At least two arrests during Quebec City protest ahead of G7 summit

Quebec City's historic district looked as though business owners were preparing for a mini hurricane to blow through the cobblestone streets on Thursday, as several storefronts were barricaded with plywood in anticipation of anti-G7 protests.

Demonstrations were tense but calm, as protesters congregated in growing numbers in a city park.

Stores that were open for business vastly outnumbered the shuttered facades. 

But the police presence in the old city was noticeable, squad cars drove through the area and uniformed officers kept watch at different spots across the neighbourhood popular with tourists and locals alike.

On Thursday evening, protesters gathered for what organizers had described as a "festive mass demonstration against the G7, capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, racism, and borders.''

At least two arrests were made, flags were burned and police used so-called rubber-ball blast grenades.

The atmosphere was upbeat as protesters slowly filtered in, with some wearing colourful costumes and bearing signs advocating for such diverse causes as food security, open borders and environmental protection.

For a pay-what-you-want donation, protesters were offered zucchini cake, rice and tofu, and vegetable soup.

While the scene was largely peaceful, Alice-Anne Simard of environmental group Eau Secours declined to condemn possible violence.

"We will not condemn acts that have not been committed,'' she said. 

"We are here to protest and we are here to denounce the violence of the neoliberal policies of the G7 members.''

Police were stationed along the planned march route and a few dozen converged at the park where the protesters gathered before marching. 

Officers were carrying shields and wearing protective gear.

While the G7 summit will be held 140 kilometres northeast of Quebec City in the resort town of La Malbaie, diverse groups including unions, aid organizations and anti-capitalists have been organizing protests in the provincial capital. 

Police have been making parallel arrangements, with several thousand ready to jump into action in the province.

The number of detention spaces that have been opened up around the Quebec City-area in anticipation of protests is leading human rights groups to worry about the intentions of security forces.

Representatives from Amnesty International and Quebec's league for civil liberties say they've been told by police that officers aren't looking to make any mass arrests.

"But, with all the security measures that have been put in place, it's leading us to believe there is a gap between the discourse and the reality,'' said Genevieve Paul, head of the francophone Canadian branch of Amnesty International.

Her group and Quebec's league for civil liberties are sending 44 observers to the protests, which are likely to continue well into Saturday night.

Paul said prisoners in Quebec City's provincial jail have been transferred to other detention centres in order to liberate about 230 spots for protesters.

"There are agreements with other prisons to transfer inmates to make even more room (in Quebec City's jail),'' Paul said.

Police have erected a temporary detention centre near Quebec City's Victoria Park, and another temporary jail in a town a few kilometres north of La Malbaie. 

Paul said police have also made room to detain people if need be in the main police station of Saguenay.

Nicole Filion, with Quebec's league for civil liberties, said she worries about the possibility of mass arrests, the conditions of detainees inside the temporary jails, and the potential misuse of crowd-control weapons by police, such as rubber-ball blast grenades.

Cyndi Pare, spokeswoman for Quebec City's police force, said it would be "inappropriate'' to speculate in advance about police actions.

"We can't establish whether there will be mass arrests or not. It's impossible to predict how (protesters) will act and how police will react.

"Police are trained to use force with flexibility and discretion.''

The city and the province will reimburse citizens and merchants for broken windows and other damages sustained due to vandalism during the protests, Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume announced Thursday.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked Thursday in Saguenay, Que., if he had a message for protesters in Quebec City.

"In a country like Canada, I find it extremely important that people are able to express their agreement or disagreement with politics, individuals, their concerns,'' Trudeau said.

"It must obviously be done with respect and, above all, security. And we will ensure that protesters and citizens and G7 participants are safe.''
  
The last time Canada hosted a similar event, the G20 summit of 2010 in Toronto, officers arrested hundreds of people and kept them in conditions Amnesty International described as inhumane.

While no major protests have been planned in the G7 host town, groups opposed to the summit held a news conference in La Malbaie on Thursday to denounce what they called the "undemocratic'' free speech zone that has been set up to accommodate them along the bank of the St. Lawrence river.

They said the fortified enclosure and security checkpoints would be intimidating to protesters, and noted that the site was some distance away from where the leaders will be meeting.

Earlier on Thursday, the first of a series of demonstrations and protests kicked off peacefully in the provincial capital.

Staged by aid organization Oxfam, masked activists posing as G7 leaders mimicked household tasks in order to highlight women's unpaid labour and to push the G7 countries to improve social services such as childcare in order to relieve the burden placed on them.


With files from the Canadian Press and Melanie Marquis in La Malbaie