In relation to much of the world, Quebec is not so bad. This is a sentiment that people seem to be forgetting in their strange associations and offensive attempts to link and draw comparisons between Canada’s French province and abusive regimes. “Not so bad” is not a standard to which to aspire. Freedom of speech and assembly are important freedoms and demand protection. Any unreasonable obstacles to spontaneous public expression should be avoided at all cost. However, to suggest that what is happening in Quebec is on par with severe violent human rights abuses such as transpired in Nazi Germany, Chile’s disappearances, and the violent repression in modern day Syria is appalling and insulting to the victims of these atrocities.
Making such comparisons belittles the weight of struggle and the real fear for one’s life and physical safety felt by many people around the world.
Since February 13, student protestors have staged almost daily demonstrations to oppose proposed raises in tertiary tuition that amount to less than $300 a year over the next 7 years. They have every right – some might argue even a duty – to peacefully but loudly protest in order to express their opinions regarding policy decisions that affect them. The student protests have at times been damaging to public and private property and violent. In response, the Charest government passed controversial Bill 78 on May 18, after three months of students aggressively disrupting the lives of other citizens. Bill 78 requires protestors to submit and acquire approval of the logistics of potential marches or gatherings of more than 50 people 8 hours in advance of the event. This bill has been criticized for curtailing the human right to assembly and freedom of speech.
Bill 78 should be reviewed and if necessary repealed. But, let’s get some perspective along side our indignation.
Bill 78’s measures are not close to the oppression and violence of Middle Eastern tyrannical regimes. Comparisons between the student protests and the popular Arab Spring uprisings are absurd and an affront to the real struggles of citizens in countries such as Egypt and Syria.
So are the comparisons between Quebec and Nazi Germany.
The student protestors have taken to banging pots and pans, evoking the memory of popular protests in Chile in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when there were serious violations of human rights in the country’s suppression of opposition to Dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay also made an unfortunate link, reportedly commenting on the situation in Canada seemingly in the same vein as oppression and human rights violations elsewhere in the world. The Quebec government’s move to enact Bill 78 was mentioned this past Monday in a speech she gave in Geneva.
“Moves to restrict freedom of assembly in many parts of the world are alarming” Ms. Pillay said. “In the context of student protests, I am disappointed by the new legislation passed in Quebec that restricts their rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly.” Quebec was reportedly mentioned along with reference to several human rights hotspots around the world, including Syria, Mali, Nepal, Mexico and Russia.
Arguably, Canada is a pillar in human rights protection and promotion and should therefore be held to the highest standards. However, it would seem that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights got her priorities a bit askew in dedicating significant concern to Quebec while at the same time mentioning that the UN had limited time and resources and had to be diligent in its focus.
Student protestors applaud Pillay’s condemnation of Bill 78. One student is quoted as saying, “It’s not surprising this has come up with the United Nations.” And yet, perhaps it is surprising. It should at least be surprising that it made it into a speech of this nature in this way.
While the protection of all rights in Canada is important, it is equally important to recognize the difference between struggles of groups in their contention with their governments.
In the democracy that is Canada, where the student protestors can dispute the justness of Bill 78 in a court of law, caution must be taken not to disrespect and make light of the struggles of the victims of severe political oppression and physical human rights violations elsewhere.