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Montreal police to charge 44 protesters

MONTREAL - Montreal authorities struck back Friday with a barrage of suspensions and criminal charges against municipal employees accused of storming city hall during a pension protest.

The city's police force announced that 44 people will face charges in connection with the Aug. 18 demonstration that saw a mob of about 250 unionized workers barge into the building, where they tossed paper, threw glasses of water and smashed windows.

One elected official has alleged he was assaulted amid the tumult that broke up a council meeting.

The criminal charges will include participating in an illegal gathering, mischief and assault, police chief Marc Parent said.

The incident is one of many protests staged recently by city workers throughout Quebec in opposition to a provincial government proposal to overhaul pension plans.

Unions have said municipalities are trying to put workers on the hook for deficits they allowed to spiral out of control.

Following the police announcement, Mayor Denis Coderre told reporters Friday that further sanctions had been filed against employees, the result of his administration's own ongoing probe into the event.

"What happened that day was unacceptable," said Coderre, who himself was forced to retreat into his office during the fracas.

"I said there would be consequences, I said we wouldn't just let this go, but that we would be factual. We will put in place a process to ensure that things are done adequately."

He said the city has launched disciplinary investigations against 63 unionized workers, including 52 firefighters, seven blue-collar and four white-collar workers.

So far, 39 of them — including 30 firefighters — have already been suspended without pay until their investigation is complete, a process that could lead to dismissals.

"What happened Aug. 18 is serious and because of an exceptional situation, there are exceptional measures that must be taken," he said.

The raucous demonstration started outside the building before spilling into city hall, but police officers appeared to just stand by as events unfolded.

No one was arrested and the workers left city hall of their own accord.

The inaction by the officers, who are not responsible for security inside city hall, surprised the public after images of the unrest circulated in the media.

Montreal police have a history of breaking up demonstrations with force, particularly when they responded to the nightly protests that consumed city streets during the 2012 student crisis.

Parent said the department is trying to determine whether any of its own officers turned a blind eye during the demonstration.

One civilian police employee has already been charged in the incident, he added, and a group of a dozen people comprised of officers and other workers with the force have met with department officials.

Parent said they could be slapped with disciplinary measures ranging from warnings to dismissal.

He expressed confidence in the impartiality of the investigation.

"Nobody is above the law," said Parent, who noted that the 44 people facing charges should expect to receive a summons to appear in court, if they haven't already.

"We are subject to the rules and laws that propel our democracy and (the charges) once again establish that we can't infringe on that."

The draft of the controversial Bill 3 calls for a 50-50 equal sharing of future costs and deficits between municipalities and unionized employees. It also proposes freezing the automatic indexation of pensions for about 20,000 workers already retired.

The government claims the plans' collective deficit stands at about $4 billion. It suggests unions and pensioners should pay for some of that amount. The unions argue the shortfall is closer to $2.2 billion.

The pension deficits are largest in Montreal and Quebec City, where the mayors have been vocal supporters of pension reform.

Coderre recently told legislature hearings into Bill 3 that restructuring pension plans has become "inevitable," noting they will account for 12 per cent of the city's budget this year alone.

But the unions have suggested some cities are just looking to save on labour costs by renegotiating retirement deals. Some 170 pension plans fall under the proposed deal, affecting 122,000 workers and retirees.

Serge Cadieux of the Quebec Federation of Labour has said unions are willing to make some compromises, but that they won't agree to pay down past debts. He balked at the way the government has presented the bill with little room for negotiation and he described Bill 3 as "likely unconstitutional."

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