Quebec students challenge Bill 78 in court

Lawyers for student federations and other groups appeared in a Montreal courtroom on Friday to file legal motions against Bill 78, the government law aimed at cracking down on student protests.
Student leaders address the media outside the Montreal courthouse after two motions challenging Bill 78 were filed. (Radio-Canada)

Lawyers for student federations and other groups appeared in a Montreal courtroom on Friday to file legal motions against Bill 78, the government law aimed at cracking down on student protests.

Bill 78 lays out strict regulations governing demonstrations of more than 50 people, including having to give eight hours' notice for details such as the protest route, the duration and the time at which they are being held.

The student groups, labour federations and a wide range of other organizations claim the law is unconstitutional and a violation of basic rights.

"We are doing this because we are genuinely worried that basic important rights such as freedom of association, freedom of expression and the right to hold peaceful demonstrations are being attacked," Leo Bureau-Blouin, leader of Quebec's college student federation, told a news conference outside the courtroom.

Besides the student and labour groups, others supporting the legal action include feminists, ecologists, artists and community groups.

Read the motions filed in Superiour Court (PDF, French only)

First motion

Second motion 

"We're happy we're not alone in this," said Martine Desjardins, head of the federation representing university students.

"We've seen from the outset that the population is behind us and, more than ever, people want to be able to exercise their right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to take part in peaceful demonstrations.

"This is a new step in the fight against tuition hikes."

The first of the two motions is expected to be heard next Wednesday and is aimed at obtaining a temporary suspension of the law.

The aim of the second motion is to have the entire law struck down.

Pressure on the system

In addition to challenges launched against Bill 78, the staggering number of student protest-related arrests in Quebec — 2,500 and counting — is about to add more costs and delays to an already overburdened justice system.

Some of the accused will face lengthy waits to actually get to trial, while others will encounter similar delays fighting their fines.

Some people will face the prospect of a criminal record that could hang over them for years.

In Montreal, where most of the marches have taken place, a spokesman for the director of criminal prosecutions says 53 cases are before the courts for criminal infractions since February 2012.

Three people were hit with criminal charges following rioting in Victoriaville at a recent Quebec Liberal party meeting and three other cases remain pending in that file.

But no criminal cases have been reported in the province's other major jurisdictions of Sherbrooke, Quebec City and Gatineau.

While there are no firm tallies, at least 2,500 people have been arrested and fined since the student demonstrations began three months ago.

Ticketing process unclear

But it's obvious many are unclear on the ticketing process. One exasperated defence lawyer told Twitter followers on Thursday not to call her in the middle of the night.

"We don't call legal aid, or a lawyer in the middle of the night because we were issued a ticket," tweeted Veronique Robert. "A little calm despite the context, please."

Some in Montreal have been charged under a new anti-mask bylaw that results in fines for demonstrators who cover their faces during public protests.

A Montreal civil rights lawyer says the anti-mask bylaw could be challenged as well.

Julius Grey says it's a good thing students are being ticketed and not charged criminally.

"I prefer them using this rather than using the Criminal Code because it doesn't create a criminal record for people," Grey said in a phone interview.

"A criminal record is an absolutely devastating thing, nothing is ever forgotten and 30 years later people will be coming up (listed) as a convicted criminal."

"I still think it's terrible but I think it's very important not to give criminal records to idealistic students."