UPDATE: Riot police respond to tuition hike demonstration on campus

Elisha Lerner

Twenty thousand students from all over Quebec gathered on Thursday, Nov. 10 at Place Émile-Gamelin near UQAM to demonstrate against the Quebec government’s proposed tuition increases. The demonstration then made its way up Berri Street at 2:45 p.m., continuing through the streets of Montreal, ending at the McGill Roddick Gates at 4:30 p.m.

Following the end of the student demonstration against tuition hikes, thirteen students occupied the fifth floor of the James Administration Building. In support of those inside, other protestors from the rally encircled the building trying to prevent police entry.

“People basically started to move to the administration building at McGill to do a support action, a small demonstration, very peaceful,” Joël Pedneault, SSMU Vice-President External Affairs, said. “People were wrapping their arms around the building trying to do a human chain.” Students from McGill, Concordia, and Dawson were among those present during this demonstration.

Soon after, students outside the James Administration building learned of acts of aggression occurring inside. “We heard at that point that the people inside were being brutalized, being dragged on the floor, kicked, kneed in the stomach, that kind of stuff,” Pedneault explained.

Police on bicycles arrived on the scene. According to Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson, the police were not called by someone from the fifth floor. A recent email from Principal Heather Monroe-Blum suggested that the police were called by McGill Security.

“There were things going on that were of concern and could have been of concern to security,” Mendelson said. “Security are mandated, or certainly allowed, to call the police when they feel there is a threat to people or a threat to property. Those are decisions that have to be made quickly…made on the moment. I don’t know what triggered the decision to do that.”

Both the police as well as the students demonstrating were aggressive towards one another The police quickly turned away after a couple of minutes.

Around 5:00 p.m., around one to two hundred police in full riot gear arrived at both the Milton and Roddick Gates. They disbanded the line of students around the building and formed a chain that blocked entrance into the building. Students in front of the police line were pepper sprayed. The police then chased students and threatened them with their batons. 

“I saw a police officer kick a protester to the ground and kick him repeatedly in the stomach,” witnessed U3 arts student Hilary Brown. “As the riot police charged down the large steps, I saw them push photographers and other protesters down the hill.”

During this time some students managed to find a way into the first floor of the James Administration building where they held a sit-in. According to Pedneault, “[they were] saying they weren’t going to leave until the people on the fifth floor were released.”

Mendelson questioned this claim and said that students were not being held by force.

“There were no students being detained in the James Admin building by police or by the university,” he said. “We wanted the students to leave. The students were refusing to leave.”

Students involved in the sit-in were forcibly removed by McGill security.

“[McGill Security] were concerned about the safety of the situation, and the student was taken out of the office and then left in a public area with his fellow students, we don’t know if they were students. Some may not have been students,” Mendelson said.

When asked if the occupation of James Administration was confrontational, Mendelson said, “It’s confrontational. You don’t think it’s confrontational to storm into an office? To swing open a door, walk by people, have a mask on, you don’t think that’s confrontational?”

Soon after, riot police charged and dispersed the crowd while more riot police arrived from the Milton Gates. Trapped from the north and west of campus, students were forced into the McConnell Engineering building. Many ran to wash tear gas from their faces. Police then barricaded McConnell Engineering, trapping students inside for several minutes.

The police then allowed students to leave the engineering building and acted aggressively and indiscriminately, pushing students who were leaving classes from McConnell Engineering, as well as those involved in the protest.

Some students were able to leave the area via the Y-intersection, but most students were forced to leave campus through the Milton Gates.

Just before 5:30 p.m., police in full riot gear had blocked entrance to McGill’s campus from the Milton Gates, setting up lines along the east and west sides of Milton and University.

Protestors chanted, “It’s our campus!”

Around 6:00 p.m., police banged batons against their shields and charged into the group of onlookers gathered along Milton near the intersection. No distinction was made between bystanders (students making their way to or from campus) and those from the earlier demonstration. The charge continued past Lorne Avenue, at which point the crowd had mostly dispersed.

When asked about this event, a Montreal Police officer denied knowing anything about it. “I don’t have any information on the McGill campus. I know that officers were around McGill campus to protect the building itself, but if there was any altercation between officers and rioters…we don’t have anything on this,” Officer Jean-Pierre Brabant said.

Brabant explained that those police who were on site gave a final report after the protest and all that this report contained was that four people were arrested during the afternoon demonstration. “In general I would say everything went really, really well and smooth,” Brabant said, “There was a little bit of mischief on the [Premier’s] office [building], but except that, nothing more.”

The four arrests consisted of two arrests for assaults on a police officer, one for obstructing a police officer and another for municipal violence.

However, the CBC quotes Montreal Police spokesman Ian Lafrenièredescribing those demonstrating as “just a small group of individuals trying to take advantage of the situation to do something stupid.”

Lafrenière, who personally witnessed confrontations, stated that the riot squad was deployed in response to people throwing boat flares shot from a pistol, along with other objects, at the police.

The police left the McGill campus by 7:30 p.m. The students occupying the fifth floor of the building negotiated their release with Provost Anthoni Masi and Deputy Provost Morton Mendelson. No names were taken, no disciplinary procedures were pursued, and no arrests were made.

Immediately following the commotion, SSMU President Maggie Knight tweeted to inform students that they could find support at the SSMU building. Over 30 shocked students gathered and received support from the student society as well as first aid services from M-SERT.

“One girl came in with really bad pepper spray, she had to get her eyes washed for like an hour and a half,” Emily Yee Clare, VP University Affairs said. “Lots of students came to the office, they sat there and comforted each other.”

Most students remained in shock over the force used by the riot police.

“It makes me identify with the people protesting these issues … because I’m not allowed to step onto my own university,” Saad Qazi, U2 Mathematics and Econ, said. “I’m an international student from Pakistan, and I don’t think I’ve seen this there.”

“What kind of democracy?” echoed a nearby protestor.

“I guess a lot of people had thought that in a country like Canada this would never happen,” Pedneault said. “In many countries police are just not allowed on university campuses because it reminds people of a past era of dictatorship and authoritarian rule, and that’s something that was definitely in the back of people’s minds yesterday.”

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