Quebec Adopts Emergency Law To End Tuition Crisis

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Woman crying in front of a wall of Surete du Quebec riot squad police officers as they advance to remove striking students at the College Lionel-Groulx.The Canadian Press Images-Mario Beauregard
Woman crying in front of a wall of Surete du Quebec riot squad police officers as they advance to remove striking students at the College Lionel-Groulx.The Canadian Press Images-Mario Beauregard

Quebec's legislature has voted in favour of an emergency law aimed at cooling tensions in the 14-week tuition hike crisis.

After debating the special legislation overnight Thursday, members of the national assembly (MNAs) voted 68-48.

The legislation calls for heavy fines for students and their federations, and strict regulations governing demonstrations, following months of social tension and protests that made international news.

Critics lined up to assail the law as an affront to civil rights, an overreaction, or ill-considered improvisation.

Thousands of people took to the streets in Montreal and Quebec City late Friday night to protest the bill's passage.

Even international activist collective Anonymous weighed in on the "draconian" legislation via Twitter, stating simply "Expect us."

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.

For some legal experts the law violates rights — while opposition leaders have called it "abusive."

"It's the worst law that I've ever seen, except for the War Measures Act," said law professor Lucie Lemonde, referring to the notorious legislation imposed in Quebec during the 1970 FLQ crisis.

"We knew something was coming, but I didn't think they would use it to change the rules of the game in terms of the rights to demonstrate," said Lemonde, who teaches at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQÀM).

The law attacks an individual's rights to freedom of expression, association and conscience, she said.

The head of the Quebec Bar Association, Louis Masson, said Bill 78 violates constitutional rights, including freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate peacefully.

The law also creates many roadblocks to organizing a peaceful demonstration, and presents "so many risks that an honest citizen practically will not go there."

However, there were grumblings from some members of the bar that not all Quebec lawyers are opposed to the law.

Student groups promised to launch a court challenge against Bill 78 next week.

The law is designed to expire in July, 2013.

Critical reception

The Opposition has been extremely critical of the bill, pounding on the Charest government during the lengthy debate.

Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois calls the law "abusive" and promised to repeal it, if her party is elected to power in the future.

"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."

Student leaders were also quick to denounce the bill soon after initial details of the legislation were released.

"This is actually a declaration of war against the student movement and not only against the student movement, but it restricted the liberty of speech, the liberty of association," said Martine Desjardins, president of university student group FEUQ.

It was among several protest-related developments in Quebec on Friday as Montreal adopted a new, municipal anti-mask bylaw.

Bill 78 summary

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.

Public demonstations involving more than 50 people have to be flagged to authorities eight hours in advance, include itinerary, duration and time at which they are being held.

Police can order the protest move to a different spot.

Offering encouragement for someone to protest at a school, either tacitly or otherwise, is subject to punishment.

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