Protesters in Montreal are no longer required to provide a route to police. The Quebec Superior Court invalidated section 2.1 of Municipal Bylaw P-6 which was added at the height of the Maple Spring student protests in 2012 by then-Mayor Gerald Tremblay.
Over the past few years, Montreal Police (SPVM) used this provision to kettle and ticket protesters and to stop marches minutes after they started. The annual Anti-Police Brutality March being a frequent target.
The Quebec Superior Court had already invalidated Section 3.2 of the bylaw, the provision banning masks at protests, back in 2016. In the same ruling, the court put some restrictions on 2.1, but didn’t eliminate it entirely.
Not content with a partial victory, the plaintiffs, which included protest mascot Anarchopanda, decided to appeal. Today they won and the problematic parts of P-6 are gone and the court’s decision is effective immediately.
“Let’s not forget that this victory belongs to our comrades who take to the streets and risk police and judicial repression to fight for all our rights,” Sibel Ataogul, one of the lawyers fighting the appeal said in a Facebook post, adding: “Despite victories, judiciarisation is not the solution. Only the struggle pays.”
Protests, like potholes, are a year-round occurance in Montreal. The economy is in the toilet, tuition costs are on the rise, and Prime Minister Trudeau has turned his back on the young people whose coattails he rode into office.
Young people voted for Trudeau hoping that he would help stabilize employment in Canada only to be told to get used to temporary, low paying jobs without benefits. Quebeckers voted for Philippe Couillard hoping to do away with the Parti Québecois’ message of aggressive xenophobic secularism and language issues only to find the provincial government raising the language and signage disputes people are sick of. Municipal austerity measures are coming at the expense of the pensions our blue collar workers worked so hard for.
Votes don’t seem to count anymore and the cynicism pushed by bitter columnists is proving true. With the government ignoring the reason they were voted into office, people are forcing the government to listen by taking to the streets.
Everyone from students to cops to healthcare workers to Native leaders are taking to the streets with pickets, hoping to have their voices heard. Like the potholes, the City of Montreal has a pathetic track record of dealing with protests, reverting to persecution rather than reasonable negotiation. To our elected officials, protesters are not frustrated human beings with legitimate concerns but noisemakers and disruptors.
Laws Used Against Protesters
With the cops using their authority to assault people desperate to be heard, it’s time to look at the laws the government uses and overuses to suppress dissenters.
Let’s start with the Canadian Criminal Code.
Protesters are commonly charged with assault, harassment, mischief, unlawful assembly, and obstructing police officers. Since I addressed mischief in my piece on Devil’s Night, let’s look at the rest.
Assault is defined as applying force directly or indirectly to another person without their consent. The penalty is up to five years in prison unless the person is tried on summary conviction, which carries a lesser penalty. If a weapon is used in the assault, the penalty increases to a maximum of ten years, or if tried on summary conviction, a minimum of eighteen months. Since the definition of assault is so vague, it can range from hitting or kicking, to simply pushing and shoving.
Harassment is the act of engaging in conduct that would make a person feel harassed, which includes following them, repeatedly communicating with them, and watching their workplace. As protests often occur in front of government buildings where elected officials work, and repeated communication is the only way they feel they can be heard, it is far too easy for those ignoring them to call it harassment. Harassment is a serious charge, with a maximum penalty of ten years in prison, and its broad definition bears the risk of overuse.
Unlawful Assembly is when three or more people get together for a common purpose and their group causes the surrounding neighborhood to fear a disturbance of the peace. Unfortunately many protests, even peaceful, are noisy. An unlawful assembly charge, which fortunately only runs the risk of a summary conviction, is applied willy nilly by authorities to punish protesters.
Obstructing a police officer is a charge that became popular against protesters this past summer when people stormed the National Energy Board (NEB) hearings to voice their dissent against the proposed Energy East pipeline. To be convicted of this charge, the prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person resisted, willfully obstructed, or did not assist a public or peace officer in the execution of his or her duties. The penalty is up to two years in prison unless there is a summary conviction.
Protesters are also punished with municipal bylaws.
The municipal bylaw used to punish protesters is bylaw P-6, formally called the “By-law concerning the prevention of breaches of the peace, public order and safety, and the use of public property”.
The bylaw was added to by former Mayor Gerald Tremblay in 2012 following the massive student protests against tuition hikes. Article 2.1 of the bylaw requires assemblies, parades, or gatherings in public places to disclose their itineraries to authorities prior to the event. Article 3.2 of the bylaw makes it illegal for protesters to cover their faces with a scarf or hood without a reasonable motive.
We know about the laws used to punish protesters. Now let’s talk briefly about the laws meant to protect them and all of us.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms entrenched in our constitution guarantees freedom of thought, opinion, and expression. It guarantees freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association. It also guarantees the right against arbitrary detention. In spite of this, protesters are arrested left and right and their protests, no matter how peaceful, are punished as being unlawful.
Then there’s the Quebec Charter, a quasi-constitutional law entrenched in Quebec legislation. Like the Canadian Charter, it guarantees freedom of assembly and association.
Our criminal laws are also in place to protect, yet they are used to suppress protesters not keep them safe. Police officers who act prematurely by shooting rubber bullets and smashing people with batons rarely see any consequences for their actions, confirming the protesters’ belief that they are there to persecute, not protect.
Protests may be a public nuisance but they are a necessary one. As long as the government refuses to listen to the people who elected them, the protests will continue. As long as people feel voiceless, they will take to the streets to make sure they are heard.
For every time the government betrays the ones who voted for them, hundreds pickets will spring up. The act of listening and communication is the key to most conflict resolution. If politicians want the protesting to stop, they have to start listening.
In 2012, at the height of the Quebec Student Protests (Maple Spring), Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay’s administration amended Municipal Bylaw P-6 to include a ban on covering your face at public demonstrations and a requirement that protest organizers provide an itinerary. This effectively allowed Montreal Police (SPVM) to enforce Jean Charest’s controversial (and now defunct) Provincial Bill 78 without actually enforcing it.
This lead, of course, to more protest. Protest for the right to protest freely without first having to ask permission which had been taken away by these amendments. Kettling became a frequent SPVM tactic to end marches, sometimes just moments after they began.
Anarchopanda (the protest character of Julien Villeneuve) decided to challenge the bylaw amendments in a court of law as well. He argued that they were an unconstitutional violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which impeded freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. Today, four years later, the Quebec Superior Court agreed with him.
In its ruling, the court declared that Article 3.2, which barred anyone participating in an assembly or procession in a public space from covering their face without a “reasonable excuse,” was excessive, unreasonable and arbitrary. They also ruled that Article 2.1, which bars anyone from assembling in and/or marching through public space without first providing authorities with a route, could only be applied in cases where the march hampered automobile traffic and was inoperative when it came to spontaneous demonstrations.
In a press release posted to his Facebook page, Anarchopanda, who was represented in this case by Sibel Ataogul and Marie-Claude St-Amant of the Association des juristes progressistes, called for the immediate withdrawal of charges on all pending P-6 cases. A large number of P-6 cases had been previously thrown out due to the way the SPVM had enforced the bylaw.
Anarchopanda concluded his press release by saying he hopes “the SPVM will reform its practices to ensure respect for the constitutional rights of protestors.”
So today, the good ol’ Anarchopanda made a Facebook post that might signify the beginning of the end of bylaw P-6. Here’s a rough (very rough maybe) translation of what he’s written for our anglo readers.
“Judge Randall Richmond of the Municipal Court of Montreal made a decision regarding the trial of those people, who were defending themselves in court after being arrested on March 22, 2013 for violating article 2.1 of Bylaw P-6 (i.e. not providing an itinerary). The judge said:
Article 2.1 of P-6 does not constitute a violation,
Even if article 2.1 of P-6 did constitute a violation, the violation should have constrained the demonstration. Given that nothing in the evidence shows that the accused were the organizers of the demonstration, there is no link between the detainees and the violation of the article.
The police officers who have testified have written tickets for the detainee, without notifying them that they had done so, which constitutes a false declaration.
Plus, some other critiques about the command structure of the SPVM.
Thanks to Lynda Khelil for the info!”
*** UPDATE: The full text of the decision has been released. You can download it as a PDF (2MB). In total, 16 people were acquitted. We will be publishing commentary and analysis in the next few days.
This is interesting news indeed! It’s still not the kind of decision we’re hoping for (i.e. P-6 is actually unconstitutional), but it’s a start, we might say. What do you think?
447 people detained at a May Day march Wednesday, some for as long as six hours without food, water or access to a bathroom. Elementary school parents hassled Thursday morning for not providing the route they and their children would take to educate the public about road safety at a dangerous intersection. The SPVM has been busy enforcing bylaw P-6.
Cops in Montreal seem to be on a power trip. Not surprising considering just last Tuesday, Montreal’s city council voted down a motion 34-25 put forward by Projet Montreal councilor Alex Norris that would have removed the changes made to bylaw P-6 last year forcing protesters to provide police with a route of their demonstration among other things (this following Projet’s François Limoges’ excellent speech on the right to protest).
Politicians voting in or to uphold a law that anyone can tell is both unconstitutional and wrong is nothing new, not even in Quebec. Just last spring, the Charest government brought in Bill 78 and the Tremblay-controlled council passed the aforementioned changes to P-6 as a way for the SPVM to enforce 78 without actually doing so and facing a charter challenge.
But those were different times. Those laws were passed as a desperate attempt to stop a peaceful protest movement that was already in full swing and garnering international media attention.
Predictably, they failed. The Maple Spring was too big to contain. Even the cops used their newfound powers sporadically.
This time around, the draconian measures kicked in before there was a large enough groundswell to jump over them. With only a few hundred people to corral, the SPVM were free to act like bullies and politically profile and target people they didn’t like.
Even in front of city hall, in front of the cameras in broad daylight, the cops tackled someone who was just taking pictures and ticketed people for playing music and spitting on the ground. These disgusting abuses of authority have now been vindicated by our elected officials and that’s really scary.
It’s also truly frightening to think that anyone going out to demonstrate will have the thought of a $637 fine and six hours without a bathroom break in the back of their mind. That may not prevent the hardcores, but it will give many second thoughts.
I’ll admit that I’m even a little nervous to attend a protest. Given the way the SPVM have been treating what even they see as legitimate media lately makes me wonder if an FTB press pass would carry any weight with them.
In this climate, how can something like the casseroles ever happen? Last year people who were too busy to express their sympathies with student marchers and their disgust with Bill 78 on a regular basis could just take a walk down the street banging on their pots and pans on a warm summer night and then go about their business. Now, sadly, they may be too scared.
That’s obviously why the cops decided to use these tactics. They wanted to prevent the movement from reaching the widespread appeal it had last year. Their other goal, presumably, was a political one : to change the script.
If the student movement’s reboot hadn’t been crushed in its infancy, it would be clear to everyone that it never was for Marois and the PQ, just against Charest and his Liberal Party’s education policies. If the protests that resumed when Marois decided to index tuition hadn’t been oppressed by the SPVM when they were still small, you wouldn’t hear anyone blaming the students for what the PQ is now doing.
In an alternate reality, we may have marchers opposed to Bill 14 walking side by side with the students. Instead, Marois has brought the discourse back to language and separation, window dressing to distract from the fight against austerity and neo-liberal economic policies.
Meanwhile, very few people attending or covering the protests are talking about the Marois education policy or even Marois at all. It’s now a fight against a municipal administration and for the very right to protest. It’s kinda hard to make this a Quebec-wide thing when the movement is stifled in its would-be epicentre.
Last year, our city was a beacon of hope for people opposed to austerity and the oppressive nature of the state. Tourism didn’t suffer, in fact, people even came here for the protests and spent money at local merchants. This year, the image that is getting out is that of the police kettle. Montreal: come for the smoked meat, stay six hours in a kettle because you can’t leave.
The script, indeed, has changed, but it looks like some of the cops have misplaced their copies and are winging it. While their management is claiming that they understand the “necessary nuances” and won’t be enforcing P-6 when it comes to, say, Habs victory celebrations (read: only enforcing it against those they don’t like), it seems that whomever decided to declare that a group of elementary school parents and their children promoting road safety an illegal assembly wasn’t thinking in a very nuanced fashion.
Mayor Applebaum and the city council have created a monster that even they don’t seem able to control anymore. There is a political solution, but that will have to wait until November.
What do we do until then? We can’t accept our city becoming a police state. We can’t accept P-6 and provide a route for spontaneous demonstrations. But we also can’t keep getting hurt, kettled and arbitrarily arrested.
If you have any ideas, please share them. I’m kinda stumped.
Ethan Cox is the Quebec correspondent for Rabble.ca where this post originally appeared
“This is approaching absurdist comedy,” tweeted Montreal Gazette reporter Christopher Curtis Friday night, trapped in a police kettle from which Montreal’s finest inexplicably refused to release him as his deadline approached.
“Did they really, actually arrest Anarchopanda????” replied well known Québécoise pundit Josée Legault.
Curtis never replied, no doubt caught up in extricating himself from police custody, so allow me to do so now: yes Josée, they really, actually did. Just call him Arrestopanda. At night’s end the tally ran something like this: one panda, several rabbits, a few dozen journos and almost three hundred dull normals cuffed, processed and slapped with $637 fines. This after being held for hours in the cold kettles Montreal police formed around them.
An obscene over-reaction regardless of circumstance, kettling has been ruled illegal by England’s High Court. In Toronto, the senior police commander who ordered protesters kettled at the 2010 G20 summit has been charged with discreditable conduct and unlawful use of authority. The Toronto Police Service have committed to never use the tactic again after an independent review found it to be unlawful. Kettling is a particularly disturbing tactic because it only works on peaceful protesters who offer little resistance, making it insidiously offensive to the concept of free speech and free assembly.
But, some would argue, once those damn kids started with the breaking of the windows and the throwing of the snowballs, what choice did the police have?
Sorry Dorothy, but we’re not in Kansas anymore. The question of whether you can justify arresting hundreds of people because one or two did something objectionable is sooooo 2012.
Friday night, before the protest had even begun, and without so much as a hurtful word to serve as pretext, Montreal police descended on a crowd of protesters who were, without exception, peaceful and arrested the lot of them.
I don’t go in for a lot of the alarmist stuff you see on Twitter and Facebook. I think Stephen Harper sucks, and I hate what he’s done to our country, but I don’t think he’s a dictator or a fascist. I’ve always hated the SSPVM chant (the addition of an extra “s” to the name of Montreal’s police service alluding to the Nazi SS) and I think such hyperbole often obscures, rather than illuminates, important issues.
So it’s not for nothing that I tell you I woke this morning genuinely afraid. For the first time in my life I am afraid of what can happen to me, and to my friends and neighbors and strangers, if we exercise inalienable rights that we cannot, must not, forfeit. This is not hyperbole, it is fact, and the fact is that the world looks a great deal darker today.
How else to process the preventative arrest of 294 law abiding citizens for the sole crime of attempting to express their political views in a constitutionally guaranteed fashion? Worse, this is the third time Montreal police have moved in to preemptively arrest a protest in its entirety in the space of one week, this lovely new staple of police tactics having been trotted out at the annual anti-police brutality march on the 15th and again to pre-empt a student protest on Tuesday, when 45 people were arrested.
Last night’s shameful spectacle came courtesy of Municipal By-Law P-6, the little known municipal counterpart to the universally denounced, and now repealed, Bill 78/ Law 12. The municipal bylaw shares the requirement that protests must submit their route for approval by the police 24 hours in advance. Among other goodies, it also allows Montreal’s Executive Committee to prohibit any peaceful assembly indefinitely, at their discretion and without notice. It should be noted that this almost certainly unconstitutional bylaw was passed by a municipal government with all the credibility and moral authority of a turnip.
At last night’s demonstration the police declared the protest illegal before it began for failing to provide a route and ordered protesters to disperse. However, they waited only seconds between giving that order and kettling protesters, giving them no chance to comply.
But don’t worry, say the police, they aren’t infringing on anyone’s right to protest, because no such right exists.
“Starting with the last three demonstrations, we have been intervening faster,” Sergeant Jean-Bruno Latour, a spokesperson for the SPVM, told La Presse. “We do not want to hold citizens who wish to go to downtown Montreal hostage. The Charter [of rights and freedoms] protects the right to freedom of expression, but there is no right to protest.” [Translated from French]
This rather jaw-dropping statement raised the ire of Véronique Robert, a criminal lawyer in Montreal. Her scathing rebuttal on the website of weekly newspaper Voir titled “Fear the police, not the protests” is a delicious take down of this absurd position, and if you read French I recommend reading it in its entirety. Here’s a taste:
“This screwball assertion by an officer with the Montreal Police is scary, alarming and frightening, and leads to two conclusions: first, our police urgently need more law classes as part of their training. Second, things are not at all well in Quebec right now, and that frightens me.” [Translated]
Robert goes on to patiently explain that peaceful assembly and protest is an integral part of freedom of expression, without which the right cannot exist. She points out that not only is our right to protest clearly and explicitly protected by our Charter, it is also protected by every document dealing with the protection of fundamental rights in the world, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In 2005, the UN Human Rights Commission criticized, as it did again last year, mass arrests taking place in Montreal in the context of the last student strike, calling mass arrests by their very nature a violation of the right to freedom of expression. The commission called for a public inquiry into police actions, and questioned the article in the criminal code prohibiting illegal assembly.
“The state must ensure that the right to peacefully participate in a protest is respected, and that only those who have committed a criminal infraction during a protest are arrested.” [Translated]
Robert concludes as follows:
“When the young, and the even younger, receive $614 [sic] tickets for participating in a public assembly, be afraid. When protest movements are bullied from the moment they are formed, be afraid. When the police detain citizens en masse for no reason, be afraid. When police conflate interrogation with arbitrary arrest for exercising a constitutional right, be afraid.
What should actually scare us, in Montreal, is the police and their totalitarian declarations. What we should fear is the state and our mode of governance. Not protesters.” [Translated]
Strong words, but necessary ones. Robert is no wild-eyed radical, she’s a criminal defence attorney, and is articulating a position shared by the vast majority of her colleagues. P-6 has been denounced by the Quebec Bar Association, representing the province’s lawyers and prosecutors, and a march of lawyers against Law 12 last year drew over six hundred into the streets.
Right now, in Montreal, the very right to protest, that most fundamental right to freedom of expression, is under assault. If we give in, and stay home for fear of these preposterous tickets, we will have lost not just the battle but the war itself. Indeed, the worst part about these tactics is that they work. I know many friends who will no longer go to protests for fear of arrest and a ticket they cannot afford. What a sad state of affairs when the police bully and intimidate citizens out of exercising their right to criticize the government. So go to the demos, go to all the demos, and prove you will not let fear and intimidation win out. If you get a ticket, contest it. The legal resources to ensure you succeed are freely available. And no matter what you do, make sure to go to the demo on the 22nd of April, which I think should be branded as a manif in defence of our civil liberties. If there are enough people in the streets, the cops can’t do a thing. Small crowds are what allow these abuses.
When our police force denies that we have any right to peacefully express our dissent, there is no recourse but to fight tooth and nail to protect our rights. This is far too important an issue to let slide.
Robert and I both expect legal challenges to this law, which will hopefully be struck down, but in the meanwhile I think it’s time we made municipal bylaw P-6 an election issue.
Montreal has a municipal election coming up in November. With the implosion of the ruling Union Montreal party after revelations of widespread corruption, revelations which also tarnished the reputation of opposition party Vision Montreal, the election is more uncertain than any in my memory.
Over the next year any number of politicians will be asking for your vote. Any time they do, make a habit of telling them that you will only vote for a party which commits to repeal bylaw P-6. This is for all the marbles folks, our right to freedom of expression is not negotiable.
The PQ campaigned heavily on a promise to repeal the wildly unpopular Law 12, and now it’s time to finish what they started. The repeal of Law 12 is a Pyrrhic victory if bylaw P-6 remains in force.
I’ll close with an oldie but a goodie: If you’re not outraged, then you’re not paying attention.
If you are in Montreal, a major demonstration against bylaw P-6 has been organized for April 22 at 6PM, outside of City Hall. For more information or to confirm your attendance you can check out the Facebook event.