05/24/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 07/23/2012 05:12 EDT

Quebec Student Protests: Police Kettle, Arrest Hundreds (PHOTOS)


MONTREAL - The historic scope of the unrest in Quebec was illustrated in surreal scenes and statistics Thursday: more people were detained within a few hours — at least 650 of them, in mass roundups — than were arrested in the entire October Crisis.

More than 2,500 people have been arrested in a months-long dispute that has catapulted the province onto international news pages.

That is at least five times the number jailed during the 1970 FLQ crisis that saw martial law declared in Quebec.

IN PHOTOS: Story continues under gallery

Photo gallery Mass Arrests, Kettling In Quebec See Gallery

While nobody has died, unlike the 1970 crisis, and most people arrested have been simply ticketed and immediately released, unlike those left to languish in jails back then, critics of the provincial government have spared no adjective to describe current events.

"The government has led us to the worst social crisis we have ever known in Quebec," Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois scolded the premier during a legislature exchange Thursday.

"Six-hundred-fifty-one — that's the number of arrests yesterday ... of ordinary citizens, men, women, young people arrested because they wanted to voice their opposition to decisions of the Liberal regime...

"That's where the Quebec Liberal party has taken us: mass arrests, more often than not arbitrary ones, to silence opposition."

In that gloomy atmosphere, rays of hope emerged Thursday for possible progress.

There were plans for the government and student leaders to meet again, likely early next week. Education Minister Michelle Courchesne said she expected a "very, very important" session after having had positive discussions over the phone.

A new point man has also been assigned to help resolve the crisis: Premier Jean Charest has replaced his chief of staff with a well-regarded veteran who once served in that same role for him, bringing back Daniel Gagnier from political retirement with a mandate to make peace.

Restoring order in time for the tourist-filled festival season, which starts in only a few weeks, appears a monumental task given the events that unfolded in the wee hours Thursday.

A peaceful evening march that began with people festively banging pots and pans ended with police using the controversial "kettling" tactic on a crowd of demonstrators and arresting 518 people in Montreal. Scores of others were arrested elsewhere in the province.

The Quebec incidents have drawn the attention of the world's media, with the unrest receiving prominent coverage in some of the biggest international news outlets.

Some of that coverage has depicted the protests favourably, as an example of youth mobilizing for a brighter future, while other coverage has focused on the scenes of disorder like those that occurred overnight.

Kettling is a police tactic widely used in Europe where riot cops surround demonstrators and limit or cut off their exits. It has been widely criticized because it often results in the scooping up of innocent bystanders as well as rowdies. A recent report by Ontario's police watchdog blasted Toronto police for their use of kettling during the G20 summit two years ago.

The Montreal demonstration on Wednesday was the 30th consecutive nightly march since the student protest against tuition fee increases began more than three months ago.

Wednesday night's march was declared illegal by police the minute it was scheduled to start but was allowed to proceed for almost four hours before a line of Montreal riot cops blocked part of Sherbrooke Street as the marchers approached.

Riot squad officers had been marching on the sidewalk beside the front of the protest all evening. An order to disperse was given because police had been pelted by projectiles and other criminal acts had been committed, Montreal police spokesman Daniel Lacoursiere said. The group had also apparently resisted going in a direction ordered by police.

Montreal police said those arrested will face charges, some under minor municipal bylaws and others under the more severe Criminal Code.

Many of those detained for municipal infractions will face $634 tickets. Some protesters are encouraging others to contest the fines.

In the Montreal kettling scene, a few demonstrators reacted angrily while others sat dazed. There have been reports of tourists stunned to find themselves stuck in the crowd.

The police swiftly squeezed the mob together tighter and tighter. Officers advanced and some people begged to be let out, pleading that they were just walking by.

One photographer was seen pushed to the ground and a piece of equipment was heard breaking. Some protesters cursed and yelled at provincial police officers, who ignored the taunts.

Independent filmmaker Emmanuel Hessler had been following the march for a few blocks. He said in a telephone interview with The Canadian Press from inside the police encirclement that he was surprised by the action.

"Suddenly, there were police all around us," he said.

People were carted off onto city buses, which have been used as makeshift police holding pens. The bus drivers' union opposes the practice and wants to stop it.

The crowd waited to be handcuffed and led away to the buses, one by one, to be sent for processing at a police operational centre — a procedure expected to take several hours.

Meanwhile, a man started reading poetry and the crowd hushed to listen.

Someone else sang a folk song. At one point a woman called out the phone number of a lawyer which the mob took up as a chant.

Hessler, 30, was able to tweet to friends: "We are about to get cuffed and off in a bus. Don't know what happens after. Wish me luck."

The mass arrests came after five days of escalating violence in a dispute that began over tuition fees, evolved partly into a struggle against capitalist practices, and in recent days has mushroomed thanks to opposition to the Charest government's Bill 78.

That bill has not been invoked in any Montreal arrests — although it has been used elsewhere in Quebec and Montreal police say it could still be used to arrest some protest organizers.

There has been some violence every night of the long weekend and in the first part of this week.

Wednesday night's demonstration looked as though it would break the pattern.

A festival-like atmosphere kicked off in many neighbourhoods as people marched and banged pots and pans in different parts of the city.

The percussion-heavy protests have been happening every night at 8 p.m. in Montreal and each night it's become bigger and louder and lasted longer.

The noisy cacerolazo tradition of pot-banging originated as a protest tactic in Chile under successive governments, before and during the infamous Pinochet regime, and it has spread to other countries as a method of showing popular defiance.

One woman joked on Twitter she had broken two wooden spoons and would be bringing a metal one to future pots-and-pans protests.

Wednesday night, there were suddenly thousands doing it in Montreal and they spilled out from their houses into the streets in different pockets of the city in crowds that included children, their parents, students and elderly people.

"It's symbolic because it comes from the revolution in Chile, where there was a dictator in place and there was long tradition of protesting," Sebastien Barraud, a union representative in the education sector, said in reference to Pinochet.

"It also shows that peaceful civil disobedience works. And we're in the process of showing that the polls have no value. A majority of Quebecers are against this government."

Originally from France, Barraud said he also benefited from cheap university fees.

"So I know it's possible. It's just a matter of a political choice."

— with files from Jonathan Montpetit, Myles Dolphin and Jocelyne Richer

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated 2,500 protesters were arrested at a March in Montreal. That is the number of arrests across Quebec since protests began. We regret the error.