Persecuting Protesters: How Politicians Abuse Laws to Suppress Dissent

Protests, like potholes, are a year-round occurance in Montreal. The economy is in the toilet, tuition costs are on the rise, and Prime Minister Trudeau has turned his back on the young people whose coattails he rode into office.

Young people voted for Trudeau hoping that he would help stabilize employment in Canada only to be told to get used to temporary, low paying jobs without benefits. Quebeckers voted for Philippe Couillard hoping to do away with the Parti Québecois’ message of aggressive xenophobic secularism and language issues only to find the provincial government raising the language and signage disputes people are sick of. Municipal austerity measures are coming at the expense of the pensions our blue collar workers worked so hard for.

Votes don’t seem to count anymore and the cynicism pushed by bitter columnists is proving true. With the government ignoring the reason they were voted into office, people are forcing the government to listen by taking to the streets.

Everyone from students to cops to healthcare workers to Native leaders are taking to the streets with pickets, hoping to have their voices heard. Like the potholes, the City of Montreal has a pathetic track record of dealing with protests, reverting to persecution rather than reasonable negotiation. To our elected officials, protesters are not frustrated human beings with legitimate concerns but noisemakers and disruptors.

Laws Used Against Protesters

With the cops using their authority to assault people desperate to be heard, it’s time to look at the laws the government uses and overuses to suppress dissenters.

Let’s start with the Canadian Criminal Code.

Protesters are commonly charged with assault, harassment, mischief, unlawful assembly, and obstructing police officers. Since I addressed mischief in my piece on Devil’s Night, let’s look at the rest.

Assault is defined as applying force directly or indirectly to another person without their consent. The penalty is up to five years in prison unless the person is tried on summary conviction, which carries a lesser penalty. If a weapon is used in the assault, the penalty increases to a maximum of ten years, or if tried on summary conviction, a minimum of eighteen months. Since the definition of assault is so vague, it can range from hitting or kicking, to simply pushing and shoving.

Harassment is the act of engaging in conduct that would make a person feel harassed, which includes following them, repeatedly communicating with them, and watching their workplace. As protests often occur in front of government buildings where elected officials work, and repeated communication is the only way they feel they can be heard, it is far too easy for those ignoring them to call it harassment. Harassment is a serious charge, with a maximum penalty of ten years in prison, and its broad definition bears the risk of overuse.

Unlawful Assembly is when three or more people get together for a common purpose and their group causes the surrounding neighborhood to fear a disturbance of the peace. Unfortunately many protests, even peaceful, are noisy. An unlawful assembly charge, which fortunately only runs the risk of a summary conviction, is applied willy nilly by authorities to punish protesters.

Obstructing a police officer is a charge that became popular against protesters this past summer when people stormed the National Energy Board (NEB) hearings to voice their dissent against the proposed Energy East pipeline. To be convicted of this charge, the prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person resisted, willfully obstructed, or did not assist a public or peace officer in the execution of his or her duties. The penalty is up to two years in prison unless there is a summary conviction.

Protesters are also punished with municipal bylaws.

The municipal bylaw used to punish protesters is bylaw P-6, formally called the “By-law concerning the prevention of breaches of the peace, public order and safety, and the use of public property”.

The bylaw was added to by former Mayor Gerald Tremblay in 2012 following the massive student protests against tuition hikes. Article 2.1 of the bylaw requires assemblies, parades, or gatherings in public places to disclose their itineraries to authorities prior to the event. Article 3.2 of the bylaw makes it illegal for protesters to cover their faces with a scarf or hood without a reasonable motive.

Both of these articles were ruled unconstitutional by Judge Chantal Masse of the Superior Court on June 22, 2016, following a successful challenge by Julien Villeneuve, a CEGEP professor who attended the protests in a panda costume.

Laws that Protect Protesters

We know about the laws used to punish protesters. Now let’s talk briefly about the laws meant to protect them and all of us.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms entrenched in our constitution guarantees freedom of thought, opinion, and expression. It guarantees freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association. It also guarantees the right against arbitrary detention. In spite of this, protesters are arrested left and right and their protests, no matter how peaceful, are punished as being unlawful.

Then there’s the Quebec Charter, a quasi-constitutional law entrenched in Quebec legislation. Like the Canadian Charter, it guarantees freedom of assembly and association.

Our criminal laws are also in place to protect, yet they are used to suppress protesters not keep them safe. Police officers who act prematurely by shooting rubber bullets and smashing people with batons rarely see any consequences for their actions, confirming the protesters’ belief that they are there to persecute, not protect.

Protests may be a public nuisance but they are a necessary one. As long as the government refuses to listen to the people who elected them, the protests will continue. As long as people feel voiceless, they will take to the streets to make sure they are heard.

For every time the government betrays the ones who voted for them, hundreds pickets will spring up. The act of listening and communication is the key to most conflict resolution. If politicians want the protesting to stop, they have to start listening.

* Featured image by Cem Ertekin

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