Quebec student leaders try to calm Montreal festival fears

Quebec student leaders have provided assurances that they won't disrupt Montreal's upcoming festival season, saying claims that they pose a threat to the city's tourism are wildly overblown.

Heads of 3 groups meet with Just for Laughs boss Rozon to discuss protests

FEUQ president Martine Desjardins says it was a government tactic to try to make people believe that students wanted to disrupt Montreal's summer festivals. (CBC)

Quebec student leaders provided assurances Monday that they won't disrupt the city's upcoming festival season, saying claims that they pose a threat to Montreal's tourism industry have been wildly overblown as part of a general effort to discredit their movement.

The heads of three of the province's four major student associations brought that message to a meeting with the president of the Just for Laughs comedy festival, Gilbert Rozon.

"We broke the myth that the student movement is violent, that it wants to disrupt," said Martine Desjardins, president of the biggest of the groups, the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ).

Grand Prix open house cancelled

Student leaders also say Grand Prix organizers overreacted in cancelling an open-house event scheduled for Thursday in Montreal. Read more here.

"It was towards the end of negotiations [with the government] that they tried to make people believe we wanted to disrupt the festivals this summer."

When talks broke off between the provincial Liberal government and the student associations last week, Premier Jean Charest said a representative from the second-largest, and most hardline, student group, CLASSE, had threatened to disrupt this week's Canadian Grand Prix auto race in Montreal.

A CLASSE spokesman, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, has since said that his group does not intend to prevent people from attending the race, though its members plan on distributing flyers.

Rozon had sought out the meeting with students following a decision by Grand Prix organizers to cancel an open-house event on Thursday. The organizers cited security concerns for their decision.

An anti-capitalist group that is independent of the student movement is planning nightly Grand Prix demonstrations to "disrupt this crass elite at play."

Before his meeting with the students, Rozon said he was receiving daily threats on Twitter from people he believed were associated with CLASSE. He added that he wanted assurances that students would "behave responsibly" during his festival.

Though CLASSE opted not to attend the meeting with Rozon, Nadeau-Dubois took to Twitter to condemn any threats directed his way.

Rozon refused to comment after the meeting, but said on his Twitter feed that it had been "positive."

Hotel bookings down

Just for Laughs, along with the Montreal International Jazz Festival, attract almost four million visitors to Montreal annually in June and July. The Grand Prix, which gets underway Thursday, brings in another 300,000 tourists.

Already, the city's tourism industry is feeling the effects of the student demonstrations, which march through the downtown core and adjoining areas. Now in their 42nd consecutive night in Montreal, the rallies attract a hefty police presence and have been subject to mass arrests several times, notably on May 23 when 518 people were taken into custody.

Hotel room rentals were down by 10.7 per cent last month, according to figures released Monday by Tourism Montreal. A further 10 to 12 per cent drop is expected this month.

Monday night's main protest in Montreal, like all the city's recent nightly marches, was calm, with no arrests. A few hundred people converged at Place Émilie Gamelin near the University of Quebec in Montreal and wound their way through the gay village before heading west to Crescent Street, the focus of Grand Prix partying. From there, they headed back east before winding up prior to midnight. 

The widespread protests in Quebec kicked off in February, when about 180,000 university and college students voted to go on strike to denounce the Liberals' plan to raise tuition by 75 per cent over the next five to seven years.

Since then, the movement has grown into a larger social uprising incorporating labour leaders, environmental groups, public intellectuals and ordinary people aligned against the government, its austerity measures and, in particular, contentious emergency legislation known as Bill 78 that it brought in to deal with the crisis.

With files from CBC News