Law meant to stifle demonstrations buoys Quebec’s student protesters
A wave of student protests against tuition hikes in Quebec is evolving into a broader campaign against a hastily passed law that aimed to stifle the demonstrations but has so far reinvigorated them.
Protesters took to the streets in pouring rain Friday for a 32nd consecutive night as the focus shifted to the civil rights issues raised by emergency law 78 passed May 18 in the French-speaking Canadian province.
“This special law, we don’t care,” chanted the crowd of 2,000 protesters in central Montreal, cheerily banging on pots and pans.
On city sidewalks, the atmosphere was festive with people of all ages applauding the protest, mostly students clad in shorts and sandals and soaked to the skin.
Passing drivers honked their horns in support, adding to the din, while residents flicked lights in their homes on and off in a sign of approval.
The students were joined by retirees and families with children. Quebec Premier Jean “Charest, you are the pot and we are the spoon!” one banner read.
A poll published Saturday by La Presse showed a divided Quebec, with 51 percent expressing support for the law but with big differences in attitudes between young and old, and between French- and English-speaking residents.
The law sought to clamp down on the student protests by requiring organizers to give police at least eight hours advance warning of times and locations of demonstrations, with big fines for failure to do so.
Authorities have used the emergency law to declare protests illegal, clearing the way for police to disperse protesters.
But opposition to the law has been fierce, drawing nearly 100,000 people into the streets of Montreal on Tuesday.
Amnesty International called the measure an “affront to basic freedoms that goes far beyond what is permissible under provincial, national or international human rights law,” and said it should be rescinded.
The students began the protests in February, boycotting classes, in response to the Charest government’s plan to raise annual fees at Quebec universities by 82 percent, or $1,700, with the increase gradually introduced over five years.
The row has already caused the province’s education minister to quit and is causing a headache for the government.
Police arrested nearly 1,000 people this week, most of them for unlawful assembly, and all of them received hefty fines above $600. It has failed to quell the demonstrations.
“Being fined for protesting and demonstrating is silly. I am not afraid of being arrested for fighting for democracy,” said Katie Nelson, 19, who traveled from her home in Alberta province to support the protests, adding that she expects Law 78 to be ruled unconstitutional.
Another protester, Stella, 24, said although the demonstrations started out in opposition to the fees hike, they were developing into a broader cause, including austerity measures imposed because of the 2008 financial crisis.
“We want to show that we can make noise and express our opposition freely,” she said.
“Nobody understands why Charest is still in place.”
The jovial atmosphere on Friday, typified by a young naked woman who after being covered by police cheekily flashed her bottom as soon as their backs were turned, contrasted with Wednesday’s protests in Montreal and Quebec City, when almost 1,000 people were arrested in total.
As with previous demonstrations, police in Montreal declared Friday’s gathering illegal.
The provincial government on Thursday invited the student groups to a new round of talks, which could be held as soon as early next week, according to the head of one of the student unions. But earlier talks have ended in impasse.
Not everyone who watched Montreal’s latest protest approved or thought it will make a difference. “They will not change the law,” said Mohammed, standing at the entrance to his business, as the demonstrators rolled by.