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Canada Quebec begins hearing into 2012 student protests

Protesters opposing Quebec student tuition fee hikes demonstrate in Montreal on Aug. 22, 2012. The head of a Quebec government-appointed commission looking into the province's 2012 student protests, which made international news, hopes his inquiry helps make future demonstrations more peaceful.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The head of a Quebec government-appointed commission into the province's 2012 student protests, which made international news, hopes his inquiry helps make future demonstrations more peaceful.

Serge Ménard, a former public security minister, kicked off the public hearings on Monday by saying the events of the so-called "Maple Spring" led to a crisis of confidence regarding police.

"It's a disturbing situation," he said in his opening statement.

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"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 Québécois took office.

The PQ called the hearings earlier this year under pressure from the left, which accused law-enforcement of abuses in quelling the protests.

But questions about the government's objectivity were raised immediately when, on the 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, Mr. Ménard shared statistics about those restless months.

He said there were more than 2,000 protest-related arrests, scores of ethics complaints against police over 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 to take disciplinary steps against officers.

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The first person to appear before the inquiry was Martine Desjardins, the former president of FEUQ, a federation representing university students.

She outlined the events that led to the adoption of a strategy to oppose the tuition fee hikes, and blamed the former Liberal government for the crisis.

Mr. Ménard 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 against police. One protester lost an eye during the violent clash, in which demonstrators beat a provincial police officer with a stick.

Several hundred students had been demonstrating outside the provincial Liberal Party's general council meeting in the small town about 150 kilometres northeast of Montreal. Some rushed the security barrier outside, 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.

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Mr. Ménard said that in Montreal, between February and September, 2012, 532 demonstrations were held involving about 750,000 demonstrators and 34,260 police officers. Police made 2,225 arrests, and 211 complaints were filed against police.

Montreal police operations required more than $17-million in overtime costs. There were also incidents in Sherbrooke, Quebec City and Gatineau.

Mr. Ménard said his inquiry will focus on the number of demonstrations, their location, the arrests, and the number of injuries. It will also look at police use of "flash-bang" grenades, chemical agents such as pepper spray, batons and mass arrests through the tactic of crowd kettling.

Mr. Ménard said the commission is concerned over 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 report to Quebec's public security minister before Dec. 20.

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