Quebec student protests about democracy, not just tuition

Main photo: A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask during the May 22 national demonstration. All photos from Wikimedia Commons.

I had a short stint one summer where I examined laws of countries that were considered human rights violations. Many of them contained similar clauses on demonstrations – having to notify the police or the union and obtaining approval – which have been singled out by many human rights organizations as infringing on their democratic rights. And it’s happening in Quebec, with the passing of Bill 78.

Bill 78 is very, very worrisome. The Quebec Bar Association – which usually remains neutral on political matters – voiced its criticism of the law by highlighting its severe penal measures and its infringement on our fundamental rights of freedom of expression and association, guaranteed in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Beyond the legality, the bigger issue at stake is who controls our public space.

More and more, corporations, cars, the police are taking over our streets. Now the state is taking over. I see and hear the results on the streets here in Montreal.

Photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons 

Encountering large groups of students who are tirelessly taking it to the streets has become a daily routine. So has hearing the chants “Crions! Plus forts! Pour que personnes ne nous ignore!” (which roughly means “Let’s yell! Louder! So nobody ignores us!”) It’s truly a marvel to see rows and rows of people filling up the streets in red squares and slogans. The protesters also attract curious tourists from out of town, eagerly snapping photos on their smart phones. Some people are just trying to get past it all, looking visibly annoyed or frustrated that their routines are disrupted. 

Of course, the moment you see the protests you hear the inevitable screeching of sirens of  police cars. Police come in impressive numbers too, and the sound of the helicopter looming over the city has been something that no longer registers as unusual. Another night, another struggle. And every night, you worry a little about your friends and this city that has become a place of police profiling, people wearing red squares, the symbol of the protesters.

Red squares worn by protesters scattered on a Montreal police car. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Are streets still a democratic medium that belong to the people, or are they a representation of the government's desire for control and order? 

Perhaps social media has made "activism" seem so easy, where we can just click "share" to feel like we committed an "act." This is not to say that all online activism is pointless. I encourage everyone to sign this online petition against Bill 78, if it is the least they can do. 

But what worries me more are Canadians who support the Charest government's actions. A quick scan of comments on the Montreal Gazette website reveal that they don't see a problem with the threat to democracy that Bill 78 poses.

At this point, I don't know what Bill 78's repurcussions will have, for Quebec students as well as Canadians. What I do know is that my generation needs to rise up, online and offline. We need to have our voices heard and our bodies seen on the streets. This is our right, not a privilege granted by the state. 

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