A draconian law passed to quell student protests against tuition fee rises has provoked an unprecedented backlash amongst the population of Quebec. Protests and arrests are escalating nightly, as faith in the police is tested.
100. One hundred days have now passed since the “Printemps Érable” (“Maple Spring”)began in February 2012. Students have been protesting on the streets of Montreal each night against announced increases in their tuition fees, ordered by government of Jean Charest, the Canadian province’s premier. Fees would jump from $2,168 to $3,793 Canadian dollars a year by 2017, a rise of 75% in five years. While that might seem low in comparison to rates in the US, it is intolerable to a population who traditionally believe education should be financially accessible to all – if not free.
Last week a special bill was passed following a debate that lasted some 21 hours. Law 78 includes provisions that restrict protests and outlaw picket lines near colleges, and will be enforced until July 2013. From now on, if more than 50 people are expected to attend a protest, organisers must declare to authorities where and when it will take place up to eight hours before it starts; authorities can refuse permission for protests to take place. Offenders will have to pay harsh penalties: between $1,000 and $7,000 Canadian dollars for an individual, and up to $125,000 for unions or associations.
The bill has drawn the ire of the highly unionised workers of Quebec, helping spread the protests far beyond just the student world. According to Moïse Marcoux-Chabot, a documentary maker, a law designed to restore calm to the streets is likely to have the opposite impact.
This law was expected to bring order, but it is about to become the very purpose of the protests.
The day after the law was enacted, a night demonstration was declared illegal by the Montreal police just 10 minutes after it began. The situation quickly descended into chaos; police made 300 arrests, a dozen people were injured, including one with a serious head wound . On Wednesday and Thursday night about another 1,100 protestors were arrested, as demonstrations spread to other cities.
The current upheaval and the authorities response to it are unprecedented in an ordinarily calm and peaceful country. Demonstrators and police are squaring off not just on the streets but also on social networks. Montreal police, who were already known for their heavy use of Twitter, have been live-tweeting the activities of their squads and the protest routes. Following the passing of Bill 78 into Law 78, demonstrators were informed that their movement was now illegal via a tweet.
— Police Montréal (@SPVM) May 21, 2012
Every night, when the demonstration starts, 140-character messages appear on Twitter, reassuring, debunking, informing or even misinforming the 29,000 followers of the @svpm account. Many users tweeted questions and accusations of police brutality directed against protesters. They reflect the steady disintegration of public confidence in the police force, until now considered to be trusted guardians of the province’s safety.
The numerous sousveillance (pdf) videos flooding the Internet have contributed to the swing in the public mood. Protesters have been posting videos of police brutality directed against demonstrators. Most of those videos are published without any context or identifiable sources. On Facebook, a video library was created to offer the news media material to use in their reports on the “Maple Spring”.
The videos are explicit: truncheon blows, a police car versus a single protester, and the abusive use of pepper spray on some provocative but non-aggressive demonstrators. The Facebook page is representative of the sort of electronic civil disobedience that can take root on the Internet.
On Twitter, both police and demonstrators use the same hash tags: #manifencours (demonstration on here) and #GGI (“Grève Générale Illimitée” or “Non-stop General Strike”). Law 78 gives police officers the potential right to track Twitter users through their tweets, and convict them if they organized or took part in an illegal demonstration. However, the legality of this method is yet to be determined in the courts, something new Minister for Education Michelle Courchesne highlighted when the law was enacted.
Faced with the possibility that Twitter might be used as a tool of the judiciary, French Twitter user @leclown has decided to get around the new law. He created @manifencoursQbc, a Twitter account which, based in France, operates beyond the reach of Law 78. Once @manifencoursQbc follows a user back, private direct messages can be sent to the account, which are in turn published as public tweets on the @manifencoursQbc feed.
At the time of writing 821 users are following the account. For @leclown, Twitter is likely to become another method for punishing demonstrators.
Lots of people use their real identity on Twitter, which I suppose can make the job easier for police officers determined to identify demonstrators. Police can legally scrutinise social networks. That’s why I decided to create the manifencoursQbc robot.”
His fears have been borne out by recent examples of social networks being used to convict protesters. During the riots that took place in the UK last summer, the Metropolitan Police analysed millions of Blackberry messages sent by the rioters. But these kinds of “Big Brother” tactics are seemingly not frightening off some protestors still determined to use the Internet and social networks to communicate.
Amir Khadir, the leader of the extreme left wing Quebec Solidaire party, denounced the special law, nicknamed the “Loi matraque” (“Truncheon law”) and called on Quebecers “to consider disobeying the law in a peaceful manner”. The website arretezmoiquelquun.com (Somebody Arrest Me!) aggregates photos of “les désobéissants”, citizens willing to register their disagreement with Law 78 to the world. Launched earlier this week, more than 4600 people have already taken part.
Activists claiming to represent the Anonymous movement offered their support to Quebecers in two video messages published on YouTube entitled “OpQuébec”. Judging by the French rather than Quebecois vocabulary spoken throughout, the videos appear to have been made by French Anonymous supporters, as noted by Florent Daudens of Radiocanada.
In protest at Law 78’s restrictions on freedom, Anonymous briefly forced offline several governmental websites at the weekend. On Monday they defaced the Quebec Minister for Public Security and Police Ethics websites, adding their familiar motto to the homepage.
On March 22, more than 200,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Montreal (from 7 million inhabitants), attracting the attention of international media, albeit briefly. Now again the protests sparked byLaw 78 are making headlines abroad, and people around the world are starting to show their support. This week, a number of demonstrations were organised in solidarity in Paris and New York.