Posted by: kaleidophonic | May 20, 2012

Quebec’s new Bill 78: Silencing Dissent

Hello friends. Today I’m going to take some time to blog about something very important and serious that is happening here in my city, Montreal.

Many of you have probably been following the events of Quebec’s Printemps d’érable (Maple Spring), specifically the massive student strike that is now in its 14th week. Tuesday the 22nd of May will be the 100th day of the strike.

The students here are striking for a variety of reasons, and while the mainstream media continues to characterize the dispute as a simple matter of tuition fees (which the provincial government wants to increase), the fact is that while the tuition thing might have been the catalyst for the movement, it is, in reality, about so much more. It’s about access to education, its about questioning austerity, it’s about the fact that the younger generation feels that their (our) futures as successful, financially stable members of society is teetering on the brink. In this respect, the student movement here is also consciously a part of the wider Occupy movement which has been challenging austerity measures and capitalist greed across the world. (For more on what the Quebec student movement stands for, check out this and this.).

The students have been putting more and more pressure on the government, hoping to force the Premier, Jean Charest, back to the bargaining table. But in the face of government arrogance and a seeming inability to fully comprehend what is happening here (Mr. Jones…), the government has become increasingly repressive. Police in full riot gear is a daily sight. Protests and marches happen almost daily. Yes, there has been violence. But while some of the violence is coming from a small fringe element in the student strike, most of the institutionalized violence is being perpetrated by police who are resorting to chemical gas and rubber bullets without much concern for the consequences. Just last night the SPVM were caught on tape pepper-spraying the patrons of a sidewalk café, for no apparent reason.

(This video is a compilation of actions of police violence perpetrated against student protesters).

While news sources are quick to report when someone throws a molotov cocktail or smashes a storefront window, they seem all too quick to turn a blind eye to the police brutality. And let me be very clear here: the violence perpetrated by demonstrators is (for the most part) a tiny, tiny, fraction. For example, on Friday, after the government announced it will be enacting a new law that bans demonstrations of 50 or more people (more on that in a minute), there was a huge protest march downtown. The national broadcaster reported that 10,000* people hit the street, and of that number, 4 people were arrested. These four people, and their actions, represented the bulk of the news story, but when you do the math, 4 out of 10,000 is only 0.04%. The media is trying to paint the entire movement as populated by violent anarchist thugs, so of course they  focus on this tiny fraction. 0.04% is insignificant. But the stakes are high, and the mass media wants the general public to turn against the protesters, so 0.04% becomes a majority, and people are duped into believing that this movement is violent. [*note: the original story posted to the website has been modified, and the original number of 10,000 has been revised to read “thousands strong”.]

It is in this atmosphere that the provincial government, after an entire night of deliberation, passed Bill 78. [read the text of an earlier draft of the bill here. I havn’t been able to find the revised version which was passed on Friday]. The bill bans any protest larger than 50 people, unless the organizers give the police 8 hours notice and promise to keep the protest to a pre-determined course. This course may not come within 50 metres of a college or university. People found in violation of this rule will be subject to fines, of which the minimum is $5000. $5000!!! Add to that a new bylaw passed by Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay, which prohibits the wearing of masks or other things that might disguise your face (such as a bandana, often worn to protect from tear gas), and we have some serious repression going on.

The powers that be are trying their best to silence dissent, to stifle what is a vibrant expression of our democratic rights of freedom of speech and freedom of association. Many civil liberties groups (incl. Amnesty International) have already begun the process of challenging this new rule, arguing that it is in violation of the rights guaranteed under both the Canadian and the Quebec Charters of Rights and Freedoms. Many prominent citizens, even many who may not have been sympathetic towards the students, have decried the measures as dangerously anti-democratic, and unconstitutional. But the fact remains that in the brave new world of Quebec under Bill 78, at least for the time being, political dissent and social dissonance is being violently silenced.

Longtime Montréal Mayor Jean Drapeau.

Now, I might have a unique perspective on all this, as a historian of Montreal. Charest’s Bill 78, which he argues should restore social peace in the city, reminds me of a similar law that was passed during the 1960s. In 1967, Montréal Mayor Jean Drapeau passed a municipal bylaw that banned all demonstrations. The context for this draconian measure was complex, but in a nutshell Drapeau (who maintained an iron grip on municipal politics for almost 20 years) was gearing up to host Expo 67 (the 1967 International Exhibition), and was increasingly concerned about vocal protest movements (notably the student movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement) besmirching the socially sanitized image that he hoped to present to the world.

This law was eventually overturned as unconstitutional, and was also a colossal failure. The years following the 1967 protest ban saw some of the worst social unrest this city has ever seen: a 1968 Saint-Jean Baptiste riot that led to a ban on St. Jean parades; a police strike and riot that resulted in the city calling out the army to occupy the streets of Montreal, and eventually led to the creation of the Montreal Riot Squad (under the consultation, interestingly enough, of the same riot squad that was held responsible for the police riot at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention); the McGill Français movement which was one of the biggest protests in Canadian history; and, lest we forget, the October Crisis, when the Prime Minister of Canada enacted the War Measures Act, which suspended civil liberties across the nation and allowed authorities to round up hundreds of people in what was (until the recent Toronto G-20 debacle) the biggest mass arrest in Canadian history.

Jean Charest could use a history lesson. Drapeau’s protest ban only inflamed tensions in the city, and Charest’s Bill 78 will likely only do the same. What’s more, the draconian nature of the law has upset and angered many citizens who weren’t involved in the student movement, but who may now begin to understand what the students have been trying to communicate for four months now: that our government is arrogant, corrupt, and completely uninterested in listening to the legitimate concerns of its citizens. That our government is repressive, undemocratic, and will perpetuate violence to protect its own interests. That you, my dear Quebecker, have become public enemy number one.

I am enormously concerned about the precedent this law sets, despite my conviction that it will eventually be deemed unconstitutional. You should be concerned too. I urge you to write to your MP, write to your local newspaper, talk to your friends and neighbours about the implications of such a gross violation of our democratic rights. Sign this petition. And, if you are sick of being silenced, and want your freedom cry to be heard, I urge you to come out this Tuesday, May 22, and demonstrate your opposition to Bill 78 by marching with your fellow citizens. Yes, this will be in direct violation of the law. Yes, I am risking fines and sanctions by suggesting you do this. But as a wise person once said, the only thing that is needed for evil to flourish, is for good people to stand idly by and do nothing. Lets take over our streets and raise our voices together in a joyful, clamorous noise, shattering this callous imposition of silence. I hope to see you there.


  1. Thank you for this post!

  2. Small correction: it’s 8 hours’s notice, not 8 days. Still, the law is horrid. Thanks for this well-written perspective on the situation.

    • thanks jonathan – I’ll make a change to that line.

  3. […] the arguments and explanations about Quebec’s Printemps d’Erable. I already did so in my last post, which has been read by over 200 visitors to this blog in the last two days (!!!). To those of you […]

  4. […] in my last post I wondered where the movement here in Quebec would go, after Tuesday’s massive march through downtown Montreal. In that post I mentioned a text message I received that evening, about […]

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