Maple Spring student protest report criticizes police tactics

Student groups and activists are welcoming a report on the 2012 Quebec student protests that criticizes police tactics and Jean Charest's former Liberal government.

Serge Ménard report backs limiting use of batons, pepper spray and stun grenades to control crowds

A number of protesters were injured at one particularly violent student demonstration in Victoriaville, Que., in 2012 after clashing with police.

Quebec student groups and activists are welcoming a report on the 2012 student protests that condemns the former Liberal government for its handling of the social movement, and criticizes the police force's uses of crowd control tactics.

The report was quietly released on Wednesday evening, when most Quebecers were glued to their TV screens watching the Montreal Canadiens play the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The 450-page report outlines 28 different recommendations, 21 of which concern police tactics during the nearly 700 protests that took place during the spring and summer of 2012.

The report also criticizes the former Jean Charest Liberal government for not making more of an effort to mediate with students.

Maple Spring report highlights:

  • Limit the use of batons, pepper spray and stun grenades to control crowds.
  • Suspend the application of article 500.1 of the province's Highway Safety Code to justify mass arrests until it can be debated in court.
  • Recognize students' right to strike following a secret ballot, by clarifying the law of certification and financing for student associations.
  • Require protest organizers to notify public authorities of a demonstration ahead of time, except in cases of spontaneous demonstrations.
  • The minister of public security should remind police forces that crowd control strategies should only be used in exceptional cases and that a peaceful protest does not need to be dispersed just because of the actions of a few individuals.

Anarchopanda, the student protest mascot, told CBC's Daybreak he’s happy the report places so much emphasis on police action.

"People who commit crimes, police have a right to intervene against them, but protesting is not ... a crime and should not, therefore, be targeted by the police," said Anarchopanda mascot and CÉGEP philosophy professor Julien Villeneuve.

Benjamin Gingras, the spokesman for the student group that was at the centre of the 2012 protests — Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante​ (ASSÉ) — said he wasn't surprised to see police tactics criticized in the report.

Anarchopanda mascot and CÉGEP philosophy professor Julien Villeneuve says protesting is not a crime and protesters should not be targeted by police.

“We hope that the current government won’t make the same mistakes that the previous government made in regards to contempt towards the student movement.”

While ASSÉ acknowledges the report does shed light on several key problems, the student group remains critical of some aspects of the report.

it was not an easy situation.- Yves Francoeur, Montreal police union president

ASSÉ believes mass arrests need to be banned completely. 

The group also denounces the report for recommending that student groups use secret ballots to vote to strike.

Police union calls recommendations unrealistic

Yves Francoeur, the president of Montreal's police union, said the force is always looking for ways to improve its practices, but the report's recommendations are simply unrealistic. 

"How are you going to control, supervise, more than 600 protests over 180 days without the appropriate tactical weapons? It doesn't make sense," Francoeur said. 

"Some of their protests were very violent. We had 70 police officers who were injured, some of them seriously, so it was not an easy situation."

Clockwise from top, the stages of police action during student protests. (CBC)

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said the report was a politically motivated attempt by the Parti Québécois to cast blame on the former Liberal government. 

“There will certainly be recommendations that can be looked at, but nobody doubts that the main motivation, the main drive behind this commission, was a political drive,” he said.

Police, PQ respond

Pascal Bérubé, the Parti Québécois’s public security critic, responded by saying the report merits consideration and a wider and more careful analysis of the tactics used by police. He said it was also essential to co-ordinate the actions of all parties involved: police, emergency services and protesters.

"The right to peaceful protest is one that is recognized in our society. We need to take the time to review all of its aspects," Bérubé said.

Cmdr. Ian Lafrenière of the Montreal police said the force is taking some of the recommendations into consideration.

"There could be 18 recommendations that could be good for us," he told Radio Noon host Bernard St-Laurent.

He said that between the first protest and the 700th protest, police tactics evolved quite a lot. He called the student demonstrations a "learning experience."

"The way we deal with the crowd has changed," Lafrenière said. One of the ways, he said, was in asking police to walk with protesters instead of blocking streets. 

Background on Maple Spring report

In May 2013, the Parti Québécois government's public security minister, Stéphane Bergeron, set up a special committee chaired by former PQ minister Serge Ménard, to provide an overall picture of the events of spring 2012, as well as determine how demonstrations against tuition fee hikes escalated to such an extreme.

A number of protesters were injured at one particularly violent demonstration in Victoriaville, Que., after clashing with police.

The report says policing student demonstrations during the Maple Spring cost the province nearly $26 million.

Read the full report (French)