Quebec is no stranger to authoritarianism. In 1970, the only peacetime declaration of martial law in Canadian history came as a result of Quebec's FLQ crisis. From 1937 to 1957, the province's Padlock Law allowed the government to close properties and incarcerate people found to be involved in the propagation of "Communism or Bolshevism" - concepts which weren't defined in the law - until it was struck down as unconstitutional. In the 1930s Adrien Arcand, one of Canada's most prominent fascists, operated out of Montreal.
So it wasn't particularly surprising when I heard that the National Assembly passed a bill that, in small but significant part, hews back to these traditions. Though Bill 78 is primarily concerned with things like preventing the forcible denial of peoples' access to educational institutions, there is one clause buried within it that goes rather broadly beyond the current student crisis. Because, you know, there ain't nothin' you can't justify if you first hitch it up to the maintenance of peace, order, and public security.
PROVISIONS TO MAINTAIN PEACE, ORDER AND PUBLIC SECURITY
16. A person, a body or a group that is the organizer of a demonstration involving 10 people or more to take place in a venue accessible to the public must, not less than eight hours before the beginning of the demonstration, provide the following information in writing to the police force serving the territory where the demonstration is to take place:
(1) the date, time, duration and venue of the demonstration as well as its route, if applicable; and
(2) the means of transportation to be used for those purposes.
The police force serving the territory where the demonstration is to take place may, before the demonstration and to maintain peace, order and public security, order a change of venue or route; the organizer must comply with the change ordered and inform the participants.
Now there's a triumph of our democratic freedoms right there.
Even though I don't live in Quebec, and these provisions will fall out of force on July 1, 2013, I have some big problems with this bill. The biggest one is this: who defines what a "demonstration" is? The bill comes with definitions for such arcane terms as "college," "employee," and "student association," but what they're talking about when they refer to demonstrations is left frustratingly vague. What's the difference between a simple gathered crowd and a demonstration? Who's responsible for making the call? What if a group doesn't believe they're a demonstration, but the police does?
The last thing a government needs is more legislated leeway to restrict personal rights. The vagueness of this law, its unwillingness to define just what qualifies as a demonstration, leaves it ripe for abuse.
The usual suspects, like the Globe and Mail, are already working to shore this up. On Friday, it published an editorial reminding us that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides for "freedom of peaceful assembly." Yes, it does - but that doesn't make a difference. The Charter rights of people in Quebec are still being abridged by this bill, because it does not distinguish between peaceful and violent protests; it does not make reference to "a demonstration involving 10 people or more who plan to wreck shit."
Demonstrations have a place within a healthy democratic society - but when all demonstrations are clamped down upon to restrain the violent ones, that health is diminished.