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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2012

No Compromises when Defending Civil Liberties

By Wayne Peters
Canada’s Anti-terrorism Act is now 10 years old. With it and since its passage, we have seen unprecedented legal and regulatory changes made by our government in the name of national security — changes that have horribly undermined our civil liberties, especially our freedoms of expression, information, association, assembly and privacy.

At the outset, the act was touted as a necessary means to protect the safety, security and fundamental rights of individual Canadians in the face of terrorism. In reality it has blurred and broadened the popular definition of “terrorism” thus allowing a host of legitimate political activities to potentially fall within the scope of the legislation.

In concert with this, extraordinary powers of investigation and surveillance have been assigned to the police and other security forces which, when combined with a lessening of democratic oversight, set the stage for the abuse of civil liberties. In all of this, regrettably, there seems to have been a shift in the paradigm and discourse around terrorism and security needs such that legitimate dissent and civil disobedience are now criminalized as acts of domestic terrorism.

A strong societal commitment to civil liberties underpins academic freedom in our universities and colleges. Academic freedom depends on the broader freedoms of expression and thought and the free flow of information. Without these more fundamental rights, academic freedom cannot endure.

Consequently, CAUT and the academic community have been outspoken defenders of civil liberties and human rights both in Canada and around the world. More than this, though, academics have been leaders in defining and informing debate about the value of our rights within society. Much of the work CAUT does in this area is through the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group.

It should have come as no surprise to anyone that CAUT recently denounced Bill 78 — the emergency legislation adopted by the Charest government in Quebec to undermine students’ strike efforts to defeat a plan to raise tuition fees by 75 per cent. The introduction of this law has been opposed by a broad cross-section of organizations, including opposition parties in the Quebec National Assembly, the Quebec Bar Association, Amnesty International and other civil liberties advocates, labour and social justice groups across the country, Quebec student organizations and the Canadian Federation of Students, among others.

In a public statement, CAUT executive director James Turk called the law a “terrible act of mass repression,” adding that “the Quebec government has opted to exert the heavy hand of the law as a weapon to suppress dissent.” Bill 78 is a regressive and punitive attack on our most basic democratic rights — the freedoms of expression, association and assembly — that must be defended. To not do so is to stand by while the fabric of our democratic society unravels to nothing.

CAUT’s public involvement in this began in March when the student strike was a little over a month old. Consistent with CAUT policy on tuition fees and access to post-secondary education, we issued a statement in support of the students’ efforts. The statement acknowledged that while — like elsewhere in Canada — Quebec’s post-secondary sector needs a boost in funding, shifting the funding burden to students and their families is counterproductive.

At our April Council meeting, delegates overwhelmingly supported a motion that CAUT reiterate its support for the students in Quebec in their efforts to maintain access to a post-secondary education. Shortly thereafter, CAUT joined with the Canadian Federation of Students and seven other national unions in an open letter calling on Premier Jean Charest to “resolve the student strike by reversing the decision to increase tuition fees in Quebec.”

With the adoption of Bill 78 on May 18, however, the nature of the situation in Quebec took on a new significance. Demonstrations against tuition fee hikes quickly turned to protests in defense of fundamental democratic rights and civil liberties as the Charest government moved to suppress the student opposition.

On the surface, the law aims to ensure the continuity of instructional services at post-secondary institutions in Quebec. However, it also contains a number of draconian provisions, including measures for the maintenance of peace, order and public security that restrict protest and assembly, administrative and civil measures that under­mine the opposition movement and that hold those in support liable in civil courts for damage to third-parties, and imposition of stiff financial penalties on any individual, organization or institution that obstructs the purported intent of the legislation.

CAUT’s response to this has been consistent with its long-standing practice and record in the defense of civil liberties and human rights. CAUT called on the Quebec government to repeal Bill 78, and to drop all fines and reverse all arrests made under its scope.

In addition, CAUT contributed $20,000 to assist the Quebec student organizations with the legal costs of defending students charged while engaging in peaceful protest and offered its legal support in the court challenge of Bill 78. CAUT also called on its member asso­ciations across the country to condemn the Quebec government’s actions and to support the students.

We are a pan-Canadian organization of academics committed to the principle of academic freedom and the fundamental democratic freedoms of expression, association and assembly guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In the Quebec situation, we could do no less against repressive Bill 78.

In the end, we must always stand with our students and colleagues and other organizations across the country to vigorously oppose any government that seeks to criminalize any act of legitimate dissent or peaceful protest. It is our unquestionable obligation as public intellectuals and defenders of civil liberties.