MONTREAL (CN) – Faced with months of student protests against tuition increases, Quebec passed an emergency law limiting public demonstrations and subjecting violators to fines of up to $125,000 – a law which students denounce as unconstitutional.
Quebec’s provincial government passed Bill 78 on May 18, to take immediate effect. Ostensibly designed to force students back to class to finish the term, Bill 78 spurred more protests as student unions and attorneys called it unconstitutional.
Sections 16 and 17 of the 10-page bill states that police must be notified in writing no less than 8 hours before a demonstration involving 50 people or more, and must be informed of the date, time, duration, and route of the demonstration. If police demand a change of route or venue, “The organizer must then submit the new venue or route to the police force within the agreed time limit and inform the participants.”
Organizers or student groups who participate in the demonstration must ensure that events comply with the information given to police or groups can be fined up to $125,000, and an individual, if he or she is “an employee or a representative, including a spokesperson” of a group, may be fined up to $35,000.
Theoretically, then, demonstrators allowed to gather on a sidewalk could be fined $160,000 if one of their spokesmen steps onto the grass.
Lawmakers said the bill, which expires on July 1, 2013, is meant to end the chaotic confrontations at Quebec universities and colleges, between students who tried to establish picket lines and those trying to return to class.
Under section 14 of Bill 78: “No one may, by an act or omission, deny a person access to a place if the person has the right or a duty to be there in order to obtain services from or perform functions for an institution.”
That section, opponents say, violates citizens’ rights to peaceful protest.
Students have clashed with police this month as authorities sought to enforce court injunctions for classes to resume.
While incidents of violence have decreased, the number of demonstrators has risen, and now includes Quebeckers who favor the tuition hikes, sending the message that the issue is no longer solely about tuition.
On Monday, 500 to 700 attorneys and notaries in formal black robes marched in silence from the Montreal courthouse to Place Émilie-Gamelin in downtown Montreal, in defiance of the bill, intersecting with other protestors who cheered them on.
Tuesday night saw a smaller crowd of about 200 marching downtown to mark the 36th consecutive demonstration. Police called it illegal because organizers failed to provide an itinerary.
In the past week, protesters have taken to banging pots and pans outside their homes every night at 8 o’clock, a nod to a form of protesting originating from Spanish-speaking countries used as a method of drawing attention to a cause.
With the lucrative tourist season fast approaching, politicians seek a resolution with student unions, some of whom have allegedly threatened to disrupt the Formula One Grand Prix and other summer events.
Annual tuition at Quebec colleges is $2,519 a year. The proposed increase of 10 percent, or $254, would be phased in over 7 years.