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Eyewitness to the printemps érable

Chantal Sundaram

June 5, 2012

The June 2 march in Montreal was billed as both illegal and family-friendly (it was indeed both), was called by CLASSE in the wake of the collapse of a second round of negotiations between the Quebec government and all three student federations. It was probably close to 15,000 marchers, which in these times is an “ordinary” event.
What was most impressive was not merely the number of marchers but the active participation from the sidelines, from every window and sidewalk, which more than doubled the size of the event. It challenged the notion of what a demonstration “demonstrates” (the people are “manifest,” even more than they would be on a choreographed march alone.)
However, the march was also important in itself as an act of defiance: and marchers came knowing it would be declared illegal from the outset. There was only one speech at the beginning, and it wasn’t a speech so much as a manifesto declaring why we were there, delivered by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson of CLASSE. It was a series of short statements addressed to us, and accusations addressed to Charest, in which he described what we represent, and what they represent: who is responsible for the real violence, intimidation, and bad faith, and who is not. After each sentence there was a cheer, almost like a military call and response. Then he finished by declaring that we were marching to show our refusal to be intimated, and off we went on a route that was deliberately not given to police. Even though we didn’t know ourselves where we were going, we knew why, and that was more than enough.
But somehow, all along the route, there were children, families, elderly people, nuns, people at bus stops, balcony dwellers, random passersby, banging on pots and pans to greet us. I think some people have begun to carry pots and pans around with them on weekends. It went on for more than three hours, and though the rain never once let up, neither did the energy. The march was as diverse as the sidelines, and picked up numbers along the way. And both street and sidelines were a sea of carrés rouges in every possible form from flags to banners on buildings. Due to the increasing rarity of red felt people have started to knit or crochet them, or make them out of ribbon.
Neighbourhood organizing
I left the march a bit early to attend the Assemblée populaire autonome de quartier (APAQ) Plateau-Est., the first one in the Plateau, and one of several called in different neighbourhoods across the city. There was a core of 60 people there, with more who came and went. A range of people talked about what brought them there and what they think needs to happen now.
A number of students spoke about the critical and difficult moment they are in, but lots of people who were just neighbourhood residents talked about their desperation to be part of this movement. One young man who identified himself as a worker said he was not at all involved in the student actions until Bill 78, and now it felt to him like he’d suddenly found his voice.
One student from UQAM talked about the moment the news came down about Bill 78: she was in a student assembly at the time, and the immediate feeling for all was crushing depression, that it was all over, that the student movement couldn’t possibly take this on. She said it could easily have been the beginning of the end, but what turned that around was the casseroles. That spontaneous response from people outside the student movement immediately breathed life back into it.
So the discussion centred on how to keep this momentum going through the summer. The casseroles may not last as the rallying point, and there will be a need to deepen the roots of the movement in neighbourhoods through popular education events, street booths, community BBQs, etc. People were interested in the model of ”autogérance” or “self-management” that still exists in the South-West neighbourhood of Pointe St Charles.
People in the meeting were impressively diplomatic about the fact that the large trade union federations have abdicated leadership in providing a way forward, leaving it to community organizing to keep momentum going. There was frustration but no union-bashing, instead an understanding that it takes time to push a leadership that’s slow to take risks. There were a couple of CEGEP profs there, one who played a leading role in facilitating and directing the meeting, and who talked about how many discussions are going on right now about just what will happen at the “return” to class on August 17. There is apparently a core of profs at UQAM and UdeM who are organizing to push for a one-day strike, though this was only mentioned in passing without details.
The student plan for the summer is to continue visibility in any possible way. Montreal will bear most responsibility for this, and the festival season is of course being targeted: there are well-publicized plans to disrupt the Grand Prix this week, and organizers of festivals like Juste pour Rire are asking for meetings with student leaders to negotiate what the disruptions will mean. Many students will leave Montreal for the summer to go back to their families in the regions, but this could be very interesting in terms of the centre of gravity shifting a little outwards, and challenging the notion that this is just an urban movement. Regional demonstrations will be encouraged.
The next big one, however, will be a national demonstration in Quebec City on June 22. There may be a small solidarity event in Montreal that day, but people will bus to Quebec for a show of force. In the meantime, the Plateau Casseroles formed a coordinating committee, a communications team and a mobilization team, and were in touch with everyone the very next day to join their Google Group.
I ended my “typical Montreal Saturday” (because this roster of events is what everyday life is like now) with one of the nightly casseroles gatherings near where I was staying, at Laurier and Berri. When they first started, the casseroles involved just coming out of your home and clanging outside your door, but they have morphed into gatherings and sometimes neighbourhood marches. People with babies stand a bit apart, to protect sensitive ears: I saw one young man with his baby strapped to him wearing huge noise-eating earphones.
When I arrived (at a little after 8pm, still doused by rain), the 70-80 casserole players in this neighbourhood had positioned themselves in the middle of an intersection. At one point a cop car pushed through with sirens blaring: everyone just calmly spread apart, then immediately took over the intersection again. So much for being able to enforce the Special Law!
The casserole playing was more serious than joyful, and went on for 45 minutes. Then the most amazing thing happened: it came organically to a disciplined end, and we all said goodnight leaving noone behind and vulnerable. The amount of discipline and determination within all the spontaneity is what really sends tingles up your spine. That and the fact that there is no fear on the streets of Montreal, no fear at all.
Vive le printemps – et l’été – érable.

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