PQ government creates panel to investigate last year's Quebec student crisis

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QUEBEC - The Quebec government has named a three-person panel to investigate events related to last year's student crisis that made international news.

Public Security Minister Stephane Bergeron said the panel will study the actions of students and police during anti-tuition demonstrations that rocked the province.

Bergeron told a news conference Wednesday that he wants to ensure there is never a repeat of clashes like those seen during 2012's so-called "Maple Spring."

Protesters accused the police of numerous abuses — including arbitrary mass roundups and fines, indiscriminate pepper-spraying, and violations of mobility rights.

A number had been demanding a full public inquiry into police actions.

There were expressions of disappointment Wednesday from groups that said the new mechanism fell far short of what they had demanded, and would continue to demand.

The investigative body will have no power to subpoena witnesses, will do its work in private, and will be unable to point to offences by individual officers.

The government made it clear that any disciplinary measures against individual police officers would continue to be handled by the regular provincial police ethics committee.

The panel has been asked to analyze circumstances surrounding the protests and identify factors that led to the deterioration of the social climate.

It will cost $400,000.

"The government is interested in learning lessons from the 2012 crisis, a social crisis of such a magnitude that we can never let it happen in Quebec again," Bergeron said.

Students took to the streets for months, and many shut down their classrooms. They were protesting a planned tuition increase of 77 per cent over five years in Quebec, which has the lowest university rates in Canada.

The protesters won a partial victory when the Parti Quebecois took office, scrapped the initial plan, and introduced a permanent tuition increase of 3 per cent a year.

The new group will examine techniques used by police and protesters, as well as the financial impact of the crisis. There will also be a study of how other jurisdictions deal with similar movements.

The group will deliver a report to the government, including recommendations, by Dec. 20. Bergeron said he plans to make the report public within six weeks of its delivery.

Bergeron appeared to already have drawn some conclusions about what caused the chaos.

He blamed the previous Liberal government for introducing Bill 78, a controversial anti-protest law designed to get students back to class. He also said the crisis would never have happened if the previous "Liberal party government" had not introduced such "excessive tuition hikes."

The minister said it was the Liberals' behaviour that brought thousands into the streets for near-nightly protests in Montreal and elsewhere in the province.

Bergeron said the panel will conduct its hearings in private, so that anyone wanting to testify could do so without fear of reprisals. The panel will accept written, audio and video testimony.

He said the panel will not intervene in cases already before the province's police ethics committee, nor seek out people who might warrant charges.

Bergeron said municipalities and police had to adjust their tactics, given the unprecedented event and the need to maintain social peace and safety.

"The vast majority of Quebec police officers acted with professionalism, given the circumstances," Bergeron said.

Bergeron said he encourages people who feel they were treated unfairly to file a complaint with the ethics committee. Some 200 complaints have already been filed with the body, which has the power to sanction officers.

The committee will be chaired by Serge Menard, a former Parti Quebecois public security minister and federal Bloc Quebecois MP. The other two posts will be held by ex-union boss Claudette Carbonneau and former judge Bernard Grenier.

Opposition parties blasted the plan.

They called it a waste of money. And they also questioned its impartiality, noting that the PQ and union movement had clearly supported and — in the case of the labour groups even funded — the protest movement.

Coalition party member Jacques Duchesneau, a former police officer, said the announcement left a "bitter taste" in his mouth.

He said there had been 711 student protests recorded in Quebec last year and there had only been arrests at one-third of them.

"Is it the police's fault that people threw smoke bombs on the metro?" Duchesneau told a news conference. He was once chief of the Montreal police force.

"Is it the police's fault that people threw bags of bricks on the tracks to stop the metro? Is it the police's fault that people wanted to take over the (Montreal Formula 1) Grand Prix?"

He said he was fine with the idea of a study — but said it should have been done in a public forum, like a parliamentary committee, and been more neutral.

The government drew entirely different criticism from student protesters. They wanted a more muscular mechanism.

The more hardline student group, ASSE, said it would continue to demand a real public inquiry as well as an abandonment of all charges or fines levied against 3,500 people during the crisis.

"This is a far cry from the independent public inquiry on police behaviour, demanded by 91 Quebec civil-society groups," said a statement from the group.

"We're not asking Mr. Bergeron to share his reflections on social movements. This special committee should instead be weighing in on the actions of those who are supposed to be protecting us."

-With files by Sidhartha Banerjee

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version incorrectly referred to Bill 78, a law adopted last year in the provincial legislature, as a bylaw.