Crimes Against Legality

June 1, 2012

After more than 100 days of continuous protest, over 200,000 students in Quebec province remain on strike in protest against tuition fee hikes of up to 83 percent. More than twenty universities and vocational colleges have been effectively shut down, and students and supporters have gathered for regular protest marches in Montreal and other cities since mid-February. The students are supported by a coalition of 140 different organisations, among them community groups, unions and the Anonymous hacker collective.

British media has been virtually silent on the protests, so you have probably not read about the 300,000 students who took to the streets of Quebec province during the biggest demonstrations, nor about the resignation of the Education Minister who proposed the tuition hikes. You may not have heard of the more than 2000 arrests of student protesters, the pepper-spraying of students and journalists by the police or the prohibition of face-masks in the city of Montreal. And you probably have not heard about Bill 78, a new law that has recently been passed by the provincial government to quell the protests. One Canadian law professor called it “the second worst law on record” after the War Measures Act, which was used during the Second World War to justify the internment of Japanese citizens and the widespread suspension of basic rights. In authoritative legalese, the text of the law outlines some of the most far-reaching restrictions on the right to public assembly ever considered in Canada during peacetime.

Section 10 prohibits any university employee from striking in solidarity with students.

Section 13 prohibits students from occupying universities.

Section 16 requires that any demonstration with more than 50 people is registered with the police at least eight hours in advance and is restricted to a pre-determined route, duration, and means of transportation.

Section 17 allows the police to hold individual student leaders or student organisations responsible for compliance with all aspects of the law of all participants at a demonstration.

Section 25 imposes fines from 1,000 up to 250,000 Canadian dollars on individuals and student organisations who violate the law.

If you think these provisions sound pathetically outrageous and blatantly undemocratic, fear not: the law has been roundly criticised from all sides. The Bar of Quebec questioned whether the law was constitutional. The Canadian Association of University Teachers condemned the law as “violating fundamental freedoms of association, assembly and expression” and denounced it as “a terrible act of mass repression.” A local teachers’ union commented that “this law is worthy of a banana republic.” Students have vowed to defend their civil rights and defy the law, while statements of solidarity continue to flood websites – a site which, not surprisingly, mirrors the “We are the 99 per cent” blog that gave an early voice to the Occupy Wall Street movement. For now, however, the law remains in force (it is set to expire in 2013).

In order to “protect the rights of non-striking students and local businesses, and return calm to Quebec society”, the government has erred on the side of idiocy. Gone is the idea that the law protects (instead of merely punishing), or that justice and law are built upon the same foundations. Might, it appears, makes right.

This in turn might not surprise students and activists in Britain, who have been heckled, kettled, harassed, attacked and arrested by police during recent demonstrations. In times of crisis and discontent, few governments rely on the powers of persuasion to make their case as a law designed to punish disobedient protesters becomes an offense in itself. In turn, they have turned into the biggest boosters of protest: With every draconian bill and every needless arrest, the delusion that we are protected, rather than threatened, by the law becomes a little less believable.


By Martin Eiermann