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80,000 take to the streets of Montreal, as Human Rights Commission declares Bill 78 unconstitutional

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It's been a wild weekend here in Quebec. On Thursday, the Quebec Human Rights Commission denounced virtually the entirety of Bill 78, in the strongest terms I have yet seen used.

Although the denunciation was sharper, the main difference between the QHRC report and other groups which have assailed the embattled law, like Amnesty and the Quebec Bar Association, is the fact that this was friendly fire.

The QHRC is a government agency, empowered to assess whether government legislation is in line with the requirements of the Quebec Charter. After two months of analysis by legal scholars and bureaucrats, their fifty-six page report is scathing in condemning the overwhelming majority of Bill 78 as an indefensibly unconstitutional mess, which violates many of our most basic rights.They point out that the Charter takes precedence over any law, and as such Bill 78 is, in their judgement, illegal.

The findings of the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse, as the Commission is known in French, are stark and unequivocal:

"The commission concludes that the articles 12 to 31 of the law directly or indirectly undermine fundamental freedoms, including freedom of conscience, of opinion, of expression, of peaceful reunion and association guaranteed under the charter"

Today brought news that the Quebec Court of Appeal had refused to hear the appeal of an earlier ruling rejecting an emergency injunction against Bill 78. This means the law will be in force through an expected election campaign this summer, and will not be examined by a court until as late as January. This will, of course, lead to a crackdown on political speech during an election campaign the likes of which Canada has not seen in decades.

As I wrote when the emergency injunction was defeated, it was defeated on procedure, without consideration of the facts of the law itself. The two legal experts I interviewed were unanimous in their expectation that Bill 78 will be struck down, when the case is heard in full.

But that's little comfort to students, who are being deprived of their voice, and ability to dissent, at a time when they need it most. CLASSE immediately announced that the issues involved were too important for them to be cowed, and that they would continue to exercise their democratic freedoms, in defiance of this law.

FECQ and FEUQ, the smaller university and CEGEP student federations, announced their intention to respect the law, due to the existential threat Bill 78 poses to their continued existence.

Crammed in between this significant victory, and subsequent setback, for the students, was the July 22 demonstration.

True to the tradition of massive demonstrations on the 22nd of each month in Quebec, an estimated 80,000 people took to the streets of Montréal, with smaller rallies taking place in Quebec City and Trois Rivières.

At the conclusion of the CLASSE-organized demonstration, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois mounted the 'stage' atop the speaker truck, and gave one of the best speeches I've ever seen.

As I've noted before, Nadeau-Dubois is an accomplished public speaker. But this was something else. Channeling the force and intensity of men and women before him who have stood atop soap boxes and changed the world through the sheer force of their words, he commanded the enraptured attention of his audience, which carpeted several blocks of McGill College. 

Hammering his point home with thrusts of his finger, his strong voice cracking with emotion, Nadeau-Dubois delivered a bravura performance which left me with chills. There will be space in the history books for this firebrand, who is living a moment in history with remarkable poise and laser-like focus.

His booming voice rolling over the crowd in all directions, Nadeau-Dubois insisted that "we are done living in fear". We will stand up for what we believe in, and defend our most basic rights, no matter the consequences.

"Un autre Québec est possible!", he shouted, and we are making that alternative a reality, through our engagement and demand for control over our society.

He went on to promise that Charest and his corrupt, neo-liberal government will not stand. It will be defeated by the popular will of Quebeckers, who value their rights, the integrity of their government and respect for students and social movements.

Despite a sweltering day, which left all of us dripping with sweat, the demonstration was a joyful, even celebratory, expression of the continued determination of Quebec's students and allies.

It was massive, exuberant, joyfully disobedient and exactly the shot in the arm this movement needed. The clear repudiation of every overconfident pundit predicting that protests had run out of steam, and would peter out.

The upcoming election is impossible to predict. The PLQ may yet convince Quebeckers to re-elect a demonstrably corrupt and extreme neo-liberal government, which holds our basic charter rights in contempt.

But the student movement served notice that they have gone nowhere. Pamphlets distributed at the march advertised "Bloquons la Rentrée", and called on students to form hard picket lines at returning universities and CEGEPs this month. Such picket lines are a necessary step in sustaining any strike. 

Meanwhile, student groups refused to align themselves with a political party in particular, but committed to targeting Charest's PLQ government in ten or more vulnerable ridings, where they think a mobilized youth vote can make the difference.

We're heading into a volatile election, with an enraged student movement confronting an unconstitutional crackdown on basic civil liberties. It's hard to tell how it will turn out, but the next month and change promises to be nothing if not exciting. Stay tuned...


Follow me on twitter for regular updates on Quebec politics: @EthanCoxMTL

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