Quebec Labor Unions Join Students in Historic Fight Against 'Bill 78'

A woman and child bang pots prior to the start of a night march in Montreal on May 25, 2012. (John Kenney/Postmedia News)

Quebec Labor Unions Join Students in Historic Fight Against 'Bill 78'

'Biggest constitutional challenge in Quebec history” say students, labor

Not lightning, not heavy rain, nor threat of police arrest kept protesters off the streets of Montreal and other Quebec cities on Friday night, as violent rainstorm was met only with another rowdy demonstrations as students and citizens banged on pots and pans to continue their promise to hold nightly events until what they call is a 'draconian law' is overturned.

Friday nights rally culminated a week that saw over 2,500 arrests by Montreal police.

Earlier on Friday, three main student groups, who organized a march of over 400,000 Montreal students and citizens earlier this week and have been the driving force behind a protest movement that has only grown since it began in February, joined with over a hundred labor unions to file legal action against the Quebec government's Bill 78 -- a piece of emergency legislation that the groups claim suppresses dissent, restricts the right to peaceably assemble and, according to some, have the real intention of splitting up the student associations who have been so effective in challenging the government.

"It's the biggest constitutional challenge in Quebec history."

Lawyers worked through the night to complete their challenge, said Leo Bureau-Blouin, president of the Federation etudiante collegiale du Quebec, at a press conference outside the Montreal courthouse on Friday. "It's the biggest constitutional challenge in Quebec history."

While the court challenge intends to quash Bill 78 permanently, the groups also filed a motion to have key articles in the law suspended until a decision is rendered on the constitutionality of the law, reports the Montreal Gazette.

Boisterious rallies have occurred every evening this week, with people banging on pots, pans, and other noisemakers -- and as word and videos spread of the activity in Montreal, the movement is now spreading to other cities in Quebec and across Canada.

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Video that surfaced Friday night and started rapidly spreading online of the "pots and pans" protests:

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Montreal Gazette: Students, unions join forces in bid to get rid of Bill 78

The motion filed Friday in Quebec Superior Court asks that articles 16-21 of the law be suspended, pending a decision on quashing the entire law. Articles 16 and 17 spell out what steps have to be taken by organizers of demonstrations of 50 people or more. Articles 18-21 deal with student associations that prevent students from attending classes and aim to cut off their funding, either through the institutions or through student fees.

"The goal is to destroy the associations," Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, co-spokesperson for Coalition large de l'association pour une solidarite syndicale etudiante (CLASSE), said at the news conference, where several union representatives were present.

Martine Desjardins, leader of the FEUQ, agreed, pointing out that the fines for associations that disobey the law are "enormous." An association that violates the law is subject to a fine of $25,000 to $125,000. The fines are doubled for a second offence. A student association can lose one semester of membership fees for every day the law is violated.

Leo Bureau-Blouin, leader of FECQ, said arguments for the suspension are to be heard Wednesday. He said he expects the fight to go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada fairly rapidly.

The challenge is led by FECQ, FEUQ and the CLASSE, and is backed by several big labour federations.

The motion asking that articles 16-21 be suspended quotes retired Quebec Superior Court Judge John Gomery from an interview he gave CBC Radio's The House on May 19, the day after the law was adopted.

According to the motion, Gomery said, "The new law does put a limitation on free expression. The question is whether or not that limitation is reasonable."

He also said: "The legislation goes very far" and will take a long time to be debated and sorted out before the courts.

The motion points out that the law requires that organizers of any demonstration of 50 or more must first give their itinerary to the police at least eight hours before the march.

"Given that we're talking about a demonstration that is going happen, how can one predict if there'll be fewer than 50 people? This means that information must be given to police in all cases and the number 50 is nothing but a phony figure," the motion says.

Also, is that figure of 50 to be applied at the beginning, during or end of the demonstration? the motion asks. "No one knows."

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Canadian Press: Quebec Protests: anger over anti-protest law, Bill 78, spreads

Since Premier Jean Charest passed a law last week limiting protests in the province, defiant demonstrations have popped up in cities not known as hotbeds of activism.

Small groups from Granby, south of Montreal, to Jonquiere, north of Quebec City, have joined Montrealers in taking to the streets with pots and pans to protest Bill 178.

Participants have also remarked on their apparent spontaneity. There are no organizing committees or leaders. Details are simply spread on Facebook or through word of mouth.

Their message is clear: This conflict is not just about tuition anymore.

In recent days, between 50 and 200 people have been gathering to protest the law in Trois-Rivieres, an industrial city roughly halfway between Montreal and Quebec City.

"This has gone beyond the student movement," said Gaetan Bouchard, a local blogger and longtime social activist.

"Bill 78 has brought out many citizens and workers," Bouchard added. "The group has been about 50-50: half students, half people of all ages and all horizons."

Unlike Montreal's protests, some of which have ended with broken windows and mass arrests, the demonstrations outside the city have tended to be calm.

Their festive atmosphere - the goal is to make as much noise as possible - makes an inviting environment for families and the elderly.

Reports from the 500-strong march in Granby described a wide cross-section of ages taking part, a sharp contrast from the student-dominated protests of previous weeks.

Participants have also remarked on their apparent spontaneity. There are no organizing committees or leaders. Details are simply spread on Facebook or through word of mouth.

It is enough to give devoted leftists a ray of hope after almost 10 years of Charest's Liberal government.

"I'm 44 years old - I feel like I've been waiting my entire life for this," said Bouchard.

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National Post: Fighting words: A look at what Quebec student protesters are really thinking

To understand the students' mindset, the National Post asked a set of questions to some of the marchers and to other students. Far from dampening their enthusiasm, the passage of Bill 78 has only hardened their resolve, and they say they are prepared to continue until the government gives in.

Patricia Dagenais, 24, art history student at Universite de Montreal

Common Dreams

Q. What exactly are you protesting against?

A: It started out as student tuition fee hike. We were against it, and we're still against it, but now it has turned into a social fight. We're against this stupid law that restricts our possibility to demonstrate freely.

Q: How do you justify the fact that citizens are inconvenienced by the demonstrations, for example office workers, taxi drivers, shop owners?

A: Quebecers have long been what we call metro, boulot, dodo, basically take the metro, go to work, go home to sleep. We're trying to wake them up, saying that, you know what, we're fighting now, but it's for you guys also. It's for everyone. Is it justified to block [people stuck in traffic] from going to get their kids? It's not pointless. It's justified. So you're stuck there. You're going to be stuck for an hour, maybe 30 minutes, but what's an hour or 30 minutes of your day? We're not terrorists; we're students. The only way we have to get heard is to bother people in the streets a little bit.

Q: Is what is going on evidence of a healthy democracy?

A: It's direct democracy. It's people going out in the streets. We don't live in a democracy right now. We live in a representative democracy that is basically flawed. The corporations, the multinationals, and the oligarchies are going up against the people and getting richer and richer, with our money. That's why people throw rocks at the banks because they're getting so much richer than us, and we're getting poorer every day.

Q: Is this a sign that the street should be more powerful than a democratically elected government?

A: I think at all times the street should be more powerful, except for maybe after a Canadiens game. For any social movement it's justified. Everywhere in the world -- in Chile, in Spain, in Italy -- everybody's taken to the streets, and they are far more violent than us, they are radical, they are against this austerity plan. The street is a beautiful place, and the energy that comes from it when you really participate is a real thing. It's a real power.

Q: How much tuition should students pay?

A: I am a partisan of free tuition.

Q What should the demonstrators do if the government refuses to back down on tuition hikes? Is it possible that this is a battle you cannot win?

A: The whole world is taking interest in us, and it gives us energy. I've been in the street for three months, almost six hours a day demonstrating against this. And we're able to go on further. As to the possibility of us giving in, well, dude, there's some elections coming up. We're saying, 'We're going to see you at election time, Mr. Charest.' "

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