Quebec's new anti-demo law raising rights concerns

Quebecers want the student strike over but are increasing unhappy with the new emergency law, opinion polls suggest. Laval University's Louis-Philippe Lampron explains why.

Polls say Quebecers want the student strike over but unhappy with the new emergency law

Montreal and Quebec police arrested almost 700 student protesters this week as the demonstrations against the proposed tuition hike turned more intense.

The student protests that have rocked Quebec for the last three months took a harsher turn this past week following the passage of Bill 78, a set of emergency laws intended to break the long-lasting strike and re-open Quebec's classrooms. 

Planned increases in tuition were the driving force behind the initial demonstrations. But this new clampdown by the Jean Charest government — which saw almost 700 demonstrators arrested in this past week alone — has changed the nature of the protest in many ways to concerns about free speech and police powers.

Many observers have suggested there is broad public support for the government's new law, and indeed an initial poll by CROP for La Presse newspaper found nearly 66 per cent approved.

But a recent survey by Leger Marketing has found support for Bill 78 dropping quickly to 51 per cent as details of the new law emerged.

Louis-Philippe Lampron is a human rights professor at Laval University Faculty of Law in Quebec City. A close observer of the protests, he spoke to CBC News about the latest demonstrations and the implications of Bill 78. The interview has been edited and condensed.

CBC News: What was Bill 78 intended to accomplish?

Louis-Philippe Lampron: Two main things, in fact. It's the consecration of the government position since the beginning of the student conflict, and this position could be summarized as there being no right to strike for the student associations.

Laval political scientist Louis-Philippe Lampron. (Laval University website)

The first part specifically prohibits the student associations or anyone else to block access to a university or colleges. This part of Bill 78 will be enforced in August because right now sessions are suspended. There are pretty hard fines if you try to block access to universities or colleges when the session will begin again.

There is as well a problem with freedom of expression, the right to demonstrate, and there are two main concerns here.

The main problem would be the prohibition on student demonstrations inside a perimeter of 50 metres of the universities or "fields," not just the buildings but you wouldn't be able to hold a demonstration in parking lots of the universities or colleges.

You would have to hold those manifestations, those demonstrations, at least 50 metres off the property of the universities or colleges and that could cause problems for downtown Montreal. 

For now, the main sections that are to be enforced are sections 16 and 17 that concern any type of manifestation. This is the section that forces any organizer of a demonstration to indicate a planned route at least eight hours before the beginning of a demonstration.

There is major concern about the right to hold spontaneous demonstrations like there was before.

Are the protesters ignoring that requirement?

I guess so. The problem is how can you identify the organizer of a spontaneous demonstration.

During the debates, the education minister said that police could look at Twitter accounts to see if one person is at the initiative of a spontaneous demonstration.

If this demonstration doesn't comply with Bill 78, this person could be sanctioned under section 16.

Has Bill 78 been used yet?

The main reason as to why Bill 78 hasn't been applied by police yet is that, first of all, they don't need Bill 78 to deal with problems during demonstrations.

They have a very large arsenal of legislation, let's say criminal law or municipal law against the wearing of masks or the route for driving vehicles and stuff like that.

Secondly, the fact that so many groups, like the Canadian Association for Civil Liberties, issued a press release where they specifically identified potential problems that Bill 78 could cause in regard to the Charter.

I wrote a letter published in [the Quebec City newspaper] Le Soleil. This open letter has been backed by 60 law professors and faculty members.

There are a lot of groups protesting against the constitutionality of Bill 78 so I guess that maybe police are not at ease with the applicability of Bill 78 and they prefer to use other legislation.

Do you think Bill 78 was needed or is it unnecessary?

That's a good question. I would say that any law that implies massive restrictions to human rights is not desirable.

Quebec student leaders address the media after two motions to dismiss Bill 78 were filed in a Montreal court on Friday. (Radio-Canada)

They shouldn't be adopted, in fact. When we're talking about massive violations, we're talking about the violations of the right to demonstrate, the freedom of expression, which are specifically protected by the Quebec Charter and the Canadian Charter.

We're talking about violations of freedom of association. We're also talking about potential violations of freedom of conscience of teachers because Bill 78 forces teachers at the beginning of the next session in August to teach even if there are only two students in their classroom.

They don't have the right to decide that the context is not good, the learning context. They have to teach and Bill 78 is forcing them to do that.

Does the general population in Quebec favour the legislation?

There are a lot of groups that are voicing their concerns about human rights violations. The fact that the day after the adoption of Bill 78 there was this monster demonstration, around 200,000 people in the streets of Montreal, Quebec City.

There's a general disapproval of Bill 78, but people are, I think, in a large way favorable of the government decision to go forward.

So they favor the spirit of the law but they believe this bill goes too far?

Yes, they favour the government position about the increase in tuition fees, so they would be in favour of the spirit of the bill to say "the game is over" and that there is no negotiation anymore.

But the content of the bill, I would say they are not in favour of that because it's too harsh. It's hitting too hard and largely on human rights.

Do you consider this an echo of the War Measures Act?

I think it is a dangerous precedent. But I wouldn't compare it to the War Measures Act because there's still the right to have access to courts, which were not part of the War Measures Act at first.

I would say that the general context of the negotiation with the government and the student associations was so — I wouldn't say weird — I think this law is enforcing a governmental position that is going against the social consensus of 50 years about the right of student associations' to strike, and that fact is concerning a lot of people.

A special law is always aimed at restricting rights in a special context, but right now the government is trying to present this law as a law that has a main objective that promotes human rights and access to education.

I think this is pretty pretty dangerous because it is attempting to instrumentalize human rights.

When you're talking about human rights, you have to take them as a whole, you have to take the charters, including the rights of freedom of association and freedom of expression.

It's pick-and-choose at the moment. So this law places a restriction on a lot of human rights and there are a lot of problems and it will be contested.

What future do you see for the student protest movement?

Since Bill 78, the manifestations, the demonstrations in Montreal, are not about the student movement anymore. They are about Bill 78.

If the government survives, if they or another government goes forward with the validity of Bill 78, I guess for the next few weeks there will be constant demonstrations against Bill 78.

As for the survival of the student movement, I think we'll have to wait and see in August when the sessions will begin again, when we reboot the winter sessions and finish it in August. We'll have to wait and see.