Montreal police image via VICE doc "Protesting Police Brutality in Montreal."
The 2012 Quebec student strikehas left many legacies in the province: from a resurgent social media ready to capture police wrongdoings, to ongoing local neighbourhood assemblies, to debates on whether a 3 per cent tuition fee indexation was actually a victory in the end. But one of the most enduring, and possibly counterintuitive, has been the crackdown on protests in the province's largest – and most active – city.
Two years later, Montreal police continue to carry out mass arrests and to dole out huge fines, backed by laws brought in and popularized during the strike. As the number of arrests continued to rise, though, civil liberties advocates have increased their push to see the laws thrown out. Over the past 24 months, challenges to two of the most controversial laws have been weaving through the courts, and class action filings continue to pile up.
“We see a complete lack of interest among politicians to even discuss the issue,” says Julien Villeneuve. A college philosophy teacher by trade, Villeneuve became known for donning a panda suit during protests, giving out hugs, and doing his best to rally people to the cause of accessible education and the right to protest. His alter-ego of Anarchopandawas born. While the strike ended, he's one of many who has continued to fight for the right to protest in Montreal.
I last saw Villeneuve on the streets of Montreal, sans panda costume, in a small police kettle at this year's anti-capitalist May Day demonstration. Montreal police didn't let the march get far before surrounding protesters and handing out$637 tickets for demonstrating without presenting police with an itinerary beforehand. Protesters had adopted a new strategy for May Day this year, organizing various meeting points, one after the other, throughout the city, in order to avoid one large group being arrested. It certainly worked to the degree that some were able to protest longer than last year, when the original group of 447 people was surrounded after about 15 minutes of walking. But police still used their newfound powers to hand out tickets to 146 people, including Villeneuve.
That's the common scene now on the streets of Montreal under a strengthened version of by-law P-6, which turned two years old this past week.
A refresher: amendments to the P-6 bylaw brought during the height of the student strike forces protesters to give their itinerary to police in advance for approval, and also bans anyone from covering their face during protests, under threat of being mass arrested and handed a $600 ticket. This by-law, along with the previously little-known article 500.1 of the Highway Safety Code (which police argue allows them to hand out $500 fines for blocking traffic), have become the bane of community organizers in the city.
While they have been trying to find creative ways to avoid mass arrests and hefty fines in the streets, challenges in the courts still hope to overturn the laws.
One of these challenges goes back to even before students took to the streets en masse in 2012. On March 15, 2011, 258 people were surrounded at the annual March Against Police-Brutality and ticketed for blocking the street underarticle 500.1. It was one of the few times the law had been used since being adopted in 2000.The Quebec government had brought it in with the goal of stopping recent highway blockades, notably carried out by discontent truckers.
The charter challenge was filed in August 2012, alleging the legislation violates the freedom of expression and the freedom to peaceful assembly. The challenge hit a speedbumpthis past April, though, when it was rejected by municipal court judge RichardStarck. The Ligue des droits et libertés quickly organized an appealof the decision, pointing to what it sees as several egregious errors in the ruling. “Even though the judge recognized the right to protest is protected by the [Canadian and Quebec] charters, he has imposed limits that cannot be justified,” said Nicole Fillion, coordinator with the Ligue, in an interview with VICE.
In their appeal, among other issues they point out that while the law says that it cannot be applied to protests that have been granted authorization, neither the Montreal police, nor City of Montreal lawyers, nor the Attorney General of Quebec, could say that there is a body that can even grant that authorization. The fact no one can actually grant an authorization for a demonstration presents an absolute restriction on the right to protest and should clearly invalidate the law, said Fillion. “With this decision, they are saying that we can only protest on sidewalks,” she added.
The appeal also argues the judge selectively interpreted the original debates justifying the legislation. While the law was adoptedin order to ensure that roadblocks did not hinder the delivery of food and provisions to a city, the ruling expands that justification to include the “efficient and safe use of public roadways,” a clear misinterpretation of the law, according to the Ligue.
They are still waiting for a decision on whether their motion to appeal is accepted, after which they will receive their next hearing date.
Even if they are successful on appeal and 500.1 does get thrown out, police still have their other potent tool: Montreal's P-6 by-law.
Opposition politicians and civil rights defenders may argue for police's beefed up powers under P-6 to be revoked, but Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre remains adamant: “The Coderre administration supports the police force... So long as I'm mayor of Montreal, P-6 is here to stay,” he said at a city council meeting at the end of May.
The Panda's charter challenge to P-6 is expected to be heard this winter, though, and Villeneuve believes it will force Coderre to eat his words. While the challenge was originally filed in 2012, the case has only gotten stronger over time, says Villeneuve, and so he and his lawyers decided to file an amended challenge last fall.
Originally, he said, the filing simply theorized that police would multiply their use of P-6 to mass arrest protesters in the future. “And that's what we've seen happen,” explained Villeneuve. “Actually, we could just keep adding and adding to it, but after a certain point you just need to stop [and file],” he said.
The case is set to be heard in December 2014, when Villeneuve and his lawyer will argue that articles 2.1 and 3.2 of the by-law, which, respectively, require protesters to provide an itinerary to police and to demonstrate without their faces covered, violate the freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, and an individual's right to liberty and security of the person, under both the Canadian and Quebec charters.
Another challenge to P-6 will be heard in September, when community organizer Jaggi Singh, who is a member of the Anti-Capitalist Convergence (CLAC), will head to court to challenge his arrest at the June 9, 2012, demonstration against the Montreal Grand Prix.For his part, he will be challenging the entirety of P-6, not simply the powers of articles 2.1 and 3.2 added in 2012. He sees the legal route as one tactic among several, but his faith isn't in finding a solution in front of the courts.
“I don't want to get people's hopes up,” he said in an interview. “P-6 has been challenged [in it's entirety] before...But it's worth trying again.” Instead, he says, he believes that P-6 will only really be defeated in the streets. Over 86 groups have signed on to a statementput out by the CLAC pledging to refuse to abide by P-6.
Accumulating just as quickly as arrests have been class action lawsuits against the Montreal police on behalf of protesters, arguing, among other things, that their mass detentions in kettles under P-6 and 500.1 are illegal and arbitrary, and therefore violate their rights to liberty and security of the person. Their possibility of success is still unclear, though: so far, all ten class actions filed are still waiting to be authorized by the courts in order to move forward. If they do, with almost 2,000 possible participants, it could theoretically cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The most recent class actionwas filed on behalf of participants of the 2014 annual march against police brutality, where again protesters were rounded up just as the march began, and given tickets under P-6. The Coalition Opposed to Police Brutality (COBP), which organized the march, hailed this class action as a first, since it is accusing Montreal police of violating the rights of protesters due to political profiling. While it's still unknown whether this is an argument the courts will agree with, for the COBP it goes to the heart of the problem: that P-6 grants police arbitrary power to decide which protests can go forward and which cannot.
In a posting on their site, they point to the fact that, since March 2013, at least 60 protests have been allowed to go forward in Montreal without authorization under P-6, while another 17 have been stopped. Montreal police have argued that under certain circumstances they will allow protests that violate P-6 to continue, but no official regulations have been produced. As the COPB also points out, demonstrations like this year's May Day and anti-police brutality marches were stopped before they even really started, meaning there was nothing to prove they would have proceeded differently than any of the demonstrations that the police tolerated.
“What we've seen is that you can defy P-6 unless they are organizing in name of COBP and CLAC,” said Singh.
That's exactly what troubles Fillion and Villeneuve as well: that P-6 seems to grant the police the power to arbitrarily decide which protests are good and which are bad. “It establishes unreasonable limits that give police the power to decide which protests can go forward and which cannot,” said Fillion. “They're supposed to apply the law, not make judgement calls,” added Villeneuve.
It all adds up to an ongoing trivialization of the right to protest, say both Villeneuve and Fillion. The fact that there's been no further debate at city hall, despite opposition to the by-law from not just “anarchists like us” (as Villeneuve puts it), but also from groups like the Quebec Bar Association, shows just how low on protecting the right to freedom of expression is on the list of politicians' priorities, said Villeneuve.
“They don't seem to care about civil liberties in general.”