings a lot of money to the city, but that's that."