Montreal — The first challenge to the about-face of Quebec Premier Pauline Marois on the right to protest in the streets of the province took place here on March 29. About 300 people (double or more the estimates stated in mainstream press) gathered for a two-hour, evening candlelight vigil in the centre of the city.

It began as a quiet event with no speeches and minimal coordination. Banners and hand-written signs conveyed the main message — no to police violence and no to the increasingly standard practice by Montreal police of threatening and forcibly shutting down any protest action by students and young people.

Scores of police dressed in riot gear and mounted on horses cast a shadow over the event. At the hour the event was originally announced to end, 9 p.m., the special, police loudspeaker vehicle pulled up. It is white pickup truck with sound equipment on the back. Police opened the speaker cover and began to make a pronouncement, immediately drowned out by shouting from the crowd.

This writer assumed that the police were declaring the vigil “illegal.” But lo and behold, in a moment of grace perhaps reflecting that the date was Good Friday (in reality, reflecting the harsh public condemnation that recent police actions have prompted), the police declared the event to be “legal”! Which immediately prompted catcalls from the crowd to the effect, “We don’t care what you decide!” (the crowd’s chant was considerably coarser).

About 100 people then proceeded to occupy the adjacent intersection on Ste. Catherine St., downtown Montreal’s main thoroughfare. Again seemingly revealing their vulnerable public relations standing, the police stood by. In the end, there were no arrests that evening. The vigil/become street occupation ended near 10 p.m.

A movement against police violence building

The gathering was a continuation of two events earlier that month condemning the now-entrenched practice by the police forces of Montreal and Quebec City of effectively banning the right to protest. On March 15, Montreal police broke up the 17th annual rally and march against police violence and brutality before it even began, arresting close to 250 people.

On March 22, police broke up a student protest marking the one-year anniversary of the historic, 2012 student strike, arresting 200 people. March 22, 2012 was the date of the first, mass street demonstration in Montreal in support of the aims of the strike.

In between these two events, on March 19, a 12-hour vigil was held representing 41 civil rights, women’s rights, trade unions and other organizations demanding that Premier Marois convoke a public inquiry into police violence during the 2012 student strike and that she order police to end the use of petty municipal regulations to stop protests. It was held in front of her constituency office in Montreal.

Marois has disappointed and even shocked many of her Parti québécois members and voters by coming out in support of the police. She has refused to criticize and put an end to the new method of choice of the Montreal police in shutting down protest — wielding an archaic, municipal regulation, P-6. It requires the organizers of any public gathering to seek police permission (submit advance notice of intention to rally and provide the itinerary of any intended street march). The penalty under the regulation is a fine of $637.[1]

Last year, Marois opposed a draconian law (Bill 78, become Law 12) that was adopted in May by the provincial, Liberal government of the day to try and break the student strike movement that had begun months earlier. Like P-6, it required the organizers of street protests to seek police permission. Conviction under Law 12 is an offense under provincial offenses legislation.

Montreal columnist captures the unease

The unease if not opposition to the premier’s about-face was captured by columnist Simon Jodoin in the March 28 issue of the Montreal, weekly entertainment newspaper Voir. He wrote an “open letter” to Premier Marois, explaining, “As a Montrealer, I’ve been feeling very uncomfortable over the last few days watching media reports, especially those regarding street demonstrations in Montreal and the intervention of the police… [translation from the French original]

“All it takes to trigger mass arrests is the desire to demonstrate and to fail to provide an itinerary to the SPVM [Montreal police]. My gut feeling tells me that a large number of citizens who’ve done nothing wrong now find themselves surrounded by police and shoved around like vile criminals.

“Actually, I’m exaggerating a bit because, as you and I know, vile criminals don’t get surrounded and shoved around… I imagine you’re watching and listening to the same news as I.”

The “news” to which Jodoin referred is the parade of corporate criminals who have been appearing in daily television and print news reports as they are called to testify before the Charbonneau Commission, an ongoing provincial government inquiry convened last year to examine corruption in the construction industry in Quebec, including the industry’s ties to municipal and provincial politicians.

Jodoin continues, “And this is where my uneasiness comes from. Not because of rising tuition and not because of the global conspiracy of world capitalism, but because of the jerk-offs that govern us. In Montreal — like elsewhere in the world — a crisis of authority exists. The mayor has resigned. Last week, the general manager of the city followed in his footsteps–for trying to get rid of the chief of police! Who is governing in my city, Mme Marois? Who controls the police? Where do the police get their orders?”

Jodoin continues. “Another, additional, question is of some importance to me.

“You, Mme Marois, at the time when you were banging your pot lids while marching in the street [reference to the moment last year when Pauline Marois, then leader of the official opposition party in the Quebec legislature, participated in one of the ‘pots and pans’ (community) marches in support of the Quebec student movement], what, exactly, was your itinerary?”

The writer goes on to ask the premier what the people of the province are to make of her seemingly contradictory stand. “What is your advice? Where are your initiatives? Who governs, Madame Marois? Who runs the police in Montreal and elsewhere?…Will you open up opportunities for discussion and reflection? Will you send a clear message to the municipal authorities in Montreal who are currently non-existent?  As for those who beat up innocent people, are they accountable for their actions?”

Jodoin concludes, “I won’t be going into the streets, Madame. At least for the moment. But if the silence of the state continues, I would be hard pressed to blame the street for making noise to fill the void.

“So, Mme Marois, your itinerary, what is it?”

Challenge to reactionary laws and court decisions

The Quebec French language daily Le Devoir reported on March 16 that police forces in the neighbouring province of Ontario, including from Toronto, are continuing their practice of observing the work of the Montreal police in beating on and breaking up protests, including using the “kettling” method of arresting large numbers of peaceful protesters. Toronto police claim they have sworn off “kettling” after they came under harsh condemnation for its use in 2010 at the G20 gathering of world leaders in the city.

P-6 as well as civil and criminal charges stemming from the student strike are being challenged in court by a significant array of civil rights lawyers, advocates and supporters.

The legal team of the most prominent student accused, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, is appealing his conviction last December to 120 hours of community service for contempt of court. He was accused of advocating defiance of injunctions that judges were granting to individual students to enfeeble the mass, student picketing that was successfully shutting down post-secondary institutions.

The PQ government elected last September 4 opted not to withdraw the charge against Nadeau-Dubois. Law 12 specifically singled him out. It invalidated all the injunctions issued in connection with the strike, but made one exception — for the sole prosecution for contempt of court that issued from the strike, which is against Nadeau-Dubois.

Since the end of the strike last fall, and contrary to its electoral promise, the government has not repealed Law 12.

Nadeau-Dubois’s legal defence has received more than $100,000 in donations from supporters across Quebec and Canada. Meanwhile, a coalition of groups is pressing for a public inquiry into police violence during the strike. First the Liberal government and now the PQ have refused the demand.

A report last week on Radio Canada (French language CBC) television’s Enquête program has shed more light on the most violent and egregious of police actions last year — the assault on a student protest in Victoriaville on May 4. Hundreds of students and their supporters had gathered for a protest at the annual convention of the Liberal Party. Police attacked the crowd, injuring dozens, including three who received very serious injuries caused by plastic bullets.

The police have always denied the use of plastic bullets. The Radio Canada report disproved that claim. Citizen inquiries have uncovered and reported the same thing.

At least two more demonstrations against police abuse and violence have been called in Montreal, one with an April Fool’s Day theme on April 1 and another on April 5 in defiance of P-6.

[1] Montreal’s P-6 regulation (bylaw) outlaws public rallies and demonstrations deemed to be threatening to “peace, security or public order.” It was ammended on May 19, 2012, to require that police receive advance notice of public demonstrations and to outlaw the wearing of a mask or other face covering at such events.

Roger Annis

Roger Annis

Roger Annis is a coordinator of the Canada Haiti Action Network (CHAN) and its Vancouver affiliate, Haiti Solidarity BC. He has visited Haiti in August 2007 and June 2011. He is a frequent writer and...