Our Not-So-Friendly Northern Neighbor
By Laurence Bherer and Pascale Dufour, New York Times, May 23, 2012
Laurence Bherer and Pascale Dufour are associate professors of political science at the University of Montreal.
When Vladimir V. Putin first came to power in Russia, Quebecers could not help but laugh. Poutine, as he is called in French, is also the name of a Québécois fast-food dish made of French fries, gravy and cheese. But these days the laughter is over, as Quebec gets a taste of Mr. Putin’s medicine.
For a change, Americans should take note of what is happening across the quiet northern border. Canada used to seem a progressive and just neighbor, but the picture today looks less rosy. One of its provinces has gone rogue, trampling basic democratic rights in an effort to end student protests against the Quebec provincial government’s plan to raise tuition fees by 75 percent.
On May 18, Quebec’s legislative assembly, under the authority of the provincial premier, Jean Charest, passed a draconian law in a move to break the 15-week-long student strike. Bill 78, adopted last week, is an attack on Quebecers’ freedom of speech, association and assembly. Mr. Charest has refused to use the traditional means of mediation in a representative democracy, leading to even more polarization. His administration, one of the most right-wing governments Quebec has had in 40 years, now wants to shut down opposition.
The bill threatens to impose steep fines of 25,000 to 125,000 Canadian dollars against student associations and unions — which derive their financing from tuition fees — in a direct move to break the movement. For example, student associations will be found guilty if they do not stop their members from protesting within university and college grounds.
During a street demonstration, the organization that plans the protest will be penalized if individual protesters stray from the police-approved route or exceed the time limit imposed by authorities. Student associations and unions are also liable for any damage caused by a third party during a demonstration.
These absurd regulations mean that student organizations and unions will be held responsible for behavior they cannot possibly control. They do not bear civil responsibility for their members as parents do for their children.
Freedom of speech is also under attack because of an ambiguous — and Orwellian — article in Bill 78 that says, “Anyone who helps or induces a person to commit an offense under this Act is guilty of the same offense.” Is a student leader, or an ordinary citizen, who sends a Twitter message about civil disobedience therefore guilty? Quebec’s education minister says it depends on the context. The legislation is purposefully vague and leaves the door open to arbitrary decisions.
Since the beginning of the student strike, leaders have told protesters to avoid violence. Protesters even condemned the small minority of troublemakers who had infiltrated the demonstrations. During the past four months of protests, there has never been the kind of rioting the city has seen when the local National Hockey League team, the Canadiens, wins or loses during the Stanley Cup playoffs. The biggest demonstration, which organizers estimate drew 250,000 people on May 22, was remarkably peaceful. Mr. Charest’s objective is not so much to restore security and order as to weaken student and union organizations. This law also creates a climate of fear and insecurity, as ordinary citizens can also face heavy fines.
Bill 78 has been fiercely denounced by three of four opposition parties in Quebec’s Legislature, the Quebec Bar Association, labor unions and Amnesty International. James L. Turk, the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, called Bill 78 “a terrible act of mass repression” and “a weapon to suppress dissent.”
The law will remain in force only until July 1, 2013. The short duration says it all. It amounts to a temporary suspension of certain liberties and allows the government to avoid serious negotiations with student leaders. And it grants the authorities carte blanche for the abuse of power; just hours after it passed, police officers in Montreal began to increase the use of force against protesters.
Some critics have tried to portray the strike as a minority group’s wanting a free lunch. This is offensive to most Quebec students. Not only are they already in debt, despite paying low tuition fees, but 63 percent of them work in order to pay their university fees. The province has a very high rate of youth employment: about 57 percent of Quebecers between the ages of 15 and 24 work, compared with about 49 percent between the ages of 16 and 24 in the United States.
Both Quebec and Canada as a whole are pro-market. They also share a sense of solidarity embodied by their public health care systems and strong unions. Such institutions are a way to maintain cohesion in a vast, sparsely populated land. Now those values are under threat.
Americans traveling to Quebec this summer should know they are entering a province that rides roughshod over its citizens’ fundamental freedoms.
A little leaven, to these words from French political scientists, teaching at the University of Montreal.
1) Comparing the Quebec bill 78 to Russia's Putin, is somewhat over the top.
2) There have been fourteen weeks of uninterrupted protests by student demonstrators, against a hike in tuition fees, without a negotiated, mediated or arbitrated resolution.
3) While the premier and Quebec government have shown poor political judgement, there is no question that these protests will neither bring about a lowering of the proposed hike in tuition, although the government has indicated it will be prepared to stretch the time frame for implementation to seven from five years, mitigating the impact of the fee hike.
4) There are, undoubtedly, political activists, including provincial labour unions, as well as national labour unions who are attempting to manipulate this "social protest" into a full-scale political attack on Premier Charest and his government, a government that has proven some considerable lack of sound judgement in not calling, for example, for a Public Inquiry into the patronage in the construction industry in Quebec, while select individuals are being arrested for their activities allegedly involving relationships with politicians and public projects.
5) There is also a separatist party, waiting not so far in the wings, for a provincial election, in which they hope to wrest power from the Liberals, and enact their agenda for a sovereign state in Quebec and there is no reason to think that some of these people would not be inciting protesters to keep up their fight with the government by taking to the streets.
6) With over 2000 arrests already, there is considerable risk to someone (or more than one) being injured seriously or even killed, given the size of the protest crowds on both the streets of Montreal and Quebec city, and at that point, all talk of tuition fees will disappear in the face of what could be termed a potential insurrection, at which time the federal government could be called to restore order.
7) The political views of the writers of the New York Times piece might well include considerable active opposition to the current government, and clearly, aligning themselves with the students could also be considered a slightly self-interested position.
8) Some writers outside Quebec have dubbed the students, "the Greeks" of Canada, for their self-indulgence and their pettiness in resisting what most agree are needed funding reforms to the Quebec university system, as most universities in Canada, a publicly funded system.
While attempting to control public demonstrations, 'after the horse has left the barn,' the Quebec government may have lost control of the situation, and forced the city police in both Montreal and Quebec city to bear the brunt of the conflict in their daily, nightly and even hourly confrontations with the protesters, when their leaders and supervisors have urged them to exercise wise discretionary judgement in when and how they act when dealing directly with the protesters.
This is a boiling cauldron, that, with a single spark of violence, no matter how it originates, resulting in serious injury or death, will escalate beyond even the expectations and wishes of both sides, and unravel to the detriment of all parties, including the maintenance of order and good government, at the heart of the Canadian constitution.