“It’s a declaration of war on the student movement,” said Martine Desjardins, leader of the FEUQ. “They’ve just told the young people that everything they have done, everything they have created as a social movement for 14 weeks will now be criminal.”
“It’s a bill designed to kill the student associations, but also to silence an entire population…. This law is far worse for freedom of expression than the 75% increase in tuition fees might be for accessibility to education,” said Léo Bureau-Blouin, leader of the FECQ.
Bill 78, tabled late in the evening last night by Quebec’s Liberal government, is draconian legislation. Here are its main provisions, which as I write are still being debated in the National Assembly after an all-night session.
- It suspends the academic sessions in all colleges and universities affected by the student strike. They will resume in August, and the scheduled fall sessions will be postponed to begin in October.
- It forces professors — most of whom have supported the students — to report to work by 7:00 a.m. on August 17 and to resume teaching. All staff must, as of that date, perform all normal duties “without stoppage, slowdown, decrease or alteration in his or her normal activities,” and must not engage in any “concerted action” in violation of these clauses.
- It prohibits any attempt, by act or omission, to prevent access by anyone to an educational institution which he or she has the right or duty to access.
- No picketing that might inhibit such access may be held within 50 metres of the institution.
- It virtually bans demonstrations for the next year. Organizers of demonstrations, it says, must tell police how many demonstrators will be involved (!) and their intended route at least eight hours before the demonstration begins, and must comply with any police order to change the location or route. Student associations will be held collectively liable for any damage caused to a third party as a result of the demonstration.
- Violations of these provisions will be punished by fines of between $7,000 and $35,000 for each leader, employee or representative of a student association. The associations as such may be fined between $25,000 and $125,000, with double these fines for repeat offenses. Individual offenders may be fined $1,000 to $5,000 per day.
- Student associations deemed responsible for any disruption of courses within an institution may be deprived of their check-off of dues from student fees, as well as their premises and facilities, during one semester for every day of such disruption.
With this law, Quebec is “sliding toward authoritarianism,” said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, co-spokesman for the CLASSE, the major student association that represents about half of the strikers. This is a law that “challenges fundamental liberties” and “recognized constitutional rights,” he added.
Pointing to the bill’s attack on the rights of association, demonstration, and speech, Opposition leader Pauline Marois compared the bill with the federal War Measures Act, used by Trudeau to jail hundreds of Québécois in October 1970. Premier Charest, the PQ leader said, “has no further moral authority or legitimacy to govern.”
Amir Khadir, the Québec solidaire member of the National Assembly, attacked Charest for constructing “a police state around the academic community and threatening all those who work in education with his judicial, police and financial bludgeons.”
“This is a dark day for Quebec,” said QS president Françoise David. “Tonight we solemnly appeal to the student movement, the popular movement, the committed artists, the socially responsible lawyers and jurists, the trade unions, the parents worried about the escalation in violence, to put up a determined and concerted resistance in order to make this law unworkable….”
Earlier in the day, leaders of the FEUQ and FECQ held a news conference accompanied by Marois, Khadir, and other MNAs in a last-minute appeal to the government to negotiate in good faith with the students. Significantly, they were joined by Laurent Proulx, a leader of the “green squares,” a student group that has initiated many of the anti-strike injunction proceedings in the courts. He said his “movement of socially responsible students” supported the position of the former head of the Quebec Bar, who had publicly called for mediation, not a special law, to resolve the tuition fee protest.
Also attending the news conference was Robert Michaud of the “white squares for social peace” movement, formed by concerned parents in the aftermath of the extreme police violence in repressing a pro-student demonstration in Victoriaville early in May.
However, their efforts to head off Charest’s repressive legislation have failed. It now remains to be seen whether these forces can respond to the law with the “concerted resistance” that Françoise David calls for.
The mass demonstration planned for next Tuesday, May 22, in Montréal will be an early opportunity to initiate this defiance.