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A member of the Montreal police tactical squad returns to Station 72 in Montreal Monday, March 17, 2003 after finishing his shift. Police officers are refusing to wear their uniform pants as a pressure tactic during contract negotiations. (CP PHOTO/Ryan Remiorz)

RYAN REMIORZ/The Canadian Press

Donning a garish costume does not a clown make. Perhaps the Montreal police service's goofily clad rank-and-file have finally noticed no one's laughing.

The city's cops, embroiled in a year-long labour fight with the city and province over pensions, recently turned up for crowd and traffic control at a solemn occasion – Jacques Parizeau's funeral – sporting plaid fatigues, pink camouflage pants and knee-high striped socks. It was a classless affront.

Now comes word their union has grudgingly agreed to a formal request to wear regulation uniforms (regulation, that is, other than their bright red union baseball caps) at another upcoming civic memorial, this time for the late mayor, Jean Doré. How generous.

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The city shouldn't have to ask politely. It should be able to order uniformed public servants to wear their uniforms while on the job. It's something large numbers of Quebec police and emergency workers have refused to do, for months, as part of this pension dispute. But whether the cops deign to wear sober vestments – as they did for Jean Béliveau's funeral in December – is only partly relevant. The real problem with the protest has to do with who is involved, and how.

These are not office workers at a private company, sitting at some anonymous desk. They are the representatives of state power, entrusted with the government monopoly on violence. They carry guns, and when they go to work and put on that uniform – or, as the case may be, refuse to wear the uniform – they are symbols of the law.

Police and other essential services are forbidden by law from going on strike, but collective bargaining disputes shouldn't provide a licence to deface city equipment – in Quebec, pro-union stickers cover many police vehicles, fire trucks, ambulances, buses, and subway trains – and turn entire working days into a protest over working conditions.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said after Mr. Parizeau's funeral that it's time for a provincial law forcing police officers to wear their uniforms. He's right. The joke has gone on long enough.

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