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In response to recent student protests over proposed massive tuition increases, Quebec's Premier Jean Charest is pursuing a law that would shred the civil rights of the citizens of the province, particularly students and unions. Quebec's government proposed to increase tuition by 75 percent and students have responded with a massive strike that has lasted for months. While tuition in Quebec is relatively low, the massive spike would be a shock to many students and would decrease college accessibility and force many more students to go into debt.
Charest, who leads the most conservative government in the province in decades, has responded to the protests by proposing a draconian law that would take away the rights to freedom of speech, assembly and association in an effort to stifle the protests. Charest has done little to invite public input on the proposed law, sparking more anger from opponents.
The bill threatens to impose steep fines of 25,000 to 125,000 Canadian dollars against student associations and unions — which derive their financing from tuition fees — in a direct move to break the movement. For example, student associations will be found guilty if they do not stop their members from protesting within university and college grounds.
During a street demonstration, the organization that plans the protest will be penalized if individual protesters stray from the police-approved route or exceed the time limit imposed by authorities. Student associations and unions are also liable for any damage caused by a third party during a demonstration.
These absurd regulations mean that student organizations and unions will be held responsible for behavior they cannot possibly control. They do not bear civil responsibility for their members as parents do for their children.
Freedom of speech is also under attack because of an ambiguous — and Orwellian — article in Bill 78 that says, “Anyone who helps or induces a person to commit an offense under this Act is guilty of the same offense.” Is a student leader, or an ordinary citizen, who sends a Twitter message about civil disobedience therefore guilty? Quebec’s education minister says it depends on the context. The legislation is purposefully vague and leaves the door open to arbitrary decisions.
The law will remain in force only until July 1, 2013. The short duration says it all. It amounts to a temporary suspension of certain liberties and allows the government to avoid serious negotiations with student leaders. And it grants the authorities carte blanche for the abuse of power; just hours after it passed, police officers in Montreal began to increase the use of force against protesters.
If Charest has success with these tactics, how long will it be until conservatives in the U.S. follow in his footsteps?