May 23 marked the 100th day of Quebec’s student strikes. Tens of thousands of people clogged Montreal’s city core in a march designed to mock the new provincial law that demands protest routes be approved in advance. This march was peaceful.
That night, however, again the protests turned violent. Fierce and destructive clashes between demonstrators and police have become commonplace in Montreal over the past three months. So has damage of public and private property and the disruption of freedom. So has the erosion of public safety. So has the corrosion of Montreal’s reputation as a superior North American vacation destination. Travel advisory warnings are in place and the city’s economy is suffering.
What might have begun as demonstrations about the need for meaningful debate about policy decisions that affect citizenry quickly devolved seemingly into a game of wills.
The tuition hikes, while minimal, are unpleasant and another jab at those who believe that in Canada a university education ought to be a free social service as it is in many European countries. The students and their supporters have every right to voice their opinions and dissatisfaction with the new policy. Having some of the lowest tuition fees in the country does not deny them the right to protest increasing costs.
On the other hand, the violence, the disruption to the lives of other citizens, the destruction of property and the necessity of the city to shell out funds for a heightened police presence and helicopters night after night is wholly disproportionate to the rise in tuition of $254 per year over seven years.
Whether right is on the side of the students’ demand that there be a moratorium on the increased fees or on the side of the government’s position that these increases are necessary is irrelevant to the overall issues of proportionality, freedom and security.
The protest plan seems to be one of intimidation: intimidate the government and attempt to influence policy through public disruption and violence.
Now, after all of the upheaval — when some might argue the government should be cracking down as it had started to do — the government is again stating it will open the pathway to dialogue. The government has now announced that it will again engage with the students.
Montreal is a city that has a riotous nature. In 1955, Montrealers rioted after their beloved hockey player, Rocket Richard, was suspended for his second assault on an official that season. In 1992, violent and destructive riots erupted after a sold-out Guns ‘N’ Roses concert was cut short after an hour. In 2008, happy sports fans turned violent in their celebration of their hockey team making it to the next rounds of the NHL playoffs – costing the city $500,000 in damage to police cars and saddling the owners of private businesses with the costs of vandalism and break-ins. Again in 2010, a winning hockey game sparked riots. The list continues.
Perhaps more should be done in Montreal to discourage this behaviour. One suggestion might be to not bow to terrorism and reignite dialogue as a response to bad behaviour.
The government did step in with some regulation, in the form of Bill 78. Bill 78 generally prohibits the holding of a business, school, school employee, or other citizen hostage through blocking their passage to their work, school, hospital, metro, etc via protest gathering. Lawful protest is still protected. However, Bill 78 requires that in order to hold a lawful protest, one must submit a written and approved explanation of the logistics of the march or gathering – giving the police the chance to organize and ensure a way for other citizens to move around the city safely. Given Montreal’s recent history, some means of ensuring public safety and freedom seems warranted and reasonable.
Bill 78 might go too far. The possible fines are heavy, perhaps intended to bankrupt disobedient student unions. Debate has ensued as to whether the law infringes on the right to free assembly. It is also obviously enacted just to deal with these protestors. The law is set to expire by July 1, 2013.
Bill 78 would also seemingly make it more difficult for protesters to bully citizens and the government. Last week, protesters stormed into the Université du Québec à Montréal and students who were attending classes (after an injunction was issued allowing them to return) were physically dragged from their classrooms in an attempt by protesters to enforce their declared strike.
It is unfortunate that Montreal feels the need to resort to policies such as Bill 78. It is unfortunate that this childish and dangerous behaviour of protestors exists to be quelled. Civil disobedience has its place. Violence and destruction of property is a different story.
It is disturbing (and offensive) that the protestors liken their struggles to Arab Spring uprisings against oppression. Despite their possibly legitimate claims, some of these protestors are positioning themselves as spoiled-brat terrorists — and tainting the protests and the message.