MONTREAL — For weeks, protesters have been promising to disrupt the Montreal Formula One Grand Prix, which is perhaps the biggest annual tourist event in Canada.
Police immediately made clear, as the event was just getting underway Thursday, how determined they were to keep that from happening.
The riot squad moved in and cornered protesters so quickly that the first Grand Prix-related demonstration had barely begun and protesters were already being rounded up, with some of them being arrested.
A group of protesters, many of them masked or wearing black, had been approaching the site of a cocktail party kicking off four days of car-racing festivities.
Police swept in and surrounded them, through the controversial tactic known as kettling, just as protesters reached a barrier about 100 metres from the party.
They made sure media were kept far away from the scene. Reporters were warned that if they remained with protesters inside the kettle they would be arrested. One journalist was grabbed by the arm and moved away from the crowd of demonstrators.
“Why are we being held here? Did we do anything wrong?” one woman yelled at police. The officers did not reply.
Police moved through the crowd of kettled protesters to conduct searches. They confiscated light bulbs filled with paint. About 20 people were arrested.
Within an hour the kettle was lifted, protesters cheered, and protesters continued marching toward another downtown area.
The Grand Prix race usually attracts 300,000 people — many of them wealthy tourists.
This year’s event has become the temporary epicentre of a months-long student uprising, which began as a battle over tuition fees but has evolved into a broader ideological struggle.
One-third of the province’s post-secondary students have walked out on their classes and Montreal has been the site of daily, occasionally turbulent, street demonstrations.
Now protesters, some of them opposed to tuition hikes and others opposed more generally to the practices of global capitalism, hope to thwart the car race and related parties that attract droves of big-spending jet-set visitors.
A cocktail party opening the event Thursday was being targeted by one hardcore protest group, which invited people to “disrupt” the event.
While people chanted and protested outside, guests at the exclusive garden party chatted and dined on champagne and oysters.
Among those attending the party were F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone and Michael Fortier, his co-president for the event who is also a businessman and former minister in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet. Drivers and team owners were also on the guest list, as was Canadian-born former F1 champ Jacques Villeneuve.
Asked what message he had for the students, Villeneuve said: “Go back to school.” The famous driver then delivered a lengthy castigation of protests that he called an embarrassment to Canada, especially to Quebec, and he said they could chase away tourists and wealthy taxpayers.
Ecclestone, the wealthy F1 impresario, seemed nonplussed by the protests. He said the circuit is used to dealing with demonstrations. As for the Quebec students, he said they had less to complain about than British students who have been protesting skyrocketing fees
He did offer protesters one piece of advice: steer clear of the track. “It would be terrible if somebody got killed like that, you know, running across the track,” he said.
CLAC, an anti-capitalist group, has promised that over the weekend it will repeatedly target Crescent Street, which is traditionally the most active bar and restaurant strip during race week.
The party street hosted some unusual and turbulent scenes Thursday.
After protesters finally left the kettle they marched right up to the street made famous for its bars, luxury sports cars and dance-club crowd. When they arrived, they were blocked by a line of riot police protecting the street.
For a moment, two disparate worlds collided as red-square-wearing protesters and photo-snapping race fans exchanged distant glances — some of them curious, some puzzled and some hostile — from opposite ends of the police line.
One race fan heckled the protesters: “Get a life!” Some of the more even-tempered folks in the Crescent Street crowd sought to debate politics with the protesters — one of whom replied: “We’re not going to convince you, and you’re not going to convince us.”
There was a brief but boisterous standoff on the party strip. Some protesters tossed objects at police. Police immediately responded with blasts of pepper spray and by shoving away or arresting members of the crowd. One man was dragged across an intersection.
The most hectic of all weekend events could occur Sunday — on race day.
The CLAC group has encouraged people to pack the subway line that leads to the small island where the race track is located, in an attempt to slow down the transit system. The subway is usually the easiest way for most race enthusiasts to get to the race.
“Nightly protests will disrupt this crass elite at play in (the west part of) downtown every night,” the CLAC group said on its website.
Grand Prix officials have already cancelled one event, an open house that is held during every Grand Prix that allows the public to visit the pit area to see the cars and chat with some of the drivers and mechanics.
But many tourists have been completely unaffected by the protests.
Scores of them could be seen strolling peacefully in old Montreal earlier Thursday afternoon, snapping pictures of its colonial buildings, large public bicycle stands and horse-drawn carriages.
A chiropractor from Saskatoon, in town for the race, said she was enjoying a pleasant visit and sounded puzzled by all the fuss.
“(The protests are) kind of comical — coming from where we come from our tuition is much higher,” said Chantal Serack. “I went to school in the United States where I paid $80,000 for my tuition over three and a half years so, in my mind, if you want to go to school, you pay what you need to pay and deal with it.”
Another tourist, in town for his son’s graduation at McGill University, agreed Quebec students have it relatively good. As he strolled in Montreal on Thursday afternoon, he said he hadn’t really noticed any protests yet.
“We heard there are going to be, but I’ve been here for several days and I’ve seen no protesters, no signs and no disruptions,” said David Miller, a physician from Florida. He suggested the dispute might have been blown out of proportion.
“There’s an awful lot of students in Montreal so I suspect it’s probably a very big issue here. On the grand scale of things, at least from what I see here, it’s a bit of a tempest in a teapot.”
Montreal police, who have maintained a heavy presence during more than a month of nighttime demonstrations, swooped in for a series of raids early Thursday, arresting a number of people they allege were involved in disruptions at recent protests.
Among those arrested was Yalda Machouf-Khadir, the 19-year-old daughter of Amir Khadir, the sole member of the left-leaning Quebec solidaire party in the legislature. It was unclear what charges she might face.
Aside from the tuition hikes, a main issue for the demonstrators is Bill 78, which placed restrictions on demonstrations.
Negotiations to resolve the tuition fee dispute have stalled. The Charest government has insisted it would not back down on a plan to hike tuition fees about 80 per cent — or $254 a year over seven years.
That would eventually boost the fees to about $3,800 a year.
The government later offered to spread the total hikes over seven years to $1,778, compensated with cuts to other fees. That would work out to an increase of about $254 a year.
While the proposed hikes would still leave Quebec with some of the lowest rates in the country, the issue has flared into a clash of ideologies. The students have called for a tuition freeze but the government has flatly rejected any idea of that.