Montreal’s spring of discontent is threatening to turn into a summer of lost business for the city’s C$2.3 billion-($2.25 billion)-a-year tourist industry.
With less than two weeks until the opening weekend of the Francofolies music festival and the June 10 Grand Prix du Canada, the mood in the country’s second-largest city is far from festive. A three-month protest movement against rising university fees has sparked more than 260 demonstrations, about 1,600 arrests and a smoke bomb that shut down the subway system.
Bookings at some hotels have dropped as much as 10 percent this month from May 2011, and the trend may continue in June, according to William Brown, president of the Hotel Association of Greater Montreal. Room reservations for the Grand Prix race weekend, which can draw daily crowds of more than 100,000 people, are running behind schedule, he said.
“We’re beginning to see a negative reaction,” said Brown, whose association includes 77 member hotels. “Each additional day just compounds the situation. We are very concerned.”
About 155,000 students at Quebec universities and community colleges have been on strike since Feb. 13 over a plan by the provincial government to raise university fees by 75 percent, or C$1,625, over five years. A subsequent government offer to spread an 82 percent increase over seven years failed to yield a permanent deal, leading to the resignation of Education Minister Line Beauchamp. About 70 percent of all post-secondary students in Quebec finished their year as planned.
Talks between student and government negotiators resumed in Quebec City yesterday, with Finance Minister Raymond Bachand telling LCN television network he’s “hopeful” an accord can be reached. Bachand is counting on the tuition increase to help Quebec, which has the highest debt as a percentage of gross domestic product in Canada, plug a C$1.5 billion budget gap by 2013-14. Quebec expects the additional fees to bring in as much as C$332 million a year by 2016-17.
“We’re here to find an agreement,” Leo Bureau-Blouin, head of one of the three main student unions, told reporters in Quebec City. “It will take whatever time is necessary.”
What started as a resistance movement against rising university tuition fees has mushroomed into a social conflict pitting post-secondary students, professors, labor unions, opponents of capitalism and wide swaths of Quebec society against the government of Premier Jean Charest, who must call an election by December 2013.
Charest’s Liberal Party government, in power since April 2003, has been rocked in recent months by media reports that organized crime infiltrated the construction industry to win government contracts. An inquiry commission into the granting of public contracts opened last week.
“The reason so many people have come out into the streets is that there’s a growing frustration with inequality in society,” said Harold Chorney, a political science professor at Montreal’s Concordia University. “This is really about social justice versus the neo-Liberal, or business-oriented, philosophy.”
The protest movement “has become a federation of people who have demands to make, some of which have nothing to do with tuition fees,” Quebec Transport Minister Pierre Moreau told RDI network last week.
Protester outrage has been heightened by the May 18 adoption of Bill 78, a law that compels march organizers to file their itineraries to police at least eight hours ahead of time. It also calls for fines of as much C$125,000 for student federations found to have blocked anyone from entering a university or college. Organizations ranging from Amnesty International to the Quebec Bar Association have criticized the legislation, saying it violates constitutional rights.
Bill 78, which will expire in July 2013, has also divided Quebecers. In a CROP Inc. poll conducted May 22 to 25 for Montreal’s La Presse newspaper, 51 percent of respondents said they favored the law, while 49 percent opposed it. CROP polled 1,500 Quebec residents on the Internet.
Montreal police arrested 518 people on the night of May 23- 24 alone. That’s more than the tally for the “October Crisis” of 1970, which saw the kidnapping and murder of a government minister by a Quebec nationalist group, the intervention of the Canadian army and the imposition of the War Measures Act.
In one incident earlier this month, which has garnered more than 34,000 hits on Youtube, Montreal riot police pepper-sprayed patrons drinking on a bar patio during a demonstration.
Nightly protests not only hurt Montreal’s image, they could swell if the dispute drags on and angry demonstrators confront festival-goers, said Paul Arseneault, a professor of business administration at University of Quebec in Montreal.
Besides the Francofolies, a 10-day festival that will feature almost 150 open-air concerts, Montreal is home to the world’s biggest jazz festival, which begins June 28, and the Juste Pour Rire comedy festival, whose 30th-anniversary edition is due to start July 12.
International media interest has been high, with newspapers in more than 70 countries -- including Australia, Slovakia, Germany, Turkey, China and the U.S. -- devoting space to the conflict, according to Influence Communication, a Montreal-based media monitoring firm.
“There has to be a settlement, and soon,” said Arseneault, director of research at the university’s tourism chair. “Demonstrators and the massive crowds you typically see at the festivals can’t coexist. Something could go very wrong.”
Gilbert Rozon, founder of the Juste Pour Rire festival, told Montreal’s 98.5 FM radio station in a May 22 interview the prospect of disruptions “can be scary.” Rozon, who supports the tuition increase and has waded into the debate by commenting on Twitter, says he’s received boycott threats in response to some of his comments. He didn’t return a voice mail message seeking comment for this story.
Grand Prix du Canada promoter Francois Dumontier told Radio-Canada’s website in an interview published yesterday that while he doesn’t expect demonstrations to disturb the race, ticket sales so far have lagged expectations.
Steve Siozos, who owns the Stogies Cigar Lounge in downtown Montreal, said revenue has dipped about 30 percent in the last two weeks, in line with other businesses on his street. He attributes the decline to suburban Montrealers staying away from the city center.
“Most of this happened when the protests got violent,” he said in an interview. “Before that it wasn’t good, but you weren’t getting an outcry from the merchants.”
Grand Prix week is traditionally the year’s most profitable for restaurant owners and employees, said Alain Creton, who owns the Alexandre & Fils brasserie in downtown Montreal. Students can earn as much as C$1,000 by working at the restaurant during the four days leading up to the race, he said. Protests so far have had a “minimal” impact on business, Creton said.
“Demonstrations are like snowstorms,” he said. “When there’s a big storm, people stay away.”
Only a minority of gatherings have turned violent. On May 22, a daytime march to mark the 100th day of the conflict drew as many as 250,000 people, organizers say, including many families with children and retirees.
For the past two weeks, Montrealers have even started coming out onto their balconies and in the streets to bang their pots and pans at 8 p.m. -- a cacophony inspired by anti- government protests in Chile during the 1970s.
Kitchenware concerts aside, things have quieted down since May 23, with police reporting a single arrest for the night of May 27-28. Montrealers such as Creton say they hope the trend heralds a swift and peaceful resolution to the dispute.
“Visitors to Montreal often tell me they like the fact they can walk around at 4 a.m. and never have to worry about something bad happening,” he said. “For now our reputation as a safe city is unscathed, but it wouldn’t take much to lose it. Everyone involved understands that.”
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