|Saturday, 26 May 2012 12:21|
MONTREAL - The three main student groups behind a boycott of classes that is in its 15th week formed a common front Friday with more than 100 unions and individuals against the Quebec government"s emergency legislation, asking the court to strike down the bill that restricts protests, arguing that it infringes on fundamental freedoms.
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.
"Thousands of lawyers worked through the night on this," said Léo Bureau-Blouin, president of the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec, at a press conference outside the Montreal courthouse. "It"s the biggest constitutional challenge in Quebec history."
Bill 78 was adopted last week by Premier Jean Charest"s Liberal government in hopes of quelling some of the recent months" unrest over Quebec"s plan to hike tuition fees and to allow "students to receive instruction from the post-secondary institutions they attend."
But it seems to have had the opposite effect. People from all walks of life, who hadn"t been involved in the nightly student demonstrations and didn"t necessarily support the student strike, have joined in, denouncing the law as trampling on fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association. Civil libertarians and constitutional experts have weighed in, while the New York Times and the Guardian newspaper in England have also taken an interest.
A massive march on Tuesday, just days after the legislation was passed, drew hundreds of thousands, turning Montreal into a sea of red – the colour that has come to symbolize the uprising. Recently, a cacophony of pot-banging has begun filling the air between 8 and 8:30 nightly, as even regular folk step outside their homes from Villeray to NDG to join in. There have been hundreds of arrests.
The law suspends the academic term in progress and provides for when and how classes are to resume, as well as restricting protests.
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 solidarité syndicale étudiante (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.
Léo 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."
Article 16 also gives the police the power to force organizers to change the itinerary, it says.
"Theoretically the police could force a demonstration planned for Parc Lafontaine that would go along Sherbrooke to Atwater to change that itinerary to St. Jean Baptiste in Pointe aux Trembles."
Article 17 of the law requires organizers of demonstrations as well as student associations and federations to take "appropriate means" to see that the march conforms to the information provided to police under article 16.
The words "appropriate means" are too ambiguous, the motion says. What could student associations or federations, who are not organizers of a demonstration, do to ensure the route is reported to police ahead of time and then followed?
The second motion filed Friday asks for the entire law to be struck down because it violates both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as the Quebec Charter.
Among other things, it says the fines for not respecting the law are exorbitant and could instill enough fear that a person might avoid all demonstrations altogether.