by Rick Solaire.
When I saw the coverage of the Montreal protests,
I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears.
Some of the reports seemed like they must be exaggerations or hyperbole.
It couldn’t be this bad in Canada, could it?
Armed with a shoestring budget, I headed to the city of pretty ladies in sundresses on bikes and happy hobos singing in beautiful urban parks where waitstaff serve fancy summer drinks on sidewalk patios. This beautiful face of the city belies some unfortunate problems that are not unique to the densely populated urban areas such as mental illness, homelessness and underemployment. Many youth of Montreal are just barely getting by and see little hope of enjoying the benefits that their parents took for granted. The cost of living is rising, wages are stagnant and organized crime has a strong grip on the economy.
During the largest street protest in Canadian history on May 22nd, there was a jovial atmosphere amongst the crowd of hundreds of thousands. The crowd was incredibly diverse and a microcosm of the cosmopolitan melting pot that defines Montreal. Braving the hot and stuffy humid mid day temperatures, the crowd full of marching bands, individual musicians, people in morph suits and costumes, baby boomers, seniors, parents with children in tow alongside union members and students filled the streets of Montreal as far as the eye could see. Some make improv drums with big blue water jugs and wood sticks. The red square originally symbolized debt (being squarely in the red) but now encompasses a wide range of social issues including but not limited to police brutality, the oppressive legislation introduced to combat the protests or solidarity with the students and is omnipresent all over the city.
A woman making a speech on a PA system yells passionately at the climax of her speech and the crowd erupts in cheers heard from blocks away, where motorcycle cops block traffic. Everyone has a different reason for wearing the square. It’s displayed through the city, hanging from mailboxes, in the windows of bakeries, on seniors, hipsters, middle aged Moms carrying toddlers and even the municipal workers cleaning the streets in addition to the students who popularized it. People hand out squares of red tape or red felt and safety pins as they march alongside riot police better equipped than some professional armies. It’s spray painted all over with messages decrying Bill 78 as fascist. Elsewhere someone has prepended a red “in” before the word “justice” on the sign for the Palace of Justice to rebrand it the Palace of injustice.
The students are very organized and it’s quite obvious that they’re professionally competent and determined . Due to the sheer volume of student faculties participating, space is at a premium and student associations are forced to rent music halls to conduct their democratic general assemblies which utilize projectors hooked up to laptops and open mics. To watch one of these meetings is a rare opportunity to see direct democracy in action. The mood is like a good bar night without the booze, as the bar is closed, as travesty for any journalist worth their salt. A soft beat plays on the speaker stacks as students arrive and quickly fill the venue, obviously prepared for a long night. Some munch on take out or knit and chat before the meeting commences.
Journalists are not permitted to take photographs.
Once the meeting is called to order and begins, Votes are counted by holding up a yellow card. The students don’t seem to convey the entitlement label that’s thrust upon them by the media. After a young man spends a fair amount of time on the mic a girl quickly steps forward and presents a motion to limit speaking times to 2 minutes. It’s passed, and business moves forward. Instead of clapping, the students raise their hands in the air and shake them from side to side, the American sign language sign for applause. Although part of a national congress, the association prefers to lean towards a more “grassroots” type of format on passing resolutions, making decisions and creating plans, but group consensus can be messy and is not immune to dirty politics. Some students want to return to class but are voted down.
On my way to the meeting I asked a motorcycle cop directing traffic what he thinks about the protests. “It’s a conflict.” he says, noncommittally. “Do you think that Charest will budge?” I ask. “No.” He begins to get uncomfortable when I ask him if the students concerns are in any way comparable to the protracted labour dispute experienced by other police unions in the province.
Later in the evening, pots and pans are damaged across the city as more and more people join in the streets, banging their kitchenware in support of the largest political demonstrations of a generation, which have quickly spread to other cities across the country and even New York. People in other provinces begin to wear the red square in solidarity with Quebec students.
Even though the protestors are mostly peaceful, the familiar black bloc types have latched on to this cause just as they have many others, using the anonymity of the crowd to facilitate their escalation of the situation, launching projectiles at cops or breaking windows and setting fires in the middle of intersections. The heavily armoured riot cops are itching to knock some heads. 5 foot 4 inch librarians are walking with canes due to baton strikes. One protestor lost an eye with an unfortunately directed rubber bullet. Tear gas and pepper spray are the “in” scents this season, thanks to the police anxious to play with their expensive toys. When they attack, usually no warning is given and beatings are swift, violent and and coordinated. Helicopters are used to spot people that may have made it past lines of officers holding hundreds of people in “kettles”, square prisons where the walls are impenetrable lines of aggressive cops with shields and batons shoulder to shoulder, ready to strike.
Activists and journalists alike are followed and monitored by security forces. Snatch squads snag the stragglers when they’re alone and vulnerable. Police employ torture tactics that date back to medieval times and more recently to other countries which Canada censures and shames for disrespecting human rights. Even mainstream media staff aren’t immune to attack or arrest.
Now that it is required to submit the location and plan of any demonstration of more than 50 people, any march that doesn’t do this is automatically deemed illegal. Survivors of Communism are angered seeing how the situation has devolved here and remark how they would have loved to have come here but are now glad they didn’t. European students of history compare the actions of the Police to the Gestapo, and the students themselves have added another “S” in allusion to the fascist SS to their nickname of the Montreal Police, now branded the “SSPVM”.
Talks between students and the Government have now broken down, and the groups have discontinued negotiations. The students continue to march the streets for what is now over 110 straight nights. The Montreal F1 race open house was canceled over fears as the city braces for the economic shock believed to come with the decreased turnouts for the race, Jazz and Just for Laughs festivals for which many businesses are dependent on to survive and the entire city is on edge, as both sides are standing firm and there is no end in sight.