Quebec Passes Law to Curb University Student Protests

Protests over the rise in higher education tuition fees in Quebec planned to be phased in over the next five years have been ongoing for several months, despite receiving minimal press south of the Canadian border. Some Quebecois commentators have expressed befuddlement that the largest demonstration in Canadian history has received little coverage outside their own borders. Mainstream commentators occasionally express amusement that the ‘tuition hikes’ (which even after the five year doubling has been completed will see students pay less than $4,000 a year in tuition) are generating so much protest amongst the students.

However, the situation in Montreal is unamusing for the masses of people caught up in the rallies, occasional traffic chaos and economic disruption caused by the protests. In response the ongoing demonstrations Montreal passed a new law on May 18, Bill 78, which restricted people’s right to demonstrate. This has only swelled the student movement with liberty advocates angry at the new law which makes it illegal for protestors to gather without giving the police eight hours notice and securing a permit.

Wednesday night saw another demonstration, immediately declared illegal by the police, which eventually saw police kettling groups of protestors and making 500 arrests — which followed 100 arrests last Tuesday.

Martine Desjardins is president of the federation of university students in Quebec and said that last Wednesday’s march had been peaceful.

“It makes a lot of people angry,” she said. “We fear that tonight, because there will be more demonstrations going on, people will become a bit more violent, because as you saw yesterday, when you are peaceful, you get arrested.”

While lawmakers were understandably anxious after 100 days of protests and the resulting disruption, the new draconian law may only serve to swell the protestors ranks as the fight becomes not only against student fees but individual liberty. Organizers said there were 300,000 people at the protest on Tuesday where 100 were arrested. There is also a significant risk that the largely peaceful protests will become much more violent as the movement spreads beyond the student population.

One of the people arrested on Wednesday, Magdalena, told of her experience:

 “We were commenting how in good spirits we were, how everyone seemed in such great energy. There were families, children, women with strollers, which you don’t necessarily see at the night protests as much,”

She said that at one intersection the pace slowed dramatically and then there was a smell of tear gas and smoke followed by people  suddenly running around in chaos.

We turned around and there was already a line of cops behind us. We tried to go on the other side but then there was cops there too.

She relates what happens during her kettling, which many UK students already know is an unpleasant process. They are kept huddled in a tight impenetrable ring for an hour or more and then arrested and kept detained on a bus for hours with no access to toilet facilities. Magdalena was eventually given a ticket for $634 which she plans to contest.

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