WHEN Vladimir V. Putin first came to power in Russia, Quebecers could not help but laugh. Poutine, as he is called in French, is also the name of a Québécois fast-food dish made of French fries, gravy and cheese. But these days the laughter is over, as Quebec gets a taste of Mr. Putin’s medicine.
For a change, Americans should take note of what is happening across the quiet northern border. Canada used to seem a progressive and just neighbor, but the picture today looks less rosy. One of its provinces has gone rogue, trampling basic democratic rights in an effort to end student protests against the Quebec provincial government’s plan to raise tuition fees by 75 percent.
On May 18, Quebec’s legislative assembly, under the authority of the provincial premier, Jean Charest, passed a draconian law in a move to break the 15-week-long student strike. Bill 78, adopted last week, is an attack on Quebecers’ freedom of speech, association and assembly. Mr. Charest has refused to use the traditional means of mediation in a representative democracy, leading to even more polarization. His administration, one of the most right-wing governments Quebec has had in 40 years, now wants to shut down opposition.
The bill threatens to impose steep fines of 25,000 to 125,000 Canadian dollars against student associations and unions — which derive their financing from tuition fees — in a direct move to break the movement. For example, student associations will be found guilty if they do not stop their members from protesting within university and college grounds.
During a street demonstration, the organization that plans the protest will be penalized if individual protesters stray from the police-approved route or exceed the time limit imposed by authorities. Student associations and unions are also liable for any damage caused by a third party during a demonstration.
These absurd regulations mean that student organizations and unions will be held responsible for behavior they cannot possibly control. They do not bear civil responsibility for their members as parents do for their children.
Freedom of speech is also under attack because of an ambiguous — and Orwellian — article in Bill 78 that says, “Anyone who helps or induces a person to commit an offense under this Act is guilty of the same offense.” Is a student leader, or an ordinary citizen, who sends a Twitter message about civil disobedience therefore guilty? Quebec’s education minister says it depends on the context. The legislation is purposefully vague and leaves the door open to arbitrary decisions.
Since the beginning of the student strike, leaders have told protesters to avoid violence. Protesters even condemned the small minority of troublemakers who had infiltrated the demonstrations. During the past four months of protests, there has never been the kind of rioting the city has seen when the local National Hockey League team, the Canadiens, wins or loses during the Stanley Cup playoffs. The biggest demonstration, which organizers estimate drew 250,000 people on May 22, was remarkably peaceful. Mr. Charest’s objective is not so much to restore security and order as to weaken student and union organizations. This law also creates a climate of fear and insecurity, as ordinary citizens can also face heavy fines.
Bill 78 has been fiercely denounced by three of four opposition parties in Quebec’s Legislature, the Quebec Bar Association, labor unions and Amnesty International. James L. Turk, the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, called Bill 78 “a terrible act of mass repression” and “a weapon to suppress dissent.”
The law will remain in force only until July 1, 2013. The short duration says it all. It amounts to a temporary suspension of certain liberties and allows the government to avoid serious negotiations with student leaders. And it grants the authorities carte blanche for the abuse of power; just hours after it passed, police officers in Montreal began to increase the use of force against protesters.
Some critics have tried to portray the strike as a minority group’s wanting a free lunch. This is offensive to most Quebec students. Not only are they already in debt, despite paying low tuition fees, but 63 percent of them work in order to pay their university fees. The province has a very high rate of youth employment: about 57 percent of Quebecers between the ages of 15 and 24 work, compared with about 49 percent between the ages of 16 and 24 in the United States.
Both Quebec and Canada as a whole are pro-market. They also share a sense of solidarity embodied by their public health care systems and strong unions. Such institutions are a way to maintain cohesion in a vast, sparsely populated land. Now those values are under threat.
Americans traveling to Quebec this summer should know they are entering a province that rides roughshod over its citizens’ fundamental freedoms.
Laurence Bherer and Pascale Dufour are associate professors of political science at the University of Montreal.
Explainer: The first 24 hours of Bill 78
Posted by Justin Giovannetti on Saturday, May 19, 2012
After a rare nighttime debate at the National Assembly, Bill 78 was approved by a vote of 68-48 on Friday afternoon with the nearly full support of the Liberal caucus and the right-wing Coalition Avenir Quebec.
Given the tongue-twisting name of, “An act to enable students to receive instruction from the postsecondary institutions they attend,” the bill imposes severe limitations on a Quebecers’ right to hold a spontaneous assembly:
- Semesters at campuses impacted by the student strike are immediately suspended, due to start again in August.
- Demonstrations with more than 50 people must provide the police with a time, location and duration at least eight hours in advance. The police may modify any of these parameters at any time.
- All gatherings are banned within 50 metres of a campus.
- Student associations not “employing appropriate means to induce” their members to comply with the law are guilty of violating the law. Individuals also fall under this and can be guilty by omission or for providing advice.
- Fines range from $1,000 for individuals to $125,000 for student associations. Fines double for repeat offences.
Opposition from legal scholars
Many of Quebec’s organizations and professional associations showed some concern about the law. Typically a quiet and conservative organization, the Quebec Bar came out swinging against the bill.
“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 President Louis Masson told The Globe and Mail.
Speaking to CBC’s The House, former judge John Gomery was critical of the law. While some believe that the law would not stand up to a court hearing, a sunset clause of July 1, 2013 will probably keep it out of the Supreme Court.
“My view is that this legislation is part of the extreme reaction that this debate has provoked. Violent demonstrations provoke violent reactions,” Gomery told CBC host Evan Solomon. “I think it is surely going to be contested before the courts.”
Quebec favours the law
According to a CROP poll commissioned by La Presse, 66 per cent of Quebecers are in favour of the law. Some are discounting the poll because of its small sample of 800 responses. The poll also showed a record low level of Quebecers supporting a tuition freeze: 32 per cent.
CLASSE takes down calendar
So that it is not found guilty of aiding protest that might not be properly planned or executed, the student coalition CLASSE removed a calendar from its website where students added planned activities. A central point for organizing protests, CLASSE was facing a fine of $125,000 for the first offence.
Montreal police lines jammed by people filing “protest reports”
In a bid to undermine Bill 78, hundreds of people called their local Montreal police precincts on Friday, attempting to file plans for “protests” composed of 50 friends going out for an evening. Under the law filing these plans of a dubious value is required.
According to the Montreal police, most of the plans filed were bogus.
It’s all Greek to Margaret
In a column for The Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente compared Quebec’s tuition protesters to debt-riddled Greece. While criticizing the province’s “cradle-to-grave” social system, Wente claimed that rioting students are “overwhelmingly middle- to upper-middle class.” Calling herself appalled, Wente concluded by stating that Quebec students would “shut down Alberta” if given the chance. Greek Quebecers were not happy with the comparison.
Following the Russian example?
Russian President Vladimir Putin has revealed that he is looking to bring forward a new law to crush Russia’s protest movement: $32,000 fines for people engaged in unauthorized protests. The Putin-Charest photomontages are imminent.
Charest’s Draconian Law Sets Stage for Québec Pussy Riot!
Posted on May 18, 2012 by David Bernans
Unable to break the will of students who have been on strike for a record 14 weeks protesting an 82% tuition increase, Charest’s Liberal government has taken a page from Russia’s strongman Vladimir Putin. Education Minister Michelle Courchesne has tabled Bill 78, the Act to enable students to receive instruction from the postsecondary institutions they attend.
Are you planning on a Barbeque or a soccer game in a public park in the province of Québec? Make sure to invite no more than eight people. Once Bill 78 becomes law, the organizer of a gathering of 10 or more people* in a public place will be required to notify the police in writing eight hours in advance of said gathering with a full itinerary of the group’s movements.
Obviously, police are not going to arrest some kids at a soccer game, but what if the kids on one team all have red squares on their uniforms and the other team has the Liberal Party of Québec (PLQ) logo? And what if the PLQ players can pick up the ball with their hands and have referees remove the red square goal keeper whenever she gets in the way? Has this innocent game now become an illegal political gathering, protesting the draconian Bill 78 without a permit?
These are the kind of tactics being used by protestors in Putin’s Russia to avoid similar government restrictions on freedom of assembly. Such tactics illustrate the problem of enforcing bans on unpermitted demonstrations without looking like authoritarian thugs. By targeting the impromptu concert-demos of the anti-authoritarian feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot, Russian authorities have given the phenomenon international notoriety.
Premier Jean Charest has put forward this legislation ostensibly to calm the fires of revolution that have caught the attention of international media. He wants to rehabilitate Québec as a tranquil tourist destination. But perhaps, instead of legislating an end to a social movement, Charest has just given birth to Québec’s own Pussy Riot!
David Bernans is a Québec-based writer and translator. Follow him on twitter @dbernans.
* Bill 78 was amended after this article was written. The relevant section of the legislation now applies to gatherings of 50 or more people.
Quebec Bill 78 echoes Russia’s anti-protest idea: is it Jean or Vladimir Charest?
By Andy Radia | Canada Politics – Sun, 20 May, 2012
It is a little ironic that the Quebec government’s Bill 78 came down on the same day a Russian anti-protest bill was to be introduced.
Friday was supposed to be the first reading of a draconian draft law in Russia that would raise the maximum fines for organizers of unsanctioned protests to $48,000 from $1,600. Participants’ fines would increase to $32,000 from $160.
Quebec’s legislation, which passed Friday, also sets multiple requirements on public demonstrations and threatens stiff penalties to people who disrupt college and university classes.
The bill has been met with a chorus of criticism.
Louis Masson, the head of the Quebec Bar Association, says the Bill “clearly limits” the right to freedom of assembly. Constitutional lawyer Julius Grey told CBC News that Bill 78 is a “terrible law” that suspends the freedom to association, express and protest, without sufficient reason. Pauline Marois, leader of the opposition Parti Québécois, said it was “one of the darkest days of Quebec democracy” and demanded Premier Jean Charest hold elections because of the unpopularity of the law.
And, according to the Associated Press, the U.S. consulate in Montreal has warned visitors and U.S. expatriates to be careful because of the demonstrations.
Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, Russian President Vladimir Putin will have to wait for his legislation “to cope with an increasingly assertive opposition.” The anti-protest bill in that country was abruptly delayed until next week because of disagreements within the government.
What’s contained in Quebec’s Bill 78? Openfile.ca has published this list explaining the new rules:
-Semesters at campuses impacted by the student strike are immediately suspended, due to start again in August.
– Demonstrations with more than 50 people must provide the police with a time, location and duration at least eight hours in advance. The police may modify any of these parameters at any time.
– All gatherings are banned within 50 metres of a campus.
– Student associations not “employing appropriate means to induce” their members to comply with the law are guilty of
violating the law. Individuals also fall under this and can be guilty by omission or for providing advice.
– Fines range from $1,000 for individuals to $125,000 for student associations. Fines double for repeat offences.