Resisting Bill 78 in 15 Points
By Daniel Weinstock
Faced with the recent darkness descending upon Québec, I thought it my duty to try to sum up as simply as possible the reasons that make me think that we must resist Bill 78.
1. Individual rights are a fundamental institutional defence protecting citizens from abuses of State power.
2. Even democratically elected representatives can abuse their powers.
3. In a democracy, the rights of association, expression, and protest are utterly fundamental.
4. It must be recognized that all citizens have these rights, especially those who, in a mode that respects democratic and liberal norms, hold points of view that are dissident and unpopular.
5. The fundamental character of these rights requires that they not be circumscribed or limited, except with great parsimony.
6. The present situation in Québec does not call for the sort of draconian limitations that have been imposed by the Liberal government in the form of its odious and shameful Bill 78. By its refusal to democratically engage with the student movement, the government has contributed to the degradation of the social climate. The disturbances that have made themselves felt in this climate, caused in part by the government, can be handled by existing legal institutions, including the criminal code.
7. Whether you agree with them or not on the question of the tuition fee hike, the students’ questions are legitimate and deserve a respectful response.
8. The government has responded only with disdain, beatings, injunctions—and now, repression.
9. The courts are charged with making sure that the rights of citizens are protected against any authoritarian excesses on the part of the government. One can suppose that they will make short work of Bill 78.
10. However, the courts cannot be the sole defence against abuses of power and authoritarian excesses on the part of the government. Lawsuits are lengthy and costly, and freedom-killing laws can cause much damage before the courts annul them.
11. It is also necessary that democratically elected representatives, beyond party loyalties, stand up as defenders of the most fundamental principles and institutions of democracy and refuse to vote for freedom-killing laws.
12. It is also necessary that citizens be prepared to exercise their civil and democratic rights. If they do not, they are nothing but hollow words. We should be grateful to the student movement for showing such civic responsibility.
13. A terribly anemic view of democracy informs the belief that one’s responsibilities as a citizen boil down to voting once every 4 years and to just remaining obedient the rest of the time. This seems more like Tocqueville’s “soft tyranny.” It would seem to be this notion of democracy that is put forth by those—pundits and politicians—who defend this odious law.
14. It has often happened in recent history that extensive restrictions on individual liberties imposed in the name of public order are initially applauded by a majority of the population. These populations quickly learned that rights are only won after long struggles, but can be lost in the blink of an eye. And once lost, they are lost for ALL citizens.
15. Civil disobedience has sometimes appeared as a powerful instrument of contestation in such circumstances. It has been theorized by philosophers as important for the liberal democratic tradition as Thoreau and Rawls, and was put into practice by Martin Luther King and by Gandhi, among many others.
Translated by John Protevi and Iain Macdonald