The Quebec legislature passed a special law to stop this spring’s protests late Friday afternoon as a crowd of legal experts lined up to say the legislation goes too far and contravenes fundamental rights.
Bill 78, which lawmakers debated during an all-night session after Premier Jean Charest’s government tabled it Thursday evening, sets multiple requirements on public demonstrations and threatens stiff penalties to people who disrupt college and university classes.
The legislation, which passed by a vote of 68-48, has a time limit, expiring on July 1, 2013. It wasn’t clear when the law would be signed into force by the lieutenant-governor.
While all of Quebec was debating the province’s emergency legislation, Montreal city council quietly passed a bylaw banning masks during protests.
Backed by Quebec’s powerful union leaders, student leaders targeted by the law said Friday they are contemplating a campaign of civil disobedience.
“The protests will continue and we are not excluding the possibility of disobeying the law. Sometimes when you are facing this kind of action, that is the only response,” said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the leader of CLASSE, the more militant of the three main student groups.
On Friday, the Quebec Bar Association warned that it had “serious concerns” about the law’s constitutionality.
“This bill, if adopted, is a breach to the fundamental, constitutional rights of the citizens,” the bar association president, bâtonnier Louis Masson, said in a statement.
“The scale of its restraints on fundamental freedoms isn’t justified by the objectives aimed by the government.”
He was referring to the bill’s most controversial elements:
* Section 16, which says that police has to be informed eights hours ahead of the time, duration and route of any demonstration by 10 or more people or more. (Friday morning the government appeared ready to increase that number to 25.)
* Section 17, which says that organizers, or even a student association taking part in the march without being its organizer, must make sure that the event complies with the parameters handed to police.
“The government is making it harder for people to organize spontaneous demonstrations. It is a limit on freedom of speech,” Mr. Masson said.
Legal scholars also gave Bill 78 a bad review.
“Read it. Stunned. Can’t believe that a democratic government can adopt such a law,” tweeted law professor Louis-Philippe Lampron, a Laval University expert in human rights.
Another Laval law professor, Fannie Lafontaine, had concerns about sections of the legislation which aim to prevent protesters from barring other students from attending school.
* Section 13 and 14 say that no one can “directly or indirectly contribute” to delaying classes or denying access to them.
* Section 15 says student associations must employ “appropriate means” to induce their members to not directly or indirectly disrupt classes.
* Section 25 threatens fines of up to $125,000 to groups that contravene the bill.
Prof. Lafontaine, a penal-law specialist, said those sections are too broadly defined while at the same time they are twinned with stiff penalties.
“The students are told to take `appropriate means’ and we don’t know what this implies, to `induce’ members to comply, so there’s an obligation to get results . . . this doesn’t work in law. You can’t have offences that are written so vaguely they’re impossible to respect,” she said.
Bill 78 was tabled after three months of chaotic, sometimes violent, demonstrations as students protest the government’s planned university tuition-fee hikes.
As the standoff dragged, events have taken increasingly ugly tones, with accusations of police violence during riots, journalists being assaulted by some demonstrators and students who tried to attend classes being forced out by others.
“In times of crisis, all governments tend to restrain fundamental rights and history shows that excessive restrictions don’t help restore order,” Prof. Lafontaine said.
“It’s too bad because now it’ll be up to the courts to rectify this. What a waste. It’s just throwing oil on fire.”
Labour leaders joined the student movement to blast the law Friday.
Louis Roy, who represents most of the province’s teachers, said his members have worked hard to keep peace during 14 weeks of boycott and protest.
“They’re disgusted,” said Mr. Roy, president of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux. “They will not be collaborating in any kind of police action. They are not going to become some kind of police squad for the provincial government. We are very close to having a government ready to trample on fundamental rights.”
Added Réjean Parent, the president of the Centrale des syndicats du Quebec: “This law is worthy of a banana republic.”
The bill also removes the legal requirement for colleges to deliver 82 days of classes to complete a session, giving colleges the flexibility to re-organize their schedule in order to have students to finish this session. The government this week suspended classes in 14 of the province’s 48 colleges where strikes were still continuing as well in certain departments and faculties in 11 of the province’s 18 universities.
Student associations reacted immediately, announcing they will challenge the bill in the courts. A major demonstration being planned for next Tuesday in Montreal.