In the opening line of his analysis of bill 78, professor Jacob T Levy ( McGill University, political theory professor), makes a puzzling statement about this extreme measure. “Special law is every bit the contradiction in terms that ‘student strike’ is. Emergency decrees and bills of attainder aren’t laws, and I won’t be referring to Bill 78 as a law except in scare quotes.”

Notwithstanding my disagreement with his attack on the term “student strike’ (a far too technical and semantic point, in my view), I have to agree that nothing about this decree seems to meet the moral or legal definition of law, in the truest and most democratic sense of the word. Laws in a democratic society must, according to the textbook meaning of the word, be universal, impersonal, general and permanent. Apart from being universal possibly, this law fails to meet any of these standards. It is not general, in that it is aimed squarely at one segment of the population (i.e. the student unions and their protesters). Nor is it entirely impersonal, given that it applies to a specific ongoing situation. As for the question of permanence, no jurist worth their salt thinks that this law will stand the constitutional tests of either the charter of rights for Quebec or Canada. Perhaps that explains the use of the sunset clause, meaning that the law will automatically die on July 1st 2013, unless renewed by the government? Constitutional lawyers may quibble with these points, by mentioning that there are exceptions to all these rules but these principles are not to be infringed lightly, no matter how urgent the crisis.

So what is it specifically about this decree, that’s got so many people, even those that don’t necessarily support the strike, so incensed? If I may, I will parse the bill further, basing myself on Levy’s analysis, I would like to look at the most egregious articles of what philosophy professor Daniel Weinstock of University of Montreal, calls an “odious and shameful” decree.

Section III of the bill (dealing with the giving of notice, police authorization for protests, etc. ) is totally outrageous! Its designed to give the authorities and in particular the police the power to stifle, in effect, the right to freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration. Not to mention, infringing the right to freedom of expression in Québec. It’s shame that this law will not last long enough for this provision to be eviscerated by the Supreme Court of Canada or the Quebec Court of Appeals. It is so badly written and harmful to our basic human rights, that no Canadian judge in their right mind (maybe a Syrian judge might support this law?), would uphold this section of the law in court.

Section IV of the bill, empowering the state to impose massive fines on student unions in order to coerce them into compliance with the law, is excessive and unnecessary. While I admit that something has to be done to enforce court orders (i.e. injunctions) being violated by protestors ( like those that forcibly evicted law students from their classes last week at UQÀM’s law school), this could be accomplished more effectively and with less harm to our fundamental rights, through some sort of contempt of court ruling by the judges whose injunctions are being ignored.

But the real affront to our democratic society can be found in article 29 of this same section. ‘Anyone, who by an act or omission….induces a person to commit an offence under this Act is guilty of the same offence and is liable to the fine…’ Levy calls this ‘police state stuff’ and says it makes section III, IV and V ‘illegitimate,’ and rightfully so. It basically means that anyone who is in contact with the student unions or protesters, or, even if they avoid them but do nothing to stop them from acting illegally, are liable to the same fines as the protestors and could be taken to court by the authorities.

Our governments need to be extremely careful about the way they respond to perceived threats to law and order. Bill 78, much like the anti-mask by-law introduced by Mayor Tremblay this week (see my column for more info) is an ill-conceived attempt by the Charest government to expand police powers in such a way that they violate basic human rights in Canada and Québec. That the state is dealing with a social and political crisis, is no excuse for it to behave totally undemocratically and ride roughshod over its own legal and moral duty to respect the freedom of expression and assembly of its citizens.

* Image: CTV News

Student protests tuesday may 21, 2012

Student protests tuesday may 21, 2012
Student protests Tuesday May 21, 2012. Photo: Chris Zacchia

Ethan Cox is a former news editor with Forget The Box and he is currently heavily involved in politics and trying to change the world. He is currently covering the student protests for Rabble.ca and FTB. Here is his latest take on where the protests stand and where we go next. Be sure to join us for today’s demonstration starting at place des festival at 2pm.

Just in time for the 100th day of Quebec’s student strike comes a birthday present of epic proportions for the indefatigable students.

They’re winning.

A QMI/Leger Marketing poll released early Tuesday morning by the Journal de Montreal bore the banner headline “Le gouvernment va trop loin” (The government has gone too far).

On the central question of whether respondents supported the government or the students in the ongoing conflict over increases to tuition fees, the poll found a stunning 18 point shift from the government to the students, compared to a poll taken ten days earlier. Although this shift still leaves the students trailing the government by 8 points, the momentum is clearly on their side.

On the question of whether the controversial, and likely unconstitutional, special law known as Loi 78 went “too far,” 53 per cent agreed that it did, while 32 per cent judged it to be fair and balanced and 8 per cent thought it didn’t go far enough.

Seventy-three per cent thought the extraordinary law, which critics have compared to the War Measures Act and the dark days of the Duplessis era, would fail to achieve Charest’s stated goal of “restoring social peace.” Three out of four respondents also supported the immediate resumption of negotiations between students and government, a firm repudiation of the Charest government’s refusal to negotiate.

Student protests tuesday may 21, 2012
Police at Student protests tuesday may 21, 2012 Photo by Chris Zacchia

Disastrous as these numbers are for Charest, this may only be the beginning. The more the population analyzes the law, the more they will question it, according to Christian Bourque, Executive Vice President with Leger Marketing. He attributes the collapse in support for the government to Loi 78, noting “it’s the only thing which has changed since the last poll”.

For those of us on the ground here in Quebec, it seemed evident as soon as Loi 78 was introduced that Charest had overplayed his hand. In a province which has lived through the quiet revolution and the War Measures Act it seemed unlikely that we would fail to notice or care if our fundamental freedoms were curtailed.

The bill suspended the semester of striking institutions, to be resumed in late summer. It outlawed protests within fifty meters of an educational institution (rendering the downtown core a no-go zone), and protests whose details, including precise route, had not been communicated to police eight hours in advance. It also gave police the right to cancel a duly advertised demonstration, and imposed heavy fines for student organizations, organizers and simple citizens judged to have disobeyed the law. It is written so broadly that anyone communicating the details of an “illegal” protest, on twitter for example, could be severely fined.

Student protests tuesday may 21, 2012
Student protests tuesday may 21, 2012 Photo by Chris Zacchia

Perhaps the most concerning, and under-reported, provision of the law would allow the government to cancel the payment of dues to a student association or federation at a rate of one semester for each day or part thereof they were judged in violation of the law. Coupled with the reverse onus provision, which would force associations to prove members or supporters breaking the law were not acting on behalf of the association, this would allow Charest to effectively eliminate troublesome student associations and federations for a decade or longer. Would that we could all dispatch our enemies so easily!

Probably knowing the law would never survive a court challenge on constitutional grounds, the Liberals set it to expire in one year, before any challenge would likely be heard.

Over the weekend since Loi 78 was passed by the National Assembly it has been denounced by everyone from the Quebec Bar Association to pro-hike student groups. The Arcade Fire wore the emblematic red square symbol of the student strike during an appearance on Saturday Night Live, as did Xavier Dolan and his entourage at Cannes. Michael Moore waded in, pledging his support on twitter, and local boy turned Hollywood comedian Jon Lajoie publicly defied the law by releasing a “Song for Students” which ends with a call for viewers to join the mass demonstration organized for today to celebrate the 100th day of the strike.

Student protests
No end in sight, over 5000 protesters marched until 1 in the monrning through upper Westmount past Jean Charest's home

But it wasn’t just celebrities who took a dim view of the law. As demonstrations unfolded over the weekend it seemed that every bystander was suddenly cheering, every idled car honking in support and whole terraces full of people standing to applaud as the students went by. The last, and only, time I witnessed such a sudden shift in public opinion as this poll shows was during last May’s orange wave.

Then too there was a palpable shift on the streets of Montreal. A sudden unanimity.

For my money Charest has already lost, at this point he’s fighting history, and history always wins. Pauvre Jean, your summer of hell is only just starting…

A monster demonstration against Loi 78 and in celebration of the 100th day of the student strike has been called for TODAY (May 22) at 2PM at Place des Arts Metro.

If you are unable to attend, Concordia University Television (CUTV) have been revolutionizing how we interact with social movements by livestreaming the daily protests over the internet. Tune in! But remember, electronic copies are never as good as the real thing!

You can also follow me on twitter for live updates from the demo: @EthanCoxMTL

A few weeks ago I wrote about the student strike in Quebec and its importance. Now it seems after months of ignoring student demands to rescind planned tuition hikes, the Charest Government has gone from keeping its ears closed to students to putting a zipper on the mouths of everyone.

Bill 78, the emergency law passed by the Liberal government of Quebec last Friday is one of the most anti-democratic laws I’ve seen pass at a provincial or federal level. It is only a step or two away from the declaration of martial law.

Part 16 of the new law puts in place strict regulations governing demonstrations of over 50 people. Protest organizers must now inform authorities eight hours in advance the start time, the location and the duration of the protest.

For some people this measure might not seem too extreme on the surface, however most media outlets are not reporting the subtext of the law. Upon receiving the information about the planned protest, authorities are allowed to require a change of venue as a matter of public security. Protest organizers must then resubmit their plans. There is nothing to prevent authorities from continually asking for a change of venue.

While this emergency measure can be seen as directed toward students, it can also be applied to unions and organizations of all stripes. Imagine striking manufacturing workers not allowed to protest in front of their place of work… or protest at all for that matter.

I don’t think people yet realize the implications of Bill 78, the anti-protest rules and the penalties they may incur should the rules be broken. Bypassing this law can lead up to a $5000 fine for individuals, up to $35 000 for senior officers or high rank representatives of organizations and up to $125 000 for the organizations themselves (such as unions).

Quebec Premier Jean Charest was clearly not in his right mind when he concocted this draconian anti-democratic bill. In a Democracy, when you take away the right to speak out, the voices get louder, they don’t grow quieter.

If Charest thought this law would simmer things down he got a rude wake up call the very night the law was passed. In fact, with this law being passed, Charest in effect upped the ante on his war with the students. Now the only way students can effectively fight back is through more civil disobedience, actions this new law was meant to quash.

Despite the harsh penalties, students are still coming out on a daily/nightly basis in the thousands and continue to draw support from across Quebec and beyond. Labour Unions are now poised to join the fight, Arcade Fire wore the now famous red squares on SNL, Michael Moore tweeted about the protests on Saturday night, etc.

Arcade Fire sported red squares on SNL Saturday

Quebecers are already among the most taxed citizens on the continent while non-manufacturing corporations in the province are among those who pay the least, which in itself is worth protesting. Tuition is quite simply a tax on education paid by young people who are not yet in the work force, thus continues the Quebec tradition of taxing the ordinary man and not the corporate machine.

There should be more than just students on the streets.

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Police barricades on fire in downtown Montreal, photo Patrick Chartrand

It doesn’t matter what you think about the protest against tuition fee hikes, this isn’t about accessible education anymore. Now, everyone in Quebec’s right to protest, organize and express themselves freely is at risk. As of last night, people’s right to just go out and have a good time is at risk, too.

Friday, after a last-minute 48 hour session of the Assemble Nationale, the Charest government passed Bill 78. This “special” law originally defined any gathering of ten people or more who had not provided police with a trajectory and duration eight hours prior as an illegal riot.

That figure got changed to 50 people. The original number was laughable and prompted tongue-in-cheek phonecalls informing the police of upcoming family gatherings as well as satirical observations that people waiting for a bus, for example, could constitute a riot. Any number imposed as a limit, though, is unconstitutional and oppressive.

Image: Al Korkidakis

The law also makes it illegal to protest within 50 meters of a school, effectively barring protests from Montreal’s downtown core. Not only that, Twitter is apparently under surveillance, too. People’s tweets in favour of the strike protests or critical of the new law could land them in trouble for being a protest organizer.

In a nutshell, this is the most repressive piece of legislation passed in Canada since the War Measures Act. It’s a desperate act by a desperate administration trying to hold on to authority. Unfortunately, everyone has to pay for that desperation.

The student movement is locked down, so is any other movement that wants to get their message out in public space. A chill is being felt all across Quebec. Charest can now pass whatever he wants without having to deal with the consequences.

Well, not quite. If you were out in downtown Montreal Friday night, it didn’t look like any activists were in hiding. Protesters responded to their right to protest being removed by, well, protesting, in larger numbers than before. Some media said there were 10 000 people in the streets, others online argued that the figure was way higher. To be safe, I’ll just say that there were more than 50.

Image: Canadian Press

And that’s the point. Way more than 50 people marching without providing police with a route eight hours in advance by all the major schools in the downtown core and tweeting about it. That’s the only kind of response that will work, direct, point-by-point defiance.

And it was, for the most part, peaceful. Yes, there was a brief exchange of molatov cocktails and teargass and the cops declared the march illegal (kinda pointless, really, given the fact that all marches like this one are now technically illegal from the get-go), but as tens of thousands of people marched on, that passed and the protest continued until around 2am.

Those marching weren’t alone this time. They were cheered from terrasses and by car horns. Even a group of bikers revved their approval, prompting one CUTV (the best source for live coverage of this movement) commenter to observe that it “looks like Charest has lost his base.”

Last night wasn’t so jovial. The SPVM not only arrested 69 people, but they also teargassed a terrasse full of bar patrons unrelated to the protest on St-Denis (and even arrested a random woman). When the cops erected a barricade, quite possibly to kettle people in and arrest them, protesters set it on fire.

Regardless of whether or not you think going all St-Jean on the barricade was a good idea, I think we can all agree that the right course of action by the authorities would have been to put the blaze out right away. Instead they let it burn for a while, just enough time to get headlines about protesters burning things into the major corporate media.

It was for effect. Just as the attack on random Saturday night drinkers was for effect. Sure, they may explain it away as being some rogue cop acting inappropriately, but I think the real motive is to let people know that if the protests continue, they too may become a target.

The problem for them is people aren’t stupid. We’re savvy around these parts. We know that with this law, we are all targets automatically.

Because of law 78, this is no longer just a student struggle. It’s everyone’s struggle. Unions are coming on board and there’s a major march planned for Tuesday. Opposition politicians are urging civil disobedience and asking if the government has lost its mind. Xavier Dolan brought the movement to Cannes. The Arcade Fire brought it to Saturday Night Live. Ordinary people are waking up, too. Jean Charest woke them up.

I don’t think they will go to sleep until this law is removed from the books. At least I hope they won’t. We can’t afford to lose our most primal political rights. We are all red squares now.