POLITICS

Students have 'positive' meeting with president of Just For Laughs festival

06/04/2012 11:53 EDT | Updated 08/04/2012 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL - Quebec student leaders provided assurances Monday that they won't disrupt the city's upcoming festival season, saying claims that they pose a threat to Montreal's tourism industry have been wildly overblown as part of a general effort to discredit their movement.

The heads of three student associations brought that message to a meeting on Monday with the president of the Just for Laughs comedy festival, Gilbert Rozon.

"We broke the myth that the student movement is violent, that it wants to disrupt," said Martine Desjardins, who represents an association of university students known as the FEUQ.

"It was towards the end of negotiations (with the government), that they tried to make people believe we wanted to disrupt the festivals this summer."

Quebec college and university students are fighting the province's plans to increase tuition fees by up to $1,624 over seven years and have staged 42 consecutive nights of demonstrations through the streets of Montreal, along with other cities.

Quebec's Liberal government broke off negotiations with students last week. Many had considered the talks a last ditch attempt to reach a deal before the summer.

The government claimed a representative from the largest, and most hardline, student group, the CLASSE, had threatened to disrupt this week's Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal.

A CLASSE spokesman, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, has since said that his group does not intend to prevent people from attending the race, though its members plan on distributing flyers.

Rozon had sought out the meeting with students following a decision by Grand Prix organizers to cancel an open-house event on Thursday. The organizers cited security concerns for their decision.

An anti-capitalist group that is independent of the student movement is planning nightly Grand Prix demonstrations to "disrupt this crass elite at play."

Before his meeting with the students, Rozon said he was receiving daily threats on Twitter from people he believed were associated with the CLASSE.

He added that wanted assurances that students would "behave responsibly" during his festival.

Though CLASSE opted not to attend the meeting with Rozon, Nadeau-Dubois took to Twitter to condemn any threats directed his way.

Rozon refused to comment after the meeting, but said on his Twitter feed that it had been "positive."

His festival, along with the Montreal International Jazz Festival, attract almost four million visitors to the city annually in June and July.

The Grand Prix, which gets underway Thursday, brings in another 300,000 tourists.

Already, the city's tourism industry is feeling the effects of the student demonstrations, which swarm the downtown core and snarl traffic. Occasional bursts of violence have been accompanied by mass police arrests, although recent demonstrations have been peaceful.

Hotel room rentals were down by 10.7 per cent last month, according to figures released Monday by Tourism Montreal. A further 10-12-per-cent drop is expected this month.

But the student movement will face its own challenges as its members disperse for the summer. The nightly marches through downtown Montreal, during which protesters bang on pots and pans, have been attracting fewer people in recent days.

Among the several hundred who had gathered for Monday's march, many took issue with the portrayals of the movement as something dangerous.

"I think it's just to scare people who aren't protesting, to scare them into not protesting," said a college student who wanted to be identified simply as Maxim.

"The allegations of violence towards the festivals is exaggerated. It's a fear campaign."

Others said they did not agree with any protest tactics that would physically prevent Grand Prix fans from attending the race.

"People are there to appreciate the show," said Louis Archambault, another college student.

"But I don't think the disruptions will be intense enough to block the Grand Prix. I think that is just a threat the government is using to give itself another reason to criticize the students."

-With files from Melanie Marquis.