Serge Menard, a former public security minister, kicked off the public hearings Monday by saying the events of the so-called "Maple Spring" had led to a crisis of confidence regarding police.
"It's a disturbing situation," he said in his opening statement.
"The commission will take a systemic look at these events of spring 2012 — not only to draw lessons from 2012, but to put everything in place so that if a similar intense debate comes along in Quebec in the future, it will unfold peacefully in a very democratic spirit."
The raucous protests were staged against tuition increases, introduced by the former Liberal government and eventually pared back when the Parti Quebecois took office.
The PQ called the hearings earlier this year under pressure from the left, which accused law-enforcement of serial abuses in quelling the protests.
But questions about the government's objectivity were raised immediately when, on the very day it announced the inquiry, the minister responsible blamed the Liberals for the unrest. Critics on the left were also upset with the limited scope and power of the commission.
On Monday, Menard shared statistics about those restless months.
He said there were more than 2,000 protest-related arrests, scores of ethics complaints against police for alleged abuses, injuries, property damage, cancelled classes, and millions in law-enforcement costs.
He said that, according to the information collected so far, the public appears skeptical about measures in place to take disciplinary steps against officers.
The first person to appear before the inquiry was Martine Desjardins, the former president of FEUQ, a federation representing university students.
During her testimony, she outlined the events that led to the adoption of a strategy to oppose the tuition fee hikes.
She blamed the former Liberal government for the crisis.
Menard said the most dramatic events took place on May 4 in Victoriaville, when gas, chemical agents and plastic bullets were used against protesters.
That led to 250 ethics complaints filed against police. One protester lost an eye during the violent clash, which also saw some demonstrators beat a provincial police officer with a stick.
Several hundred students had been demonstrating outside the provincial Liberal party's general council meeting, a small town about 150 kilometres northeast of Montreal. Some rushed the security barrier outside the event, which touched off an extended scuffle with police.
Overall, provincial police officers were involved in 413 demonstrations which required $6.8 million in overtime costs.
Menard said that in Montreal, between February and September 2012, 532 demonstrations were held involving around 750,000 demonstrators and 34,260 police officers. There were 2,225 arrests by police. But there were also 211 complaints filed against police.
Montreal police operations required more than $17 million in overtime costs for extra police services. There were also incidents in Sherbrooke, Quebec City and Gatineau.
Menard said his inquiry will focus on the number of demonstrations, their location, the arrests, and the number of injuries. It will also look at the use by police forces of "flash-bang" grenades, chemical agents like pepper spray, batons and mass arrests through the tactic of crowd kettling.
Menard raised the issue of being able to identify police during a demonstration.
"It's useless to file a complaint against a police officer who is not identified," he said. "The information collected at this stage raises important questions about the obligation of police to visibly wear their number."
Menard said the commission is concerned by the lack of rules for how police officers are required to identify themselves.
The commission, which has already interviewed 61 "key actors," is supposed to submit a report to Quebec's public security minister before Dec. 20.
On Monday, Desjardins said the demonstrations might not have happened if the former Liberal government had accepted to meet with student associations after their first protest against the planned tuition hikes.
"If the Charest government would have met with student leaders in November or December things would have been very different," Desjardins said. "The commission must find a way to bring both sides of a conflict to the negotiation table much quicker."
The Charest Liberals have repeatedly said that student groups brushed aside their early demands to discuss the fee hikes.
Desjardins said the turning point came in May with the government's imposition of Bill 78, a law that set limits on demonstrations.
She said the law broadened the dispute and attracted a broader cross-section of protesters.
She said the conflict worsened over time, and she received death threats. Another student leader has also spoken about receiving threats.
"I didn't find out until later," Desjardins told the commission. "Because it was my vice-president who received calls from police telling him never to leave me alone."
Desjardins said she had reservations about the limited scope of the commission's mandate, but justified her presence by stating that she wanted to take advantage of any small chance to make things better.