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Dozens of Montreal municipal employees facing charges for storming, damaging city hall

City leaders have taken swift action against employees who participated in a violent protest at City Hall this month, announcing a raft of suspensions and criminal charges that suggest a shifting power relationship between the city and its traditionally militant unions.

The mayor and police chief on Friday announced that 44 city employees faced criminal charges and dozens more were being suspended in the aftermath of a rowdy protest last week that degenerated into vandalism.

Mayor Denis Coderre told a city-hall news conference that 63 employees – nearly all of them firefighters – were being probed for their part in the protest on Aug. 18. Of those, 39 were being suspended without pay while they were under investigation, and eventual sanctions could go as far as firings.

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"When people go overboard, there will be consequences," the mayor said.

The moves signal a repositioning in the power balance between municipal leaders and the city's labour unions, which have a history of activism stretching back decades. The raucous protest at City Hall was over proposed changes to municipal pensions that would have employees shoulder more of the cost of pension-plan deficits.

"Nothing justifies violence. Nothing justifies intimidation," Mr. Coderre said. He described the new pension rules a way of addressing inequality between the generations.

"We're no longer living in the sixties, or the years when thugs had their way or used intimidation to succeed," said Mr. Coderre. "We are capable of talking."

The protest at City Hall, a historic building in Old Montreal, was broadly condemned. Employees were seen storming the building at the start of a city-council meeting, surging through the corridors carrying placards, beating drums and blowing horns. They littered the council chambers with papers and other debris, overthrowing chairs and forcing councillors to retreat; at least one elected official said he was punched in the side.

Mr. Coderre says water glasses were thrown at him and he took refuge in his office with some city councillors.

"At a certain point, we could see it was a free-for-all," said the mayor. "There were people who were intimidated; there was a certain amount of fear."

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In the criminal proceedings, the 44 employees were to receive summonses on Friday to appear in court on charges of unlawful assembly, assault and mischief. One of the employees was a civilian staffer for the police, and none is a police officer, Chief Marc Parent said. The others were not identified.

The scenes also sparked criticism because police officers, who are involved in the pension dispute, were seen standing on the sidelines while their fellow city employees went about causing damage. Chief Parent said there have been meetings with a dozen senior and rank-and-file officers due to disciplinary lapses.

"We can confirm that behaviour was identified that violates our code of discipline," Chief Parent said.

City officials appeared braced for a possible backlash to their announcements Friday. The mayor repeatedly offered reassurances about the public's safety, and had even contacted Quebec's Public Security Minister in case additional police and firefighting resources were needed.

"We have things in hand," Mr. Coderre said. "Regardless of what I say today, public safety is total … we have been assured as much by firefighters as by police that at no time would people's safety be harmed."

Both the police chief and mayor said their investigations were ongoing and further disciplinary measures, and criminal charges, were possible.

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