Quebec unrest gets noticed around the world, in a variety of ways

Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press

MONTREAL - The world is becoming increasingly aware of the social tumult rattling Quebec, which has begun to affect the province's interactions with outsiders in a variety of ways.

Premier Jean Charest has just cancelled a meeting with a foreign politician — the time the governor of Vermont — for the second time this month.

Foreign newscasts are carrying Montreal scenes of streets ablaze and billy clubs being swung and prestigious newspapers are carrying analysis of what the conflict means.

Tourists have been hassled, even detained, by riot police. Some are reconsidering whether to travel to Montreal for the city's upcoming Canadian Grand Prix.

Then there are the diplomatic notices, ranging from a mild warning to American travellers from the U.S. government, to a more stinging rebuke from Russia's foreign ministry.

The province is now getting more attention than anyone could have imagined.

For many, that publicity stokes concerns that Montreal's economically critical tourism season is under threat. For others, the interest generated by the months-long protests is positive and instructive and social activists elsewhere are drawing inspiration for their own movements.

There was more proof Thursday of the challenges the unrest has placed on Quebec's international relations. Charest postponed a trip scheduled to the neighbouring state of Vermont, where he was supposed to meet with Gov. Peter Shumlin.

The premier had planned to sign a trade and environmental protection agreement with Shumlin, followed by events with the state's business community and at the University of Vermont.

Shumlin's office said Charest decided to stay in Quebec City to attend debates in the national assembly. Charest's office did not immediately respond to messages Thursday.

Vermont activists, including Occupy Burlington, had planned to protest Charest's visit in solidarity with Quebec students demonstrating against tuition increases. James Haslam of the Vermont Workers Center called the cancellation of Charest's visit a victory for the people.

Earlier this month, Charest cancelled a scheduled meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Montreal. At the time, the premier's office said he had a commitment to speak as a meeting of Quebec municipalities in Gatineau.

Diplomatic disruptions are only a small example of the international impact on Quebec.

The province has been the subject of an unflattering opinion piece in the New York Times, written by Quebecers critical of Charest, while scenes of Montreal's downtown mayhem have captured the attention of foreign TV news outlets — from the BBC to CNN and Al Jazeera. There have been prominent newspaper articles in major international papers like Le Monde in France and The Guardian in the U.K.

Tourists, meanwhile, are complaining about being hassled in Montreal by riot police; the U.S. government has issued a security message that warns American tourists heading to the city about "unforeseen violence," "vandalism" and "arrests."

There were reports Thursday of a stunned tourist being detained in a mass arrest. Another visitor, from Morocco, watched nervously during that same incident as armoured riot officers encircled protesters and proceeded to close in on them in the heart of the city.

The man asked a nearby officer if he could leave the area — but he said the policeman just shook his head from side to side.

"I was just walking by and all of a sudden this happened. Why do I have to stay here?" the man said. "It's not fair, I'm not part of this."

Police in Quebec rounded up over 650 people in different parts of the province overnight Thursday, including 518 during a mostly peaceful march in Montreal. A number of those detained in Montreal for municipal infractions were slapped with $634 fines.

Some tourists planning to travel to Montreal for next month's Canadian Grand Prix are expressing second thoughts about coming, given threats from hardline protesters to disrupt the event.

The founder of said the website's readers have been watching headlines from the Quebec protests very closely.

"The overarching message I'm getting from our readership is that yeah, they're pretty concerned about it," said Todd McCandless, chief executive of what he describes as the largest independent Formula One blog in North America.

McCandless said he hasn't heard from anyone who's planning to cancel their trip to Montreal over the unrest, but said many have told him they're "playing it by ear."

- With files from Myles Dolphin and The Associated Press