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We Went to Quebec’s Militant Feminist Training Camp

"The patriarchal system can be seen even in the feminist struggle."

by Noelle Solange Didierjean
Mar 23 2015, 10:38pm

A page from a zine distributed at the event. Photos by the author

This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Quebec's most militant student federation isn't fucking around.

The women's committee of l'Association pour une solidarite syndicale etudiante (ASSE) brought together at least 100 people from around Quebec for a two-day feminist training camp last weekend, packed with workshops ranging from theory ("Intersectionality") to practical knowledge (introductory self-defense).

'"The fight will be feminist, or there will be no fight," promised the event's description.

I headed to the pre-university host school in the city of Longueuil with a few left-wing feminists from Concordia University. We arrived at a stark grey concrete building and followed the signs to a cafeteria that had a distinct 90s industrial vibe.

Sitting in the rows of pastel-colored lunch tables were seated sleepy-eyed, green-haired feminists. Some were rallying around the (ostensibly militant) tubs of Nutella and Cheez Whiz, and we quickly joined them.

Over chocolatey breakfast sandwiches and some anti-capitalist chit-chat, we flipped through the preparatory notebook an organizer had given us. Apparently, the women's committee had been hard-pressed to find the host school.

"Our reputation is starting to precede us," the notebook stated. "At the last ASSE training camp, some participants conducted themselves in an unacceptable way (vandalism of the host school, vandalism of the host student association, theft from certain hosting activists)." Yikes.

ASSE is known for being one of the principal organizations that mobilized against the tuition hikes in 2012, during a wave of protests now known as the Maple Spring. They may have earned a certain notoriety, but women in the Quebec student movement have bigger things to worry about.

"There's a lot of insidious misogyny [in the militant sphere]," anti-feminism workshop coordinator Marie-Soleil Chretien told me. "The [gendered] division of work is very visible in the activist milieu in general and also in ASSE. The patriarchal system can be seen even in the feminist struggle."

Frustration with the ever-present patriarchy gave rise to the Montreal Sisterhood. A handful of radical feminists from punk and countercultural spheres, the Sisterhood formed in 2010 after the members realized that even in the leftist and anti-fascist circles in which they ran, they were subjected to oppressive patriarchal attitudes. The groups has focused on "popular education" to change attitudes.

And the education they offered was popular indeed—around 40 people came to their women-only workshop on self defense.

An orange-haired, tattooed Sisterhood member called for everyone to sit in a circle for the preliminary segment. Though the organizers and many of the attendees wouldn't have looked out of place at a stereotypical hippie commune or punk rock concert, the vibe was very summer camp: We went around the circle introducing ourselves and giving our reasons for being there, laughing understandingly at the most ridiculous tales of street harassment.

After a discussion on the importance of self-confidence (sometimes attackers just want to see the fear in your eyes, one workshop coordinator warned), we broke into groups and waited for a turn to practice kickboxing moves on Sisterhood members wielding hand-held practice pads, posing as would be attackers.

An adolescent with fluorescent-pink hair and a red-laced corset waited her turn behind an enthusiastic 51-year-old matron who had come to check out the camp with her daughter, pearl necklace and all.

The diverse range of attendees wasn't always dealt with so smoothly. An afternoon workshop on lesbian feminism went nearly two hours over schedule, as attendees and coordinators argued over the role of trans women in feminism.

When the discussion turned to the ASSE women's only congress, and someone asked if they believed trans women should have a place there, the coordinators inhaled sharply.

Radical lesbian feminism is based around abolishing gender, the coordinators responded. According to them, men who choose to become women reinforce the patriarchal system of oppression.

After she spoke, you could hear a pin drop. Several people in the audience were visibly upset, including Concordia student Madelaine Sommers, who voiced emotively through broken French that hundreds of trans women were killed every year.

Over a post-discussion smoke, workshop coordinator Stephanie Paradis elaborated.

"I think trans politics are used to prevent feminist organizing. It hurts and takes away from the feminist struggle. They co-opt spaces where women who are born women can organize," she told me.

"For example, the Centre for Gender Advocacy at Concordia used to be a non-mixed women's centre. Now it's become for [trans people]. So it contributed to the loss of a space which was just for women."

I asked Gabrielle Bouchard, director of the Centre for Gender Advocacy, what she thought of the analysis.

"[Trans-exclusionary feminists] will exclude trans women because they were not 'reared as women' yet also exclude trans men on the base that they are now identifying as men," she pointed out.

"They are also assuming that all women live the same intersection of oppression the very same way and that's also very shallow understanding of oppression. It's so early 20th century."

Ironically, the workshop on lesbian feminism took place directly after a conference on the LGBTQ movement in feminism—a stark juxtaposition, as the queer movement puts a huge emphasis on the inclusion of trans and non-binary-identified people.

Another hot topic, according to Gabriel Velasco, a soft-spoken, gangly legged ASSE delegate, is male overrepresentation in leadership roles.

For instance, even though ASSE had two official spokespeople in the Maple Spring, only the male, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, became well-known. He's now a minor celebrity, while no one even remembers the name of the female spokesperson (it's Jeanne Reynolds).

Several camp attendees told me that right after a big mobilization, people tend to realize that women were underrepresented and there's a resulting surge in female leadership—right now, seven out of the eight ASSE executives are female.

"When it's very politicized and you can earn privilege from your activism, many more men implicate themselves," Jeanne Reynolds, the purple-haired coordinator of the "ABCs of Feminism" workshop, told me. Informal habits of exclusion are common even within mixed-gender executive committees, such as male-only breakfasts or smoke breaks where strategy is discussed.

She didn't seem overly optimistic about smashing the internal patriarchy, adding that while women currently make up a majority of ASSE's leadership positions, in a few years, activists may realize retrospectively that the same oppressive attitudes of society at large were replicated within the movement.

So, what did I learn from going to a militant feminist training camp? That there is no singular "feminism," but also that the scary image of "radical" feminists is far overblown. They're polite, and eat Nutella, and just want to get paid as much as their dick-wielding compatriots—hardly an unreasonable demand.

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