Understanding the Montreal Protests

Since February, students in Quebec have been taking to the streets to say “no” to school fees increases that would raise the cost of university by 82%, or about $1,700.

The increase came amidst pressure to reduce a growing budget deficit, even though there is a strong sense in Quebec that quality higher education should be affordable for everyone (the province has historically adopted policies to keep the cost of higher education relatively low).

The planned fee increases were initially a popular move from the Liberal government. Over the course of the last several months, however, student protests have shut down universities and colleges, and it is estimated that about 1/3 of students in the Canadian province have been taking part in the movement. In spite of court injunctions to get students and teachers back in the classroom, the daily protests continued while the Quebec government persevered in its hardline approach.

On Tuesday, a massive protest took place in downtown Montreal. Hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets to express their discontent – this time, though, it was not to not to protest the proposed fee hike. Rather Montrealers of many stripes are taking to the streets to protest but the Quebec government’s rigid, confrontational stance; a newly enacted law, they fear, strips Quebecers of some basic civil liberties and free speech.

Downtown Montreal on Tuesday, May 23rd

Dominique Peschard, president of la Ligue des droits et libertés , a Quebec-based civil rights organization, spoke to UN Dispatch about the current situation.

“It’s a tense atmosphere”, he noted. While a “monetary conflict” was the beginning of the crisis, the months-long conflict has escalated. No longer is it just student groups and unions involved (though they continue to be the thrust behind the movement), but all kinds of social justice-minded groups are also taking part. Last Friday, though, was a “turning point” for the crisis according to Peschard, when the provincial government and municipal government quasi simultaneously passed legislation that restricts constitutionally-guaranteed fundamental rights: freedom of expression, of assembly, and, worryingly, of association.

The provincial government passed Bill 78, a law that allegedly seeks to restore students’ access to schools and universities. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, a national organization for the protection of civil rights, said that “Bill 78 drastically limits freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly rights in Quebec.  It puts in place a number of prohibitions that are at best tenuously linked with the goal of ensuring access to postsecondary education. Even those provisions that do directly address access to educational institutions are frequently overly broad, vague and discretionary.”*

Peschard from la Ligue emphasized the fact that, beyond restricting freedom to protest, the Bill specifically targets student groups and unions, and their freedom of association. This, he says, is precedent-setting – will the government restrict the freedom of association of other groups it disagrees with?

The municipal by-law passed on Friday, like the provincial law, uses vague and broad terms to define what a protest is (“any gathering, assembly or parade”) and makes any spontaneous action illegal. The by-law also forbids the wearing of a mask at a protest “without reasonable cause”, leaving it up to police to decide whether a scarf is a fashion statement, a way to protect oneself from the elements, or an illegal face covering.

Peschard notes that these new laws have further fueled anger – people are now in the streets to protest the government’s reaction to the student movement, and especially their discontent with Bill 78 . Following a Quebec professor’s Facebook invitation to take to the streets with pots and pans to create a “tintamarre” (literally, “hubbub”), hundreds – possibly thousands – of Montrealers have been doing just that.

Meanwhile, the Premier of the province has lost his chief of staff, and is increasingly perceived as disconnected, anti-democratic and scornful. It’s hard to say what happens next – student groups and the government will eventually need to negotiate an end to the crisis, but, in the mean time, Quebec is experiencing what has been termed the “worst social crisis” in its history.

*As regular readers may be aware, I work for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. As always, everything I write for UN Dispatch is strictly my personal opinion.

 Photo credit: Philmphoto: http://instagr.am/p/K8GBkeSCGs/