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A Tale of Two Montreal Demonstrations

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
This photo of police running from protesters was widely shared on facebook.
This photo of police running from protesters was widely shared on facebook.
This photo of protesters in the shape of a tree was also widely shared.
This photo of protesters in the shape of a tree was also widely shared.

Two photos from two different Montreal protests from last weekend have gone viral on facebook. One, taken Friday April 20th at a militant demonstration of about 2000 students and activists against Plan Nord, was a photo of police running from protesters. The other was a photo of Sunday's huge Earth day protest in Montreal (April 22nd), where 200,000 – 300,000 people gathered. The mainstream media would like to contrast these demonstrations as opposed, one massive and peaceful, one small and militant.  Facebook, while allowing for a quick spread of photos, strips them of context in the way photos are being shared.  I was at both demonstrations and have been speaking to Montreal activists over the past week, and this is the story behind the photos.

I’ll start with the first picture, of cops running from protesters.  The police violence at the protest started when a demonstrator opened a door and was shot in the head point-blank with a tear gas canister.  This is when the protest became more militant.  Although there were one or two instances of police (including fully garbed riot police) running, these were the exception rather than the rule, and occured for very brief periods of time. Nonetheless, it might just mark a turning point in what many Quebecois are now calling ‘the Quebec spring.”

 I spoke to Claude, who was there as a protester when the cops turned and ran.

“Well I don’t know exactly what was the turning point, what made the police turn and run.  Actually, I was running from the policeman! And then I saw people all around me turn and start running the other way. So I turned as well, and started running after the policeman.  I don’t know. I cannot help you more than that...just that the energy was so strong from our side that we could beat the police. But it lasted like 30 seconds (laughter), and then tear gas came in and we ran from the police (more laughter)."

"Just to make a little context, I’m 41 years old" he continued.  "I’ve been in demonstrations  for almost 25 years now and I thought I had some experience with those kind of things. But I quickly understood that the kids there, they know everything, they know how to make a good demonstration, they know how to defend themselves, and I quickly realized that I had to listen to what they were saying and follow them. And that’s what I did, and actually I didn’t get arrested so I must have done something right.”

From what I saw during last Friday's demonstration, the police were completely unable to control a mobile and intelligent crowd. It is the tenth week of the student strike, and the students have now been in many militant demonstrations and know what to expect.  The crowd would form, then dissolve into side streets, only to re-form again; the existence of many different protests at the same time left the police unable to deal with this.  They used tear gas, rubber bullets, explosions and beat protesters.

The demonstrations started at several different points with slightly different emphases: some family friendly, some more student based, some with black and green anarcho-environmental flags prominent, and one led by Innu women who had marched to Montreal. The slogan for the student demonstration, “Non à la gratuité miniére! Oui à la gratuité scolaire!”, refers to the massive public subsidies to mining and other destructive sectors that is part of Charet’s ‘Plan Nord’.  The demonstrations on Friday and Saturday were not simply symbolic; they were economic disruptions which shut down the Plan Nord job fair and the contracting process.

The photo of the police running became the iconic image of the day.  And while photo sharing on social media has been effective at bypassing the so-called ‘english language media blackout’ on news of the Quebec social protests, the way they are shared means that some people will share one photo (of the cops running away) while others will share another depending on their own politics and inclinations.

The second photo that went viral is that of the of a massive Earth Day demonstration on Sunday, where the crowds were organized and corralled in the form of a huge tree for a press photo.  Mainstream media was quick to seize on the Earth Day demonstration as a counter example to the so-called ‘violent’ protests of the Friday before and were happy to see an environmental focus as represented by the official speakers.

CBC reported: "Earth Day organizers say they contacted Quebec student federations to remind them that Sunday's rally was peaceful and family-oriented. The reminder came in the wake of a raucous week in the province's ongoing student movement against tuition hikes, in which hundreds of people were arrested during protests held in different cities. But the focus Sunday was on environmental issues, highlighted every year during Earth Day events around the world."

The Montreal Gazette reported that “many before had never attended an Earth Day event… Earth Day organizers themselves were stunned, pinning the number of participants at 250,000 or 300,000.”

But were the protests really so different?  Although there were quite a few people who were clearly at the protest for Earth day, there were also enormous contingents of students and unionized workers, and people wearing the red square were everywhere. There were also people from leftist political parties, as well as sovereigntists opposed to the Charest government. And why were there more than double the amount of protesters the Earth Day organizers expected?

Despite the reformist politics and bland speeches (most of which I couldn’t hear because the crowd was so big), last Sunday’s march was part of the same social movement as Friday’s.  Anger against Plan Nord, against corruption in contracting and against the lack of democracy were common themes for both days. Because one was a family-friendly march with massive attendance, and the other was economic disruption, the commonalities are obscured. 

Of course there is a huge disparity in strategy and tactics in a mass social movement such as the one developing in Quebec, with major differences in opinion on every topic under the sun. And there were other demos that weekend, like the Innu solidarity protests and the anti-Jason Kenny protests which also took place on the Friday and Saturday, some of them family friendly, some of them merging with the militant protests.

I spoke to one activist who said: “When you have 200,000 people, nobody is there for any one thing - because its 200,000 people. There are probably some people there who I completely disagree with on almost everything, but there are also people there who I completely agree with.”  Nonetheless, they are related to each other as part of a general upswing in leftist social movements, and more specifically in general sympathy to the student strike and opposition to the policies of the current government. Protest have continued all week, with Wednesday's heavily-repressed night march of 10,000 people being the largest.

I’m reminded of last Friday’s militant demonstration. I was on the edge of the protest, and a woman dressed in office clothing asked if there were police in that direction. I said yes, and that there was tear gas too. She said “well then, I am heading the other way. I support you guys, but I don’t want to get beaten today’. Maybe that woman, certainly many like her, were at that Earth Day protest in support not only of the environment but of the massive student movement that is moving across Quebec. If only the mainstream media hadn’t missed the point.

Two photos- one including a massive number of peacefully standing people, organized and posed by NGOs. The other capturing one spontaneous snapshot in a fluid, militant protest when for a brief moment the tables turned on the police.  Both are constituent parts of the current protest movement in Quebec, even if the media would rather it not be so. This coming weekend, and especially the upcoming Mayday protests, is going to be interesting.

Megan Kinch (of the Toronto Media Co-op) is reporting from Montreal.


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Megan Kinch (Megan Kinch)
Toronto Ontario
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is a writer and editor with the Toronto Media Co-op.

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