At the end of last week, the Quebec government tabled Bill 78 in an effort to end the months of protest over planned hikes to university tuition. The bill sets restrictions on the freedom of assembly and expression, requiring those in protests over 50 people to ascertain that the protest has been officially sanctioned by police and government officials. The bill also holds student associations, unions and their leaders accountable for the actions of their membership. The biggest problem with the law, like most draconian measures, is that it is vague in its definition of illegal activity and harsh on punishment. Not surprisingly, countless groups – including some that disagree with the tuition-based protest – have voiced their opposition to it, culminating in a mass demonstration on Tuesday in Montreal. Below is a translated version of an open letter, written by many of Quebec’s leading historians in reaction to the government’s bill. It is followed by brief summaries of the posts related to this issue published by our francophone partner site, HistoireEngagee.ca.
Here is the letter:
In the silence of rejection, the chains of the slave and the voice of the whistleblower are no longer heard. All tremble before the tyrant. It is as dangerous to encourage their favour as merit their disgrace. The historian is charged with the people’s vengeance. It is in vain that Nero prospers, for Tacitus has already been born into the empire.” – François-René de Chateaubriand, Mémoires d’outre-tombe.
As professors and historians who, alongside others, have documented Quebec’s political history, we affirm that we have rarely seen the government commit as blatant an assault on the fundamental rights underpinning Quebec society.
The rights to free expression, to protest, and to assemble are at the heart of our democracy. These civil and political rights determine our belonging and participation within the life of our political community. From the struggle of the Patriots during the 1830s to that of the union movement during the Quiet Revolution, these rights were at the heart of our province’s historical transformation; they were central to the fights of women, Aboriginal people and others for political recognition. Our political regime cannot fully claim to be a democracy without the rights enshrined in the Charters. Democracy requires that citizens have the capacity to exercise their rights. This is the foundation of law in this country and the primary objective of political struggles since the beginning of the parliamentary system.
The student movement, by its actions over the past three months, has merely taken up the mantle of this democratic heritage. It is unbearable to watch a government using undemocratic practices in response to these protests. The principal function of a democratic state is to guarantee its citizens their rights and freedoms.
Worst of all is the government’s more recent act, Bill 78. According to the President of the Quebec Bar, this act calls into question the primacy of the rule of law in conflict resolution. Indeed, in its current form, Bill 78 clearly limits the right of all citizens to peaceful protest. It severely curtails the academic freedoms within the university. It suspends legitimate legal recourse and reverses the burden of proof by making student associations and unions responsible for the acts committed by others. Finally, it severely penalizes citizens, student associations and unions who do not comply with the provisions of this exceptional law.
In its current form, Bill 78 is a wicked and infamous law. We call on all those in this country who care about our fundamental political freedoms to mobilize against this aggressive act against our rights and liberties.