SAINTE-THERESE, Que. - Surreal scenes at a Quebec college underscored Tuesday how bizarre the student-related conflict has become — and how difficult it might be to resolve.
Consider this: A court order had forced the school to reopen; as a result, some teachers and parents helped striking students form a picket line to keep other kids out; riot police then burst through to help enforce the court order; and, in the end, the school closed again because teachers weren't prepared to teach.
The height of Tuesday's standoff at College Lionel-Groulx saw riot police use pepper spray and physical force to help 53 students return to class after winning a court injunction.
But the self-described strikers, many of them wearing masks, have received support from some parents and school faculty who stood alongside them in a show of solidarity at the school north of Montreal.
After a few days of picketing, police moved in Tuesday. They issued warnings before bursting in and arresting five people, including a professor from another school.
As they blasted the crowd with chemical irritants, some of the protesters hugged and wept. Some of their adult supporters reportedly did the same.
And it all appeared for nought.
A few hours later, after staff meetings, the college issued a statement: Lionel-Groulx would remain closed for two more days, on Wednesday and Thursday.
The professors said they were too emotional to be able to teach classes regularly.
So the school has shut its doors until Friday, at the earliest, at which point a new injunction takes effect.
"It was a climate that was very, very emotional," school spokesman Yves Marcotte said in an interview.
"The teachers were asked to teach the 53 students but they said they weren't able to — so we cancelled classes."
Tuesday was believed to be the first time police actually tried to enforce a court-ordered injunction during the current unrest.
While several legal injunctions to reopen schools have been ignored amid resistance by picketing protesters, others have been quietly respected. In some cases, schools themselves have elected not to push the issue out of fear of violence and vandalism.
One Montreal lawyer says both police and schools should be doing more to enforce an injunction.
Christopher Dimakos says that schools also have an obligation to keep entrances clear.
The problem with the injunctions is that they don't target a specific person or group, he said. Typically, not abiding by a court order can lead to contempt-of-court charges.
"One of the variables we have with this problem is that it's hard to pinpoint an exact person as to who we can enforce this against," Dimakos said.
But Dimakos says the courts are the proper vehicle for students seeking to ensure their rights are respected.
"Anytime there is a political disagreement, the courts have to step in when the political debates and talks haven't worked," said Dimakos.
"By rendering an injunction, they haven't made a state whether the students are right or not, all they're doing is safeguarding the rights of those who want to go to school."
Marcotte says the school will take two days to discuss how to go about reopening on Friday. Another 247 students have added their name to the injunction-request list, which means 300 students will be hoping to get back to class on Friday.
Protesters vowed to return if the school was to open again.
They screamed at police, accusing them of abusing their democratic rights after they voted, at student assemblies, for a strike.
"It's easy to repress," shouted one of the last remaining protesters, taunting the row of riot police guarding the school.
"In 30 years they'll be saying you were a disgrace! You were a disgrace!
"People will say we were repressed!... (You were) hitting people with billy-clubs, gassing young people."
At the Lionel-Groulx college, where some of the 5,400 students voted in favour of an unlimited strike, the school's director-general expressed exasperation earlier Tuesday.
Monique Laurin was heckled when she attempted to address the protesters and asked them to leave. They called her a government shill, noting that she had been a candidate for the Charest Liberals in the last provincial election.
But Laurin implored the government to also take steps to resolve the crisis.
She called it impossible to try teaching amid such hostility, characterized by injunctions, picket lines, riot police and angry staff and students.
"It's terrible to do this to us. It will create a horrible climate inside the college," she said.
She added, of the students: "I care about them all. The reds and the greens — they are all my students."
There were other clashes throughout the Montreal area Tuesday. In the morning, 19 people were arrested after briefly trying to block the Jacques Cartier Bridge, with some darting dangerously into traffic as police gave chase.
Two others were arrested after a major Montreal highway was briefly blocked.
Education Minister Michelle Courchesne met with student leaders for about 90 minutes Tuesday night to discuss the situation but would not comment until she briefs cabinet on Wednesday. Student leaders said no offers were on the table but noted Courchesne had asked questions to clarify their positions.
About one-third of post-secondary students in Quebec are boycotting classes in a protest against tuition hikes that has lasted more than three months.
But what started as a battle over a $325-a-year fee hike appears to have morphed into a broader struggle over the role of the state, the legitimacy of protest tactics, and the boundaries of authority.
While some student faculties are casting this as a once-in-a-generation struggle, others have quietly ended their school semesters without much involvement in the protesters.
Even after the unrest ends, it's unclear how the government and school administrators will deal with chain-reaction of logistical challenges that have resulted from it. Organizing class space, juggling schedules, making room for new students arriving from lower levels — all these, and other factors, remain up in the air.
- By Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal.