On Friday, May 18, the Québec legislature signed a special “emergency law” to “restore order” in the province following three months of student protests in a strike against the government’s proposed 80% increase in the cost of tuition. A legislative debate lasted all night and resulted in a vote of 68-48 in favour of the legislation. The legislation has three main focal points: (1) it “suspends” the school semester for schools majorly affected by the strike, (2) it establishes extremely high fines for anyone who attempts to picket or block access to schools, and (3) it imposes massive restrictions on where and how people may demonstrate and protest in the streets. The law is set to expire by July 1, 2013.
On Monday, May 14, Quebec’s Education Minister Line Beauchamp resigned, and was replaced with Quebec’s Treasury Board president Michelle Courchesne, a former Education Minister from 2007 to 2010, who had also participated in the failed negotiations the weekend of May 4. Premier Jean Charest commented on the change of ministers and the continuity of the government’s position on the tuition hikes, saying that, “We believe in this policy… This policy is going to go ahead.” On Tuesday, May 15, protests continued in Quebec, with about 100 riot police called in to break a student strike blockage of a community college in Montreal. Students were told that “all necessary force” would be used to ensure that classes would resume, in line with a legal injunction obtained by 53 of the school’s students to return to class. Legal injunctions have regularly been used to undermine the student strike, as the state refuses to recognize the right of students to strike. As a result, a few dozen – or even one or two – students can obtain legal injunctions to force the schools to re-open and go to class. The injunctions are backed by the power of the state, and so the riot police are called in to pepper spray, tear gas, and beat with batons those students who form picket lines blocking access to the schools. On May 15, parents and teachers of striking students were involved in helping organize the picket line which ended with the riot squad using tear gas and arresting several people.
That night, student leaders met with the new Education Minister Michèle Courchesne, in a meeting that lasted just over an hour, at which students urged the government “to abandon any hard line strategy and impose a moratorium.” The students pushed for a “truce” with the government, and said, following the meeting, that the new Minister was “receptive” but had “refused to commit herself to a position.” Students, however, were assured by the new Minister that no special laws would be adopted to force a settlement. The spokesman for the largest student association – CLASSE – Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, stated that, “We cannot say that the impasse has been overcome. The Minister told us the decision will be taken by the cabinet (on Wednesday).” Martine Desjardins, another student leader expressed optimism in thinking a solution may be at hand, “This is a crisis and we need to solve it quickly and everybody is working hard to do that.” Leo Bureau-Blouin, head of the college student federation, stated, “We certainly hope [the] cabinet will be open to compromises.” The student leaders warned against using legislation to end the conflict, with Nadeau-Dubois stating, “It would be a major step backward… You can’t end a strike like this with police force.” Gabriel-Nadeau indicated that CLASSE was discussing the possibility of sacrificing the semester, and Martine Desjardins of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) indicated that they were willing to make concessions in negotiations, but was concerned about the government’s hard line with court injunctions and police interventions, which only stoke anger and incur harsher reactions. Léo Bureau-Blouin of the college association stated that, “I’m sure that if they gave us new proposals it would help move things along,” but condemned the idea of a special law: “This would do nothing to help the crisis, to help settle the conflict. With battery of court injunctions, the tension has grown. A special law would only make matter worse.”
Students emerged from the meeting with the new Education Minister stating that they were “relatively satisfied” and that, “we hope that the council of ministers is going to be open to our compromises,” referring to the cabinet meeting to be held the following day. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois described the meeting as “cordial” and stated, “We also unblocked certain channels of communication that had perhaps been blocked by some misunderstandings with Madame Beauchamp.” Jeanne Reynolds, another spokesperson for CLASSE, stated that Minister Courchesne had “assured the students she has no intention of seeing the semester cancelled,” and that this was, “very reassuring.” She added: “Like us, the minister seems to agree injunctions are not the solution to solve the current crisis… Obviously we were very happy to hear that.” The student leaders were surprised to hear the next day that Minister Courchesne commented on their meeting, stating, “On their side I sensed a hardening of their position… That was very clear.” She added, “I will report to the cabinet soon. The government will judge what decision to make then.”
Resentful of the fact that a minority of students have used legal injunctions to violate the declared strike, roughly one hundred students on Wednesday, May 16, went through the hallways disrupting classes at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal (UQAM). Emotions were heated in confrontations with some of the other students and teachers. This happened as Jean Charest and his cabinet met in Quebec City to discuss a “solution” to the crisis by passing “emergency legislation.”
On May 17, Quebec’s opposition Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois called on Premier Charest to sit down with students instead of legislate against them, “Why is the premier attacking the youth of Quebec?” As the Quebec government tabled legislation to crack down on the student protests, students from all sides of the debate – wearing a red (pro-strike), green (pro-hike), or white squares (proposing a moratorium on tuition fee hikes) – all banded together to urge the government to negotiate instead of passing “repressive” legislation. Student leader Léo Bureau-Blouin commented, “You can clearly see it here today. Regardless of the colour of squares we carry, regardless of the political parties, today is not a time to play partisan politics… Parliamentarians were elected to ensure social peace…we are open to compromises, we are open to discussions.” Student leader Martine Desjardins commented, “All the coloured squares are here to say that it would be better to negotiate a deal rather than unilaterally impose a resolution to this crisis.” Even the main student representative demanding students return to class and end the strike, Laurent Proulx, asked the government not to resort to the legislation, “We want to make sure that both sides reach a settlement that won’t require either to surrender.” Student leaders announced that they would challenge the legislation in court as it violates their right to legitimately protest.
As the Quebec government began an all-night debate on Thursday night on the proposed legislation, protests took place in all five of Quebec’s largest cities. Before Thursday night’s debate, student leaders were calling for new negotiations, with Martine Desjardins opposing Jean Charest’s legislation, “Let him come sit with us, and negotiate a solution to this crisis… Let him come show us that he is a head of state, not just a party leader.” Bureau-Blouin stated, “We are more ready than ever to compromise.” Protests in Montreal the night before – when the legislation was first announced – drew thousands into the streets and resulted in riot police arresting 122 people.
In “abandoning any hope of negotiating a settlement with striking students,” Jean Charest announced that, “We need to bring down the pressure where strikes are still on. We need to bring back social peace.” With student leaders saying they were willing to compromise, Charest announced that he will not back down from the tuition hikes, and “promised a tougher approach to ensure classes can resume in August, with stronger police intervention to guarantee access.” He added, “No student will be forced to attend class. But for others, they have the right to attend classes in a secure environment.” Charest stated that, “We cannot accept that access be blocked … we will not bow to violence and intimidation – our laws need to be obeyed.” Apparently, this means passing new laws to violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. After all, “our laws need to be obeyed.” Student leaders warned of the dangers of passing such a law, as the reaction is sure to be intense. Léo Bureau-Blouin commented, “If there is violence, if there is tension, Mr. Charest will be the only one to blame.” Martine Desjardins commented, “We now know that Mr. Charest never had any real intentions of solving this conflict.” Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois of CLASSE responded to the proposed legislation, “The bill that the government is proposing to table is an anti-union law, it is authoritarian, repressive and breaks the students’ right to strike… This is a government that prefers to hit… its youth, ridicule its youth rather than listen to them.” The student leaders continued to call on students to hold peaceful demonstrations and support the plans for a massive demonstration on Tuesday, May 22, to mark the 100th day of the strike.
The legislation – Bill 78 – includes heavy fines for those participating in student strike demonstrations: “fines of between $1,000 and $5,000 for any individual who prevents someone from entering an educational institution,” and these numbers climb to “between $7,000 and $35,000 for a student leader and to between $25,000 and $125,000 for unions or student federations.” The bill would essentially aim to bankrupt and destroy the student associations. Further, it includes strict new regulations in regards to holding demonstrations – manifestations – which include mandating that demonstration organizers must give police (in writing) at least eight hours before a scheduled demonstration, the details of the itinerary, duration, time, and route for a march. Police are then granted the “right” to demand changes, “in order to keep the peace and maintain order and public security.” Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois commented, “This is an abuse of power… It’s totally unacceptable in a democracy to table such legislation.” Leo Bureau-Blouin, the student leader who has been most willing to compromise, commented, “This legislation strikes a blow to the freedom of expression.” Martine Desjardins stated that the bill is a “declaration of war against the student movement.” The bill, explained student leaders, will only increase tension and make the crisis much worse. Jean Charest commented, “We hold the conviction that this decision is important — not only for our young people, but for the future of the Quebec people.”
The legislation has promoted calls for increased civil disobedience. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois stated, “When laws become unjust, sometimes you have to disobey and we are now thinking seriously about that possibility… Police repression never scared us. The demonstrations will continue tonight, I believe, every night if necessary.” A member of the National Assembly Amir Khadir, leader of the Quebec political party Quebec Solidaire, stated that, “Civil disobedience is a noble thing… In my democratic perspective and that of my party, civil disobedience, when justified and morally right and commendable, it is politically appropriate.” On Friday, May 18, the Quebec Bar Association stated it had “serious concerns” over the legislation, which it described as “excessive.” Student and union groups united on Friday to oppose the bill, describing it as turning Quebec into a “totalitarian state” and stating, “This law is guided by the aggressiveness, anger and revenge of the Liberal Party.” But not everyone was upset about it. As the law requires organizers to inform police about gatherings of 10 or more people, the chamber of commerce of Gatineau, Quebec, released a “tongue-in-cheek” statement of plans to hold an “assembly of more than 10 people” and asked how many police officers would be present “so that they could prepare the appropriate number of hors d’oeuvres.”
Nadeau-Dubois stated, “I believe my anger is quite representative of the way students are feeling, and I am convinced that will be expressed in the streets… over the next few days and the next few weeks.” He then added: “It’s a declaration of war, not only against students but also against anyone who clings in any way to democracy, against anyone who clings to what Quebec was before this legislation was tabled.” He predicted that Quebecers would “rise up against such an unacceptable document.” The heads of three major Quebec unions came out in opposition to the law, with one leader stating, “The Quebec government chose to use a club instead of dialogue and negotiations… Quebec must not become a police state and that’s what this law means.” Louis Masson, president of the Quebec Bar Association, stated that, “This bill, if adopted, is a breach to the fundamental, constitutional rights of the citizens.” A university and college teacher’s union stated, “If we are no longer able to protest in our society, it becomes a totalitarian society… We are telling our members to defend their fundamental right, the right to demonstrate.”
The legislation also bars students from demonstrating inside or even within 50 metres of college and university buildings. This essentially amounts to making freedom of assembly and speech illegal on college and university campuses. Bureau-Blouin stated, “This bill transforms all civil protests into a crime and transforms a state that has a tradition of openness into a police state… It is an unreasonable limit on our right to demonstrate and aims at killing our associations.” The legislation directly targets the student associations. If a student association attempts to disrupt or prevent students from getting to classes, “it will lose its funding.” Further, “for each day classes are disrupted by actions taken by a student group, the penalty will amount to cessation of funding for a term.” This bill could “virtually bankrupt student associations” for supporting the strike. It also severely restricts the ability of other unions and professors and teachers to support striking students.
Legal experts began speaking out against the legislation, saying that it “goes too far and contravenes fundamental rights.” To add insult to injury, on the same day the legislation was voted for, the City of Montreal quietly passed a by-law which bans masks being worn at protests. The Quebec Bar Association explained that its “serious concerns” about Bill 78 included the fact that, “The scale of its restraints on fundamental freedoms isn’t justified by the objectives aimed by the government.” The president of the Quebec Bar added, “The government is making it harder for people to organize spontaneous demonstrations. It is a limit on freedom of speech.” A Laval University law professor, Louis-Philippe Lampron, an expert in human rights, commented, “Read it. Stunned. Can’t believe that a democratic government can adopt such a law.”
Another Laval University law professor, Fannie Lafontaine, raised concerns about the provisions in the law “which aim to prevent protesters from barring other students from attending school,” as Section 13 and 14 state that no one can “directly or indirectly contribute” to delaying classes or preventing others from having access to them. Section 15 said that student associations must undertake “appropriate means” to ensure their members do not “directly or indirectly” contribute to delaying or denying access to classes. Section 25 threatens fines that go as high as $125,000 for student associations that violate these provisions. Law professor Lafontaine warned that “those sections are too broadly defined while at the same time they are twinned with stiff penalties,” adding: “The students are told to take `appropriate means’ and we don’t know what this implies, to `induce’ members to comply, so there’s an obligation to get results… this doesn’t work in law. You can’t have offences that are written so vaguely they’re impossible to respect.” She also stated, “In times of crisis, all governments tend to restrain fundamental rights and history shows that excessive restrictions don’t help restore order.” Louis Roy, who represents most of the province’s teachers said that his members are “disgusted,” and that, “[t]hey will not be collaborating in any kind of police action. They are not going to become some kind of police squad for the provincial government. We are very close to having a government ready to trample on fundamental rights.” Another union leader stated, “This law is worthy of a banana republic.”
The Canadian Association of University Teachers spoke out on May 18 in condemnation of Bill 78, “for violating fundamental freedoms of association, assembly, and expression.” James L. Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, stated, “This special law is a terrible act of mass repression… The Quebec government has opted to exert the heavy hand of the law as a weapon to suppress dissent.” The bill not only imposes heavy fines and limits freedom of assembly, but it also stipulates that students associations (and other supportive associations, including unions) will be held responsible for any third party violence which takes place at demonstrations. Turk stated, “Now, more than ever, the rest of Canada needs to be pinning on a red felt square showing their support for the students of Quebec and for civil liberties… Bill 78 needs to be defeated in the name of democracy or the rest of Canada should be joining the students on the streets.”
Lucie Lemonde, a law professor at Universite du Quebec a Montreal, stated, “It’s the worst law that I’ve ever seen, except for the War Measures Act,” which was the invocation of martial law in Quebec in 1970 during the FLQ crisis. She added, “We knew something was coming, but I didn’t think they would use it to change the rules of the game in terms of the rights to demonstrate.” Meanwhile the President of the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, Michel Leblanc, “welcomed the bill as a way to protect downtown businesses which say they are suffering because of the frequent demonstrations.” All in all, over the course of Friday May 18:
Student groups, unions, opposition politicians, a host of legal scholars, the Quebec Human Rights Commission, right-wing and left-wing commentators, and the normally restrained Quebec Bar Association blasted the provincial law as an assault on the right to speak and assemble freely.
“This bill infringes many of the fundamental rights of our citizens. The basis of a democracy is the rule of law. We must respect the law. We must also respect fundamental freedoms, like the freedom to protest peacefully, the freedom of speech and the freedom of association,” bar association president bâtonnier Louis Masson, said in an interview.
Quebec Solidaire party leader Amir Khadir stated, “This is a bludgeon law imposed by an illegitimate, corrupt government… I call upon all citizens to respect the laws. But we have to ask ourselves the question: Must we obey a law that takes away fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution? Can we be justified to disobey?”
So this is where we’ve come to now: the government of Quebec has decided that instead of compromising on its tuition hikes – something it has stated from the beginning that it was unwilling to even consider – and instead of negotiating in good faith with the students, as all the negotiations have been farces thus far, it will instead “crack down” on the students of Quebec, implementing the “worst law” since the War Measures Act of 1970, which was a declaration of martial law. Bill 78 amounts to a pseudo-declaration of martial law against the students of Quebec. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights to freedom of speech, assembly, and expression. Bill 78 is the most dangerous law in all of Canada, and one of the most dangerous laws in our history as a country. It must be opposed, and in the face of such measures which are expected of a ‘Third World’ police state but not of a so-called ‘democracy,’ civil disobedience is just, righteous, and necessary.
This is no longer about tuition. Our very freedom is at stake.
Andrew Gavin Marshall
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada, writing on a number of social, political, economic, and historical issues. He is also Project Manager of The People’s Book Project. He also hosts a weekly podcast show, “Empire, Power, and People,” on BoilingFrogsPost.com.