FOR THE SUMMIT
"For me, the protest in Quebec City
provided a chance to be heard""
When people asked me what I expected to happen at
last month's Quebec City protest, I honestly didn't have
an answer. On one hand, I thought it would be a highly organized
event. I had read about various planned marches, different
groups of protesters who were putting together street theatre,
and a Peoples Summit that was to feature speakers, artists
and musicians from all over the Americas.
On the other hand, media images from Seattle of angry protesters,
smashed storefronts and crowded demonstrations filled my
mind. After reading through Web site after Web site crammed
with advice on how to deal with pepper spray and tear gas,
I began to wonder what I was getting myself into. A nervous
e-mail from my sister Nancy, who would be attending the
event with me, reflected my anxiety: "I kinda feel
like I might not be prepared for this . . . at all."
But despite my uncertainty about the unfolding of events,
I knew the protest during the Summit of the Americas in
Quebec City was something I wanted to be a part of. Concerns
over the erosion of the rights of governments to make and
enforce rules to protect citizens, the environment and resources
- rights that are already threatened by the agreement in
Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement, on
which the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is to be
based - were the driving force behind my decision to attend.
The secrecy behind the negotiations and the lack of public
access to information about the summit and the FTAA also
influenced my decision to take part.
The lack of public involvement seems even more problematic
when coupled with the privileged role of businesses in the
process of determining an agreement. Although the corporations
couldn't buy their way into the official meetings, they
could put up a lot of cash to rub elbows with the heads
of state at various "unofficial" corporate-sponsored
schmoozing events such as lunches and dinners. The public
didn't even get to see the officials get out of their cars
and go into the building.
Because of this apparent distance between the decision-makers
and the public, for me, the protest in Quebec City provided
a chance to be heard. To literally make some noise, grab
media attention and direct people's focus to the issue at
hand and to the fact that considerable concern exists among
a great many citizens. Sometimes it feels as if one person
alone doesn't have the power to make a difference. But a
crowd has the potential to project a loud and powerful voice.
Its effects are not only apparent but also immediate.
Although Quebec City is more than nine hours away, getting
there was hardly a problem. Many groups organized transportation
and accommodation to the protest for cheap prices that were
usually offered on a sliding scale. Although buses were
being organized to leave from Guelph, I arranged to leave
with my sister from Toronto on buses provided by Toronto
Mobilization for Global Justice.
Toronto seemed to be the meeting place for a variety of
activists from Canada and the United States. On my bus were
a group of high school students from Orillia, members of
an anti-globalization group from Burlington, American university
students who had driven up from Virginia and a man who had
travelled from Brandon, Man. We left at 9:30 p.m. Thursday
and arrived at Laval University in Quebec City the following
morning at 7 a.m.
On Friday morning, many people were already walking throughout
the streets and exploring the city. They walked along the
fence as if they were in a museum, stopping to read the
various letters and signs that had been attached along the
way. One section was decorated with balloons; another was
covered by a swarm of bras. Colouring book pages completed
by children, flowers made out of construction paper and
signs saying: "Harmonie," "Solidarité"
and "Democracy" were also posted, effectively
transforming the "wall of shame" from an instrument
designed to close out the public to a means for them to
communicate and display opposition, opinions and ideas.
Just beyond the bras, balloons and posters, however, were
police officers already standing guard in preparation for
the day's events. The amount of security administered during
the weekend seemed unreal. At one point on Saturday, as
we were walking away from the crowds and along a building
where a group of police officers had gathered, one of my
friends rapped on his self-made drum. An officer stopped
him and pointed to his sticks. "Les batons!" the
officer shouted, gesturing for my friend to hand them over.
Taking the two pieces of wood, the man turned to another
officer beside him, who looked at the sticks and nodded
in approval. My friend was disarmed and sent on his way.
The extreme security measures definitely exceeded my naive
expectations. Before I arrived, I had foolishly assumed
that if I kept back far enough from the "front lines,"
the burning sensation of tear gas could be easily avoided.
On Friday, we lost count of the number of times we got caught
up in tear gas, and on Saturday, it seemed as though there
was a constant haze of this painful gas throughout the city.
You might assume the purpose of such measures would be
to control or disperse a crowd that was getting out of hand,
yet canisters were shot far out from the fence into the
middle of peaceful crowds filled with people doing nothing
more than standing, carrying signs, playing drums and occasionally
chanting. Like me, many of the protestors were shocked and
angry that the "security" measures used by our
government appeared to be aimed at halting those who were
demonstrating peacefully. "Shame! Shame on you!"
screamed one woman passionately towards the police - who
weren't even visible from where we'd been standing - as
we retreated from the smoke. Closer to the fence, some fearless
protesters picked up smoking canisters and threw them back
at the police who had just fired them, inviting encouraging
cheers from the crowd.
Among the protestors, I always felt safe. When retreating
from the tear gas, everyone walked, determined not to create
a state of panic in the crowd. Demonstrators offered water
to others whose eyes had been stung by the painful smoke.
At one point, Nancy and I were unexpectedly caught in a
heavy cloud of tear gas. We grabbed on to each other, closed
our eyes and began walking in the other direction. I tried
breathing through my shirt as much as I could, but the smoke
was too thick. Out of nowhere, a fellow protester handed
me a cloth soaked with vinegar to lessen the sting in my
throat. I didn't even have time to thank him.
The weekend consisted of much more than running from tear
gas, however. On Friday, a teach-in of the Second Peoples
Summit of the Americas was held. Thousands of people gathered
to hear speakers, musicians and artists from across the
Americas. Issues discussed included the environment, the
rights of indigenous peoples, health care, work and agriculture,
as well as various ways to develop alternatives. Throughout
the streets, many demonstrators dressed in costumes and
carried puppets, drums or creative signs. Some groups performed
street theatre such as interpretive dances, while others
handed out street chalk and stickers.
Whenever I think back on the weekend, I become more and
more astonished by just how incredible the events were.
Ingrained in my mind are images of the rows of armed riot
police in dark bulletproof suits, the sun shining off the
visors of their helmets and their shields. It's ironic that
as we retreated from the tear gas, water cannons and rubber
bullets, our government was probably hammering out its highly
acclaimed democracy clause.
Without question, I know the protest in Quebec did make
a difference. Aside from the media coverage, I was overwhelmed
by how the protest inspired those who attended to become
even more involved. For many of those who came to Quebec,
it was the first time they had been a part of a protest
or large group movement of any kind. A lot of them came
to learn, and many were not already a part of a group or
coalition. But on the bus ride home, everyone was sharing
stories, passing around newspapers and talking about what
they could do next. If nothing else, the protest inspired
many people to become involved and learn more, giving truth
to the slogan: "It didn't begin in Seattle, and it
won't end in Quebec."
It didn't end in Quebec. If anything, it is growing.
Dale Duncan is a fourth-year psychology student working
in the Office of Research.