Quebec’s protest crackdown: It’s not just rights that make it wrong

The problem up until now has been a lack of enforcement, not a lack of legislation


Ryan Remiorz/CP Images

If you’ve listened to some of the commentary about Bill 78, emergency legislation purportedly designed to deal with the out-of-control student protests in Quebec, you’d assume the government has thrown a match onto a powder keg.

Some may have hoped that in the midst of its massive, ongoing failure to deal with the protests these past few months, the Charest government might finally turn the corner by passing a law to settle things down. This was sadly – though somehow not surprisingly – optimistic. Apparently no one knows how to sour a lemon like Jean Charest.

Legal experts and critics have pounced on the bill to declare, with all the subtlety of a window-smashing tuition-phobe, that it represents “mass repression” and constitutes “the worst law since the War Measures Act.” One student leader declared the bill “an act of war.” Such rhetoric is about as helpful as smoke bombs in a metro station.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some obvious Charter of Rights problems with this law. One of the worst provisions, which would have treated as guilty anyone who by “omission” or “encouragement” helps or induces a person to contravene elements of the bill, has reportedly been removed.

Another section requires anyone organizing a demonstration of more than 10 people (now amended to more than 50) in a “venue accessible to the public” to report the date, time, duration, and venue to the police at least eight hours ahead of time.

As Andrew Coyne has pointed out on Twitter, many other jurisdictions in the rest of Canada, the United States and Europe have similar reporting requirements. But these often apply to events like planned marches on public streets. Canadian courts are unlikely to find the very broad language here acceptable. Not all public demonstrations are public disruptions, nor are all publicly accessible spaces equal: it may be a reasonable restriction on freedom of assembly to require reporting and impose other limits on street protests. Imposing the same limits on demonstrations in parks or empty fields may not meet the threshold of reasonableness.

Many commentators have also expressed displeasure at the harsh fines in the bill but there’s no reason to believe the penalties themselves lack constitutionality.

Does the bill, even after amendments, overreach? Possibly. The language is too vague in some places, and a reverse-onus clause in the section dealing with the civil liability of student groups and institutions might be a problem. Does the bill compare to the War Measures Act? Not even close.

But in several important respects, the potential Charter issues aren’t the main reason this bill represents a major failure on the part of the Charest government.

First, the bill does nothing to address the lawlessness that has characterized tactics used by certain elements of the protest movement. All of these activities – flagrant defiance of court injunctions, violence, vandalism, intimidation and assault – were already illegal. The problem up until now has been a lack of enforcement, not a lack of legislation.

Second, by casting its net so wide, the bill threatens to criminalize the largely peaceful activities of a majority of the protesters. Given the current climate, this is a bad idea.

Third, the bill cancels (okay, technically it postpones) remaining classes. For people who blandly titled a bill “An Act to enable students to receive instruction from the postsecondary institutions they attend,” I think the policy geniuses in Quebec City have an inappropriate flair for irony.

Finally, the bill encourages the protesters, media and critics to continue to frame the story as the Quebec state versus the right to protest. Such a narrative provides only a partial picture of the debate and of the rights that have been trampled during this saga. The majority of students in Quebec have not joined the protests; rather, they have sought to continue their classes. They have that right, or at least they did, until the government of Quebec failed to protect it

Emmett Macfarlane is a political scientist at the University of Victoria. You can follow him on Twitter @EmmMacfarlane


Quebec’s protest crackdown: It’s not just rights that make it wrong

  1. So what if they dress in drag?

  2. Could be coming to Ontario soon, so we’d best figure it out.

  3. If you look at the age of the protesters, these are the first wave of kids raised the Quebec’s public childcare program. I don’t think that is a coincidence. Maybe we should look at the root causes of this kind of behavior rather than cracking down.

    • Heh…I really don’t think you can blame this on daycare.

  4. The only part I needed to read: “Victoria”

    Explains why youre so out of touch with whats going on.

    Back to your humus and coloured auras you go…

    • Humus and coloured auras? Are you calling me a hippie? You REALLY didn’t read the post, did you…

    • You might have done better to not read any of it.

      • Emmett’s analysis is one of the best I’ve read,

  5. failure +
    corruption = Charest

  6. Jesus H Christ! The problem is this new law is only a half measure. People don’t want to say it but what we need is The War Measures Act, Part Deux. Reporters are being bullied and assaulted, student just trying to get the education they are paying for are being harrassed, having thier classes broken into and disrupted. Smoke bombs in the subways, and violence in the streets. Is it going to take someone getting killed to wake people up?

    • A bunch of spoiled, obsessive compulsive attention seekers, plus their lunatic friends and aquaintances, holding the rights of other students wanting to get on with their education, hostage. Now we Michael Moore etc. getting on the bandwagon in order to cash in on a little cheap publicity. The whole thing has turned into a bloody media circus. The inmates are indeed running the assylum.

  7. Written by a conservative obviously.

  8. I love it that the rest of Canada has an opinion on Quebec. LOL.

  9. This whole mess is a farce. Only 1/3 of the students voted for the protest. The way the media addresses it, you would think they are all out on strike. Not the case. Students have reacted in a childish manner. They are damaging properties, being violent, etc. and smoke bombing our metros, setting fires, opening hydrants. Ridiculous. Police are holding back, if anything. But as a citizen of Montreal who works in a University, what about my rights being violated? Am I not allowed to get to work without worrying about being smoke bombed? Can I not cross the street without some ahole student lighting a firecracker right behind me to make me think I got shot? Can I not go about my business without getting scared by aggressive students in masks breaking car windows? There is much I don’t like about Quebec, including Bill 101. But if pulled any of the tactics the students are now doing, I would be in jail – exactly where they should be. It is not only the students marching. As a matter of fact I bet most involved are rebels looking for a cause. People from the 60s looking to reenact their youth. Unemployed, who are bored. Spare me. Grow up. Universities are for MATURE people. And while I am at it, let us not forget that when tuition increases were first proposed over a year ago, the students walked away from the table. Now they want to negotiate, except their definition of negotiation is give me everything I want. I am not making any concessions. People should have the right to protest. People should not have the right to cripple my city and my rights. It is high time the world takes notice and listens to the truth.

    • Get out of Quebec… This place is so dangerous anyway… The army should go there to take care of those MEAN STUDENTS…


      1 ) Tu ne racontes rien de valable. 99% des étudiants qui manifestent ne sont pas violents.
      2) Tu es excessivement peureuse, les étudiants n’ont jamais blessé de civil… Et ne le feront pas.
      3) Ce n’est pas ”ta ville” mais bien celle de l’ensemble des Québécois. Ces même Québécois qui tentent de protéger leur culture et leur racine francophone, alors arrêtez un peu avec la ”méchante loi 101”.

      Sans vouloir vous offenser, vous ne faites que contribuer à la désinformation. Se qui se passe au Québec est beau et révolutionnaire.

      ”Quebec: The most corrupt province – Canada –”

      But when students go in the streets and try to change that, it is not good?!

      You just hate Quebec, thats it!

      Stop that Quebec Bashing…

      I have nothing against the rest of Canada but we will never think the same way. You are individualist and we think in terms of community, society.

      Forgive me in advance for the grammatical errors, english is not my first language, and will never be.