QUEBEC – The Quebec government has named a three-person panel to investigate events related to last year’s student crisis that made international news.
Public Security Minister Stephane Bergeron told reporters Wednesday the panel will study the actions of students and police during anti-tuition demonstrations that rocked the province.
Bergeron said he wants to ensure there is never again a repeat of the clashes like those seen during 2012’s so-called “Maple Spring.”
Many protesters accused the police of abuses including arbitrary mass roundups and fines, indiscriminate pepper-spraying, and restricting mobility rights. A number had been demanding a full public inquiry into police actions.
Bergeron said any questionable actions by individual officers will continue to be handled by the regular provincial police ethics committee. The special panel is tasked with analyzing circumstances surrounding the protests and identifying factors that led to the deterioration of the social climate in the province.
“The government is also interested in learning lessons from the 2012 crisis, a social crisis of such a magnitude that we can never let it happen in Quebec again,” Bergeron said.
Students took to the streets for months last year, and many shut down their classrooms. They were protesting a planned tuition increase of 77 per cent over five years in Quebec — which has the lowest rates in Canada.
The protesters won a partial victory when the Parti Quebecois took office, scrapped the initial plan, and introduced a permanent tuition increase of 2.67 per cent a year.
The new group will examine techniques used by police and protesters, as well as the financial impact of the crisis. There will also be a study of how other jurisdictions deal with similar movements.
The group will deliver a report to the government, including recommendations, by Dec. 20. Bergeron said he plans to make the report public within six weeks of its delivery.
Bergeron blamed the previous Liberal government for introducing Bill 78, a controversial anti-protest bylaw designed to get students back to class.
The minister said that law, coupled with the Liberals’ refusal to negotiate, brought thousands more into the streets for near-nightly protests in Montreal and elsewhere in the province.
Bergeron said the panel will conduct its hearings in private to allow anyone wanting to testify to do so without fear of reprisals. The panel will accept written, audio and video testimony.
He said the panel will not intervene in cases already before the province’s police ethics committee, nor seek out people who might warrant charges.
Bergeron said municipalities and police had to adjust their tactics, given the unprecedented event and the need to maintain social peace and safety.
“The vast majority of Quebec police officers acted with professionalism, given the circumstances,” Bergeron said.
Bergeron said he encourages people who feel they were treated unfairly to file a complaint with the ethics committee. Some 200 complaints have already been filed with the body, which has the power to sanction officers.
The committee will be chaired by Serge Menard, a former Parti Quebecois public security minister and a federal Bloc Quebecois MP. The other two posts will be held by ex-union boss Claudette Carbonneau and former judge Bernard Grenier.
Opposition parties blasted the announcement.
They called it a waste of money. And they also called into question its impartiality, noting that the PQ and the union movement had clearly supported and, in the case of the labour movement even funded, the protest movement.
Coalition party member Jacques Duchesneau, a former police officer, said the announcement left a “bitter taste” in his mouth.
He said there had been 711 student protests recorded in Quebec last year and there had only been arrests at one-third of them.
“Is it police’s fault that people threw smoke bombs on the metro?” Duchesneau told a news conference.
“Is it police’s fault that people threw bags of bricks on the tracks to stop the metro? Is it police’s fault that people wanted to take over the (Montreal Formula 1) Grand Prix?”
He said he was fine with the idea of a study — but said it should have been done in a public forum, like a parliamentary committee, and been more neutral.
With files by Sidhartha Banerjee