A weekend that brought Montreal’s social unrest to the international stage ended Sunday with police clamping down on an attempt to disrupt the city’s Grand Prix Formula One race.
Anti-capitalists and students upset about tuition fee increases held demonstrations throughout the four-day event, marking the arrival of the world’s premier auto racing series. The protests gave visitors a taste of the dramatic scenes — sometimes joyful, sometimes violent — that locals have been witness to for months.
Many of those scenes played out just steps away from a huge, non-stop party on Crescent Street for the race-car festivities, considered the biggest annual tourist event in Canada.
Every night, a group of students and anti-capitalists descended on the popular night-club strip to protest against the event. On several occasions there were violent clashes between protesters and riot police, with tourists caught in the middle.
“It’s been a tough one this year,” Grand Prix promoter Francois Dumontier told reporters following the race.
“I think we had a good weekend overall here, we weren’t perturbed despite all threats, people had no trouble getting onto the site, and the warm temperature helped our attendance.”
Mr. Dumontier admitted ticket sales to the race, which pumps about $100 million into the local economy, were down by five or six per cent.
Protesters also sent a clear message late Sunday that while the Grand Prix may be over, their nightly demonstrations will continue.
Several hundred marched in a downtown demonstration that almost immediately was declared illegal.
Some windows were smashed, notably those at the offices of the Caisse de depot pension manager and at the National Bank.
A police cruiser was also damaged and police said they made 12 arrests — nine for bylaw infractions and three for alleged criminal offences, including assault.
It was the 48th consecutive night that protesters gathered in Montreal.
In recent weeks, crowd sizes had waxed and waned as protesters geared up to make an impact at the Grand Prix.
There were no major incidents on Sunday despite much-discussed plans by an anti-capitalist group to disrupt the subway line, which shuttled thousands of fans to Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve.
Leading up to the race officers were posted at stations throughout the subway system, with sniffer dogs and lines of police at the station near the track. Police said 34 people were arrested and 40 more were forced from the off-shore island, Ile Ste-Helene, which is adjacent to Ile Notre Dame where the race was held.
As the tumultuous Grand Prix weekend wrapped up, Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand hinted — not for the first time — that the students’ dispute would soon be settled at the ballot box.
“I think the people of Quebec want to settle this issue and they want to talk, they’re scared to talk,” said Mr. Bachand, the architect behind Quebec’s increasing reliance on the user-fee model and the author of the student tuition fees written into the 2011 budget.
“But in a democracy, you have one major right you can do silently — you can vote.”
Those comments renewed speculation Premier Jean Charest could call an early fall election, but Mr. Bachand wouldn’t speculate on a date. The premier didn’t attend the Grand Prix.
Meanwhile, Montreal police were criticized for searches and arrests that the force called “a preventive measure.” The powerful student group CLASSE was planning a news conference Monday to denounce police actions in recent protests.
Several people, many of them wearing red squares — the emblem of the student movement — were seen being forcibly escorted away from the race grounds and back onto the subway by police.
One young woman in tears said she was planning to get her ticket when she met up with a friend in front of the track. The woman, who had dyed red hair, accused the police of “profiling.” A Canadian Press reporter who didn’t have a Grand Prix ticket was also forced back on the subway.
“Some of those arrested were people police recognized from earlier student demonstrations that had been deemed illegal,” said Montreal police district commander Alain Simoneau.
“In the interest of public safety, we decided to detain these people.”
Masks, rocks and knives were among the objects seized by those arrested. Most of those arrested will be released without charge, while others arrested in neighbouring suburbs could be charged, Mr. Simoneau said.
An Ottawa man headed to the race said he felt the police had an obligation to ensure the event went off smoothly. While he supports the right to protest, Ali Fadelalla said disrupting the transit system was out of line.
“It should be a peaceful event,” Mr. Fadelalla said.
“Lots of tourists come from all over the world. If people start to disrupt the race it’s not good for the country or the province.”
The anti-capitalist group organizing Sunday’s protest had suggested packing the subway with as many people as possible, making it difficult for fans to get to the race.
“We’re all going to the Grand Prix ... AT THE SAME TIME!” said a posting on the group’s website.
The subway protest was also promoted on the student group CLASSE’s website calendar.
“Don’t get aboard the trains until you receive the signal,” the post says.
That signal appears to have been a fire alarm set off on the subway line Sunday morning. Several people were removed from the metro following that incident.
The subway system has been a target before. A group is facing charges for setting off smoke bombs in the subway last month.
A taxi driver could be among those facing charges after Saturday night’s clashes. Police said he got out of his cab to argue with a crowd of protesters and his vehicle rolled down a hill, injuring three people before the 22-year-old driver fled the scene.
With files from Peter RakobowchukReport Typo/Error