What's the big deal about Bill 78? Quebec's "truncheon law" explained

Thursday, May 31, 2012

This article has been reposted from IFEX. Read the original article here.

A ban on demonstrations within 50 metres of a college or university. Protests of 50 or more people must submit their intended route to police eight hours in advance. Severe fines for those who don't comply. Sounds like laws used to quell the Arab Spring uprisings, eh? Guess again.

This is a new law in Canada, or more specifically the province of Quebec, which has been embroiled in a tuition hike crisis turned protest movement for nearly four months. Here, the "IFEX Communiqué" lays out exactly what all the fuss is about, and why the new law is a free expression nightmare.

What is Bill 78?

Quebec's legislature has voted in favour of an emergency law - unprecedented in recent Canadian history - aimed at diffusing tensions in the 14-week tuition hike crisis.

Bill 78 suspends the current school year at institutions affected by strikes; imposes stiff fines for anyone who disrupts classes or tries blocking access to a school; and limits where, how, and for how long people can protest in Quebec.

When did it get passed?

On 18 May, the bill was pushed through at a special all-night session of Quebec's National Assembly, by a vote of 68-48. The legislation has a time limit, set to expire on 1 July 2013.

Also of significance: while Quebec was debating the province's emergency legislation, Montreal city council quietly passed a bylaw banning masks during protests.

What was the rush?

Bill 78 was introduced after three months of occasionally violent, student-led strikes and protests against the government's most recent proposal to raise tuition fees by $1,778 - approximately 75 percent - over seven years, starting this year.

This might not seem like much of an increase, but according to University of Montreal professors Laurence Bherer and Pascale Dufour writing in "The New York Times", "not only are [Quebec students] already in debt… but 63 percent of them work in order to pay their university fees."

As the standoff dragged on, events became violent, with accusations of police attacks during riots, journalists being assaulted by demonstrators and police, and students forcing out other students who tried to attend classes.

According to independent news site rabble.ca, some 160,000 students are on strike - approximately 35 percent of the post-secondary student population in the province.

What's so draconian about it?

Bill 78, becoming known as the "truncheon law", imposes severe restrictions on someone's right to protest, namely:

• Police must be notified of protests involving 50 or more people at least eight hours in advance, including the itinerary, duration and time at which they are being held.
• Police are authorised to change the planned protest route or location, with protest organisers required to notify all participants.
• Protest organisers will be personally penalised if individual protesters do not comply with the parameters handed to police. Student associations and unions (including members working in colleges and universities) are also liable for any damage caused by a third party during a demonstration.
• Offering encouragement for someone to protest at a school, either tacitly or otherwise, is subject to punishment.
• Protesters must be 50 metres away from any campus building.
• Fines of between $1,000 and $5,000 will be handed to any individual who contravenes the law. Penalties climb to between $7,000 and $35,000 for a student leader and to between $25,000 and $125,000 for unions or student federations, as well as seizure of union dues and the dissolution of their associations.

How have students and protesters reacted?

With more protests, of course. The law also seems to have galvanised Quebec citizens who may not have been supportive of the students, but do not like seeing their right to protest taken away. Across Quebec every night thousands are joining so-called "casserole protests" against Bill 78, banging pots and pans in the thousands on the streets and off balconies in a practice originally used in protest against oppressive Latin American regimes.

One of the biggest demonstrations to date happened in Montreal after the bill's passage on 22 May, the 100th day of the student strike. Organisers estimate the protest drew 250,000 people, many of whom intentionally flouted the law by wandering off the pre-announced path.

Backed by Quebec's powerful union leaders, student leaders such as CLASSE, the more militant of the main student unions, said they are contemplating a campaign of civil disobedience. CLASSE has also created a website on which thousands have posted photos of themselves opposing the law.

Some of the student groups are now challenging Bill 78 in the courts, while hundreds of lawyers joined an evening demonstration against the law in Montreal on 28 May.

However, just this week, the government and students are back at the negotiating table. Outside the Quebec City meeting place, police arrested 84 people for illegal assembly. Among those hauled away: a mascot in a banana costume.

What does Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) say?

CJFE fiercely denounced the legislation, saying that the bill gives the police "excessive authority" and is "a serious infringement on citizens' rights to freedom of expression, protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

"Although not everyone may agree with the opinions of protesters, their right to protest must be protected - because it is our right, as well," CJFE asserted.

How about other critics?

Besides many of the student groups, Bill 78 has been condemned by three of four opposition parties in Quebec's legislature, labour unions and other rights groups like Amnesty International for being an affront to civil rights, an overreaction and purposely vague.

The 24,000-member Quebec Bar Association warned that it had "serious concerns" about the law's constitutionality.

The leader of the official opposition Parti Québécois, Pauline Marois, called the law "abusive". She accused Quebec's leader Jean Charest of being tough on the students in order to make political gains as he prepares for the next election campaign.

James L. Turk, the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, called Bill 78 "a terrible act of mass repression" and "a weapon to suppress dissent."

Even international activist collective Anonymous weighed in on the "draconian" legislation via Twitter, warning "Expect us".

Has the law been used yet?

Yes. So far, reports are that Bill 78 has been primarily used by police across the province as a pretext to break up illegal protests.

For instance, police invoked the new law to declare a night-time student protest held in Montreal on 22 May illegal for not seeking permission beforehand, then used tear gas and batons to disperse the crowds. According to Montreal police, none of the 113 people arrested were for violating Bill 78, but were for wearing a mask or committing acts of violence while resisting the police's dispersal.

But in Sherbrooke, the city that Charest represents in the legislature, police arrested 36 people on 21 May and charged them under Bill 78 for taking part in an unauthorised protest.

But aren't the protests violent? How else to quell them?

Like many large protests, there is a small minority of troublemakers who have added violence to the mix. The Quebec journalists' union FPJQ has documented numerous instances of journalists being attacked by protesters, and even by police.

CJFE points out that the acts of vandalism and violence are already punishable under other laws, and that "the acts of a select few should not be used to justify taking away the rights of the collective."

Since the beginning of the student strike, leaders have told protesters to avoid violence. Protesters even condemned the small minority of those among the demonstrations who threw objects at the police.

I don't live in Quebec. What can I do?

Avaaz has organised a petition that has already collected more than 50,000 signatures demanding that the law get repealed. Sign it here.