Students and at least one Quebec legislator are contemplating a campaign of civil disobedience after two pieces of legislation widely condemned as attacks on liberty became law.
The National Assembly cracked down on student protests with an emergency law that includes measures requiring demonstrators to inform police of protest plans and strictly follow them, to stay far away from campuses and to avoid disrupting classes, or face heavy fines.
As the 21-hour, overnight debate ended with approval, Montreal city council banned masks from protests – another highly controversial move overshadowed by the provincial crackdown.
A student protest and boycott over tuition hikes, which began as little more than a traffic and classroom nuisance Feb. 13, culminated Friday with province’s passage of a law one scholar described as the worst attack on Canadian freedom since the War Measures Act. In the intervening weeks, an education minister resigned, demonstrations turned into riots, dozens were injured and jailed, and thousands of students – some 35 per cent of their ranks – have boycotted or been blocked from attending college and university classes.
The protest has evolved into something more than a fight over tuition. Young protesters often complain about their dismal employment prospects, government corruption, or environmental policy. Government minister Clément Gignac called the student action an insurrection. Critics accuse Premier Jean Charest of taking a hard line that is nonetheless popular, thereby improving his still-dismal odds of re-election in the next year or so.
Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier said the legion of critics condemning the law as an attack on freedom were using “grandiloquent and excessive” words.
“They speak of freedom of association; they were silent on the right to education,” Mr. Fournier said. “The goal of this law is to bring respect and calm back to our society after weeks of trouble.”
Student groups, unions, opposition politicians, a host of legal scholars, the Quebec Human Rights Commission, right-wing and left-wing commentators, and the normally restrained Quebec Bar Association blasted the provincial law as an assault on the right to speak and assemble freely.
“This bill infringes many of the fundamental rights of our citizens. The basis of a democracy is the rule of law. We must respect the law. We must also respect fundamental freedoms, like the freedom to protest peacefully, the freedom of speech and the freedom of association,” bar association president bâtonnier Louis Masson, said in an interview.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the more militant of three main student leaders, was joined by MNA Amir Khadir of the left-wing Québec Solidaire as he suggested a campaign of civil disobedience may be necessary.
“This is a bludgeon law imposed by an illegitimate, corrupt government,” Mr. Khadir said. “I call upon all citizens to respect the laws. But we have to ask ourselves the question: Must we obey a law that takes away fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution? Can we be justified to disobey?”
Meanwhile, Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay said his mask ban is only intended to help police identify troublemakers during protests.
“It’s time we took back control of our streets,” Mr. Tremblay said. Asked if he had any concerns about abuse, he said “the guarantee is the experience, competence, discernment of our police officers.”
Assurances the new laws would be used with care were little comfort to legal scholars, who said the provincial legislation would never survive a challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (The law expires July 1, 2013, so it’s unlikely to get to the Supreme Court before the best-before date.)
Lucie Lemonde, a law professor at Université du Québec à Montréal, said Friday that she was stunned by how far the bill reaches, including a requirement to report to police in advance of any public demonstration over 50 people (up from 10, as the bill initially required.)
“It’s the worst law that I’ve ever seen, except for the War Measures Act,” said Prof. Lemonde, referring to the notorious federal law imposed in Quebec in 1970 after the Front de libération du Québec kidnapped and killed political figures and ordinary citizens.
Fannie Lafontaine, a penal-law specialist at Université Laval, said several sections are too broadly defined while at the same time they are twinned with stiff penalties, up to $5,000 for individuals and $125,000 for groups.
“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.”
“Despite calling the bill “disgusting” and “abusive,” opposition leader Pauline Marois urged the students to abide by it. Defying the law would play into the hands of the Premier, who is looking for the first opportunity to crack down on protesters, she said.
Should the Parti Québécois form the next government, Ms. Marois said the law will immediately be repealed.
Protesters planned demonstrations for late Friday night. It was not clear if they would abide by the rules, or if police would immediately impose them.
With reports from Tu Thanh Ha and The Canadian Press