Lessons from the Spring of 2012 (La Presse)

By Rima Elkouri
Originally published on March 31, 2015
See original French text here: http://plus.lapresse.ca/screens/52819f3b-8470-48e8-8497-c6efe5c4584a%257C_0

What lessons have we learned from the student uprising in the spring of 2012?

I asked myself this question while listening, on Sunday, to Prime Minister Philippe Couillard comment on the violent episode before the Parliament of Québec in which one demonstrator was injured in the face by a shot of teargas. There are “lessons to be learned from both sides,” said Mr. Couillard.

In and of itself, this statement contrasted those which we became used to from Jean Charest in such circumstances. Even in the face of obvious police misconduct, Mr. Charest seemed to have decided by political calculation that only violence he associated with the “red squares” deserved to be condemned. Another spring, another speech … This time, Prime Minister Couillard has at least had the wisdom to invite the police to review its crowd control practices.

Ironically, less than a year ago, the same Couillard government torpedoed the Ménard report on the student crisis, which contained recommendations along the same lines. Minister of Public Safety Lise Thériault had derided the report’s recommendations on policing techniques. The Premier himself described the report of the special committee chaired by Serge Ménard as “unbalanced”. He also defended the work of police forces and praised their courage. Not a word about the wave of arrests and unprecedented abuse of police to a movement that we tend to forget, was generally peaceful.

While it is true that the commission Ménard, created by the PQ to blame the PLQ, suffered from the start from a design flaw, the comprehensive report contained many pertinent recommendations regarding police work. If these recommendations were taken seriously rather than being sent directly to the trash, maybe we could have prevented violent incidents like the one suffered by Naomie Tremblay-Trudeau on March 26 in Québec City.

The question to ask here is not to know what the demonstrators could do “two inches from the nose” of the police, as Mayor Régis Labeaume first stated with poor timing (and who corrected this after seeing the footage of the incident). The question to ask is rather: was the force used proportional to the threat?

The report of the Ménard Committee reminded us that the use of chemical irritants requires a “maximum restraint”. It reminded us that the duty of the police is to only use “necessary force”.

It recommended that the police be invited to warn the demonstrators, as far as possible, before launching chemical irritants and to do it efficiently. It also recommended that they give the chance and time to the protesters who wish to leave before being “gassed.”

The Ménard Committee also suggested that the Minister of Public Safety remind police that the use of chemical irritants must be “judicious and rational.”

Judicious and rational use, then. This is unfortunately not the first two words that come to mind when looking at the images of the violent episode in which Naomie Tremblay-Trudeau was injured.

Beyond the “technical” recommendations, the Ménard commission called for a change in culture. It recommended better training for police officers to understand the importance of the right to protest in a democratic society. It was noted that, gradually, some form of contempt for the student movement installed itself within the police (not only among police officers, if we look at the heartbreaking cyberbullying campaign against Naomie Tremblay-Trudeau) . As if, in the eyes of many people, the right to protest was a mere whim.

Whether we agree or disagree with the message of the students who took to the streets, we must agree on one thing: protest is a fundamental right.

The role of police is also to ensure the protection of this right. It is all the more important that when this right is denied to a section of the population, the democratic decline applies to everyone. And when there is an error, it affects the entire police force, the majority of whose members do their job.

Even if municipal police bothered to remind us yesterday that they recognize the right to protest and that they were keen to avoid confrontations at demonstrations, it will unfortunately take more than statements of principle to patch up the relationship of trust between the students and police, undermined since the spring of 2012.

***

Translated from the original French by Language and Dissent, a collectively-run blog supporting the anti-austerity struggle in Quebec. These are amateur translations written by volunteers; we have done our best to translate these pieces fairly and coherently, but the final texts may have their flaws. If you find any important errors in any of these texts, we would be very grateful if you would share them with us via email (languageanddissent [at] gmail [dot] com). Please read and distribute these texts in the spirit in which they were intended; that of solidarity and the sharing of information.

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