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Protesters opposing Quebec student tuition fee hikes demonstrate in Montreal, Wednesday, August 22, 2012.

Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The head of the Quebec government-appointed commission looking into the 2012 student protests has sought to reassure its critics with a promise to remain apolitical.

The commission has begun its work under a cloud of suspicion, with different sides in the historic student dispute expressing equal disdain for the project.

Student groups have indicated that they will boycott the panel's hearings, which began Monday. Police-officers' unions won't take part either.

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And the Opposition Liberals, who were in government during the memorable protests, have also said they'll boycott what they describe as a political masquerade.

But Serge Menard, a long-time former Parti Quebecois public security minister heading the panel, has stressed he's not there to judge the individuals involved in the so-called Maple Spring.

"I'm not the type that likes petty politics," Menard told a news conference. "Petty politics makes me petty."

He also repeated several times during the news conference that the special commission does not have the mandate to put police or student organizations on trial.

Those questions, he added, are the responsibility of the courts and police ethics committees.

Menard said the commission's mandate is to examine the techniques used by police forces and how things got out of control and left police overwhelmed.

He said it would also examine the tactics used by trouble-makers and agitators that undermined the credibility of legitimate demonstrations, which occurred nightly last summer.

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The commission will not have the power of a public inquiry to compel witnesses to testify. Some of its hearings will also be held behind closed doors.

That's why student groups, which had demanded a formal inquiry into police brutality, describe the current process as a sham.

The Liberals offered a similar view, for different reasons.

They expressed outrage when a government minister, Stephane Bergeron, announced the creation of a supposedly neutral commission — and at the same news conference explicitly blamed the Charest Liberals for the crisis.

Menard insisted the minister wasn't asking for a political hit job.

"I don't think the minister was thinking of that," he added. "But if he expected a political judgement from us, he took the wrong guy..."

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"We said very clearly from the outset and we agree on this: we will not render political judgements, nor will we try to make trials of police officers or students organizations."

Having served as a former federal MP with the opposition Bloc Quebecois, Menard also stressed that he has always respected democratic institutions, including opposition parties.

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