Quebec City police squelch anti-G7 protests while rights group questions response

Protesters attempted to stage a "day of disruption" in Quebec City on Friday as the G7 summit got underway in La Malbaie, Que. A swift police response prevented them from gaining much traction.

Protesters unable to cause much disruption in Quebec City as world leaders meet

Anti-G7 protests were organized and held throughout the day in Quebec City on Friday. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The "day of disruption" in Quebec City, which anti-capitalism activists promised to deliver Friday during the G7 summit, was easily suffocated by a swift and sizable police response.

Protesters opposed to the meeting of G7 leaders — currently underway in La Malbaie, Que., 140 kilometres northeast of Quebec City — attempted to block a series of intersections, but were unable to hold their ground for extended periods of time.

Their operations began early. Several dozen tried to stop traffic on the lone road leading to the summit site around 8 a.m.

More on Saturday's protests:

"These governments that are meeting are all imposing these neo-liberal policies," said Rémi Arsenault, a public health worker, who took a bus from Montreal to take part in Friday's protest. 

Protesters set couches on fire in Quebec City in attempt to block the highway to La Malbaie, where the G7 summit is taking place. (Myriam Tremblay-Sher/CBC)

After a tense, hour-long standoff with police dressed in riot gear, protesters gradually dispersed and the road was reopened.

The activists, who were aligned with an anti-G7 resistance network, reappeared later in the morning, blocking off an intersection closer to downtown.

They set a pair of couches on fire before being pushed onto adjoining side streets by police. A cat-and-mouse game ensued as they sought to dodge pursing officers. 

But Quebec City police managed to divide the group in two and took at least two people into custody.

Protest fizzles on the Plains of Abraham

After regrouping in the afternoon, about 30 activists tried again to take to the streets. And once again, rapid deployment of riot police limited where they could march.  

The activists ended up wandering around the Plains of Abraham, where the demonstration sputtered and ended without incident. RCMP said six people were arrested throughout the day for illegal assembly. 

Many of the activists who took part refused to see the day's actions as a failure, even though they were not able to cause much havoc for summit organizers.

"You can see it in terms of quantity, but in terms of quality it was a success on all fronts," said Carlos Stephane as he left the Plains of Abraham.

"Quebec City was disrupted to send a clear message that the way the G7 leaders organize our society is completely unacceptable."

Police officers in riot gear guard access to a highway heading to La Malbaie on Friday. Demonstrators gathered near the highway in an attempt to block traffic. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Sergio Morreale, a communist activist from Palermo, Italy, acknowledged that last year's demonstrations at the G7 meeting in Sicily were larger, but praised the ability of activists in Quebec City to re-emerge repeatedly throughout the day..  

"In Italy, there wasn't the spontaneous demonstrations like this," he said. "Protesting is important no matter where in the world, in Canada or in Italy. The problems are the same."

Amnesty questions why police had assault rifles  

The anti-G7 demonstrations in Quebec City will continue on Saturday, but more militant activists will likely play a smaller role.

Among the organizers of Saturday's protests are unions and non-governmental organizations, who traditionally take their distance from the confrontational tactics favoured by anti-capitalist groups.

But even these moderate groups have expressed concern about the scale of the security operation that has accompanied the summit and the demonstrations.

The federal government alone is budgeted to spend nearly $400 million on security for the summit. That doesn't include the cost of the hundreds of Quebec City and provincial police officers who are patrolling the streets of the capital. 

"The heavy police presence could have a deterrent effect on people wanting to protest for very good reasons," said Geneviève Paul, an official with Amnesty International, which has several observers monitoring the demonstrations.

"Police should not only make sure that we're protected if there is an act of violence, but they should also be enabling freedom of expression."

Amnesty International is also questioning the arsenal that police have at their disposal for the Quebec City protests.

Provincial police confirmed to the group, said Paul, that some officers carried assault rifles during Thursday's demonstration, believed to be without recent precedent for a Quebec police force responding to a protest.

"The reason that they gave was that it was in response to a terrorist threat. That can be understandable," she said.

"But we did raise concerns that they were standing in the same line and with other Sûreté du Québec officers who had intermediary arms [non-lethal weapons]."

For those activists who did attend the protests on Thursday and Friday, the police presence had a chilling effect. 

"It was so intense that we felt intimidated. We felt guilty of something," said Michel Milot, a math professor at a Montreal CEGEP. "To feel guilty of protesting in a democracy is pretty incredible."

More on the G7:

With files from Benjamin Shingler in Montreal

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