Charter rights don’t just belong to the students

Par Beryl Wajsman le 23 mai 2012

The current debate about Quebec’s Bill 78 and Montreal’s notional and nascent demonstration regulations, have opponents of both measures invoking the Charter. Well, Charter rights are not one-sided. It’s not just the students who have them. The students’ victims — all of us —  have them too.

The reality of the current troubles is that a small group of students, probably positioning themselves for a future in politics, gave a large number of their cohorts a reason to party. In the streets, and at the expense of all citizens. In the course of two months, their demonstrations have involved criminal trespass, violent destruction of private property and collective intimidation of the two-thirds of students who want to study and complete their semesters. A massive, moveable rave snaking its way through our streets at a whim. Even union supporters of these paragons of radicalism cannot control them.

The mobs have ignored injunctions ordering them to stop blocking access to schools and free movement of other students. They have declared that they want to “halt the economic engines of Quebec” and have styled themselves as modern-day trade unionists. The Chief Justice of Quebec has basically called them thugs and that is truly what they are. Self-indulgent, self-absorbed capricious thugs at that. Unions marched on issues of life and death. Working condition, food, jobs, wages, housing. These kids are just about mayhem and havoc. If it was just about their message, they could have taken the south slope of Mount Royal  as a “Democracy Park”, to use Michael Shafter’s designation, and screamed all day and night instead of disrupting the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands.

The provincial and municipal measures arose not as attempt to stop them from exercising their right to protest, but because they refused to respect the rule of law. Their arrogance and narciscism would be merely amusingly breathtaking if they weren’t accompanied by reckless and dangerous acts. What makes the current situation so difficult in terms of protecting the broad public is that Montreal has no permit process for demonstrations. One of the few cities that doesn’t. City and police lawyers have claimed that the reason for it is that permits may be a violation of Charter rights.

The Charter indeed protects expression and assembly and no authority should ever refuse a permit to demonstrate.  But permits aren’t there to stop expression, they are there to ensure public order. The Charter is an adjunct to our constitution where a foundational responsibility of government is “peace, order and good government.” A municipal administration — as well as all levels of government – have the responsibility to ensure the public peace.  The freedom of the city for all. The Charter gives no group the right to ensnare the community at its whim, nor to ignore judicial orders. Public order demands that a democratically elected government, which represents all the people, has a right to determine reasonable length, time, place and frequency of demonstrations.

Section 15 of the Charter is called the Equality Clause. That clause states that “everyone is equal in front of the law and has a right to equal protection of the law.” In not having a permit process Montreal is actually infringing on the Charter. The reason is that demonstrators are protected by law but the people they intimidate have no equal protection of the law. So the very fact that we do not have a permit process — a law protecting the victims of demonstrators who have ignored injunctions — is actually an infringement of the Equality clause.

In 1928 George Bernard Shaw wrote that “Liberty demands responsibility. That’s why so many dread it.” These students want rights without responsibility. They propose anarchy in place of liberty. And too many are too scared of being labelled politically incorrect to state that truth. Liberty does not imply license. It demands courage and resolve in its defense, for no free society can stand if it succumbs under the weight of the twin yokes of fear and impotence.

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Beryl P. Wajsman

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