POLITICS

Masked Protesters Banned From Montreal Demonstrations By City Bylaw

05/18/2012 10:41 EDT | Updated 07/18/2012 05:12 EDT
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QUEBEC - The Quebec government brought down the legislative hammer Friday on troublesome protest, introducing a historic-but-controversial emergency law aimed at restoring order in the province.

Following months of social tension and student protests that made international news, and after a legislative debate that spanned a full night, morning and afternoon, the national assembly voted 68-48 in favour of legislation to set temporary limits on protest.

It was among several developments Friday as Montreal also adopted a new anti-mask bylaw, while three of the four people accused of smokebombing the city's subway system were released on bail.

A shared theme in each of those events was the common approach to quelling potential troublemakers: fiscal strangulation.

There are new fines of up to $3,000 for wearing a mask at a Montreal protest, and pricey bail conditions for the accused metro attackers, and they pale in comparison to some of the wallet-crushing penalties laid out in the emergency legislation adopted in Quebec City.

Critics lined up to assail the law as an affront to civil rights, an overreaction, or ill-considered improvisation. They called it a dark day in the province's history, with one law professor even comparing the law to the now-defunct War Measures Act.

Student groups promised to launch a court challenge next week. And the subversive international group Anonymous, describing the law as draconian, offered a cryptic warning to the Quebec government: "Expect us."

Still, the Charest government stuck to its defence of Bill 78. It said it would protect the right to peaceful protest, while introducing dozens of measures aimed at ensuring streets and schools return to normal.

The new law is based on three main pillars: it pauses the current school year at institutions affected by strikes; imposes steep fines for anyone who tries blocking access to a school; and limits where, how, and for how long people can protest in Quebec.

The law is designed to apply for only a year, and then expire. But that hasn't assuaged the chorus of criticism since it was tabled Thursday night.

Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois promised to scrap the legislation as her very first gesture as premier, if she wins an expection expected within a year.

She also promised to limit tuition hikes to the rate of inflation for as long as Quebec has lower university enrolment than the national average.

One thing she did not do is encourage more rowdy protest. Marois urged students to avoid trouble — and to channel their energy toward the ballot box, not the street.

"The darkest moment always comes before the light," Marois said in the moments before the vote.

"It will be time to change the government soon."

In the debate before the vote, the government replied that the PQ had already demonstrated in recent months that it would be swayed by mob rule, not by sound policy, if it won power.

"The street would govern the government," said Public Safety Minister Robert Dutil.

He then accused Marois of fomenting student anger in recent months: "You can't complain about the heat of the fire when you've been the one stoking it."

The legislation provides for fines of between $1,000 and $5,000 for any individual who prevents someone from entering an educational institution. Penalties climb to between $7,000 and $35,000 for a student leader and to between $25,000 and $125,000 for unions or student federations.

Bill 78 also lays out strict regulations governing demonstrations, including having to give eight hours' notice for details such as the itinerary, the duration and the time at which they are being held.

Under the legislation, police can order the protest moved to a different spot.

Even offering encouragement for someone to protest at a school — either tacitly or otherwise — is subject to punishment.

Amid the torrent of criticism, a portion of the bill was amended to increase the number of people allowed to participate in an organized gathering, from 10 to 50.

Education Minister Michelle Courchesne, less than a week in her new position, raised more than a few eyebrows by mentioning that tweets from the social network website Twitter could also be considered as encouragement to protest.

When asked to clarify, she said she would leave it up the police's discretion to deem what was within the limits of the law. It remains unknown whether "re-tweeting" a potentially illegal message could also land others in hot water.

In a statement made Friday morning, the Quebec Bar Association expressed serious concerns about the bill, calling it excessive. While there were other complaints from within the legal community, the sentiment was not unanimous and some reacted more favourably to the bill.

But the most audible reaction was negative — ranging from ridicule to downright fury.

Predictably, a coalition of unions and student associations vented their anger Friday, describing Quebec as a "totalitarian state": "This law is guided by the aggressiveness, anger and revenge of the Liberal party," said the president of the FTQ, Michel Arsenault.

Less predictably, the legislation was also being mocked and attacked by those not at all associated with the cause of striking students.

The chamber of commerce in Gatineau, Que., released a tongue-in-cheek description of its logistical plans for an upcoming event that featured an "assembly of more than 10 people." It concluded the letter with a joke, asking police to inform them how many officers would be present so that they could prepare the appropriate number of hors d'oeuvres.

And a populist TV host better known for ranting against student protests was suddenly supportive, to a certain extent: "I'm stuck in an insane asylum, and the guards are as crazy as the patients. Help!!!" tweeted Richard Martineau, a host on the LCN network.

The law pauses the current academic session for striking students — less than one-third of Quebec post-secondary students. At the affected institutions, the current session resumes in August, and the fall one begins in October.

The current dispute began, in earnest, with the budget tabled by the Charest Liberals more than a year ago.

It was in that budget that the government first announced plans to hike tuition fees by more than 75 per cent over several years. While the increase will still leave Quebec with some of the lowest rates in the country, the issue has flared into a clash of ideologies.

The government says it wants the heavily indebted province to reform its fiscal model. It wants to progressively relieve the burden on those in the province who pay high personal-income taxes — among the highest in North America — onto the broader public.

When he introduced the university hikes last year, Finance Minister Raymond Bachand also cited examples like electricity rates and hunting licences as examples where more Quebecers needed to pitch in for the services they used.

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