Skip to content

Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Takers and Breakers of Public Space

Read more articles by


#manifencours. The students are on the march again tonight, as they have been on the march every night for the past two weeks. This is how we live now.

Public space as an arena for expression has always been at the core of Spacing’s values but never, in my experience, has Montreal’s public space been appropriated so thoroughly and on such a large scale as it has over the past 12 weeks, with students demonstrating daily and nightly against tuition hikes imposed by the provincial government.

It has been exhilarating to witness the students and their supporters marching by day and by night; in rain and shine; with raised voices and in silence; on bicycles and in their underwear. They have numbered in the hundreds of thousands and, whether or not one supports the strikers’ demands, or approves of the Liberals’ proposed deal, it is impossible to deny that movement’s dedication, organization and visibility have made their plight impossible to ignore.

It has also been chilling, each night, to hear the sirens and the helicopters, to see the paddywagons and riot-shields. And it has been heartbreaking to read, each morning, the tally of arrests, injuries and vandalism suffered in our city streets. Before the student strike, we were not strangers to this kind of clash: we have had our hockey riots and our yearly police-brutality showdown; we have lived tear-gas like a right of passage at the G20 and the FTAA. But never has kind of conflict become so thoroughly integrated into our daily lives. This is how we live now.

Things get tumultuous

The freedoms of expression and of peaceful assembly are, of course, guaranteed by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, yet it seems that nearly every night, somewhere along the way, the protest gets declared illegal.

The protests have become so pervasive that last month the Montreal Police put out a communiqué and an FAQ about how to run a smooth demo. As soon as criminal acts are committed, the SPVM writes, a protest will be declared illegal. The police will give a verbal warning (and usually a tweet) and then riot police will move in wearing helmets and shields. They advise the public to leave the premises as soon as they either witness an illegal act, hear the warning, or see the riot police. (On a side note, the @SPVM twitter account is cordial, personable and informative – Benjamin Shingler delves into police’s use of social media on OpenFile).

Why don’t the police simply stop the individual lawbreakers? They respond that, since they must re-establish the peace, the priority becomes to put an end to the demonstration, meaning that everyone, including peaceful protestors, must leave the site.

Here’s how it’s laid out in the Criminal code:

Section 63: An unlawful assembly is an assembly of three or more persons who, with intent to carry out any common purpose, assemble in such a manner or so conduct themselves when they are assembled as to cause persons in the neighbourhood of the assembly to fear, on reasonable grounds, (a) that they will disturb the peace tumultuously; (b) will by that assembly needlessly and without reasonable cause provoke other persons to disturb the peace tumultuously.
Section 64:  A riot is an unlawful assembly that has begun to disturb the peace tumultuously.
Section 66:  Everyone who is a member of an unlawful assembly is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction

So one minute you may be marching along chanting slogans lawfully; the next moment somebody a block away has smashed a window and you’ve become part of an unlawful assembly.

This instinctively seems strange to us because it implies that the group becomes responsible, to a certain extent, for the criminal act of one individual – a pretty rare situation in our legal system. Whether they are frustrated students, or undercover police, or just unaffiliated shit-disturbers, the “casseurs” can override charter rights and snatch away our access to public spaces with a flick of the wrist. Are they aware that, far from “sticking it to the man,” acts of vandalism actually strip fellow citizens’ right to the street?

Note that the SPVM site specifies that a protest is deemed illegal when a criminal act (such as vandalism) is committed, while according to the criminal code, simply frightening people in the neighbourhood would seem to be grounds to deem an assembly unlawful.

So at the end of the day, the right to express ourselves in public space only goes so far as the neighbours trust us. On private property, a protest will be declared illegal the moment the proprietor asks police to intervene, but the law thrusts a collective responsibility upon those who assemble and express themselves in public spaces.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *