Student Strike Prompts Québec to Suspend Civil Liberties
Since the global financial meltdown of 2008, many Western countries have experienced widespread protesting and even, in some cases, rioting in the streets. This has been the year of the Occupy movement, a cry for solidarity in the face of ever-growing crony capitalism and belt tightening from governments. In Canada's francophone Province of Québec, it is students that have mobilized this year to combat growing austerity plans and, in particular, a post-secondary tuition hike of 82 percent spread over seven years.
This mobilization has been massive and long lasting, more so than anyone had originally predicted. At the height of the movement, more than 310 000 students (Radio-Canada, March 23, 2012) had declared a general strike and began picketing their universities and colleges. On March 22 of this year, an estimated 200,000-250,000 people marched in the streets of Montreal in what became the Province's largest-ever protest.
These actions, adopted in an entirely democratic fashion by the student unions, aimed to get the government to rescind the hike and freeze tuition fees at their current rate of $2,168 per semester.
It became clear, however, that Jean Charest's liberal government had no intention to go back on its decision. Not only has Charest refused to negotiate himself with the students, he let the former Education Minister Line Beauchamp wait nine weeks before any talks even began. Ms. Beauchamp has since resigned her post on the basis of not being able to handle this crisis.
Charest has even made several public appearances and joked about the conflict. Once, while a protest was being held outside the very building where he was speaking, as the police tear-gassed and beat protesters, he suggested that government and businesses find jobs in Québec's far north for protesting students.
Indeed, police brutality has been endemic to this conflict. There have so far been several important injuries (more than 65 serious injuries, LaPresse, May 8), including two young men who each lost an eye, broken limbs, a broken jaw, skull fractures and countless illegitimate arrests. This abuse of power has been so blatant that on May 15, Amnesty International announced it was demanding an inquiry into the events and released a communiqué denouncing the police practices. Among other events, those of April 19 in Gatineau, where 148 protesters were arrested and held in city buses; tightly handcuffed; refused access to food, water and toilets for over seven hours. Some protesters' hands swelled and turned purple from the cuffs, which police refused to cut.
However, it seems that before this week, we had not yet seen the worst of it. The student movement, now finishing it's 15th week, has resulted in the government adopting a "special law" in order to "maintain law and order" within the Province. This law "Loi 78," is such an aberration to civil and human rights that many scholars, lawyers (including the Quebec Bar Association and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association) and judges have deemed it unconstitutional and maintain that it would not survive a judicial oversight.
This law, which was officially enacted on May 18, is split into two parts one suspending the current semester for colleges and universities still on strike, and the other curbing the right to protest by increasing police powers and installing heavy fines for those caught in contempt of said law.
It is now officially illegal in Québec to hold an assembly of more than 50 people if you have not warned the police eight hours beforehand, providing the time, date, duration and place of said assembly. The fines for any person or student association not doing so in accordance with the law range from $7,000 to $35,000. Moreover, the police now have the right to submit any protest or march itinerary it has received to as many changes as it wishes. Thus, the police may decide where a protest should be held and confine all participants to any part of the city.
What is more, inciting others to any illegal protest or act of civil disobedience is now prohibited and subject to hefty fines, especially for the leaders of student unions.
To top it all off, a college or university's administration now has the power to block the payment of union dues by students to their student union at the beginning of the semester.
This horribly abusive law is now combined with the recent adoption of a provision banning people from wearing masks in public in the city of Montreal, where the biggest protests have been held.
All that remains now is to hope that the conflict will not degenerate into something far more sinister. On the other hand, perhaps this is an opportunity for major reform in a province where there is an increasing gap between the ideals of the younger generation forced to withstand increasing austere measures and the older generations who govern them. This has been called the "printemps érable," "the maple spring." Perhaps we should take a page out of the Middle Easterners' book and occupy Parliament.