Montreal Protesters Are Automatically Being Entered Into Class-Action Suits Against the Government

Mass arrests during the 2012 Quebec student protests have led to eight class-action lawsuits that could force Montreal to hand over $20 million in damages.

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Dec 10 2014, 7:43pm

Montreal police spent $7.3 million on overtime during each 2012 student demonstration. Photo by E.K. Hudson.

​Full disclosure: E.K. Hudson was arrested in two of demonstrations, which prompted class-action lawsuits and she's not excluding herself from the suits. Here are the stories she filed: March 2​2, 2013 and A​pril 5, 2013.

Demonstrators have launched eight class-action lawsuits against the City of Montreal, claiming police violated their Charter-enshrined right to protest during the 2012 student strike.

The eight suits were given the go-ahead this summer with public notice given this week in a Journal Métro ad. The lawsuits automatically include anyone detained or ticketed in these demonstrations. If demonstrators choose to opt out of the suit, they have 90 days starting from December 6 to inform l​awyer Sibel Ataogul and her team.

Though Montreal police frequently used kettling and mass arrests throughout the student strike of 2012—popularly known as the Maple Spring—the tactic is by no means new.

In November 2005, the UN issued a repo​rt criticizing Montreal police for mass arrest tactics that encroach on the right to "peacefully participate in social protests." The report noted the then-striking fact that between 1999 and 2005, police arrested 2,000 demonstrators in Montreal, surpassing all other Canadian cities. 

However, that number pales in comparison to the arrests that took place during the student protests of 2012. In just six and a half months, between Feb. 16 and Sept. 3,  3,509 demonstrators we​re arrested in Montreal.

"Montreal, we're the capital of mass arrests in Canada," claims Alexandre Popovic, a Montreal activist who researches mass arrests and police brutality in the city.

Popovic was arrested in what seems to have been the first mass arrest that led to a class action—a precedent-setting case that Ataogul, the lead lawyer for the eight class actions now proceeding, is looking at carefully. The demonstration was an overnight Food Not Bombs action in Emile-Gamlin where 77 people were arrested and held overnight.

Popovic was involved in two different class actions. The first was launched in 1999 and the trial began in 2011. He eventually received $1,500. Demonstrators involved in the class-action suits now are hoping for more.

If all eight lawsuits are successful, the city will be forced to pay $21 million in damages to demonstrators. The damages for a March 22, 2013 protest, for example, which commemorated the one-year anniversary of the largest demonstration during the Maple Spring, could be as high as $6,638 per demonstrator who was kettled and ticketed.

Each of the class actions is linked to a demonstration in the last three years where police kettled demonstrators, detained them for hours (sometimes in extreme weather) and often doled out tickets to the tune of $637.

Class-action lawsuits allow a group of people who have a similar complaint to join their cases together and sue another party. The suits are designed as recourse for cases where people were less likely to independently bring their complaint forward for any number of reasons—financial or otherwise. A representative from the group must be chosen for each lawsuit to advance.

Julien Villeneuve, a CEGEP professor known during throu​ghout the Maple Spring as Anarchopanda, is the representative for one of the lawsuits. His class action is linked to a kettle and subsequent arrest of more than 400 demonstrators on May Day (May 1) 2013.

"To illegalize a demonstration is problematic. We have the right to gather, assemble and express ourselves in the public space," he said. "We're talking about people walking in the streets and chanting slogans."

All eight demonstrations from which the class actions stem were declared illegal under the controversial municipal bylaw P-6, which c​ame into place May 2012 amid the Maple Spring as demonstrations were reaching a daily fever pitch that nearly grinded the city's operations to a halt.

P-6 re​quires demonstrators to provide police with an itinerary of their protest actions. Failure to do so or any assembly police deem to "disturb the peace" constitutes a violation of the bylaw. P-6 also bans demonstrators from wearing masks.

P-6 prompted heavy ​criticism from many quarters, including the ​United Nations. The UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights spoke against Quebec's "new legislation" after the introduction of bylaw P-6 and the introduction of Bil​l 78, provincial legislation similar to P-6 to be enforced throughout the province. (Villeneuve has launched a constitutional challenge against the bylaw separate from the class-action lawsuits.) Anyone arrested for violating P-6 received a $637 ticket.

McGill law student Kevin Paul was arrested in two of the class-action demonstrations and is happy to see the actions moving forward—the money could make a big difference in paying off his student loans, if the suits are successful.

Guillermo, a Montreal student active in the student movement who would only be identified by his first name, was at four of the eight demonstrations that led to class-action suits.

"I'm very happy it's happening and I honestly just hope that this makes a dent in the [police's] funds," he wrote in an email.

At the height of the student strike, it was revealed that each demonstration cost Montr​eal police $7.3 million in overtime pay during spring 2012 and currently the City of Montreal is pa​ying $110,000 to outsource defense against Villeneuve's challenge to P-6. The City of Montreal refused to comment on the class action lawsuits but confirmed its in-house legal team would be handling the cases.

For Villeneuve, the $637 P-6 ticket is one of the major reasons many people stopped coming to demonstrations in Montreal and the continued threat of a ticket under the bylaw as an obstacle to mobilizing.

"There's a movement agains​t austerity in Quebec that is gaining traction and one of the obstacles that we have to overcome is the fear of police, the fear of brutality, the fear of P6, the fear of getting mass kettled and given fines." But Villeneuve is cautiously optimistic.

"It works until it doesn't and until people get fed up," he referenced a recent anti-austerity demonstration that openly violated P-6 by not giving police an itinerary and was well-attended.

"I think we're slowly started to overcome the barrier of fear and slowly starting to feel comfortable protesting again and it's going to be a long fight."

@EK_Hudso​n

Correction: The first version of this article said Montreal police could declare an assembly of 50 people illegal under municipal bylaw P-6. In fact, this provision was part of Bill 78, not P-6.

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