Saturday, May 26, 2012

Quebec's 'Truncheon Law' Rebounds as Student Strike Spreads

Quebec's 'Truncheon Law' Rebounds as Student Strike Spreads


    A draconian law to quell demonstrations has only

    galvanised public support for young Quebecois

    protesting tuition fee hikes


by Martin Lukacs


Guardian (UK)

May 24, 2012


At a tiny church tucked away in a working-class neighbourhood

in Montreal's east end, Quebec's new outlaws gathered on

Sunday for a day of deliberations. Aged mostly between 18 and

22, their membership in a progressive student union has made

them a target of government scorn and scrutiny. And they have

been branded a menace to society because of their weapons:

ideas of social justice and equal opportunity in education,

alongside the ability to persuade hundreds of thousands to

join them in the streets.


Under a draconian law passed by the Quebec government on

Friday, their very meeting could be considered a criminal act.

Law 78 - unprecedented in recent Canadian history - is the

latest, most desperate manoeuvre of a provincial government

that is afraid it has lost control over a conflict that began

as a student strike against tuition hikes but has since spread

into a protest movement with wide-ranging social and

environmental demands.


Labelled a "truncheon law" by its critics, it imposes severe

restrictions on the right to protest. Any group of 50 or more

protesters must submit plans to police eight hours ahead of

time; they can be denied the right to proceed. Picket lines at

universities and colleges are forbidden, and illegal protests

are punishable by fines from $5,000 to $125,000 for

individuals and unions - as well as by the seizure of union

dues and the dissolution of their associations.


In other words, the government has decided to smash the

student movement by force.


The government quickly launched a public relations offensive

to defend itself. Full-page ads in local newspapers ran with

the headline: "For the sake of democracy and citizenship."

Quebec's minister of public security, Robert Dutil, prattled

about the many countries that have passed similar laws:


"Other societies with rights and freedoms to protect have

found it reasonable to impose certain constraints - first of

all to protect protesters, and also to protect the public."


Such language is designed to make violence sound benevolent

and infamy honourable. But it did nothing to mask reality for

those who have flooded the streets since the weekend and

encountered police emboldened by the new legislation. Riot

squads beat and tear-gassed people indiscriminately, targeted

journalists, pepper- sprayed bystanders in restaurants, and

mass-arrested hundreds, including more than 500 Wednesday

night - bringing the tally from the last three months of

protest to a record Canadian high of more than 2,500. The

endless night-time drone of helicopters has become the

serenade song of a police state.


In its contempt for students and citizens, the government has

riled a population with strong, bitter memories of harsh

measures against social unrest - whether the dark days of the

iron-fisted Duplessis era, the martial law enforced by the

Canadian army in 1970, or years of labour battles marred by

the jailing of union leaders. These and other occasions have

shown Québécois how the political elite has no qualms about

trampling human rights to maintain a grip on power.


Which is why those with experience of struggle fresh and old

have answered Premier Jean Charest with unanimity and

collective power. There are now legal challenges in the works,

broad appeals for civil disobedience, and a brilliant website

created by the progressive CLASSE student union, on which

thousands have posted photos of themselves opposing the law.

(The website's title is "Somebody arrest me" but also puns on

a phrase to shake a person out of a crazed mental spell.)


And Wednesday, on the 100th day of the student strike,

Québécois from every walk of life offered a rejoinder to the

claim that "marginals" were directing and dominating the

protests: an estimated 300,000-400,000 people marched in the

streets, another Canadian record, and in full violation of the

new law. They brandished the iconic red squares that have now

transformed into a symbol not just of accessible education but

the defence of basic freedoms of assembly and protest. Late

into the night, a spirit of jubilant defiance spread through

the city. On balconies along entire streets, and on

intersections occupied by young and old, the sound of banging

pots and pans rang out, a practice used under Latin American regimes.


The clarity that has fired the students' protest has, until

now, conspicuously eluded most of English- speaking Canada.

This is because the image of the movement has been skewed and

distorted by the establishment media. Sent into paroxysms of

bafflement and contempt by the striking students, they have

painted them as spoiled kids or crazed radicals out of touch

with society, who should give up their supposed entitlements

and accept the stark economic realities of the age.


All this is said with a straight face. But young people in

Quebec, followed now by many others, have not been fooled.

They know the global economic crisis of 2008 exposed as never

before the abuses of corporate finance, and that those

responsible were bailed out rather than held to account. They

know that meetings of international leaders at the G20 end by

dispatching ministers home to pay the bills on the backs of

the poorest and most vulnerable, with tuition hikes and a

toxic combination of neoliberal economic policies. And with

every baton blow and tear-gas blast, they perceive with ever

greater lucidity that their government will turn ultimately to

brute violence to impose such programs and frighten those who dissent.


To those who marched Wednesday, and the great numbers who

cheered them on, the fault-lines of justice are evident. This

is a government that has refused to sit down and negotiate

with student leaders in good faith, but invites an organised

crime boss to a fundraising breakfast; a government that has

claimed free education is an idea not even worth dreaming

about, when it would cost only 1% of Quebec's budget and could

be paid for simply by reversing the regressive tax reforms,

corporate give-aways, or capital tax phase-outs of the last

decade; a government whose turn to authoritarian tactics has

now triggered a sharp decline in support, and which has

clumsily accelerated a social crisis that may now only begin

to be resolved by meeting the students' demands.


As the debate went on at the CLASSE meeting in the church last

Sunday, the students' foresight proved wise beyond their

years. "History doesn't get made in a day," one argued into

the microphone. Not in a day, no doubt, but in Quebec, over

this spring and the summer, history is indeed being made.




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