The battle against Bill 78
describes the scene during a massive demonstration in support of the struggle of students in Québec against the government’s austerity drive.
WHEN WE drove into Montreal on Tuesday, May 22, a little after noon, it didn't look like a city that was about to host the biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.
It had been raining all morning, there weren't many people about, there was no ominous police presence, nor any broken windows that one might expected from the "war zone" described in the mass media. Busses ran as usual, businessmen shook hands, friends met in cafés.
The only signs of the 100-day-long student strike were the tattered red squares we saw posted on street signs, walls and statues. In the center of Place Des Arts, we could see a group of maybe five people milling around, but it was impossible to tell if they were protesting or waiting for friends. We wondered if the law banning this protest, combined with the weather, had successfully curtailed the plans for a massive show of public support.
As 2 p.m. drew near, we made our way down Sherbrooke, the street that divides the McGill University campus from the financial district. Around us, we were noticing now one, now two, red squares on the people walking next to us. Beside us, a family pushed a stroller with a child holding a red balloon.
The people around us were not just students. There were as many people in their 40s, 50s and 60s as we would normally expect to see in downtown Montreal.
Now some people were carrying protest signs: "We don't care about your Special Law," "Free education for all" and "Charest, inform us eight hours before you say something stupid."
We walked into Place des Arts for the second time that day, but now we could see a crowd had gathered. There was a band playing, and it felt like a festival. There were four police sitting on horseback, and I kept looking over my shoulder for signs that more were coming.
As we walked down the center of the open mall looking at the signs and listening to the drums, it took us a moment before we realized we were walking in the middle of a sea of people that stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see.
We would read later that up to 400,000 people had participated. Marchers filled the six-lane boulevards along the 2.5-mile parade route. We cheered as we looked down the alleys to see that, miles away, people were still coming, and when the front of the parade had returned to the beginning, we found that the end of the parade had not left yet.
Students had been calling for a broader "social strike" for weeks, but the passage of Bill 78, aimed at ending the strike through fines and regulations, has finally brought the general public out in the street.
There was a large showing from CSN, Quebec's second-largest trade union. The city bus drivers' union had also voted not to transport police during the protests. Their spokesperson noted that their own strikes would have been illegal under Bill 78. Unions from around Canada have voted to support the strike financially as heavy fines and legal fees threaten to drown the movement.
We left the march, nearly bumping into a group of 50 police in riot gear--the first we had seen. They looked nervous. Once we left the crowd of people, quietly dispersing, we were in a sea of parked cars and blocked streets that stretched to the horizon: a city brought to a screeching halt. Young women sat on the roof of their car. A taxi driver paced up and down the street yelling obscenities. A police helicopter hovered in the distance.
As the afternoon protest drew to a close, the evening protest was about to begin. We saw people sitting out on their balconies, banging pots and pans. A woman yelled out of her apartment window to us, offering us a spare pot. The mood was jubilant. We would hear later that many protesters would spend the evening running from police, and the next day more than 600 arrests would be made.
Montreal residents feel frustration with a government that doesn't share their vision for society. The mood on the street that day was one of collective joy, not fear or anger. As protester Mary Lee Maynard wrote in her blog: "These are the kinds of things we say to each other: 'if I loved my city any more right now, my heart would burst.' We use the word 'love' a whole lot. We feel empowered. We feel connected. We feel like we are going to win."