Red Squares and Parallel Fines

Protests in Moscow and Quebec

On May 23, in an op-ed for the New York Times, two professors from the University of Montreal, quipped that their provincial government’s emergency Bill 78 – which requires police permission for marches and imposes heavy fines for groups that violate its rules – had given Quebec “a taste of Mr. Putin’s medicine”.

Is this comparison fair? Is the legislative overreach of a provincial government in Canada comparable to what is taking place in Russia? We asked Marq de Villiers, award-winning journalist and former editor of Toronto Life to consider the parallels.


Mr. Putin’s Quebec, Mr. Charest’s Russia

Marq de Villiers

Government A doesn’t like public demonstrations much. They are unruly, in the government’s view, with an inbuilt potential for violence, an obvious threat to authority, and disruptive for ordinary citizens … It is purely common sense that they should be curtailed, isn’t it? And so they are: a new law specifies that demonstrators must now get prior permission from the police to assemble at all, and must specify where they will congregate and which route they will take and how long they will need the streets.

The police have the right to refuse permission if in their view a planned rally threatens public order or is undertaken by “hooligans”. Those who take part in a proscribed demonstration, or in an authorized one whose route deviates from that specified, face substantial fines – more than $9,000 for individuals and double that for those deemed organizers. The fines escalate to more than $30,000 for groups or institutions, and double for repeat offenders. Local authorities are encouraged to compile lists of places where demonstrations will remains illegal and for which no permits will be granted. The announced intention is to protect the public from “radicalism”. The act that brought all this into being is clearly in violation of the country’s constitution, which protects citizens’ freedom of assembly.

Government B doesn’t like demonstrations much either, apparently. In this government’s view, they disrupt traffic, hurt business and interfere with the lives of ordinary citizen, and must therefore be curtailed. Hence the new law. Under its provisions, demonstrators must file a notice of intention with the police well in advance, specifying the route, time and duration of the planned event. At their discretion, the police can refuse permission if they judge the likelihood of public disorder is high, or that the rally would be populated by masked thugs – masks themselves being a sufficient admission of ill intent and thuggery.

Both governments seem driven by a deadening bureaucratic impulse in which orderliness and civic tidiness trumps free expression

Those who take part in proscribed  demonstrations face substantial fines – up to $25,000 for individuals and $125,000 for associations. Further, associations can be fined for not restraining their members from participating, and even fined for trying, but not hard enough. The act that brought all this into being is in obvious violation of the country’s constitution, which protects the right to free assembly.

In the case of Government A, Mr. Putin’s Russia, a massive rally was held the day after the law was signed. More than 50,000 people turned out, their intention to express their dislike and contempt for their president and his authoritarian ways. No one was arrested, and there were no reported incidents (although the apartments of several leaders were raided).

In the case of Government B, Mr. Charest’s Quebec, a rally that was held without the proper protocols drew thousands into the street, their expressed intention somewhat diffuse – no longer to protest university tuition hikes, but to signal their dislike of the new law itself, and of the governing mentality that produced it. Dozens of clashes followed. Hundreds of demonstrators were herded into police cordons (“kettled” in the cant phrase of the time) and arrested.

Am I saying that Quebec is now as anti-democratic as Russia? That Charest, a long-time member of the Liberal Party, has the same faded democratic instincts as a former functionary in the St. Petersburg KGB? Not at all. Quebec’s Bill 78 expires in a year, Russia’s stays on the books. Mr. Charest’s government can be swept from power at the next election. Mr. Putin’s, not so easily. But both governments were reacting to a threat that was not a real threat at all; both were apparently driven by a deadening bureaucratic impulse in which orderliness and civic tidiness trumps free expression; both overreached. And the effects of these laws are altogether as odious in each case.

Marq de Villiers is a veteran journalist and author who has lived and worked in Moscow, London, Cape Town and other places.

Photo credits:
Moscow protest — Cea.’s flickrphotostream
Quebec student protest  – Pedro fait de la Photo’s flickrphotostream