The Québec conflict over access to higher education and the refusal of the embattled Liberal party government of Jean Charest to compromise the principal of a major increase in fees has reached a critical point. With the adoption by the Québec National Assembly of controversial legislation, Bill 78, that most of the legal establishment and civil rights experts in Québec view as a constitutional violation of the charter rights of freedom of thought, freedom of expression and communication and freedom of peaceful assembly the government has crossed a rubicon of sorts.(See the excerpt from the Charter below)
The populist mass circulation newspaper le journal de Montréal has headlined ”Loi Matraque” on its front page complete with a photo of a woman police officer dressed in riot gear holding a baton as marchers walk by. Québec has a dark history when it comes to civil liberties . This is a province which elected many times the authoritarian politician Maurice Duplessis who adopted the notorious padlock act which civil rights experts like Pierre Trudeau and F.R.Scott and others fought courageously until they were able to get the law overturned in the courts. It was the Duplessis reign of abuse of civil rights that drew Trudeau into politics and led to the creation of the constitutionally entrenched charter of rights of which Canadians are so justifiably proud.
The new bill 78 is regrettably worthy of Duplessis because it gives police the power to decide which speech acts and private communications can be considered indirectly contributing to violations of the law which prohibit demonstrations or marches of more than fifty persons, even if peaceful from taking place without prior 8 hour notice, detailed description of the route and permission of the authorities. The law and the government’s advocacy of it has pandered to the commonplace authoritarian impulse in societies to suppress dissenting minority opinion about key social and economic questions.
The student movement in Québec has also made errors in its handling of its advocacy. This is not surprising for youth. And possibly the student movement has been infiltrated by some extremists and agents provocateurs. The rights granted by the charter are for peaceful assembly. Violence and intimidation are absolutely unacceptable.
In my view the dispute should be subjected to mediation and this law which if it can be subjected to the courts without delay will be found unconstitutional.It may well help Premier Charest in the polls but it is a terrible price to pay for this ephemeral advantage.
1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.
2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
(a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
(d) freedom of association.