PM Harper's visit to protest-heavy Montreal: lots of police, few protesters

MONTREAL – Attending his first event in Montreal in nearly three months, Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn’t get a first-hand glimpse Monday of the raucous local protests that have made international news.

There were far more police officers than protesters when Harper arrived to deliver a speech at an international economic conference in a downtown hotel. The prime minister slipped undetected past about two dozen demonstrators outside.

Authorities weren’t taking any chances.

A formidable police presence on the hotel grounds showed that officials were prepared for anything in a province that has witnessed frequent protests over the last four months, including several rowdy ones in Montreal during last weekend’s Grand Prix.

At one point Monday, officers easily outnumbered the student and anti-capitalist protesters by more than two to one.

A line of Montreal riot police defended the site, while two minibuses packed with heavily armoured provincial police officers sat idling nearby, before they eventually drove off.

Under the tight security, officers checked identification of everyone who passed through their line. The RCMP, meanwhile, searched the bags of journalists covering the event.

The conference was Harper’s first event in Montreal since the student protest movement started attracting national attention with large, occasionally violent, demonstrations.

An advisory announcing the prime minister’s attendance at the conference, and that of Quebec Premier Jean Charest, only went out Monday morning, giving potential protesters little advance notice of the high-profile visitors.

The late advisory appeared to catch protesters off guard. When approached by a reporter for an interview outside the event one young man, Marc-Antoine Marcoux, replied: “Harper’s going to be here?”

He expressed frustration about the overall turnout for the event, which he had said was expected to attract close to 1,000 people. At its peak Monday, the crowd included several dozen protesters, but most of them left well before Harper’s speech later in the afternoon.

Even police appeared befuddled by the lack of protesters.

One officer left the defensive line to talk to Marcoux and ask him where everybody was. He asked whether droves of protesters would suddenly show up later.

“Do you know if there’s a delay?” the officer asked Marcoux. “Can you give me an idea?”

Marcoux, who wore a red T-shirt emblazoned with the letters CCCP and the Soviet Union’s sickle and hammer, said he couldn’t explain the low turnout: “We had a big weekend, and yeah it’s Monday and a lot of people work, but still… It’s too bad.”

Harper and Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney both addressed the conference Monday, a four-day event that assembles political, economic and regulatory officials from around the world.

In his speech, Harper credited Canada’s strong record of fiscal discipline as a reason the country has fared better than others during the economic crisis. He did not mention Montreal’s ongoing unrest, but saluted the creativity and dynamism of the city.

Monday’s event followed a tumultuous Grand Prix weekend that saw vandalism, arrests and clashes between riot police and anti-capitalist demonstrators.

Quebec’s four-month-long student protest movement, which has mostly been centred in Montreal, started with opposition to the provincial government’s plan to hike tuition fees. It has since swelled to include various causes — including democratic reform and anti-capitalism.

On Monday, Charest used uncharacteristically strong language against the student movement as he tried to frame protesters as extremists.

“What we have seen over the last few weeks is more than just dealing with tuition fees, it’s extreme leftist groups who are trying to intimidate people through violence,” Charest told reporters at the economic conference. He added that some of the protesters were anarchists.

His remarks also shed light on the heavy police presence employed to protect the conference venue.

“We are going to do everything to make sure that people are secure,” he said. “We’re not going to give in to any intimidation or violence.”

At least one other protest is expected this week outside the conference. A speech by former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan scheduled for Wednesday has drawn the ire of one anti-capitalist group. It blames Greenspan as being largely responsible for the global economic crisis.

There were no run-ins Monday between protesters and police, but demonstrators gave some delegates an earful.

Several repeatedly launched boos, hisses and heckles at people in suits as they passed the police line to and from the hotel. One female protester held out her cap and asked delegates to help her pay for school.

They told attendees to “go home” and repeatedly called them “fascists.”

Protesters returned to the conference site again Monday evening as part of their regular nightly demonstration. Although loud, there was no trouble until later when police said a window was smashed as the procession snaked through another part of the city. One person was arrested.

(With a file by Nelson Wyatt)