I am holding the side of the stroller. My brother is holding the other side. My twin baby sisters are riding in the stroller, and we are walking alongside our mum and dad in front of the U.S. Consulate on University Avenue in Toronto. We are part of a big group, at least I think it was big, protesting against the bombing of Vietnam. Then I see police on horses. The horses are big and beautiful, and they are heading our way. Scary. But I like horses a lot. I think I remember someone saying, "Maybe you should take the kids away," and then helping us across the street.
"NATO, NORAD, ICC, end Canada’s complicity!" shout some of the grown-ups. "What is NATONORADICC?" I ask.
The horses move in on the crowd. We leave. "Jesus Christ," my dad says, "that should not be happening. Those police officers have no business going after the demonstration." "Non," says my mum. "Il vaut mieux s’en aller."
Demonstrating for peace is an old tradition. Of necessity it often involves children.
Children were everywhere on Sunday, April 22, 2012. Children, parents, fresh-faced young and old people. A respectful, good humoured, wildly varied crowd that politely stopped at the traffic lights. The same kind of crowd that carefully avoided trampling the tulip beds in Dominion Square a month earlier, when over 100,000 students marched through downtown protesting tuition fee increases.
On Sunday, marchers were organized to form a huge human tree, or hand, spread across the street and the park next to Mount Royal. It ended with a concert by some of Quebec’s most celebrated performers, including Pierre Lapointe, Ariane Moffatt, Gilles Vigneault and Diane Dufresne, who closed by singing Ne tuons pas la beauté du monde. The concert was a smoothly produced showcase organized by one of our most talented directors, Dominic Champagne.
The biggest demonstrations I have ever been in have been in the last month here in Montreal. One was for more accessible education a month ago on March 22. And one was for Earth Day, on April 22, a call on the Quebec and Canadian governments to respect the Kyoto protocol, to slow development in the north, to freeze shale gas development until more is known about the possible ill effects.
There were 48 Innu women who walked 1,000 kilometres from Maliotenam to protest against the proposed plan to open up Quebec’s north.
The coverage in the print media of the demonstration on Sunday is telling. Le Devoir ran an artistic panoramic photo by Jacques Nadeau of the crowd in the shape of a tree with a huge headline and subhead that read, "Un grand cri du peuple – une manifestation d’une ampleur sans prédédent pour la Journée de la Terre," quoting organizers putting the numbers at 250,000 to 300,000 people. La Presse ran a similar photo with the headline "Une forêt humaine – marche historique pour le Jour de la Terre, environs 125,000 personnes (300,000 selon les organisateurs de l’évènement) ont convergé hier vers Montréal pour former un arbre géant." The Gazette ran a big street-level photo of the crowd, captioned "Marching for Mother Earth, huge crowd rallies peacefully for environmental issues," and said there was an estimated 250,000 people, ten times what organizers expected.
The newspaper of record in English Canada made no mention of the demonstration in the print edition of the paper I received at my doorstep the next day. Instead The Globe and Mail talked about hockey, and cuts to Statistics Canada. Le Journal de Montréal ran the story of the demo inside on pages 2 and 3, headlining it, "Une manif calme… enfin."
The Globe and the Journal seem to have completely missed the story. There is something going on. One can only imagine how many people would have gone to the Earth Day demonstration if the weather hadn’t been so raw and cold. There is a deep feeling that something isn’t right. That the political class is not listening to the concerns of a big segment of the population.
A huge peaceful demonstration is a major achievement. One that caught the Charest Liberals completely by surprise, I am sure. There hasn’t been anything like this in 40 years. Maybe that explains Charest’s tone-deaf joking about sending students to work, way up in the north, while a handful of angry students fought with police outside the Palais des Congrès last Friday.
No one really anticipated the size of these two huge demonstrations, including the people who organized them. There have been many smaller demonstrations over the past few weeks, and hundreds of people have been arrested. Violent exchanges between police and a handful of masked protesters have nothing to do with these huge peaceful demonstrations.
Groundswells of protest arise at key periods of disaffection and frustration with the status quo. Ignoring them is a very short-sighted political strategy. The civil society is a formidable force. Most of the time the civil society is a sleeping giant. That giant is showing serious signs of awakening.