Maybe I’m just being paranoid. I read and write a lot about the creeping surveillance state, questionable government policy and that kind of thing, the issues of the era, global warming and an end of of cheap oil, about to hit the human race like a steam train and I’ve always liked reading science fiction so a dystopia doesn’t seem all too unfamiliar to me. Maybe my mind just works like that. But when you see how fast a government can turn against its people once it feels threatened, in the real world, and in a supposedly liberal and peace loving country, it makes you stop and think whether you were right all along.
I’m referring to the Canadian Bill 78 or the “Act to enable students to receive instruction from the postsecondary institutions they attend" passed into Quebecoise regional law on the 18th of May. Although rather innocuous in name, this emergency law was passed with the sole intent of ending what is now over 120 days protest by the student population. It’s a case study in what happens when a government gives up on ruling by consent, and tries to rule by force instead.
In 2006/7, at the end of a freeze on tuition fees for university students, Canadian students paid $1668 as a base rate plus ancillary fees. Over the next five years the rate would increase by $50 a semester up to $2168. But after having already increased fees by 30%, the Jean Charest’s regional government decided to crank the fee increases into high gear. The provincial budget announced that now the fees would now be rising by $108 a year, right up until 2017 for a grand total of $3793 per year. It’s important to note that despite the latest hike increasing fees by 57% for the student, it only represents an extra 4.7% of the total budget for universities. A huge burden for the individual, especially disadvantaged students, is only small change for the government.
Tuition fees assume that education is only for the personal benefit of the student, rather than something that benefits the student, the children they raise, the company they work for, the prestige of their city and country, their friends, family and neighbors. If everyone benefits from everyone else’s education, it makes sense for the costs to be distributed across everyone too. Even if the fee rises, and the total cost, don’t compare to what has been inflicted on students in the UK, the principle remains: getting people to pay more for education is a bad idea.
A lot of Canadians happened to agree. Since the 13th February thousands of students across the country have been on strike. By the 22nd of March over a third of all college and university students in Quebec were boycotting their classes and 300,000 people marched through the streets for a rally. Protests have been happening daily and there have been several clashes with the police that have turned violent. Pressure has been on the government and student unions to come to an agreement, yet negotiations have consistently failed.
From halfway across the world, reading opposing but equally biased newspapers and blogs, it’s impossible to judge whether the majority of people agree or disagree with the fee rises. I can’t honestly say whether the students have any democratic legitimacy (as if getting over half of people onside had ever granted anything legitimacy anyway) in wanting the fee hikes overturned. However, what I can say is that the government’s next step was utterly illegitimate for a supposedly liberal country.
The Charest government passed Bill 78 a law that made it illegal for any gathering of strike supporters within 50m of a school or university, outlaws any demonstration of more than 50 people, anywhere in Quebec, without prior police approval, and allows the police to change the time or place of a demonstration at will, compels teachers, universities and student unions to “induce” their members back to school and imposes fines of up to $5,000 on individuals and $125,000 on organisations that break the emergency law. The message was clear: “Keep disagreeing with us, and we’ll fuck you up.”
The bill actually broadened the protest, and prompted the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history on the 22nd of May, when hundreds of thousands of people of all walks of life took to the streets in defiance of this injustice. The fees fight in Canada goes on, the bill’s constitutionality is being challenged in court, and I wish the students and other demonstrators the best of luck, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make.
It took a tuition fees increase and three months of relatively low level disorder, by a small section of the population, to get a country like Canada to pass an emergency law to ban protest. Can you imagine what would have happened here if the riots last year had lasted another day or two? What would have happened if the fuel crisis in March had been a real one? If we’d have been dragged into an unpopular war with Iran? Can you imagine how crazy things would have gotten, and how quickly our liberal tradition would have been thrown out the window? Put a government under too much pressure and they’ll go into lockdown. Right and wrong disappears because it’s too slow to work that out, it just becomes establishment versus the mob. And you’re part of the mob.
Once you flick the switch and make demonstrating illegal, then the entire apparatus of our quasi-totalitarian state can come crashing down on you, just for standing up for what you think is right. Let’s consider what might happen to you if you’re unfortunate enough to be on an anti-war rally, that for reasons entirely out of your control, turns ugly.
On the day of the protest: you’ll be flagged on dozens of CCTV cameras; photographed by forward intelligence teams; probably get kettled for hours without food, water or shelter; liable to be gassed, shot or sprayed by the police; your conversations can be listened into by undercover cops secreted into the crowd; you will have your mobile’s GPS logged and unique identifier entered into a database and have your incoming and outgoing messages, calls and texts intercepted.
If you get arrested you’ll get a formal police record; probably fingerprinted; maybe get your DNA taken if it’s serious; all the messages, call logs, contacts and any location data sucked off your phone and stored; if you look a bit foreign or suspicious you could be held for 30 days without a charge if anyone felt the need to use terrorist legislation; if you made it to court, the government could decide that your case was too important to be seen by the public and hold it in secret and as we saw with the riots, overcrowded courts make it impossible to serve justice properly.
Even if you made it back home safely, you’ll no doubt have made your way onto some sort of police database. Congratulations, you’re now a “person of interest” which also implicates all your close friends and family. Under the upcoming “snoopers charter” you’ll probably get your entire internet history scraped by analysis software. It’ll look for anything political, religious, sexual, drug related, racist, copyright infringing or just weird and compress it into a neat dossier. A dossier like that will come in very handy for the police if they ever want to make a case against you. I’m convinced that once you collect enough data on a person, you can find enough careless errors, unchecked curiosity and perfectly natural deviancy to make anyone out to be guilty. The thing is that if you’re only selecting for people who protest, who by definition disagree with the government, pretty soon it looks like you’re in a fully totalitarian state.
The measures above are just those in place for crowd control now, or at least very soon will be. Who knows how much further our civil liberties will be eroded in the coming years? As I see it, the world is going to become a much scarier place. With the stakes so high, governments seem to have ever twitchier trigger fingers, and I figure being left leaning, liberal and outspoken puts me directly in their crosshairs. Instead of buying a shotgun and a lot of canned food and running off to the highlands, my best defence is to try and keep hold of the freedoms I already enjoy, claw back the ones I’ve lost and keep the government in check. Because I know that if they really wanted to come after me I’d never be able to stop them. So call me paranoid, but it’ll only look like foresight if things ever get messy.