We have warned several times that as important as it is to protect ourselves against Covid, it is just as important that we remember that civil rights have not been repealed and that rule of law has not been suspended. We need to be able to recognize ourselves on the other side of this.
The behaviour of the Montreal police this weekend during the “March of the Rebellious” should make us all reflect deeply on the danger signs. It is true that many of the marchers were on the political fringes. But it can honestly be said that half of them were regular people, our neighbours, who simply want an end to child-masking and the curfews. Many came with their children. The vast majority peaceful except for several at the end when most had gone home.
It is true that many marchers did not wear masks. There is a regulation in place that though masks are not mandatory outdoors they are mandatory in demonstrations. Without commenting on the onerous cost of the fines, those who did not wear masks knew they were subject to them. What they could not know — and no citizen of a free society should accept — was the behaviour of the police in serving those fines.
Police routinely went to the edges of the marchers — in twos, threes and fours — and pulled out people without masks holding their arms and manhandling them to sidewalks to write out tickets. One of our reporters even saw a small young woman being hustled out by five cops. The police did this not by exception but by rule. 140 tickets were handed out in this manner. Police have no right to touch someone when they’re handing out tickets. They may in the case of the commission of a crime or if someone resists arrest. But not for a civil fine.
In another incident, perhaps the most troublesome of the day, a phalanx of police in riot gear rushed the protesters while two men were crossing the street in front of the crowd. When one of the men raised his arms to push one of the officers away he was beaten in his stomach with nightsticks
For those of you who would say that this is nowhere as bad as police behaviour south of the border, we would remind you that it always starts this way.
The slow undoing of our basic rights until we become immune. And then we are not what we were as a society anymore.
Senior sources at City Hall told us that they had warned the police not to be “stupid” last weekend. They were themselves shocked at both the number of tickets and the manner in which they were handed out and the behaviour of the police. We have asked the SPVM for the name of the commander in charge of Saturday’s police action so that we can interview. As of press time we have been assured that we will be given his name but have not received it yet.
But the politicians need to hear from all of you. They need the courage to act. When security authority sees a complacent population, it will bend and break all the rules. We will be complicit in destroying what we seek to protect.
Just last summer SQ officers were using GPS tracking without warrant to find Covid positive individuals who had left medical facilities. Some time after that Premier Legault admitted that provincial police had proposed using data from cell phones and other devices to locate people. But, he said, those tracking methods haven’t been authorized for the provincial police yet. “In the short term … we don’t have the intention to use it. But, if the situation is different in one week or two weeks, will we accept the proposal from the Surete du Quebec? Maybe.” Dominique Peschard, of La Ligue des droits et libertes, said he doesn’t see why a judge can’t be assigned to review applications by police for cell phone data surveillance — even during the current state of emergency.
A few days later,Montreal Police Chief Sylvain Caron announced that his service, would be giving out fines to businesses and individuals who failed to comply with provincial guidelines on staying closed and respecting physical distancing. The fines would range from $1000 to $6000. But what stunned everyone was that he confirmed that the police would enter people’s private homes if they received calls from someone who alleged a “gathering” at a residence. Caron also said that police would do so without benefit of a warrant. Mayor Plante confirmed that they had taken these decisions after consultations with Quebec City. And several months later Premier Legault allowed warrants by phone based on nothing but anonymous denunciations.
We have witnessed a creeping state-sanctioned harassment. We tend to forget what has happened over the past year. Against this background, we need not be terribly surprised at police taking more and more power as they did this weekend. The signals they are getting is that everything is allowed.
As much as the importance of the sacrifices we have made — and continue to make for our health — it is just as important to make sacrifices and engage to stand on guard for our liberties. We in the media have been deemed an essential service. But what is most essential about us is the duty to remind people that they have to protect a society they can recognize on the other side of all this and our responsibility to keep the state in check.