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Mercedes GP Petronas driver Michael Schumacher, centre, and Scuderia Toro Rosso Jaime Alguersuari drive by the hairpin turn overlooking the Montreal skyline during the first practice session at the Canadian Grand Prix, Friday, June 10, 2011 in Montreal. Social unrest and an ominous call to action from a student association may put spokes in the wheels of Montreal's most profitable weekend.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Montreal has lost a major spectator event to strife in the streets.

The city's Grand Prix race, one of the biggest tourist events in Canada, has cancelled the long-standing opening chapter to race weekend – a free open house that often draws more than 25,000 racing fans to the track.

While organizers promise the race itself will go ahead with increased security next weekend, the open house gave fans a unique chance to roam the pit lane, see cars up close, watch mechanics at work, and even have chance encounters with their racing heroes.

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"That's sad. A lot of guys who go to [the] open house are people with kids and families who may not have the means to go to the Grand Prix, and think this is as close as they can get. Who do [the protesters] really want to hurt?" said Bernardo Pisarzewski, a long-time Formula 1 fan and president of the Quebec chapter of the Ferrari Club of America.

For nearly four months now, students have led marches in the streets to protest against a tuition hike and a list of grievances against the provincial government. The demonstrations have occasionally descended into violence, driving many Montrealers to avoid downtown.

One of the more radical student associations had threatened to disrupt the event, which is also under threat from a loose association of Internet activist hackers, known as Anonymous.

Canadian Grand Prix president François Dumontier said a security review of threats to the free event, with open access to the course and pit lane, "revealed some risks we could not neglect."

"Cancelling the open house day was the only action we could take," he said in a statement.

Student leaders accused race organizers of exaggerating the threat. During recent negotiations, Education Minister Michelle Courchesne accused one student leader of promising to "fix your Grand Prix," words she decried as a threat. The student leader, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, later denied he was making a threat.

"It's fear founded on prejudice," said Jeanne Reynolds, a spokesperson of student group CLASSE, along with Mr. Nadeau-Dubois. "It's really meant just to be an action to be visible. There's nothing to worry about."

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The Montreal mayor and local business leaders say they fear protests will scare off vacationers, but the city's tourism board said it isn't anticipating a massive rash of hotel and tour cancellations.

"The first four months of 2012 were quite strong, April was ahead of 2011, so we expect a slight dip in May and perhaps early June … but there will be lots of tourists, no question about that," said Pierre Bellerose, vice-president of Tourism Montreal. "There's been a lot of buzz abroad over the past year, we've been on lots of 'best destinations' lists."

Because most foreign F1 fans are locked into their bookings, Mr. Bellerose theorized that the main effects of the dispute will likely result from local Grand Prix goers avoiding downtown Montreal; according to the race's promoters, roughly half the attendees come from Montreal, other areas in Quebec or from eastern Ontario.

Organizers of other Montreal events, such as the Jazz Festival and les FrancoFolies, are watching with worry. Gilbert Rozon, the founder of Just for Laughs, has asked to meet with students on Monday after carrying on a major public row with them for the past month. Ticket sales for his festival are down 50 per cent, he said.

Nobody knows how long the disruption might last, or how bad it might get. Mr. Pisarzewski's club has moved their traditional showcase of their Ferrari sports cars to the distant West Island suburbs from their usual spot in Little Italy, in part to avoid any run-ins with protesters who frequently cover several kilometres of the city's core with long marches.

Mr. Pisarzewski said his group had already thought about finding a fresh location. The protests only added extra motivation.

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"I'm dying to see how this all winds up," he said. "Is it all smoke and no fire? Is there going to be a lot of hot air? I hope all the worrying is for nothing."

With files from Sean Gordon and The Canadian Press

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