A draconian law to quell demonstrations has only galvanised public support for young Quebecois protesting tuition fee hikes
At a tiny church tucked away in a working-class neighbourhood in Montreal’s east end, Quebec’s new outlaws gathered on Sunday for a day of deliberations. Aged mostly between 18 and 22, their membership in a progressive student union has made them a target of government scorn and scrutiny. And they have been branded a menace to society because of their weapons: ideas of social justice and equal opportunity in education, alongside the ability to persuade hundreds of thousands to join them in the streets.
Under a draconian law passed by the Quebec government on Friday, their very meeting could be considered a criminal act. Law 78 – unprecedented in recent Canadian history – is the latest, most desperate manoeuvre of a provincial government that is afraid it has lost control over a conflict that began as a student strike against tuition hikes but has since spread into a protest movement with wide-ranging social and environmental demands.
Labelled a “truncheon law” by its critics, it imposes severe restrictions on the right to protest. Any group of 50 or more protesters must submit plans to police eight hours ahead of time; they can be denied the right to proceed. Picket lines at universities and colleges are forbidden, and illegal protests are punishable by fines from $5,000 to $125,000 for individuals and unions – as well as by the seizure of union dues and the dissolution of their associations.
In other words, the government has decided to smash the student movement by force.
The government quickly launched a public relations offensive to defend itself. Full-page ads in local newspapers ran with the headline: “For the sake of democracy and citizenship.” Quebec’s minister of public security, Robert Dutil, prattled about the many countries that have passed similar laws:
“Other societies with rights and freedoms to protect have found it reasonable to impose certain constraints – first of all to protect protesters, and also to protect the public.”
Such language is designed to make violence sound benevolent and infamy honourable. But it did nothing to mask reality for those who have flooded the streets since the weekend and encountered police emboldened by the new legislation. Riot squads beat and tear-gassed people indiscriminately, targeted journalists, pepper-sprayed bystanders in restaurants, and mass-arrested hundreds, including more than 500 Wednesday night – bringing the tally from the last three months of protest to a record Canadian high of more than 2,500. The endless night-time drone of helicopters has become the serenade song of a police state.