Why cops in camo have our sympathy

Montreal police and firefighters are protesting Bill 3, a Liberal re-write of pension plans for municipal civil servants across Quebec.

SPVM pressure tactics

Police pressure tactics. Photo by Graham Hughes

Fighting for the rights of your friends isn’t justice unless you’re also willing to fight for those same rights for people you hate.

Yes, I’m talking about Quebec police officers, including our beloved Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal. Normally, I’d suggest that “hate” is hyperbole, but for lots of Montrealers, it’s not when you’re talking about police.

As the people authorized by the state to deprive us of our liberties, ticket us for our excesses and force us to change direction with the mere sweep of an arm, even the best of them make enemies on a daily basis. And the worst of them make enemies for life. Even a lowly beat cop in Port-au-Prince can plant a seed that permanently poisons a Haitian émigreé against our lovely Montreal girls and boys in blue.

Or should I say girls and boys in periwinkle, peach and pink.

Montreal is a city that loves to talk fashion, so the talk of the town these days is naturally the fact that SPVM officers have ditched their sober uniforms for camo-cargo pants of every imaginable colour and pattern, part of a protest against Bill 3, a Liberal government plan to re-write pension plans for municipal civil servants across the province.

Although the robbery plans — sorry, proposed reallocation of resources — will affect firefighters and blue- and white-collar workers as well, police have become the focus because, let’s face it, no one would notice if city accountants suddenly stopped sporting paisley ties or navy-blue pant suits.


Two years ago, those same police officers were the blunt edge of a huge government operation aimed at discrediting and repressing student protests over Liberal plans for a huge hike in tuition fees. Some officers didn’t hesitate to add their voices to the choir, denouncing “spoiled students” for taking “my taxes” to pay for “their soy lattes.”

Today, the boot is on the other foot. The government is taking advantage of the fact that no one but actuaries and accountants really understand what is happening to municipal pension plans, which have a combined deficit of $5-billion … no, wait, that’s $3.9-billion … um, okay, if you factor in delayed retirements and increased returns on low-yield bonds and large-cap equity …. zzzzzzzzzz.

Never mind all that. What you need to know is that these pension plans were negotiated as part of the collective agreements of hundreds of different municipal unions across the province. They were part of package deals and, in many cases, were trade-offs. Unions would agree, for example, to accept below-inflation pay hikes or longer hours in exchange for a better retirement package 10 or 20 years down the road.

And in the case of police officers, these were labour agreements that were concluded without a single strike day — because that’s one weapon police are not allowed to carry. Under Quebec essential services rules, pressure tactics are limited to the symbolic: they are not allowed to interfere with the primary responsibility of police officers to protect the public.

Hence the pants. And the easily-peeled-off-don’t-get-your-nickers-in-a-knot stickers plastered on police cars and fire trucks.

One of the first prominent Quebec figures to side with the unions on this one was Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, one of the three main student protest leaders (and the only one who hasn’t tried to trade in his carrée rouge for a seat in the National Assembly’s salon bleu). Writing in an open letter in La Presse six weeks ago, the former Classé leader reminded the police brotherhood of how it had treated his members as “spoiled children” for trying to protect students’ acquired rights. “Instead of hearing us, you beat us and humiliated us.” Nevertheless, he added (my translation):

“Like many other young people who care about social justice, I support your mobilization. The solution to the pension deficit is not a race to the bottom. The money from your pension funds have not been stolen from anyone, they are after all only a portion of your salary that you have temporarily waived so that it can be paid later. To claw back these funds today because of the irresponsible greed of bankers that brought down the financial markets is tantamount to punishing honest workers for the mistakes of their masters. There are other solutions.”


Indeed, “other solutions” have already been put into place by dozens of major Quebec  municipalities, such as Laval, where the city administration and its firefighters’ union have already negotiated a revised pension deal. Laval mayor Marc Demers has voiced concerns that Bill 3  — which was drafted mainly to deal with pension deficits in Montreal and Quebec City  — could tear up current agreements across the province, even in places where the pension funds are in surplus.

So Laval should be the poster child for pension peace, but it has instead become the symbol of excess after two Laval police cars were videotaped using a muddy construction yard to give a third squad car a complete mud bath, likely as part of the Bill 3 protest. Union organizers distanced themselves from the mud-slinging, but like student protesters two years earlier, they are learning that a hostile public will still try to hold you responsible for the isolated acts of individuals over whom you have no control.

Meanwhile, anger among municipal workers continues to grow, anger that’s easy to understand if you take a moment to walk in their camo pants. For the average Montreal cop or firefighter, if Bill 3 is adopted, the city will have succeeded in taking an additional $6,000 a year from their paycheques to pay for a pension plan that, to add insult to injury, will no longer be indexed.

Dress it up any way you want, but Bill 3 is an attack on the very principle of collective bargaining and on the rights of all workers — unionized or not, whether we like them or not — to protect the nest egg that they have earned over their entire working lives.

It’s time for Montreal mayor Denis Coderre and Quebec City mayor Regis Labeaume to pull up their own pants and negotiate a local solution to a problem that is largely of their own creation. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.