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PORTSIDE  May 2012, Week 4

PORTSIDE May 2012, Week 4

Subject:

Quebec's 'Truncheon Law' Rebounds as Student Strike Spreads

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Date:

Thu, 24 May 2012 20:58:20 -0400

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Quebec's 'Truncheon Law' Rebounds as Student Strike Spreads

    A draconian law to quell demonstrations has only
    galvanised public support for young Quebecois
    protesting tuition fee hikes

by Martin Lukacs

Guardian (UK)
May 24, 2012

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2012/may/24/quebec-truncheon-law-rebounds-student-strike

At a tiny church tucked away in a working-class neighbourhood
in Montreal's east end, Quebec's new outlaws gathered on
Sunday for a day of deliberations. Aged mostly between 18 and
22, their membership in a progressive student union has made
them a target of government scorn and scrutiny. And they have
been branded a menace to society because of their weapons:
ideas of social justice and equal opportunity in education,
alongside the ability to persuade hundreds of thousands to
join them in the streets.

Under a draconian law passed by the Quebec government on
Friday, their very meeting could be considered a criminal act.
Law 78 - unprecedented in recent Canadian history - is the
latest, most desperate manoeuvre of a provincial government
that is afraid it has lost control over a conflict that began
as a student strike against tuition hikes but has since spread
into a protest movement with wide-ranging social and
environmental demands.

Labelled a "truncheon law" by its critics, it imposes severe
restrictions on the right to protest. Any group of 50 or more
protesters must submit plans to police eight hours ahead of
time; they can be denied the right to proceed. Picket lines at
universities and colleges are forbidden, and illegal protests
are punishable by fines from $5,000 to $125,000 for
individuals and unions - as well as by the seizure of union
dues and the dissolution of their associations.

In other words, the government has decided to smash the
student movement by force.

The government quickly launched a public relations offensive
to defend itself. Full-page ads in local newspapers ran with
the headline: "For the sake of democracy and citizenship."
Quebec's minister of public security, Robert Dutil, prattled
about the many countries that have passed similar laws:

"Other societies with rights and freedoms to protect have
found it reasonable to impose certain constraints - first of
all to protect protesters, and also to protect the public."

Such language is designed to make violence sound benevolent
and infamy honourable. But it did nothing to mask reality for
those who have flooded the streets since the weekend and
encountered police emboldened by the new legislation. Riot
squads beat and tear-gassed people indiscriminately, targeted
journalists, pepper- sprayed bystanders in restaurants, and
mass-arrested hundreds, including more than 500 Wednesday
night - bringing the tally from the last three months of
protest to a record Canadian high of more than 2,500. The
endless night-time drone of helicopters has become the
serenade song of a police state.

In its contempt for students and citizens, the government has
riled a population with strong, bitter memories of harsh
measures against social unrest - whether the dark days of the
iron-fisted Duplessis era, the martial law enforced by the
Canadian army in 1970, or years of labour battles marred by
the jailing of union leaders. These and other occasions have
shown Québécois how the political elite has no qualms about
trampling human rights to maintain a grip on power.

Which is why those with experience of struggle fresh and old
have answered Premier Jean Charest with unanimity and
collective power. There are now legal challenges in the works,
broad appeals for civil disobedience, and a brilliant website
created by the progressive CLASSE student union, on which
thousands have posted photos of themselves opposing the law.
(The website's title is "Somebody arrest me" but also puns on
a phrase to shake a person out of a crazed mental spell.)

And Wednesday, on the 100th day of the student strike,
Québécois from every walk of life offered a rejoinder to the
claim that "marginals" were directing and dominating the
protests: an estimated 300,000-400,000 people marched in the
streets, another Canadian record, and in full violation of the
new law. They brandished the iconic red squares that have now
transformed into a symbol not just of accessible education but
the defence of basic freedoms of assembly and protest. Late
into the night, a spirit of jubilant defiance spread through
the city. On balconies along entire streets, and on
intersections occupied by young and old, the sound of banging
pots and pans rang out, a practice used under Latin American
regimes.

The clarity that has fired the students' protest has, until
now, conspicuously eluded most of English- speaking Canada.
This is because the image of the movement has been skewed and
distorted by the establishment media. Sent into paroxysms of
bafflement and contempt by the striking students, they have
painted them as spoiled kids or crazed radicals out of touch
with society, who should give up their supposed entitlements
and accept the stark economic realities of the age.

All this is said with a straight face. But young people in
Quebec, followed now by many others, have not been fooled.
They know the global economic crisis of 2008 exposed as never
before the abuses of corporate finance, and that those
responsible were bailed out rather than held to account. They
know that meetings of international leaders at the G20 end by
dispatching ministers home to pay the bills on the backs of
the poorest and most vulnerable, with tuition hikes and a
toxic combination of neoliberal economic policies. And with
every baton blow and tear-gas blast, they perceive with ever
greater lucidity that their government will turn ultimately to
brute violence to impose such programs and frighten those who
dissent.

To those who marched Wednesday, and the great numbers who
cheered them on, the fault-lines of justice are evident. This
is a government that has refused to sit down and negotiate
with student leaders in good faith, but invites an organised
crime boss to a fundraising breakfast; a government that has
claimed free education is an idea not even worth dreaming
about, when it would cost only 1% of Quebec's budget and could
be paid for simply by reversing the regressive tax reforms,
corporate give-aways, or capital tax phase-outs of the last
decade; a government whose turn to authoritarian tactics has
now triggered a sharp decline in support, and which has
clumsily accelerated a social crisis that may now only begin
to be resolved by meeting the students' demands.

As the debate went on at the CLASSE meeting in the church last
Sunday, the students' foresight proved wise beyond their
years. "History doesn't get made in a day," one argued into
the microphone. Not in a day, no doubt, but in Quebec, over
this spring and the summer, history is indeed being made.

==========

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