Protesting police in camo pants could face big fines under new Quebec bill

Montreal police tentative strike deal with city over pension reform

Police officers across Quebec will face hefty fines if they refuse to wear their full uniforms under a long-promised bill tabled today by Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux.

Bill 133 is the Quebec government's effort to force officers to ditch the camouflage pants they have been wearing as a form of protest since 2014, when Philippe Couillard's Liberal government introduced municipal pension reform.

Coiteux called the camo pant pressure tactic "unacceptable."

Fines for refusing to comply with the legislation range from $500 to $3,000 per day. Fines double for repeat offenders. Under the new bill, the director of a police force also has to report any incident to the Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions.

"What this bill proposes, what it states is that not wearing the regular uniform is not an appropriate, not a legitimate way of protesting," said Coiteux on Thursday.

Montreal police chief Philippe Pichet wouldn't comment on how the bill could impact ongoing negotiations between police forces and the government, but said the decision will strengthen the public's confidence in officers.

"I think that, if tomorrow morning, all the police officers in Montreal are in uniform, that it won't change the excellent work they've been doing up until now," he told Radio-Canada. "But the perception from citizens concerning the police service would be better."

Patience wearing thin

The bill comes on the heels of Coiteux saying his patience was running out, promising late last month that a bill was on the way. 

"I have been patient, but I always said my patience had an expiry date, right?" said Coiteux to reporters on Thursday.

Yves Francoeur, the head of Montreal's police officers' union, has argued the pants protest is the only way to make "ourselves heard when we have no right to strike."

Coiteux, however, contends police officers have special powers, and the uniform represents their authority within society. They should be easy to identify, especially in the case of an emergency, he added.

"With these powers come certain obligations," said Coiteux. "And wearing the uniform that symbolizes this authority in this very important role is something that should not be altered. And it should be respected."

The wearing of camouflage pants has also hurt the public's confidence in Quebec police forces, he said.

The chosen form of protest has landed Montreal police in some hot water over the past three years. Officers were roundly criticized for wearing camo pants while working outside the venue of Jacques Parizeau's 2015 state funeral.

And a Laval man got out of a $1,200 fine because an officer who tried to pull him over wasn't wearing her regulation uniform. He argued he didn't know she was a police officer.

Visibility 'the last means we had' 

The president of the union representing special constables, who work in courthouses and other provincial government buildings, said he was "very disappointed" by the tabling the bill.

"By doing this, the government has acted as judge and party," said Franck Perales.

The legislation leaves officers, who do not have the right to strike in Quebec, with very few ways to put pressure on the government and make public their concerns, he said.

"There is nothing left to incite the government to sit down and talk with us at the negotiating table," said Perales. "They took away the very last means we had ... visibility."