[Marxism] Our Not-So-Friendly Northern Neighbor

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu May 24 10:53:32 MDT 2012

NY Times Op-Ed May 23, 2012
Our Not-So-Friendly Northern Neighbor


WHEN Vladimir V. Putin first came to power in Russia, Quebecers could 
not help but laugh. Poutine, as he is called in French, is also the name 
of a Québécois fast-food dish made of French fries, gravy and cheese. 
But these days the laughter is over, as Quebec gets a taste of Mr. 
Putin’s medicine.

For a change, Americans should take note of what is happening across the 
quiet northern border. Canada used to seem a progressive and just 
neighbor, but the picture today looks less rosy. One of its provinces 
has gone rogue, trampling basic democratic rights in an effort to end 
student protests against the Quebec provincial government’s plan to 
raise tuition fees by 75 percent.

On May 18, Quebec’s legislative assembly, under the authority of the 
provincial premier, Jean Charest, passed a draconian law in a move to 
break the 15-week-long student strike. Bill 78, adopted last week, is an 
attack on Quebecers’ freedom of speech, association and assembly. Mr. 
Charest has refused to use the traditional means of mediation in a 
representative democracy, leading to even more polarization. His 
administration, one of the most right-wing governments Quebec has had in 
40 years, now wants to shut down opposition.

The bill threatens to impose steep fines of 25,000 to 125,000 Canadian 
dollars against student associations and unions — which derive their 
financing from tuition fees — in a direct move to break the movement. 
For example, student associations will be found guilty if they do not 
stop their members from protesting within university and college grounds.

During a street demonstration, the organization that plans the protest 
will be penalized if individual protesters stray from the 
police-approved route or exceed the time limit imposed by authorities. 
Student associations and unions are also liable for any damage caused by 
a third party during a demonstration.

These absurd regulations mean that student organizations and unions will 
be held responsible for behavior they cannot possibly control. They do 
not bear civil responsibility for their members as parents do for their 

Freedom of speech is also under attack because of an ambiguous — and 
Orwellian — article in Bill 78 that says, “Anyone who helps or induces a 
person to commit an offense under this Act is guilty of the same 
offense.” Is a student leader, or an ordinary citizen, who sends a 
Twitter message about civil disobedience therefore guilty? Quebec’s 
education minister says it depends on the context. The legislation is 
purposefully vague and leaves the door open to arbitrary decisions.

Since the beginning of the student strike, leaders have told protesters 
to avoid violence. Protesters even condemned the small minority of 
troublemakers who had infiltrated the demonstrations. During the past 
four months of protests, there has never been the kind of rioting the 
city has seen when the local National Hockey League team, the Canadiens, 
wins or loses during the Stanley Cup playoffs. The biggest 
demonstration, which organizers estimate drew 250,000 people on May 22, 
was remarkably peaceful. Mr. Charest’s objective is not so much to 
restore security and order as to weaken student and union organizations. 
This law also creates a climate of fear and insecurity, as ordinary 
citizens can also face heavy fines.

Bill 78 has been fiercely denounced by three of four opposition parties 
in Quebec’s Legislature, the Quebec Bar Association, labor unions and 
Amnesty International. James L. Turk, the executive director of the 
Canadian Association of University Teachers, called Bill 78 “a terrible 
act of mass repression” and “a weapon to suppress dissent.”

The law will remain in force only until July 1, 2013. The short duration 
says it all. It amounts to a temporary suspension of certain liberties 
and allows the government to avoid serious negotiations with student 
leaders. And it grants the authorities carte blanche for the abuse of 
power; just hours after it passed, police officers in Montreal began to 
increase the use of force against protesters.

Some critics have tried to portray the strike as a minority group’s 
wanting a free lunch. This is offensive to most Quebec students. Not 
only are they already in debt, despite paying low tuition fees, but 63 
percent of them work in order to pay their university fees. The province 
has a very high rate of youth employment: about 57 percent of Quebecers 
between the ages of 15 and 24 work, compared with about 49 percent 
between the ages of 16 and 24 in the United States.

Both Quebec and Canada as a whole are pro-market. They also share a 
sense of solidarity embodied by their public health care systems and 
strong unions. Such institutions are a way to maintain cohesion in a 
vast, sparsely populated land. Now those values are under threat.

Americans traveling to Quebec this summer should know they are entering 
a province that rides roughshod over its citizens’ fundamental freedoms.

Laurence Bherer and Pascale Dufour are associate professors of political 
science at the University of Montreal.

More information about the Marxism mailing list