In a column in Thursday's Montreal Gazette, Henry Aubin, a card-carrying member of the "lazy, entitled students should shut up and get off my lawn!" club, argued that we should forget about tuition and Bill 78, and instead focus on Harper's omnibus budget, which "will have a much bigger effect on all our lives."
While I agree that we should focus attention on the ills of C-38, I disagree that we should do so to the exclusion of the necessary debate around tuition, and the civil liberties squashing Bill 78.
My letter to the editor was, perhaps unsurprisingly, not published by the Gazette. Nonetheless, here is the point I sought to make in response to Mr. Aubin:
"Henry Aubin argues that our fixation on the student movement and Bill 78 is misplaced, and Quebeckers should be protesting the Harper government's omnibus budget bill instead. (Budget bill truly worthy of protest, June 14).
"As one of the organizers of a protest against the budget, which drew 200 to 300 people to downtown Montreal on Wednesday afternoon, I wish it was so simple. I received literally dozens of emails from people who wanted to participate in the demonstration, but were too afraid to do so. I'm sure an untold number of others felt the same way, but didn't email me to explain their feelings.
"Between Bill 78, municipal bylaw P-6 and the widely reported mass arrests, preventative arrests and documented physical aggression towards demonstrators and bystanders alike over the last month, there is a serious chill on the public expression of dissent in this city. Which is, of course, what the framers of Bill 78 and bylaw P-6 intended.
"If Mr. Aubin would like to see larger crowds protesting the budget, perhaps he should reconsider his support for these laws, which restrict the right of all citizens to peacefully express dissent in our city."
As my colleague Roger Annis has detailed, the past week and a half has seen an unprecedented ramping up of police action to squelch protests. Wear a red square? You may face arrest and detention, as happened to dozens of citizens, and two undercover reporters with Le Devoir, last weekend.
When a Montreal police officer told one of the Le Devoir reporters he was being detained for wearing a "revolutionary symbol" (the red square) it wasn't the rash comment of an overzealous individual. Quebec's Minister of Culture Christine St. Pierre went even further this week, describing the red square this way: "It means intimidation, violence and preventing students from studying. That's what it means to us and to the big, big majority of Quebecois."
You Tube is full to bursting with amateur video of police indiscriminately swinging their billy clubs at anyone in their way. Many tourists and bystanders have also been beaten and arrested.
The police have, on more than one occasion, attacked the terraces of bars and restaurants with billy clubs and pepper spray. In the case of the St. Bock bar the excuse was that a plastic chair was thrown at them, in Zero-8 (a specialty restaurant which serves gluten-free meals) the restaurant was stormed and the owner arrested for allowing protesters to escape a police kettle through the restaurant's back entrance.
In Montreal over the last few months we have seen repeated kettling and mass arrests of peaceful protesters (a tactic which was found illegal by the inquiry into police action at the G-20), profiling for the wearing of a political symbol, preventative arrests of those profiled and unprecedented and indiscriminate levels of direct violence by police towards demonstrators and bystanders alike.
None of which seems to concern most of our media outlets, with the notable exception of Le Devoir and a few others. In fact, after Montreal police took the unprecedented step of rounding people up in a public park for wearing a political symbol, the Montreal Gazette responded with an editorial supporting police actions and expressing no qualms at a tactic they routinely use as proof of authoritarianism when practiced in China or Russia.
They noted there were some complaints of profiling of those wearing red squares, who were denied access to the park, and in some cases detained, "But what did these people expect?"
They went on to make the rather staggering assertion that, "Throughout this extended season of protest, the police have used force only when they themselves were attacked by demonstrators, and no instance of police brutality against a legal and peaceful protest has so far been documented."
Of course, the statement is technically true, given that all protests which have taken place since the passage of Bill 78 have been illegal. Peaceful or not, every single one has been declared illegal.
But a casual reader of this editorial is unlikely to catch the tricky wording, and it is hard to interpret it as anything other than a deliberate attempt to deceive their readers.
Our democracy, and the inalienable rights which flow from it, is under assault. In Quebec, from what Aubin describes as "the temporary problem of a provincial law that will expire in July 2013," and in Ottawa from a budget which Aubin describes as "bad democracy."
"That’s because the 420-page bill will make changes to more than 60 entirely unrelated statutes (including raising the age for receiving Old Age Security and tightening employment insurance rules) and require MPs to vote either for the entire package or against it. The government is further affronting Parliament by stunting debate," continued Aubin.
But Aubin seems not to see the irony in telling people to forget about Bill 78's assault on democracy, which was crafted to expire before a serious constitutional challenge could be heard, yet prevents protests through the upcoming election campaign, while urging them to take to the streets to defend democracy at the federal level.
As Conservatives have come out to denounce the abuses of democracy in C-38, so should conservatives (or "Liberals" in the odd parlance of Quebec politics) come out to condemn the abuses of democracy occurring in the streets of Montreal.
Whatever your position on tuition increases, how can anyone condone such an assault on our right to protest? This is Canada. We do not arrest people for what they might do, or for what they are wearing. We do not arrest people for participating in peaceful protests, or for walking down the street near one. We do not search people on the metro or in parks because of the political symbol they are wearing. We do not tolerate police who indiscriminately assault protesters with batons, or pepper spray them for no reason.
At least we didn't used to...
Fifteen years ago, at an APEC conference held in B.C., police pepper sprayed demonstrators. The incident gained such notoriety that one of the officers involved became known as Sergeant Pepper. A public inquiry was held, which determined the use of pepper spray was "inconsistent with the Charter and not appropriate for the circumstances."
In 1997 the use of pepper spray on peaceful, but rowdy, protesters provoked national headlines, a full inquiry and sanctions on the officers involved. Imagine if they had had batons, and used them as liberally as Montreal police do?
Today, in Quebec, this type of behaviour happens on a regular basis. Rather than an alternative to their gun, police use pepper spray as a tool of convenience to disperse protesters who have done nothing wrong. The precise type of conduct found to be "inconsistent with the Charter" in 1997.
The first duty of any citizen in a democracy is to remain vigilant against any threat to our collective rights, whether that threat directly impacts them or not. Right now our democracy is taking a pounding. In Quebec, citiziens are afraid to protest anything, in Ottawa our parliament has been reduced to a rubber stamp.
We should not forgo protesting one to protest the other, as Aubin suggests, but join our voices to condemn assaults on democracy wherever they occur.
In the rest of Canada, and around the world, tens of thousands have taken to the streets to show solidarity with Quebec students, and opposition to Bill 78, in the weekly Casseroles Night in Canada protests. Many of these protests have also taken aim at Harper's abuse of democracy.
The next large Quebec protest has been called for June 22, when hundreds of thousands are expected in the streets. In solidarity with this action, Casseroles Night in Canada will take place on Friday, June 22 this week.
If you care about democracy, and want to defend it, then meet us in the streets on June 22. For Quebec students, but more importantly against the assault on our democracy taking place here and across the country.
The only reasonable response to what is happening around us is to resist. So start spreading the word. June 22, let's make it a big and resounding love-in for democracy.
Here is the link for the Casseroles Night in Canada Facebook event. If you don't see your community listed, start a Facebook event and post it in there and it will be added to the list. Make flyers, posters, and spread the word. This Friday will be huge!
To get you in the mood, check out the video below. Loco Locass, one of Quebec's most popular musical groups, and authors of the seminal 2003 hit "Liberez nous des Liberaux!" perform at the Francofolies festival on June 15 in Montreal. Before performing the student movement anthem, they call the leaders of all the student groups onstage and ask a crowd of around 80,000 to sit and observe a moment of silence for the end of our "anti-democratic regime". Every single person sits, then goes nuts as they perform the song with the help of the student leaders.
Also follow me on Twitter, if you feel so inclined: @EthanCoxMTL