Canada has no “freedom of assembly” in its Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It has a “freedom of peaceful assembly.” The distinction means everything in the context of the student unrest in Quebec. An element of intimidation and physical threat has been part of the demonstrations over planned tuition increases for the past 14 weeks. There have been serious outbreaks of vandalism and violence, and student leaders have made no attempts to do anything about them. The Quebec government of Jean Charest has a duty to bring the province under control, and the law it has proposed would, with some tweaking, be a fair and constitutionally permissible means of doing so.
The students and their leaders have behaved outrageously. Only all-out victory will satisfy them. Thus, they are not partners for negotiations. They demand their constitutional rights be protected, as if their rights were absolute, yet they have no compunction about trampling on the rights of others.
This week, a marauding band of more than 100 protesters, many of them wearing masks, roamed through the law school at the University of Quebec at Montreal looking for classes to break up. To the students inside, this was experienced as an invasion. Law students at that school had obtained a court injunction to prohibit protesters from blocking the doors to the school. Yet they were menaced when they tried to exercise that right. This is lawlessness.
The province has a duty to ensure that students who wish to attend class may do so without menace. The proposed law to keep protesters 50 metres away from any campus building is not much different from court orders that protect the safe access of patients and doctors to abortion clinics. (If 50 metres is too long, the distance could be shortened to make sure campus protest is still possible). An eight-hour requirement of notice to police of any protest over a certain size may be a bit long, in that it would make Twitter- or Facebook-inspired spontaneous gatherings impossible. But a certain amount of notice to give police time to put in place the personnel to protect the people and businesses along demonstration routes makes sense.
For a variety of reasons, the existing laws haven’t been up to the challenge of protecting the rights of students to attend class. Quebec, like any other jurisdiction in Canada, doesn’t want its police trying to shut down protests, because it respects free speech.
Quebec needs a cooling-off period (the proposed law would last till next summer) and a framework within which peaceful assembly, safe streets and the freedom to attend class can coexist. The students seemed to be making the dangerous point that a takeover of the streets and campuses can force government’s hand. Mr. Charest’s worthy response would defend democratic decision-making.