Quebec’s repressive response to student protests

by Eric Kupka

As reported here previously, the Liberal provincial government of Quebec is imposing a sharp rise in university and college tuition over the next seven years. This sparked massive demonstrations by students and their supporters throughout the spring and summer, some of which have attracted over 300,000 protesters.

However, Quebec Premier Jean Charest remained unmoved during the protests, and ultimately responded by having the National Assembly pass Bill 78, now Law 12, known in the sanitized language of the legislation as “An act to enable students to receive instruction from the post-secondary institutions they attend.”

Despite its name, the law is much more about silencing and repressing protesters than enabling students to attend class. It prohibits any gatherings in school buildings and on school grounds, and within 50 meters of the outer limits of school grounds, which “could result” in denying students access to classes. It also requires all organizers of demonstrations involving 10 or more people to give advance notice to local police of the demonstration’s date, time, venue, route and duration, and allows the police to unilaterally order a change in venue and route. A violation of these provisions could result in a $1,000 to $35,000 fine for individuals, or a $25,000 to $125,000 fine for organizations.

Bill 78 has been criticized by the Quebec Bar Association and the Canadian Association of University Teachers, among others. A law professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal called it the “worst law” that she has seen since the invocation of the War Measures Act in 1970, which brought Canadian troops onto the streets of Montreal.

Student associations brought a legal challenge against Bill 78, on the basis that it infringes on constitutionally-protected rights such as freedom of expression. An early attempt at an interim injunction against implementing the law failed, although the case remains before the courts.

Quebec has long been admired for its so-called ‘social-democratic’ character – unique in North America and exemplified by its low post-secondary tuition rates. With the Liberals now attempting to shift the province closer to the continent’s neo-liberal mainstream through its tuition hike plan, outsiders have been inspired to see the Quebecois rise en masse to defend their progressive gains — conquests of the nationalist movement in the 1960s.

Socialists stand with the students and workers of Quebec and demand an immediate repeal of Law 12, and cancellation of the planned tuition hikes. We back the call of the leftist Québec Solidaire party to eliminate all university and college tuition fees.