Protesters stormed into a university, many of them with their faces covered by masks, and worked through the hallways Wednesday on the hunt for classes to disrupt.
The chaotic scene, which made some international news reports, came in a climate of heightened tension Wednesday as the provincial government was considering emergency legislation to crack down on student protests.
The intrusions were orchestrated by protesters seeking to enforce their declared strikes. They resented the fact that some students had used legal injunctions to return to school.
Carrying a list of scheduled classes, about 100 hard-core protesters marched through pavilions at the Université du Québec à Montréal.
Making noise with drums and whistles, they made their way through the main UQAM building, splitting up on a number of occasions as they searched for ongoing classes. A masked protester would yell out marching orders for the next target, such as: “Pavilion M!”
A few dozen entered a contract-law class at one point.
Having marched upstairs to that ninth-storey classroom, the group began flicking on and off the lights; they repeatedly yelled, “Scab!” at the stunned group of students seated inside.
A few men even grabbed two female students by the arm, telling them to get out. Some of the intruders jumped on desks and tables.
The teacher and students shouted at the protesters and told them to leave.
But during the 10-minute standoff, most of the students eventually gave up and left the classroom, as did the teacher. Some of those who remained got into heated discussions with the protesters, as they yelled obscenities at each other.
By the time it was over, there were chairs and tables knocked over. On a wall of the classroom there was a spray-painted message, written in red: “On strike, dammit!”
The protesters then worked their way toward another class. They had marched east on De Maisonneuve Boulevard for a few minutes before they found their target: 1001 De Maisonneuve East. They chanted, “Who owns UQAM? We own UQAM!”
None of the protesters were carrying weapons. They did, however, get into students’ faces, shouting at them, shoving their books and climbing on desks.
Some annoyed students reported the incident to police. Others snapped photos of the intruders with their cellphone cameras.
At one point, while a student was talking to a police officer outside the school, several demonstrators who were watching them shouted: “Scabs!” But she continued chatting with police.
“They’re trying to make us afraid to go back to class,” UQAM law student Celina Toia said after talking to the officers, who were sitting in a van.
“Teachers are more than willing to give their classes, so they’re trying to make it extremely inconvenient. They’re threatening us and they’re creating a hostile environment for us.”
The student unrest has lasted 14 weeks. Only one-third of Quebec students are actually on declared strikes, but the conflict has created considerable social disorder.
Wednesday’s events were notable — in that they were actually taking place inside classrooms, in face-to-face confrontations.
The social conflict so far has consisted of different sides fighting in court, and in the court of public opinion. It has also seen scuffles between police and protesters, but the events inside the classrooms Wednesday came as a shock.
The crisis appears headed for a crescendo.
The provincial cabinet was meeting Wednesday to discuss the possibility of adopting emergency legislation — a law reportedly laden with financial penalties for people who have played a role in encouraging the ongoing disruption.
Premier Jean Charest and his ministers were assembled in Quebec City. On her way into the meeting, new Education Minister Michelle Courchesne said she had noticed a hardening of demands from student leaders.
That remark came as a surprise to the student groups, who had emerged from a meeting with Ms. Courchesne the previous night saying they had had a constructive dialogue.
Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois made it clear that she would oppose any legislated crackdown. Wearing the iconic red square of the protest movement, Ms. Marois said negotiation would always work better than coercion.
“I think the best way is to discuss,” she said.
She picked up on an analogy used earlier in the day from a student leader. Earlier Wednesday, one student-group leader Leo Bureau-Blouin urged Mr. Charest to do the right thing as a “family father” — and deal with the problem in the house, not call in the police.
Ms. Marois said that, speaking as a “family mother,” she hoped for a peaceful resolution.
With a report from Andy Blatchford