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Biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history

MONTREAL – A protest that organizers are describing as the single biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history choked the streets of downtown Montreal in the middle of Tuesday’s afternoon rush hour as tens of thousands of demonstrators expressed outrage over a provincial law aimed at containing the very sort of march they staged.

But within three hours of the march’s start, police were reporting that criminal acts were being committed as the windows of at least one bank were smashed.

Ostensibly, Tuesday’s march was to commemorate the 100th day of a strike by Quebec college and university students over the issue of tuition fee increases. But a decision last Friday by the Charest government to pass Bill 78 — emergency legislation requiring protest organizers to provide police with an itinerary of their march eight hours in advance — not only enraged civil libertarians and legal experts, but also seems to have galvanized ordinary Quebecers into marching through the streets of a city that has seen protests staged here nightly for the past seven weeks.

“I didn’t really have a stand when it came to the tuition hikes,” said Montrealer Gilles Marcotte, a 32-year-old office worker who used a vacation day to attend the event. “But when I saw what the law does, not just to students but everybody, I felt I had to do something. This is all going too far.”

Tuesday’s march was billed as being two demonstrations taking place at the same time. One, organized by the federations representing Quebec college and university students and attended by contingents from the province’s labour movement, abided by the provisions of the law and provided a route. The other, overseen by CLASSE, an umbrella group of students associations, deliberately did not.

By 3:30 p.m., a little more than 90 minutes after the marches began to snake their way through downtown Montreal, CLASSE, which would later estimate the crowd at about 250,000, described the march as “the single biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.”

By 4:30 p.m. Montreal police, who refuse publicly to estimate crowd sizes, said no acts of mischief had been reported nor any arrests made. There was one report of a van carrying a provincial police riot squad platoon having to nose its way through demonstrators who tried to block it. But half an hour later, police were reporting “criminal acts” were being committed as bank windows on Ste. Catherine St. were being smashed.

Montreal police made it clear they were prepared to tolerate the CLASSE march, illegal though it is, and the presence of masks and other face coverings on hundreds of protesters showed also that a municipal bylaw adopted last Friday banning face coverings during public demonstrations was also going unenforced.

Last Saturday, Montreal police made it clear they would use their “judgment” when it came to applying the provincial or municipal regulations.

Prior to Tuesday’s march, the heads of federations engaged in the legal protest said they hoped the Charest government would re-think its stand on Bill 78, which they intend to challenge in court by the end of this week, and resume negotiations on the issue of tuition increases.

“This march isn’t just to observe the 100th day of our strike, but to deplore the fact the Charest government had to resort to repression,” college student federation head Léo Bureau-Blouin told reporters. “But we have decided to provide the police with a route and intend to demonstrate peacefully.”

How much longer the march may last may be beyond the power of organizers or police to predict.

As of 3:45 p.m. a severe thunderstorm warning was issued for the Montreal area.

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