A philosophy professor who famously wore a panda costume to lighten the mood throughout last year’s Quebec student protests has found a new cause.
Anarchopanda, the unofficial mascot of the Quebec student strikes, has completed a fundraising campaign to contest fines levied against protesters in recent months.
More than $31,000 has been raised according to Anarchopanda — whose real identity is Julien Villeneuve, a philosophy professor at the College de Maisonneuve.
He became a local celebrity during the student strikes where, clad as the bamboo-munching bear, he peacefully marched with students, offered hugs to police, and spread the authority-resisting gospel of anarchism.
Although the strikes ended last year, the most committed core of protesters carried on this spring. First they fought the smaller tuition hikes introduced by the Parti Quebecois and, lately, have been contesting an alleged crackdown on civil liberties.
Villeneuve was detained last month and fined $637 for not respecting a Montreal bylaw that has become the focus of the civil-liberties dispute.
He is now fighting that local bylaw, P-6 — which bans masks at protests, and requires that an itinerary be submitted before any demonstration in Montreal.
The case challenging the constitutionality of the bylaw is set to resume in October before Quebec Superior Court.
Villeneuve says he has been pleasantly surprised by the amount collected in less than a month. That offers him some hope that he might be able to cover the legal bills if the case persists.
“Initially, I expected (to raise) $10,000,” he said. “But we will need more than that, especially if the city appeals.”
The most controversial provisions of P-6 came into existence in May 2012, at the height of the student strikes.
However, the Montreal police only started applying them systematically this spring. A motion to strike down the bylaw, introduced last month by an opposition party at city hall, failed.
Villeneuve said the bylaw gives too much arbitrary power to the police. That suspicion of power is consistent with the anarchist credo that inspired the name of Villeneuve’s mascot alter-ego.
“The executive (municipal body) and the (police) can declare any gathering of three or more people illegal,” he said.
“They apply it like they want — and that’s a problem.”
He said masks provide protection for people who, for whatever reason, might fear reprisals. The bylaw takes away their ability to demonstrate anonymously, he said.
Villeneuve also criticized the fines, which range from $500 to $1,000 for a first offence.
“How fast do you have to speed on the road to get that kind of fine?” Villeneuve asked, rhetorically.
He also criticized the police methods and the long hours protesters have had to wait before being processed, handcuffed and without access to water, food, or bathrooms.
The practice known as kettling — where police encircle protesters to limit their movement — has been widely used by the Montreal police.
“They could just take our addresses and mail us the fines,” he said. “Essentially, it’s repression to take away people’s desire to demonstrate.”
The bylaw was passed at a time that Montreal was on edge, with daily demonstrations occasionally devolving into street scuffles, blocked downtown traffic, smashed commercial windows, and transit interruptions.
Marvin Rotrand, a city councillor who voted in favour of the bylaw said he believes the public generally supports the bylaw and only a minority are fighting it.
“The people who are contesting are really taking an extreme position,” Rotrand said. “They (want to) have absolute rights and they don’t care how those absolute rights affect the rest of society.”
For Montreal councillor Alan DeSousa, one of the goals of the local bylaw was to leave police with an alternative to applying the Criminal Code and leaving people with a permanent record.
In the federal Parliament, the Senate is one vote away from passing Bill C-309 which would make it a criminal offence to wear a mask while taking part in a riot or an unlawful assembly while wearing a mask. The law would carry a maximum 10-year prison term in the case of a riot.
“In the absence of P-6, young people who wish to demonstrate would likely be subject to the Criminal Code, and as a result we would be criminalizing our youth,” he said.
Rotrand says other Canadian cities have similar bylaws. Police from Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto told The Canadian Press, however, that to the best of their knowledge they were unaware of any bylaw requiring a demonstration itinerary to be submitted beforehand.
A city spokesman later clarified that cities elsewhere in the world have similar bylaws.
The funds raised by “Anarchopanda” will be used to pay legal costs in two simultaneous cases: the constitutional fight against the bylaw, and the battle against the more than 1,000 tickets handed out.
Both of Villeneuve’s lawyers are working as volunteers on the constitutional case.
The money will help pay for assorted court costs such as service and interrogation fees, in that case, as well as the lawyer fees in the cases fighting the individual tickets.
“We will need to pay the lawyers’ salaries because these trials are going to last for a very long time,” Villeneuve said.
The fundraising campaign is just one of the many actions protesters have taken to oppose the bylaw. Last week, students and activists staged a mock preemptive arrest as a means of heaping scorn on the Montreal police’s recent use of mass detentions.
Police have moved in quickly at the start of protests lately and rounded up large groups to detain, process and fine them.
The protesters last week separated into two groups — with some dressed up as police, and others demonstrating — in an effort to mimic the actions of authorities.
Before the event began, some wondered: would the police kettle the kettle?
“The (Montreal police) doesn’t give away its strategies for each demonstration,” said Jean-Bruno Latour, a spokesman for the force, before the demonstration.
In the end, the demonstration remained peaceful and saw no intervention from the police.