J. D. Heyes
May 24, 2012
America has some warts, no doubt, but it’s hard to beat our Bill of Rights, which everyone knows includes the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and freedom to assemble peacefully. While Canada has no such document, the country still has a reputation of supporting such rights. So a new piece of legislation from the Quebec legislature, aimed at curbing peaceful protests, is a dramatic departure from the country’s history of tolerance and democracy.
The legislation, called Bill 78, seeks to mitigate protests this spring over higher education costs. It would impose new limitations and multiple requirements for public demonstrations, while threatening stiff penalties for anyone disrupting college and university classes, the Globe and Mail reported.
Oddly enough, the law – which, as of this writing, was waiting to be signed by the lieutenant governor of the province – has a shelf life; it would expire July 1, 2013. Considered a piece of emergency legislation, the bill aims to curb protests ahead of the government’s planned university tuition fee hikes.
A litany of civil rights abuses
Here are some of the law’s provisions:
- Sections 13 and 14 say no one can “directly or indirectly contribute” to delaying classes or denying access to them;
- Section 15 requires student associations to use “appropriate means” to ensure their members don’t disrupt classes, either directly or indirectly;
- Section 16 says police must be informed eight hours prior to the start of any planned demonstration by more than two dozen people, and that authorities must be given any routes said demonstration will take;
- Section 17 says organizers of protests, including student associations taking part in said protests without actually organizing them, have to make sure all marches or protests fall within parameters laid out with police in advance;
- Section 25 threatens fines as high as$125,000for groups that violate provisions of the bill.
Emergency legislation indeed — it sounds more like democracy is in crisis in Quebec because the government is blatantly trying to shield itself from the anticipated backlash over one of its own policies.
Earlier, the Quebec Bar Association said it was harboring some serious concerns about the law.
“This bill, if adopted, is a breach to the fundamental, constitutional rights of the citizens,” said batonnier Louis Masson, the association’s president.
“The scale of its restraints on fundamental freedoms isn’t justified by the objectives aimed by the government,” he added. “The government is making it harder for people to organize spontaneous demonstrations. It is a limit on freedom of speech.”
In a tweet, law professor Louis-Philippe Lampron, a Laval University expert in human rights, said, “Read it. Stunned. Can’t believe that a democratic government can adopt such a law.”
Other legal minds say provisions of the law are so broad as to be interpreted in any number of equally onerous ways.
Civil disobedience may be the only answer
“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,” another Laval law professor, Fannie Lafontaine, said.
She too sees the bill as little more than a draconian attempt by a cowardly government to protect and defend its own policy decision.
“In times of crisis, all governments tend to restrain fundamental rights and history shows that excessive restrictions don’t help restore order,” she told the paper. “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.”
Some student groups said if the law stands they will have no choice but to disobey it.
“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 – a more militant student organization.
In the meantime, student groups said they will challenge the law in court.
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This article was posted: Thursday, May 24, 2012 at 3:04 am