Monday night I went to city hall. Not as a journalist but as a citizen. To ask a question of the Mayor. I ran into a reporter friend of mine who asked me if I wasn’t worried about crossing the line. I asked, “What line? From writer to citizen? “ I said to him that if journalists give up their responsibilities of citizenship, they do no one any good. If the media truly want to be considered the fourth estate of government, then journalists must become in Malraux’s words “citoyens engagés.”
I am proud of the record at The Métropolitain and at The Suburban of advocacy journalism and citizen engagement. We have helped to right wrongs and to relieve suffering. We have fought for individuals against RAMQ, the public curator, the language police and a host of other instruments of the state that lie as a heavy yoke on all our necks. Advocacy journalism is not “gotcha” journalism. Advocacy is about gentling the condition for the vulnerable who can’t. Being their hammer for justice. It’s about one other thing too.
Advocacy is about rousing an engaged citizenry. It was one of those resolute, engaged citizens that suggested I come to city hall’s question period. His name is Jack Kincler. I worked with Jack and others in beating back the boycott of the St. Denis St. store called “Le Marcheur” because it had the audacity to sell Israeli shoes. We succeeded there, but the haters moved down the street and now employ their tactics of implicit intimidation outside another St. Denis St. store called “Naot.”
The reason for Jack organizing a group of us for this session was the new Tremblay administration initiative to bring some semblance of control to the anarchy rampant in our streets through uncontrolled, unlimited and unrestrained demonstrations. Demonstrations that have disrupted the ability of so many Montrealers to live and work in peace. We have all lived through the past months of our city held hostage by the often violent eruptions of student caprice. But that is a macro problem. We wanted to highlight the effect on the individual. On one store. On one person being afraid to open a door.
I have pursued the issue of unsanctioned demonstrations since 2009. In the spring of that year I was at Place du Canada with one of my colleagues and witnessed one of the wildest mobs I had ever seen. It was a pro-Hamas demonstration in which some demonstrators screeched the vilest epithets about Jews I had ever heard. I approached one of the police commanders and asked which person or organization’s name was on the demonstration permit. It was then that I first learned that Montreal is one of the few cities that does not require permits for demonstrations. Over the past three years I have had numerous conversations with city and police officials on this issue and have always received the same response, that their lawyers advised them that permits might be an infringement of the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly guarantees in the Charter. But that is not so, and that was the message I delivered on Monday night.
Jack and I had decided that I would take on the Charter issue in my question while he put forward a question based on a novel proposal of his that would give local citizens a say in the length of demonstrations in their areas through the use of citizen registers. We both received interesting assurances as to what the future may bring. The administration’s proposal is that all organizers of demonstrations must provide information on length, time, place, sponsoring organizations and the like to city and police authorities. Additionally, the proposed amendments banned outright the wearing of masks in demonstrations. I congratulated the Mayor on this initiative. I then spoke to the Charter issue and my conversations over the years with many in the chamber. I pointed out that taking the current amendments further and instituting a permit process would in no way be an infringement of the Charter. There would never be a denial of a permit for expression and assembly. But the process would allow for the municipal administration to maintain order. It would allow the city to limit time and place for demonstrations. In a civil society, my right of expression and assembly should not infringe on public order and others rights to live in peace. But those were the general issues.
To give a human face to the question, I went back to the case of the St. Denis St. merchant. I pointed out in my preamble that section 15 of the Charter is called the Equality Clause. That clause states that “everyone is equal in front of the law and has a right to equal protection of the law.” I then pointed out that by not having a permit process Montreal is actually infringing on the Charter. The reason is that demonstrators are protected by the law but the people they intimidate – in this case a merchant – have no equal protection because no permit law exists. So the very fact that we do not have a permit process – a law protecting the victims of demonstrations – is actually an infringement of the Equality clause. I then posed my question of whether it is possible that the good intentions of these amendments could be converted into an actual formal permit process. The Mayor answered that the final decisions would be made after hearings of the public security committee which begin today at two in the afternoon. He said the administration would be paying close attention to what tools Montreal’s police commanders will state they need in those hearings.
Nothing seems to be off the table. I can tell you from my conversations with commanders that they need a permit process. Now our elected officials need to hear from you, all citizens. It is time that all of you got as engaged as my friend Jack and call your councillors and tell them you want some balance back in the law. You want public order. And most of all, you want equality. Let’s all support the Mayor’s initiative and take it to it’s logical conclusion.