Late on Friday evening Sûreté du Québec (SQ) sirens rang out in the night, the flashing lights of speeding patrol cars fast approaching our bus, transporting many teargas-soaked striking students, community activists and journalists from Victoriaville back to Montreal in the spring rain.
After intense late afternoon protest clashes, involving rubber bullets and rolling clouds of tear gas from SQ forces, patrol cars raced to intercept buses as they left the small town and headed out onto the highway. This included our bus, organized by McGill and Concordia student activists. In the end, three buses were held overnight. In our case, we were forced to sit throughout the night – over ten hours – as police processed passengers in the station and armed guards stood watch on a bus transformed into a jail.
Earlier in the day, activists had successfully challenged police barricades in Victoriaville, delaying the Québec Liberal Party general council meeting.
The protest came in the twelfth week of Quebec's historic student strike, and had been called for by the Coalition opposée à la tarification et à la privatisation des services publics. The coalition, which includes student groups, has been fighting the PLQ government's attack on public services, including a new $200 per year health tax. They have also been vocal supporters of the student strike and the fight for accessible higher education.
"Today in Victoriaville, there's of course a great number of student groups protesting, but there's also many unions, community organizations, women groups, and professors as well as citizens from different parts of Québec,” explained Véronique Laflamme from the Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU), a group that campaigns against poverty and for social housing in Québec, and which is also a member of the coalition. “The message of all these organizations is the same: we don't want a society were the collective wealth is transferred to the rich and the corporations. We're fed up!"
On the streets in Victoriaville, struggles against poverty, for social housing and in solidarity with union campaigns for workers rights at a time of austerity economics were clear: demonstrators were chanting « étudiant-e-s, travailleur-euse-s, même combat » in the thousands, while flags via Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) were waving alongside red flags in the clouds of tear gas.
Libérez-nous des libéraux by hip-hop group Loco Locass blasted from loud speakers while people challenged en masse police barricades and continued to protest despite police repression.
Sûreté du Québec night raid on protest buses
Over 3,000 people from across Quebec had come to Victoriaville to participate in the protest. As the demonstration wound down in the early evening, people boarded their rides and began heading back to their hometowns.
As the bused rolled out into the night, SQ forces moved quickly to intercept them. Passengers on three buses were arrested, totalling about 100 people.
During the day, on the ground in Victoriaville, police forces seemed at times overwhelmed by both the size and the militancy of the protest, so any major arrest attempts could have been shut-down by protesters or resulted in heightened open street battles. At the protest a number of de-arrests took place, protesters rushing SQ police to break-up arrest attempts. SQ forces instead chose to arrest students under the cover of night, away from the media cameras.
Just after 10pm, fully armed SQ forces boarded and took control of our Montreal-bound bus, announcing all were under arrest for “participating in a riot.”
In full riot gear, complete with batons and guns, SQ officers took-up position throughout the bus, forcing the bus driver to return to Victoriaville. SQ police stood in pseudo-military formation on the bus throughout the drive, surveying people, taking notes and ordering people to immediately close phones, cameras and to stop talking.
Clearly the conditions placed on the detained were legally questionable. The order for people to stop using cell phones seemed to aim to create a sense of panic and police control, but was also clearly to ensure no communication with world outside.
Despite SQ orders, text messages were sent to spread the word on the intervention, while people on the bus chanted « So-So-So, Solidarité ! » and a rendition of Solidarity Forever rang out collectively.
Down the highway SQ patrol cars raced alongside the bus, driving through red lights as SQ patrols shut-down intersections, escorting the protesters back to an SQ station in Victoriaville.
The entire scene was both menacing and theatrical: armed riot police on a civilian bus, an SQ escort and illegal orders for people to remain silent. All of this clearly pointed a decision to use state repression against a student movement that is inspiring many to struggle not only for accessible education, but for social justice in an increasingly unequal Québec.
Today in Québec, the earning gap between the wealthy and the rest of the population sits at a 30-year high, according to a recent study by Institut de recherche et d'informations socio-economiques that found “70% of Quebec families are earning a smaller share of the income pie than a generation ago.”
After arriving back in Victoriaville the bus pulled into the SQ parking lot, and slowly an all night detention unfolded.
Instead of processing all the arrestees at the SQ station, we were held on the bus throughout the night, from around 10pm until just after 8am; a total of over 10 hours jailed at gun point on a school bus.
Despite repeated orders by SQ officers to remain silent, people challenged the legality of their order and continued to talk and joke on the bus all night. A reporter from Le Délit, the French-language student newspaper at McGill, was able to record some footage inside the bus. Activists distributed legal advice cards, printed by the Concordia Student Union (CSU).
Slowly, one by one, we were taken into the SQ station for processing. We were each photographed and interrogated individually by SQ agents in a small florescent lit room. Questions ranged from details on personal information, to information on participation in past student protests. A few people involved in student strike movement were held throughout the night inside the SQ station. Police confiscated everything from iPhones, to sweaters as 'evidence' for upcoming court dates in Victoriaville.
After being jailed all night in a school bus and slapped with questionable charges of participating in a riot and illegal assembly, the bus returned to Montreal. A few accused continued to be detained at the SQ station, though, and were only released later in the day. They faced similar charges to the rest on the bus arrested, accompanied by serious conditions, including non-association conditions between a few student activists.
Protesting the Liberal Party meeting
Throughout the night jailed on the police bus, and on the ride back to Montreal, people passionately discussed the Victoriaville protest.
As the night wore on, SQ officers slowly relaxed the authoritarian theatre of the raid, and by around 5am only one armed SQ agent remained on the bus standing beside the driver's seat. As the SQ presence on the bus subsided, people had more space to discuss the student strike movement.
The conversations really illustrated the inspiring ways that the Québec student strike has deepened the commitment of so many thousands of people to the fight for social justice.
Perspectives were shared on the bus on the militancy of the Victoriaville protest, the depth of the Québec student movement and various other struggles for justice. This included international links ranging from Québec to Colombia, where students organized a successful student strike last year.
Sitting on the bus throughout the night and into the early morning, my mind was racing with inspiration. As armed SQ officers stood inside the bus and lurched around in the parking lot outside, my heart was rising above the police repression, alive with the energy of a beautiful student strike in Québec that has successfully inspired or reignited so many other social movements.
Certainly state repression can have serious impacts on grassroots struggles; arrests, police violence and serious physical injuries are daunting realities, while drawn-out court dates and trials drain activist time, energy and finances. These trials that are often rooted in baseless charges, with court hearings operating within a legal system that fails to address the roots of social inequalities in our society.
Despite sustained police repression against the Québec student movement, people have remained resilient and continue to struggle with dignity.
Beyond night raids on protest buses, the May 2012 protest against the Liberal party meeting in Victoriaville will most certainly be remembered for police violence against the Québec student movement, Maxence Valade has reportedly lost an eye, while another student, Alex Allard, is struggling with life threatening head injuries.
Victoriaville's protest clearly illustrates a real political crisis in Québec, sparked by the student strike, but which is now becoming a discontent over larger questions of social injustice within Québec society.
Police violence and state repression will certainly take a toll on the movement, but it will only strengthen the resolve and solidarity of this rapidly expanding movement for social justice, a movement rooted in collective solidarity not in individualist capitalist economics.
Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based journalist, writer and musician who is at twitter.com/spirodon/