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François-Olivier Chené, a teacher at Cegep de St-Hyacinthe, started the movement to bang pots and pans instead of vandalism during the student protests in Montreal, May 30, 2012. (Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail)
François-Olivier Chené, a teacher at Cegep de St-Hyacinthe, started the movement to bang pots and pans instead of vandalism during the student protests in Montreal, May 30, 2012. (Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail)

Quebec Protests

How casseroles overcame cudgels on the streets of Montreal Add to ...

Twelve days have passed since Montreal’s last riot and fire, eight days since the city’s last mass arrest, and about that long since the last person bled from a serious clash between police and protesters.

In little more time than it takes to launch a teargas canister, an explosive situation was defused in Montreal two weeks ago by an unassuming teacher from a college outside the city. Using social media and the now-famous pots-and-pans protest, teacher François-Olivier Chené pulled Montreal back from the edge.

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Those clanging pots, known as les casseroles, were initially seen as just another tactic, but a remarkable thing happened: Ordinary citizens armed only with kitchenware took back their streets from rock-throwers and riot police. They also pushed student and government leaders back to the negotiating table with fresh hope the conflict might end. (Whether the relative peace will last is anyone’s guess.)

“The release of tension is one of the best things that happened with this,” said Mr. Chené, who teaches politics at a college in Saint-Hyacinthe, just southeast of Montreal. “The students were exhausted. The police were, too. Not all students are communists and anarchists, not all police abuse their power. The tension was high, and this gave everybody a way out.”

Unimpressed by both radicals and authorities, Kevin Audet-Vallée, a graduate student in history at the Université de Montréal, was among the early adopters of the new form of protest. “Things have happened so fast, we have a tendency to forget two weeks ago there was a riot with fires in the streets and people were talking about calling in the army. The casseroles changed the game,” he said.

On May 18, as the provincial legislature prepared to pass Bill 78, a law to postpone classes for students on strike and give police new power to crack down on protests, Mr. Chené went on Facebook to launch his appeal for the pot-and-pan demonstrations, inviting people to take to their balconies with their pots. A few hundred people accepted in the early days.

By last weekend, the protests peaked with tens of thousands of Quebeckers in dozens of cities and towns taking to the street.

Mr. Chené’s original plan was that protesters would stick to balconies and sidewalks for only a few minutes and avoid confronting the law. Thousands of protesters gathering in scattered Montreal neighbourhoods overwhelmed such constraints. “That part was very spontaneous,” he said.

The din of wooden-spoon-on-wok overtook the soundscape Montrealers had grown to fear: rocks thrown against glass, fusillades of plastic bullets and police helicopters flying overhead.

More importantly, students now make up a minority of people in the streets, overtaken by legions of grandparents, young professionals and children. People who shrugged at a tuition hike, the point of student protest, were drawn out by the new law and poor handling of the crisis by the province.

“It was suddenly a lot harder to paint the students as violent radicals. Students aren’t even the dominant force any more. There are as many grey heads as students. It’s completely peaceful, and it’s filled with average Joes,” said Mr. Audet-Vallée.

It’s no longer just a Montreal thing, either, with protests taking place in the most unlikely corners, like Saint-Jérôme, a bedroom community an hour northwest of Montreal. “I don’t think there’s ever been a protest over anything in Saint-Jérôme,” said 35-year-old Marie Hull, who joined about 200 local protesters on the weekend.

Mr. Chené remained hopeful that the government and students can soon reach a deal. “It’s important for this crisis to come to an end, and I think the chance is now. I’m be proud of having played a part in bringing an end into sight.”

Follow on Twitter: @Perreaux

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