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A Dispatch from Montreal’s Raucous, Tear Gas–Filled May Day Protest

A day that started with the usual Marxist marching ended in a haze of tear gas.

by Nick Rose
May 4 2015, 4:18pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

As the Montreal Canadiens battled the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Bell Centre, police faced off with thousands of demonstrators a few blocks east in a protest that resulted in over 80 protesters being detained.

Every year on May 1, workers of the world unite in a mix of general strikes and protests to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago, which left seven dead after one of the protesters, who were demanding eight-hour workdays, hurled a bomb at police who then opened fire on the crowd.

It started innocently enough. All photos by Keith Race.

Despite vibrant and occasionally confrontational anti-austerity marches in recent weeks, they had hit a bit of lull and failed to reach the critical mass of 2012's now-legendary Maple Spring protests, which regularly brought Montreal to a standstill and changed the course of a provincial election.

Quebec has always had a powerful labor movement, and many within it have now set their sights on the provincial Liberals' cuts to public spending. Earlier in the day, marchers had targeted the World Trade Centre and numerous big banks to protest the low taxes they pay, even in times of austerity. Unlike 2012, these rallies were about the economy—not tuition hikes.

...And ended like this.

But unlike the recent wave of demonstrations in Quebec, these were not just comprised of students. It was International Worker's Day, and this year's protests were held all over the city in a climate of staunch opposition to the provincial Liberal government's austerity measures.

Yesterday's demo began rather calmly at Phillip's Square with the usual Marxist banners and speeches denouncing the evils of capital and capitalism.

As soon as the speeches were over and demonstrators made their way onto Ste-Catherine Street—peacefully and in the same direction direction as traffic—a megaphone began blaring orders for the crowd to disperse.

As is now customary in Montreal protests, the march was declared illegal pretty much the moment it began, and seconds later an SPVM bus swooped in and unloaded its merchandise. The riot squad poured out and formed a blockade across Ste-Catherine Street.

That's when things turned.

As press and protesters approached the line of cops, loud metallic shots went off. The sound and smell made it abundantly clear that they were firing tear gas at us.

It was my first, but not last, time getting teargassed. And it really is as bad as everyone says it is.

Phillip's Square is on Ste-Catherine Street, the main artery running through the city's business and shopping district, hardly the Red Square.

It was pretty out though.

But that did not stop a seemingly unprovoked riot squad from lobbing tear gas cartridges indiscriminately in an area filled with kids, people leaving work, and jersey-wearing Habs fans on their way to the bar to watch the game.

Not surprisingly, protesters became agitated by this vulgar display of power and the gloves were off, so to speak.

The absurdity of municipal police, who are also pissed off about austerity and pension cuts, attacking protesters who only moments before were calling for an end to "stolen pensions" masqueraded as austerity was not lost on numerous police officers I spoke with.

Marchers eventually made their north onto De Maisonneuve Boulevard at which point the Imperial Guard of Montreal protesters, the Anti-Capitalist Convergence (or CLAC), joined the protest. Clad in black and wearing masks, they let out a collective roar as their black mass fused into the general protest, pumping even more energy into an already feisty crowd.

Cops...am I right?

As the reinvigorated crowd approached McGill College, the cavalry (literally) and bicycle cops were waiting. Under their watchful eye, thousands of marchers filled up the street and walked back towards a still-bustling Ste-Catherine Street.

When the riot police there charged protesters, they got caught between two masses of marchers and once again began firing tear gas cartridges in all directions, one of which landed right next your humble narrator and filled my eyes and lungs with a horrible and familiar sting.

As I staggered down the street, the Sisters of Mercy let this stunned and tearful reporter inside their deserted shoe boutique. They offered me water and a moist towelette to wipe off the tear gas which had by now seeped into the pores of my skin. They also offered me solace.

Looking outside the windows of the shoe store, hockey fans, office workers, and oblivious teens with shopping bags ran through thick clouds of tear gas, covering their faces—exactly the kind of people that police need to protect from over-the-top protesters. The police response had succeeded not only in dispersing peaceful protesters but basically any person unlucky enough to be on the city's busiest street on Friday night.

Give peace a chance, Montreal.