Ten years ago today I was arrested in a student protest against tuition fees under a special anti-protest law which has since been overturned by the courts.
On May 22 ed 2012, we held the largest day of civil disobedience in Canadian history. Tens of thousands of students and allies defied the new anti-protest law which required organizers to submit the itinerary of any protest or gathering of 50 people or more to the police at least 8 hours in advance for approval which was a major infringement of our constitutional rights to peaceful assembly.
This law was designed to suppress youth lead anti tuition hike protests. It was a way to crack down on left-wing activism by suppressing our constitutional rights, intimidating us with riot police, giving us tickets and traumatizing many people. Ultimately the courts ruled that these laws were unconstitutional and the $634 ticket I received was cancelled.
During this arrest I was quickly surrounded by dozens of riot police which had jumped out of mini busses right in front of me. They yelled at me to get on the ground which I did. They took us to a dark alleyway where we were held first by riot police in full gear and then regular police for over an hour without reading us our rights or saying what we were being arrested for. During this time the officers were actively intimidating and threatening us. An 18-year-old woman sitting next to me was having a full-blown panic attack as the officers became more and more intimidating. This young woman was not even involved with the protest but was rounded up and handcuffed anyway since these arrests were entirely arbitrary and illegal.
After being held in the ally, we were invasively searched and loaded up into a bus where they finally, after two hours of detention and over an hour of being handcuffed behind our backs read us our rights. We were then taken across town to their furthest possible command centre where we waited, handcuffed and without access to bathrooms or water for hours while they processed each person now by one. When it was my turn, they lead me into a parking garage, asked me what school I went to, took my mug shot and let me go with a $643 ticked for a municipal (not criminal) offence. By the time we got out, it was 4:30 a.m. and the metro and busses were closed. We were detained for over five hours and for about 4 hours straight we were handcuffed behind our backs.
Virtually everyone contested the tickets they gave us both on this night and in countless other group arrests. This clogged up the courts. We were given court dates where we were literally 60 co-defendants in the room. In some cases our co-defendants were not even arrested at the same location. We had to go to court many times before the trial finally started. During the first day of the trial, the prosecutors had a police commander testify. He recounted the events of Montreal’s downtown that evening without providing any evidence that the people arrested were responsible for vandalism or anything else. I was able to counter-interrogate him. When I asked him if he recognized any of the defendants or if he was present at the time of the arrest he replied no. It was a great learning experience and somewhat surreal. After the first day of the trial, a legal precedent was set in a similar case and the city of Montreal was forced to dismiss all of our tickets. The law in equation was later declared unconstitutional and then repealed.
This arrest took place just 16 months before I was elected as Green Party leader and just four months before my first campaign as a candidate for the party. This evening along with the student movement itself was the backdrop to my involvement in Quebec politics. The movement was successful as the Liberal government of Jean Charest was forced to resign a full year before the end of their majority mandate. I was happy to run in that election as a Green Party candidate and to really let the cabinet minister I was running against have it in the local candidates debate. After the Liberals lost that election the incoming PQ government cancelled the tuition hike and even refunded the extra tuition that people had paid. It was a tremendous victory! Because of this and previous student movements in Quebec we have managed to keep tuition fees very low. It shows what people can accomplish if we take action and protest.
Although the PQ cancelled the tuition increase, they did maintain some of the anti-protest laws. The following year many students including myself took to the streets again in order to fight cuts to education and to push for the elimination of all tuition fees. Their response to this resurgence of the movement was first to arrest even more people. At times hundreds of people were rounded up in city squares and handcuffed just like I was. In fact, I was circled and arrested a second time in 2013. Once the anti-protest laws had been struck down by the courts, the police became increasingly violent and would use clubs instead of group arrests to crack down on protests. It was unfortunate that so many young people including myself had to see how severely our liberties can be limited in this country. Even the UN criticized the Montreal police for the mass arrests of peaceful protests that they conducted.
One thing is for sure, when young people take to the streets to protest against capitalism and neoliberal policies things can change. It is not easy but things can change. In this election I will be calling on the Quebec government to finally compensate all students and allies who were illegally arrested in the 2012 and 2013 student movements as most of us were not able to have our rights upheld by the courts at the time.
We must continue the fight for public education and the environment.
Leader of the Green Party of Quebec