In 2012, Québec went through the most important student strike in its history. Leaving aside the referendum campaigns of 1980 and 1995, no comparable political mobilization had occurred in the province since the 1970s. This decade was marked by the mass arrests of the 1970 October Crisis1, as well as the imprisonment of union leaders after they had enjoined their members to defy a special law forcing a return to work on public sector employees in April 1972. As we will see, the student strike of the 2012 “spring” was subject to a repression equal in scale to that deployed against those historical contestation movements.
Last November, the ex-spokesperson of the CLASSE2, the most militant student organization involved in the conflict, was convicted of contempt of court for statements made in May 2012 on RDI, a public sector news channel. Questioned about certain injunctions prohibiting the blocking of access to classrooms, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois asserted that it was unfortunate for a minority of students to resort to the justice system in order to circumvent mandates adopted in general assemblies. Relaying positions adopted by the CLASSE in its assembly, Nadeau-Dubois declared that it was “legitimate” to take any necessary means in order for strike votes to be respected—including, if necessary, to establish picket lines.3
In nearly half a century, never has a spokesperson been prosecuted and condemned as a consequence of statements uttered in the public sphere. The ruling handed down by Judge Denis Jacques will, if upheld, constitute a dangerous precedent for social movements in Québec and in Canada, putting the “dignity of the court” over and above the right to free speech. The verdict immediately raises the question of the independence of the judicial system. Indeed, student organizations did not fail to underline the close links between Judge Jacques and the Québec Liberal Party, in power during the conflict. However, these allegations of partisanship are less concerning than the content of the judgment itself, which bears all the marks of juridical positivism, a dominant paradigm (alas!) in our law faculties. For the proponents of positive law, legality finds its foundation in the ordering of law itself, which is thereby elevated as a transcendent and unquestionable principle. Proclaiming himself defender of “the primacy of law over the arbitrary” and of “social order over chaos,” Judge Jacques’s verdict rests chiefly on the remark of former American President John F. Kennedy: “Our Nation is founded on the principle that observance of the law is the eternal safeguard of liberty, and defiance of the law is the surest road to tyranny.” Concluding that the accused “advocates anarchy and encourages civil disobedience” in his statements, the judge declared Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois guilty of contempt of court, and condemned him to 120 hours of community service. The case is, of course, in appeal.
The Morasse v. Nadeau-Dubois case is but one of the numerous illustrations of the predominant role played by judicial institutions throughout the student conflict. Had it not been for the multiple injunctions obtained both by collegial/university institutions and by students eager to attend their classes, the spokesperson of the CLASSE could never have been accused of contempt of court. These steps constitute a major precedent. Indeed, even if it has never been guaranteed by any law, the Québécois students’ right to protest had always been subject to implicit recognition, both on the part of civil society and within governmental institutions. Yet last spring’s conflict was marked by this new form of mobilization of judicial authorities, both by private individuals and by educational establishments, either to assert an individual right to benefit from services for which one had paid, or to prohibit any hindrance on free traffic in and out of educational establishments. These injunctions had the effect of criminalizing picketing, which has been, for half a century, the means of choice for student organizations to force governments into negotiation. In several educational institutions, the enforcement of court orders gave rise to what the mainstream media referred to as “confrontations” between students and police forces.4 The term is ill chosen. One cannot speak of confrontation when one party delivers the blows and the other receives them. The term “repression” suits the situation better, though it often remains absent from the vocabulary employed by journalists.
Yet all the injunctions seeking to prohibit the blocking of access to educational institutions did not give rise to “confrontations.” Given the determination of large numbers of students to defy court orders, several colleges and universities took the decision to close down, thereby avoiding police intervention.5 The injunctions were therefore without effect in these institutions. Generally speaking, police interventions did not fare any better in trying to ensure that classes would be held. Institutions generally preferred to suspend their activities following these repressive events, which are evidently harmful to the processes of teaching and learning.6 Overall, we can say that the recourse to injunctions in educational institutions was ineffective in breaking strike mandates. We can also add that they had the effect of tainting the relationship between college/university administrations and student associations, in addition to provoking several interventions which were as violent as they were unnecessary.
While they placed great pressure on student associations locally, the injunctions were also part of a much larger process of delegitimation and criminalization of the movement. The word “strike” was thus subject to a constant semantic struggle throughout the seven months of the conflict. Supporters of tuition fee increases, chief among which was the government, preferred the term “boycott,” thereby reducing a collective movement to a number of individual acts.7 Given the absence of any law recognizing the right to strike for student associations, we are forced to recognize that the courts proved them right. Like the word “strike,” the concept of “violence” was subject to a full-fledged semantic war. Both for the government and for right-wing media, it was the students who had a monopoly on “violence.” The Minister of Culture even equated wearing the red square, the renowned symbol of the movement, with a message of “violence and intimidation.” Visibly dangerous, the “red squares”—as it had become customary to call student militants such as ourselves—were sometimes subject to targeted inspections. For instance, when the Formula 1 Grand Prix was held in Montreal, people who looked like student militants endured systematic frisking in the underground metro network. Several people wearing the symbol next to the Gilles Villeneuve circuit, including two journalists from the daily newspaper Le Devoir, were detained for several hours without any charges, and without even being declared under arrest.
From February 16th to September 3rd 2012, we saw a total of 3,418 arrests related to the student conflict.8 This was the largest wave of arrests in the history of Canada. In some demonstrations, police forces used enclosure manoeuvres in order to proceed to mass arrests. As of May 20th, 318 people had thus been temporarily detained by the Montreal Police Service (SPVM) and cooped up in buses for many hours, waiting to receive a $634 fine. On May 23rd, 518 demonstrators in Montreal and 176 in Québec City endured the same fate. In the five days following the adoption of the controversial Bill 78 (i.e., from May 18th to the 23rd), 1,281 arrests were made in the whole province, which is more than the third of total arrests made during the conflict. Many of the arrested were ordinary citizens taking part in the “casserole” demonstrations in support of students.9
One cannot ignore the fact that these mass arrests occurred only days after the adoption of a particularly controversial special law in the National Assembly of Québec, on May 18th. Looking to curb social contestation, Law 78 not only prohibited any form of disturbance of educational activities; it also set strict limitations to the right to protest, as well as severe fines for individuals and organizations contravening these provisions.10 The adoption of the special law constituted a turning point in the social conflict; partly because it adjourned the academic terms of striking students until August (when Québec would have been in the middle of an electoral campaign) and also because it elicited a wave of popular indignation, which gave the movement a new lease of life. The “casserole” demonstrations began in reaction to the special law, and they offered an opportunity for a substantial number of ordinary citizens to demonstrate their opposition to the authoritarian manner in which the Charest government had managed the student conflict. The end of May, one of the high points of the strike, was thus simultaneously marked by a hardening of the government’s position and an enlargement of the protesters’ base.
Questioned on the subject of these mass arrests, the Minister of Public Security Robert Dutil maintained that the requirements of Law 78 were reasonable and that obedience to the law was a duty in a democracy, insisting that those individuals who refused to comply with the law were anti-capitalists and thugs. Developing a Hobbesian argument, he defended all police interventions, arguing that certain individuals were evil by nature and that, without an effective repressive machine, society would quickly descend into chaos.11 Law 78 and mass arrests, as well as the adoption by the city of Montreal of a new regulation prohibiting the wearing of masks during demonstrations, were subject to sharp criticism from civil society organizations such as trade unions, the Ligue des droits et libertés (League of Rights and Freedoms), Amnesty International, and even two independent experts sent by the United Nations.12 The Minister of International Relations, reacting to the latter’s criticisms, invited the United Nations to concern itself with more urgent social crises, citing the cases of Mali and Syria.
The orchestration of mass arrests for the sake of political repression is unfortunately not an exceptional practice in Canada. The actions of police forces during the student conflict are reminiscent of the political repression during the G20 summit in Toronto, on the 27th and 28th of June 2010. As Francis Dupuis-Déri reminds us, ‘The police repression during the G20 summit in Toronto resulted in about 1,200 arrests. In 96% of cases, people were declared innocent or prosecutions were abandoned (there were therefore over 1,000 arrests for nothing).’13 Concerned with the arbitrary character of police actions, as well as the appearance of political repression, dozens of lecturers and university professors are now demanding an independent public investigation with a mandate to shed light on the actions of police persons during the student conflict.14 Such an investigation could offer an opportunity to question the apparent impunity enjoyed by the police, which is rarely if ever called into question, even after obvious acts of violence.
In Montreal, the wave of repression after the adoption of Law 78 was followed by a remarkable transformation in the police’s attitudes and strategies. In the last week of May and the first few days in June, large numbers of citizens participated in “casserole” demonstrations without being dissuaded by mass arrests. As it was inefficient in tactical terms and, one hopes, untenable in principle, the systematic repression of peaceful demonstrations was abandoned in favor of a more lenient attitude. Previously, the slightest act of vandalism could become a pretext for the violent dispersal of demonstrations at times numbering several thousands of people. But the SPVM raised its threshold of tolerance slightly, banking less on massive violence and more on targeted arrests. We could not believe our ears when we heard the chief of police inviting the crowd to demonstrate calmly, “if you please.” Nevertheless, the muscular repression of a demonstration on September 22nd left us in doubt about this change of attitude, which seems to be only the exception confirming the rule.
On multiple occasions, minor clashes escalated the tensions between police and protesters, leading to the dispersal of demonstrations by riot police who were already dispatched on the field. Those few cases where attempts at dispersal were met with active resistance from demonstrators are therefore called “riots.” Since they felt subject to excessive—if not outright arbitrary—repression, several demonstrators felt that it was legitimate to use means which would allow them to continue occupying public space, such as erecting barricades, lighting fires, unbolting hydrants, or throwing rocks at riot police. These riots were also opportunities for some proponents of direct action to attack symbols of power: police vehicles, financial institutions, Canadian armed forces, or the office of Prime Minister Charest. If the majority of demonstrations did not give rise to clashes between students and police forces, arbitrary arrests, as well as some serious injuries (punctured eyes, broken teeth, fractured limbs and skulls), fanned the flames of discord.15 The few riots punctuating the conflict were indeed a direct consequence of the strong animosity prevailing between police forces and protesters.
Some say that the provincial election of September 4th 2012 put an end to the student conflict which had begun on February 13th. But such an observation should not make us forget that the echoes of the Maple Spring are still being felt on judicial and legislative levels. Despite representing itself as universal, liberal law is in no way neutral. It easily abandons itself to the arbitrary as soon as men and women rise and fight against policies enacted by neoliberal governments. “The Emperor has no clothes!” Defenders of social justice and political liberties are treated as extremists. The instigators of supposed economic disturbances are prosecuted under anti-terrorist laws.16 The federal government adopts a new law envisaging minimal prison sentences for anyone who covers his/her face while participating in a gathering deemed illegal by police forces. “The Emperor has no clothes!” Universities and colleges, places of thought and discussion, have been invaded by the police, while administrations that are constantly screaming about underfunding always find money to increase camera surveillance and hire new security guards. “The Emperor has no clothes!” A former liberal militant, now a judge, reminds us that freedom of speech and thought remains a fragile achievement, in times when police persons using excessive force are congratulated on their good work, and protected by a partisan deontological system run by other police persons.
Last spring’s events were rich in lessons for whoever is interested in contemporary social movements, and especially in the violence that the State is willing to employ in order to enforce its austerity policies. Far from being restricted to the Québécois context, the last student strike is symptomatic of a general growth in social conflict across Western nations. Just like the Greek crisis, the Occupy movement, the Spanish Indignados or the London riots, it raises the question of repression. What means are governments willing to mobilize in order to preserve order and to strangle contestation? While they are all specific to their contexts, these different movements are equally imprinted with a global character, and call for solidarity with their respective struggles in order to achieve common emancipation. •
Charles Carrier-Plante is an M.A. candidate in Sociology at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM). He took part in the 2012 student strike as an active militant.
This article was translated from French by Chihab El Khachab.
- In October 1970, the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ, Québec Liberation Front), a radical left- wing group fighting for the independence of Québec, kidnapped the British diplomat James Cross as well as the Minister of Labor, Pierre Laporte. These kidnappings led to the suspension of civil liberties, after Prime Minister Pierre-Eliott Trudeau enforced the War Measures Act. The Canadian army was dis patched in the province, and several hundreds of separatist and syndicalist militants were arrested and detained without mandate.
- Coalition Large pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (which translates, roughly, as Broad Coalition for Trade Union-Student Solidarity).
- This excerpt of Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois’ statement appears in the judgment returned on November 1st: “What is clear is that those decisions, those attempts to force the return to classes never work, because the students who have been on strike for 13 weeks are solidary with each other, they respect, in general, they respect the democratic will which was expressed through the strike vote and I think it is absolutely legitimate for students to use the necessary means to ensure respect for the democratic choice which was made to go on strike. It is totally regrettable that there really is a minority of students who use the courts to circumvent the collective decision which was taken. So we think it’s totally legitimate that people should take necessary means to ensure respect for the strike vote and if it takes picket lines, we think that’s a totally legitimate means of doing so.” See the full judgment in Morasse v. Nadeau-Dubois: http://www.ledevoir.com/documents/pdf/jugement_dubois.pdf.
- For example at the Université du Québec en Outaouais (April 19th), in the colleges of Rosemont (May 14th), Lionel-Groulx (May 15th) and Saint-Jérôme (May 17th), and in the Université de Montréal (August 27th-28th).
- Particularly in the colleges of Valleyfield and Édouard-Monpetit, and in the Université du Québec à Montréal.
- Thus the colleges of Rosemont, Lionel-Groulx and Saint-Jérôme did not put an end to their strike until mid-August. It needs to be said, however, that having taken a repressive line until the end, the Université de Montréal remains a notable exception on this count.
- In Canada, a strike always applies to a bargaining unit in its entirety. Strikes are, therefore, always a collective act, affecting an organization as a whole. The structures of student unionization are carbon-copied from this North-American union model, first institutionalized in the United States following the ratification of the Wagner Act, in 1935. In Canada, it was adopted following the introduction of the Rand formula in 1946.
- The complete appraisal of these arrests figures on the website of the Collectif opposé à la brutalité policière (Collective opposed to police brutality), supervised by Francis Dupuis-Déri, Professor of Political Science in the Université du Québec à Montréal. http://cobp.resist.ca/documentation/grevetudiante-2012-3418-arrestations-du-16-f-vrier-au-3-septembre-2012-bilan-d-finiti.
- The “casserole” refers to the noisy pots and pans used in demonstrations. The use of pots and pans in the Québécois student conflict was inspired by an earlier citizen movement against Pinochet’s dictator ship in Chile.
- An individual contravening certain sections of Law 78 would expose him/herself to fines ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. These fines totalled $7000 to $35,000 for the organizers and spokespersons of student associations, and $25,000 to $125,000 for student associations themselves. If those convicted re- offend, all amounts are doubled.
- Francis Dupuis-Déri, « Mouvement étudiant et répression policière—Pour une commission d’enquête publique » (Student movement and police repression—For a public investigation committee), Le Devoir, September 19th 2012, [online] < http://www.ledevoir.com/societe/justice/359443/pour-une-commission-d-enquete-publique > (page consulted on January 18th 2013).
- We will only give one example. On the morning of March 7th, a group of several hundred students blocked access to the building housing the offices of the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux du Québec (CRÉPUQ, Québec’s council of university and college heads) in downtown Montreal. Every thing remained calm until the police arrived. Then riot police violently dispersed the tightly-packed crowd. In addition to batons and cayenne pepper, the SPVM used stun grenades, better known as flash bang. When thrown vertically, these weapons produce powerful detonations, spreading panic among demonstrators. When thrown in the crowd, they can cause serious injuries. That day, Francis Grenier, 22 years old, was seriously injured to the eye. Having begun legal proceedings, he claims $350,000 in damage from the SPVM. In the days following the events, several protesters wore eye-patches in solidar ity with this first martyr of the Maple Spring. The following slogan became popular: “Les policiers c’est dangereux, ça crève les yeux.” (The police are dangerous, it’s blindingly obvious.)
- On the morning of May 10th 2012, during rush hour, smoke devices were simultaneously activated in different metro stations in Montreal. Four suspects apprehended in this case now stand accused under anti-terrorist laws adopted in the wake of September 11th, 2001.