WHAT A GAS
A film critic goes to the Summit and finds it more
BRIAN D. JOHNSON
They were waiting for the Revolution. Kids milling on the grass in the spring sunshine, photographers staking out positions. All day, people filtered up from the side streets, protest pilgrims drawn to the Fence, the infamous perimeter. The wall within the walled city had become a chain-link mural, crocheted with slogans, drawings, balloons, bras, poems, tchotchkes—like a class project gone mad. I heard someone call my name, and turned to see Sarah Polley pointing a video camera at me. In Quebec to protest, and direct a film, the actress was one of 20 Ontario filmmakers who had come in overnight on a red-eye bus. Everywhere you looked, someone was making a film or video. And almost everyone was armed with a camera of some sort. Which might help explain what happened when the Fence came down.
First one daredevil, then dozens climbed up and started riding it back and forth, as if trying to rock a car out of the snow. It took just minutes. When it buckled, a huge cheer went up from the crowd, now in the thousands, and the front ranks surged across the perimeter. But most people hung back. Many had never intended to go any further, and many were simply scared—of the real fence, the phalanx of police in battle gear waiting just inside. But as I clambered over the flattened chain-link and looked around, something else occurred to me: almost everyone was taking pictures. At this defining moment, the one point when the protesters had spontaneity on their side, they became an audience. Instead of following the charge, they were photographing it—too preoccupied with documenting their place in history to get lost in the act of making it.
The siege of the Quebec Summit was a landmark in more ways than one. It was the most spectacular pitched battle the city has seen since Wolfe defeated Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham, involving the greatest use of chemical weapons—over 1,700 canisters of tear gas—by the largest security operation ever mounted in Canada. But it may also be the most minutely documented protest in North American history. “The whole world is watching”—a phrase that emerged from the anti-Vietnam era of televised dissent—has taken on new meaning. Now, its not just the media that’s watching the movement; the movement is watching itself. Armed with digital video, cellphones and the Internet, the movement is the medium: welcome to the era of wired protest.
The last time I was in Quebec covering political events was in the early 1970s, as a young labour reporter for The Gazette in Montreal. As a child of the New Left, I worked both sides of the fence, reporting on Quebec’s escalating strikes for the paper, and moonlighting with a hard-core revolutionary group. I ran from my share of riot police in the streets of Montreal, and in Paris once, while at a demo against police repression, was briskly clubbed by two cops, who smashed my camera on the sidewalk.
Twenty-seven years later, I was curious to see the new movement in action. And like everyone else, I suspected the Quebec Summit would be one of those unmissable parties—a chance to watch the Wall come down in our own little makeshift Berlin. As a film critic, I also thought it would be more cinematic, and meaningful, than anything about to open at the multiplex.
And yes, it was a gas. It was a riot. A pageant of thousands doing chemicals in a carnival of percussion, choreography and costume. I’m not talking about protesters, the kaleidoscopic tribes of anarchist punks, neo-hippies, anti-global activists, earnest students,
granny peaceniks, unionists, drummers, dancers and clowns. I’m talking about the police, the Kabuki chorus lines of robocops banging their shields with sticks as they marched into batde.
Their drug of choice was tear gas. No matter where you were, on the front lines or in the backstreets, you could not escape it. And no one could believe the sheer quantity that was used. For three days, secondhand gas was a fact of life for anyone breathing in downtown Quebec. Gas became the common enemy, and did more to unify the chaotic swirl of protest than any number of slogans. It’s considered one of the more benign forms of crowd control, but it burns the eyes, stings the skin and scorches the lungs, creating instant asthma. Think oven cleaner.
Before leaving for Quebec, I resisted the urge to shop for riot gear. Fearing a gas mask would make me a target, I setded on swim goggles, a bandana and some vinegar. A week before the event, the only accommodation I could find was at a boutique hotel in the Old City, below the ramparts. I felt a twinge of guilt—travelling to the revolution in luxury—so when the 23-year-old daughter of a friend asked to bunk in my room, I reluctandy agreed, imagining a gang of kids camped out on the floor and looting the mini-bar.
I fly in on Thursday, in time to catch some of the alternative People’s Summit, held under a vast white tent in the Old Port. Video screens flank the stage, rock-concert style, and a bar sells beer. The crowd is mostly middle-aged, and the hosts are familiar faces: Toronto’s Judy Rebick, veteran activist, author and TV personality; and Montreal’s Monique Simard, former labour leader and Parti Québécois executive, and now . . . filmmaker. Rebick and Simard spend five minutes introducing each other, trading quips about their age like a couple of practised vaudevillians. Rebick keeps insisting the night will be fun. “Were going to do it like a TV show,” she says, “which means were not going to have long speeches.” “Fun” has become the watchword of the established left, which is dancing as fast as it can to keep up with the antiglobalization kids. A few days earlier in Toronto, Rebick launched her latest project, the rabble, ca Web magazine (“news for the rest of us”), in a Queen Street tavern with a band, a juggler and a pair of contortionist nymphs performing on the bar.
The tent meeting unfolds more like a revue than a rally, with kitschy routines by a group called the Radical Cheerleaders. Actor R. FT Thompson delivers the most novel speech, explaining how corporate culture confuses variety with diversity. To spell out the distinction, he brandishes a program book from the Montreal World Film Festival, featuring 400 movies from 60 countries, then picked up a newspaper and read the menu at the multiplex: “Blow, Along Came a Spider, Joe Dirt, Josie and the Pussycats, Joe Dirt, Along Came a Spider...”
I walk home along the Fence. Watch a welder’s torch spray the night with sparks, while protesters in clown noses interview a cop on video through the mesh.
■I Friday afternoon. Inside the security zone, the streets I are so empty it’s like a ghost town. But outside the crowds are building, and a militant march is on a collision course with the Fence. At 3 p.m., the barrier is breached and the gas begins to flow. Briefly, I find myself on the front lines, standing next to a large, wooden medieval catapult. I do a double take, wondering if this was a gas-induced hallucination, then retreat, unable to breathe. Later, I learn that the catapult was used to hurl teddy bears at the enemy.
On the front lines, cops fire gas and plastic bullets at the “Black Bloc” of anarchists, who respond with rocks and bottles. But these guerrilla punks are fast on their feet and hard to catch. So the police soon shift their aim to a bigger, easier target—the thousands of protesters sworn to passive resistance. Tear-gas projectiles are fired deep into the crowd, sending people running in panic, until the riot police have set in motion what is beginning to look like a riot. Then, from the east, water cannons rumble down René Lévesque Boulevard. A protester holding up a white banner on a wooden branch stands in front of one, Tiananmen Square style, and forces it back. By early evening, police have pushed the protesters far from the Fence, gassing the crowd wherever they find it. Every so often, a tear-gas canister, trailing a plume of smoke, gets lobbed back, which always elicits a cheer—by now, even the most peaceful demonstrators consider that fair game.
Maggie, my friend’s daughter, shows up in my room at 2:30 a.m. on Saturday after travelling 10 hours by bus from Toronto. She is a tall blond who looks like a fashion model and is just as demanding, but has enough charm and intelligence to get away with murder. Immediately, she sets to work mobilizing the front desk.
She phones for a cot, then for extra pillows and blankets, and finally, complaining she’s being kept awake by the helicopters— which hover constandy over the city day and night during the summit—she asks for a fan to provide some white noise. The desk clerk shows up with a device the size of a small aircraft engine, which roars through the night as Maggie reads herself to sleep with a mystery novel. I lie awake, strung out on adrenaline and tear gas.
Saturday is the day of the main march, a sunny parade of over 30,000 people herded into the streets of Lower Town. It’s the proverbial rainbow coalition. Union placards form a sea of matching logos, and the rest is a merry chaos of “affinity groups.” A girl with an African drum around her waist and a megaphone around her neck yells slogans to no one in particular. An Ottawa protester who says he makes his living as a “tropical landscaper and face painter” unfurls a 30-m canvas banner, scrawled with hundreds of messages. A platoon of environmentalists in black suits and ties with bar codes taped across their mouths slow-march, freezing into dramatic poses at timed intervals.
I came to Quebec expecting a millennial Woodstock, full of people who were there for the scene and didn’t care about the issues. But most of those I talk to are impassioned and articu-
late. Unlike Maude Barlow, they may not be able to parse the byzantine legalities of trade regulation, but they share an uncomplicated distaste for capitalism and corporate conformity. Leslie Weigl, a 21-year-old student from the University of Alberta, with flowers in her hair and a plastic butterfly on her back, says, “I’ve come to voting age and have come to realize that voting doesn’t work. There’s too much power in the hands of corporations and government is not accountable. There’s an ideology of money.”
The Saturday march is a strategic disaster. In a city famous for panoramic views, it’s staged in a place where no one can see it. The organizers are so paranoid about violence at the Fence that they lead the march away from the city into an industrial wasteland. Many protesters break off and make their way to the ramparts. By now, the police have escalated from defence to offence, pushing their perimeter into residential streets. The idea of the “summit” starts to take on a literal symbolism as protesters keep trying to scale the hill, and police keep pushing them back to Lower Town. Co-ordinated by the helicopters, the police move like a single insect brain, squeezing the crowd down narrow streets.
Horror stories start to accumulate. Deafening explosions rock Rue St-Jean, the main drag, as police shoot concussion grenades directly at peaceful protesters who are sitting on the pavement, singing. A man hit by a plastic bullet in the neck requires an emergency tracheotomy. A protester attacks a cop with an iron bar. A tear-gas canister explodes in the face of a medic on his knees treating a demonstrator. Riot police raid the protesters’ clinic at gunpoint and confiscate medical supplies. And anyone wielding a camera becomes a target for a plastic bullet. Macleans photographer Phill Snel snapped a picture of a cop aiming a rifle at his head, just over a metre away. “I was scared shitless,” he said. “But if I was going to be a vegetable, I wanted the evidence for my family.”
Back at the hotel, Maggie is expecting a visit from her three protester pals, so she has ordered up a great whack of herbal tea, which arrives in elegant Japanese pots. Her friends arrive, reeking of tear gas, and make themselves at home on the floor for a few minutes before rushing back to the fray. They are polite, informed and more committed than Maggie, who admits she has come “for the experience.” One of them talks of the teddy-bear catapult, explaining how it originated in Edmonton, her home town. “We posted notices in chat rooms on the Web,” she says, “asking if anyone knew how to build one, and got a reply from Ontario. They built it, disassembled it, brought it in on a flatbed truck, then reassembled it at Laval University.”
The catapult would become an absurd symbol for the Siege of Quebec. On Friday, blocks from the Fence, a van of five plainclothed police snatched Montreal activist Jaggi Singh from a peaceful protest and charged him with possessing a weapon—the catapult. Since then, a group called The Destructionist Institute for Surreal Topology claimed full responsibility for the contraption (which was financed by Judy Rebick), insisting Singh has neither “the sense of humour nor the chutzpah to smuggle a
25 x 10 ft. catapult into the most heavily fortified city in Canadian history.”
With nightfall, Woodstock begins to show shades of Altamont. Massive bonfires are set in the streets of Lower Town. One burns at the protesters’ squat camp, a barren triangle of land under a tangle of expressways. Rave music thumps from a sound system powered by a cube van as hundreds of protesters dance and beat drums, their faces wild in the light of the urban campfire. High above them, crowds line the curving expressway—a balcony in the apocalyptic nightclub— and bang sticks on the metal railing.
A few blocks away, at 1 a.m., several hundred people are gathered around a huge bonfire in the middle of a major intersection. Flames are shooting three storeys into the air. Vandals have broken into an abandoned building on the corner and are hauling out whatever they can find to fuel the fire: debris, sheets of plywood, chairs, doors, windows. At one point, some maniac plows a forklift through the front doors, scattering the crowd. A couple of anti-globalization kids from Boston watch in dismay. Burning and looting is not what they came for.
The next morning, Quebec City is blanketed in a veil of fog, and for once it’s not toxic. A light rain falls as I wander out to survey the aftermath. At the squat camp, the riot squad has just gassed and arrested about 30 people as they were waking up. When I get there, the police are erasing the camp with a bulldozer. Everything is tossed into the trash, from brown rice to bicycles. Steam is still rising from molten tarmac where the bonfire was. It’s Sunday, Earth Day, 2001. Time to return to an outside world that, for a few days, ceased to exist.
In the end, nothing terribly tragic happened. There were hundreds of injuries, but maybe no worse than in an average season of the NHL. No one lost an eye and no one got killed. Luckily. And for all the vandalism, there was never a full-blown riot. Despite all the boarded-up windows, there was nothing like the StJean-Baptiste Day havoc of previous years. The targets were selective, like the bank window broken by a protester who left a note: “I.O.U. one window—the Revolution.”
Compared with my generation of linear protest, what I saw in Quebec looked like a leaderless movement, a swarm. But it had an inner coherence, the subatomic democracy of a movement that likes to watch what it’s doing. Whenever people would start to run from the tear gas, marshals would always be on hand to yell “Walk!” This was a crowd that was into selfcontrol and serious fun—protest as an extreme sport. They’ve chosen a slippery target: muzzling global capitalism is a taller order than ending a war. But I was impressed. They have cooler slogans, more drums and better costumes. Not to mention cellphones and a catapult.
Read a street medic’s account of her summit experiences at