Like many cities around the world last summer, Montreal saw “Occupy Montreal” protests, with people taking over and camping in downtown spaces. These protests abated during our harsh winter months, but February saw a new protest theme emerge with students from across the province participating.

College and university tuition fees for Quebec residents (voters!) have been frozen in Quebec since 1975 and are the lowest in North America – around C$2,500 per year for an undergraduate degree. The Quebec Liberal government is proposing to raise these fees by $1,779, through increasing them by $254 per year over a seven-year period. The fees would still be the lowest in Canada.

The students are split about the increase, but those objecting (some of whom are demanding free tuition) have staged massive protests on a daily basis over the last four months, especially in Montreal, causing serious disruption to the city.  These protests have been joined by several Quebec Labour unions supporting the students, and, most recently, by individual Quebecers, who believe the current distribution of wealth, in general, is unjust to them and their families.

Some of the protests have involved violence and injuries for both protestors and police. Tear gas and pepper spray, trashing of property, riot and mounted police for crowd control, large numbers of arrests, streets blocked by police cars and motor cycles with blue and red lights flashing, and forcible dispersal of the protestors are current daily realities. In a “one off” event, student protestors used smoke bombs to shut down the entire Montreal Metro system during morning rush hour leaving thousands of Montrealers on their way to work stranded. On the night of the 100th day of the protests, around 250,000 people demonstrated in the centre of Montreal.

In mid-May the government sought to deal with this situation by passing a law referred to as Bill 78. This requires that gatherings of more than 50 people must give police prior notice of their plans (including, dates, times, starting point, routes and so on) and obtain the approval of the Quebec police authority. The authority may exercise their discretion to modify the location and date of the protest, if it judges that the protest would pose a serious threat to public order and security.

The Bill also makes it a criminal offence to try to prevent students who wish to attend class from doing so. It declares any picket within 50 meters of the “outer limits” of the “grounds” of any educational building illegal and restricts assembly, picket and protest rights on campuses and throughout Quebec. Penalties provided for in the Bill are heavy. Fines are levied for each day of infraction. These are set at $1,000-$5,000 for individuals, $7,000-$35,000 for student or union leaders, and $25,000-$125,000 per day for student or labor organizations. Fines are doubled for second and subsequent offences.

Negotiations between the government and the students to try to settle their conflict have broken down.

It seems that many people in many places (from the emails I’ve received from around the globe) are asking themselves and others: “Has something changed in Quebec? Has what began as a student-led protest against tuition hikes now morphed into a broader social movement bringing together people from all walks of life? Will there be lasting implications?”  In short, ”What on earth is happening in Quebec?” 

Many of the people asking these questions know what’s happening on the streets, so they’re really asking, “Why have these huge, sometimes violent, protests occurred and continued for such a long period and what does this eruption portend?” We can all only guess, but here are a few thoughts.

What happened to respect for the law? 

The “rule of law”, the bedrock of a civil, peaceful society, requires respect for the law by the vast majority of citizens. We don’t often think about this, but if a substantial number of citizens don’t obey the law, it becomes totally ineffective. Peaceful “civil disobedience” (intentional breach of the law) is a protest strategy with a long history and many people admire the courage of those who engage in it for moral and ethical reasons. Violent “civil disobedience” is another matter. Then, we risk anarchy and a society in which no reasonable person would want to live.  

Respect for the law has broken down in the context of the current demonstrations and that sets a very dangerous precedent, with possible impact far beyond the law’s ineffectiveness in this particular context.

Court injunctions have been ignored; property intentionally vandalized; injuries inflicted; police have been attacked and, in response, have used excessive force in some instances; and, whatever we think of the wisdom or otherwise of Bill 78 and its impact on civil and human rights, it has been openly and intentionally transgressed. The many calls for “civil disobedience”, including by people in positions of influence such as university professors, have been overt and loud.

And protests against Bill 78 at the Palais de Justice de Montréal by lawyers “en toges” (dressed for court) is an exceptional occurrence. As one appalled member of the Barreau du Quebec said in a posted comment (translation), “How are jurists able to openly declare themselves in favour of civil disobedience? It’s inconceivable! Have you forgotten your Code de Déontologie or what?  Art. 2.01 provides, ‘The lawyer must uphold respect for the law’”. And there is concern about the courts being overwhelmed with the cases of the more than 1,700 people arrested.

On the other hand, the protesters are not shy to use the law, when it might assist them. They are in court challenging the validity of Bill 78 and the Quebec Superior Court has heard an application to have parts of Bill 78 declared unconstitutional.

Respect for democracy 

We need to consider how this situation could harm democracy, at least, as we’ve known and practiced it in the past. That requires that we understand what has precipitated the crisis. I suggest, as with most “watershed moments” in a society (which this might or might not prove to be) that lead to important, fundamental changes, there is a convergence of causes and that the increase in “student tuition” was just the match that ignited the bonfire.

First, from the polls, at least at first, it seemed as though we had a “hard vocal minority” prevailing over a “soft silent majority”, which is an increasingly common trend in relation to values conflicts and not good for democracy. But people can change their minds as events unfold. It remains to be seen whether that occurs on one or both sides of this conflict.

People, especially young people, don’t see their vote as counting, so they don’t vote. But they are politically engaged through new communications technologies, which make communication horizontal, not vertical as is true of representative democracy. Politicians and other authority figures are seen as corrupt, sadly, too often correctly so. Currently, we have a major commission of enquiry into allegedly very serious corruption in the construction industry in Quebec (the Charbonneau commission) and it seems very likely that some politicians and municipal officials will be implicated.

People, with good reason, do not believe they have a voice in the public square, and that the politicians who are supposed to represent them and their interests do not do so and do not decide on the basis of what’s best for Canadians and their children – let alone old people.

As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains in his new book, The Righteous Mind, respect for authority, loyalty and a sense that some things are sacred are rejected by “liberal progressives” as Stone Age values and this affects what they see as ethical and unethical. The most prominent voices in contemporary Quebec society proclaim “liberal progressive” values, certainly more noticeably and forcefully than in most other provinces.

As well, in Western democracies, and I suggest to a greater degree in Quebec than many other comparable societies, we have a culture of intense individualism, where personal choice is seen as the dominant value, almost no matter what the cost to the common good and communal bonding. The recent Quebec Legislative Assembly committee report on “Dying with Dignity” articulates this very clearly as the justification for their recommendation to legalize euthanasia. Consequently, it’s not surprising, indeed, it’s to be expected, that there is a weakening of societal bonds and, even, a risk of a rise of anarchy, as a result.

The “casserole protest”  

But not all protests are equal and there might be a silver lining in the emergence of what is being called the “casserole protest” that is now accompanying the student protests. Families – parents, children, grandparents – in Montreal suburbs and elsewhere in Quebec are gathering on street corners each evening beating saucepans, frying pans and so on with spoons and other noise making implements. The symbolism of the heart of the family home, and of nourishment and nurturing, these utensils carry has been remarked upon.

Participants are commenting on the unfamiliar experience of joining with their neighbours in a common cause and its unexpected positive elements. Listening to media interviews with these people, many of them seem to have only the vaguest idea of what that cause is other than that they believe their concerns are not being heard by those they think should respond to them; that people are not being treated justly; and they have a free-floating fear about their and their children’s future.

I suggest they are also experiencing transcendence – the feeling that they belong to something larger than themselves – in these gatherings. We humans are social beings and need that experience. The vast majority of Quebecers used to have it through religion, now some have it through hockey or other shared passions, but many are left without an obvious way to bond to each other through a larger reality. Nature abhors a vacuum: If we don’t bond in positive life-enhancing ways, we will do so in negative harmful ways. We might be seeing both of these forms of bonding in the Quebec demonstrations.

What values are they sharing nowadays? 

Quebec had strong, shared traditional values, until much more recently than comparable societies. The previous strength of those values means their collapse has a greater impact, than if they had been weaker. Shared values are the glue that binds people together to form a society and the demonstrations might be one manifestation of what happens when the old shared values have been undermined and there is no consensus, yet, on the values that should replace them – or, indeed, whether they should be replaced.

Most Quebecers are not neutral about the student protests, or even the casserole ones (some people are also strongly objecting to them as disrupting their lives, disturbing the peace and a noise invasion of their private space). They are either strongly for or against them, which, apart from conveying many other messages, shows the lack of a values consensus.

As I write this in my McGill University office, my colleague in the next-door office has just returned from lunch. He remarked as he passed my open door, “It’s difficult to get around downtown and there seems to be almost as many police as protesters.” On the whole, however, despite the huge disruptions, little, if any, fear is evident on the streets of Montreal. This last weekend, we had the Formula 1 Grand Prix and tourists were taking photos of riot police as though they were at Disney World. In short, it’s very hard to read how this situation might next develop or what, if anything, it portends long term.

Margaret Somerville is Samuel Gale Professor of Law and Director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics & Law and is an international leader in the discussion of complex ethical questions in medicine.

Margaret Somerville AM, DSG, FRSC, DCL is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine (Sydney campus). She is also Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor...