It started out well enough.
Tens of thousands of people gathered in Montreal's Victoria Square, the heart of what's left of its financial heft, waving banners, shouting slogans, hugging, smiling, high-fiving, smoking weed, all with the intent of sticking it to Quebec's Liberal premier, Philippe Couillard, and his austerity budget. Thursday's march was the apex of a two-week campaign against a budget denounced by unions, by health care workers, by teachers, by those with disabilities, and by university students—especially university students. The demo was supposed to be the culmination of all their efforts, and to demand that Couillard reverse his budget cuts and re-invest in Quebec's once-generous public spending.
"We're facing the worst cuts to education in the past 20 years," said Camille Godbout, the spokesperson for student group ASSÉ. She says she doesn't believe the Couillard government's claim that the province is $200 billion in debt, or that it spends$11 billion a year just servicing that debt—more, she says, than the province spends on its elementary and high schools combined. "Austerity is an ideology that the government is putting forward right now, and they have to take responsibility and go get some more revenues for [our] social benefits." And not, she says, to benefit the "corporations and the big banks."
Organizers say about 75,000 people turned out. That may or may not be accurate—there really isn't much way of knowing exactly how many attended. But it was a big, big march: At times, it took over an hour to pass by a single spot as it made its way from the financial district to the Plateau and then back downtown again.
Over the hum of an overhead police helicopter and the din of the crowd, two high schoolers, Cassandra and Nova, told me why they were out at their very first demo. They were worried about money coming out of CEGEP, the province's post-secondary college system.
Jeff Begley, a grizzled union rep and veteran opponent of government meddling, said, "Today is an excellent day to get everybody together. It's an initiative by students, they're leading the movement and it's a great thing."
So did these little whippersnappers have anything to teach you old guys?
"Well," he said, smiling, "they've been reinforcing the message that by ourselves, we're not going to get anywhere, that we've got to get everybody together. And it's a lesson well received for us."
Stephanie, a Women's Studies student at Concordia, was concerned about what the budget would do to women and the marginalized. "I'm thinking about women who work in the health or education sectors and are losing their jobs or whose working conditions [may suffer]. I'm concerned also about how the Couillard government's health reform laws could affect the accessibility to free abortions. I'm also concerned about how austerity will affect single mothers, who are already struggling to make ends meet."
For nearly two hours, the demonstration went great. People seemed to be having fun and the cops were hands-off. In fact, there was even a little heart-warming episode near the beginning that suggested this demo would keep up the positive vibes.
A young guy was running up the street with a scarf over the lower portion of his face—a big no-no, since a municipal bylaw passed during the student protests of 2012 specifically forbids wearing anything that covers your face. A cop gestured to the kid to remove it and, what do you know, the kid complied. The cop gave him a thumbs up and a big smile. "T'as un beau visage!" he said. You have a nice face!
So maybe some people could have been forgiven if they thought the day might not end with tear gas and baton charges and arrests.
Because that's exactly what happened, good vibes and cop love notwithstanding.
After a couple of hours marching, as the demo's head approached Berri Square (more commonly called Place Emilie-Gamelin by francophones), it veered eastward along de Maisonneuve Boulevard, which is one-way westbound. And that meant trouble.
While the cops had been hands-off during the march, Montreal cops don't screw around when it comes to managing crowds they think need to be managed. They're extremely efficient at it, having learned hard lessons during the long hot spring of 2012. If you give them a reason to bust up a protest, they will. And marching against traffic is a reason.
Before the demo got very far, they came face-to-riot-shielded-face with a phalanx of cops. The march stopped. It didn't take long for tensions to rise. While there was a gradual trickle of demonstrators away from the cops and back towards the square, others stood their ground. The protesters chanted slogans. They started dancing. They sat down in the streets.
And then they ran, some coughing, some with tears streaming down their faces from the gas canisters the cops launched at them. I could taste it in the air, the thick chlorine taste that sticks to the back of your throat and grinds its way up into your sinuses. By the time I heard the clak-clak-clak-clak of batons on shields and the stomping feet of riot cops charging, I was halfway up a side street. I was surrounded by people pouring water into their eyes, coughing, crying and swearing. I looked back from where I came and saw a dad leading his red-eyed daughter, who didn't look much more than 12, away from the demo. I don't know if she got exposed to the gas or was just freaked out by the chaos in general, but she looked to be about a minute away from complete hysterics. Then I heard more canisters popping off as police moved the demo still further back.
By that time, the main body of the demo had reached Berri Square, where it was declared to have come to a successful conclusion. The vast majority of participants went home, but approximately a few hundred were still there an hour after the first gas can was fired. And while that number decreased over the course of the late afternoon, a few die-hards remained, taunting the cops.
Another hour and two arrests later, the situation in the square had returned to more or less normal. By 6 PM, just about everyone had gone home.
But if demo organizer Brice Dansereau-Olivier is to be believed, this won't be the last one, not by a long shot.