Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Since when did one need a permit to demonstrate?

Consider:    During the American civil rights struggle in the 1950s and 60s, virtually every southern state tried every trick in the book to maintain the racist status quo.    One was a more than frequent law that said that one had to get a permit to have a demonstration.    Since blacks knew that they would never get a permit by virtue of the colour of their skin, they had no choice but to break the law.    After all, as Saint Augustine said, an unjust law is no law at all.   Eventually, those who were allegedly the violators won the debate in part due to television where whites in the North finally saw for themselves the truth of Jim Crow.

With this in mind, the following thoughts about the tuition debate in Québec.   And as before, this is being played out on television -- in this case, all of the French-language news channels and also getting prominent play in English Canada.   The province's legislation to get the students "back to school" may have cut some slack in that this year will not have been wasted.    But the portions of "Bill 78" (actually, Statute 2012 chapter12) that require permits for protests smacks of Jim Crow.  This includes fines of $5000 per day per demonstrator, $35,000 per day for student union leaders, and $125,000 per day for student associations, for each day the protests continue.

I am not saying Jean Charest is any way like Eugene "Bull" Conner, probably the most hate-filled man who ever lived in America.   I am saying that constraining people from the right to peacefully assemble is prima facie a violation of §3 of the Québec Charter and § 2 of the federal Charter.   Those who vandalize or otherwise breach the peace must face the consequences.   But to presume everyone guilty before proven innocent, as Revenu Québec does par exemple, smacks of authoritarianism.   And the fines are way too disproportionate -- it violates the well established principle in Canada that the cure should not be worse than the disease.

There is no doubt the province, like the other provinces and territories, have been in financial straits to various degrees -- even Alberta whose revenues are way too dependent on royalties from energy, timber and mining and which could take a turn downward if there is a major correction.

But I find it interesting that as recently as three years ago, the province, in the provincial tax packages mailed out or available for filling online (the other provinces, remember, let Ottawa collect provincial income taxes for them) trumpeted the fact that tuition for universities and CEGEPs was way lower than anywhere else in Canada and that income taxes supported that fact.   Even with the major income tax cut that finally happened there around 2009, the money was still there.

If the tuition rates are so out of whack with the rest of the country that an upwards "correction" is needed, then there are far better ways to do it than to impose it on high.   There should have been a process of negotiation at the front end before the provincial budget was passed, not at the back.

I used to have a great deal of respect for Charest.    But casting students in the lion's den, separatist and federalist alike, is no way to govern the most progressive jurisdiction in North America.    His time is up, and the sooner he leaves the better for all of Canada.

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