Behind the fence

A personal account of the Quebec City protests

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Spede-Heat F555 CS, 555 CS Spedeheat Grenade.
Infamous rubber bullet.
Infamous rubber bullet.
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No. 519 CS Han-Ball Grenade, 514 CS Blast Dispersion Grenade. Made by Armor Holdings in Casper, Wyoming.

If you watched television or listened to the radio in April, you probably heard about the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement and the Quebec City Summit of the Americas protest.

The mass demonstration in Quebec drew an exodus of people that ranged in age, as well as social backgrounds. Reasons for attending the protest were as diverse as the protesters themselves.

“I knew that my being in Quebec during the Summit would not make a difference as just an extra body there,” said Shira Anklewicz, third-year Queen’s student. “But, I went to educate myself more on the issues.”

Many others cite awareness as one of the most important reasons for attending the protest.

“Many of us should think about the fact that the uncritical and blind signing of the FTAA will affect our future and that of millions of people on this continent,” said Raquel Lopez. “While borders are rigidly guarded to protect nations from ‘outsiders,’ they are opened widely to corporations,” Lopez said.

Protesters from every corner of the nation, as well as neighbouring countries, traveled to Quebec City to show their opposition to the controversial FTAA agreement.

Quebec soon became ground zero for planned demonstrations by independent groups in opposition to the agreement, including the Queen’s Coalition Against Corporate Globalization. During the weekend of April 19, Quebec City would host 34 delegates from countries in the Western Hemisphere to meet and discuss the FTAA agreement.

The Journey to Quebec

Having finished an exam just two hours before, the thought of what I might encounter in Quebec City didn’t enter my mind until I was actually sitting in a van waiting to leave Kingston.

Like others, I brought food with me in anticipation that stores would be boarded up for the weekend.

I immediately forgot that I was in a generic rental van, and instead imagined that I was in a Volkswagen swamp bus with some sort of hippie slogan on the back. I imagined my hair full of daisies and my backpack full of granola. I started humming the tune to “San Francisco,” but was jolted back into reality when a radio station broadcasting Summit-related material came across the airways.

The station played an interview with Jello Biafra, a former member of the punk band Dead Kennedys and one of many active speakers that voice opinions on issues concerning the Summit, especially youth involvement.

A Gym Away From Home

The van continued on through the night, finally arriving in Quebec in the early hours of the morning. It was peaceful outside when I disembarked at Laval University at 6 a.m. I ventured into the Laval Aquatic Complex, where all the student-Protesters were housed. I arrived at the gymnasium where massive signs discouraged loud noise that could disrupt the large number of people sleeping inside. People were everywhere—sleeping on the bleachers and on the floors. Every inch of available space was taken.

The involvement of high school and university students alike was astonishing. Many students felt the FTAA agreement posed a threat to education and this brought them together.

A York University student expressed concern about the impact trade liberalization would have on schooling in Canada.

“I really believe that the talks that surround free trade have significant effects on our lives,” said Manny Sevatzian.

“Public education is important for students.”

For the amount of people in the gym, it was hard to believe the only sounds were the occasional camera flashes of individuals who wanted to capture the amazing sight.

Student Rally

At noon on Friday, I attended a massive student rally. The disparity in the crowd was striking. There was a man singing and playing a banjo, in stark contrast to another who wore black clothes and a black bandanna over his mouth as a symbol of his silence.

Many protesters expressed anger towards the media, others viewed the media as a way to raise awareness.

“The media is portraying us as communists and anarchists,” a student from Prince Edward Island said.

“The media is glamorizing [the protest],” said Sevatzian,“but you would expect that.”

When asked about security arrangements a police officer replied in strained English, telling me that he was only at liberty to say that security had been bolstered in the city.

There was a strong sense of unity throughout the crowd. Many brought drums made out of water cooler bottles while some simply banged on street signs.

The March

A march soon departed from Laval, slowly making its way into the heart of Quebec City. Protesters were divided into two groups. Those who wished to stay in yellow and green areas—where there was a low to moderate chance of violence and arrest—and those who braved the red zone—where there was a high chance of violence and arrest.

Along the way, various signs of support were present. There was a giant homemade peace sign in the restaurant window of a major chain.

“This is what democracy looks like!” and, “the people united will never be defeated!” were chants heard throughout the crowd.

Some residents came out of their houses to shout support or flash peace signs from their windows. Everywhere were sounds of cameras clicking, capturing images of the wave of people infiltrating Old Quebec City. Various labour union members joined the group at a meeting point and continued with the crowd towards the fence.

“Le Vendredi Noir”

The demonstrators finally reached the infamous steel fence that separated Old and New Quebec.

The police presence was surprisingly minimal. Protesters approached the fence and started shaking it. I went up myself, and it was thrilling to actually touch the focus of so much attention.

“I understand why the fence was there—so the delegates could hold their Summit without interruption,” Anklewicz said.

Others felt the fence was symbolic of the widening gap between the government and the typical citizen.

“The people were kept out while the ‘leaders’ of their nations drank cocktails and ate expensive meals,” said Lopez.

After a couple of minutes I heard a pop that resembled a faint gunshot and turned around to see a heavy fog enveloping the crowd. The first batch of tear gas had been sprayed.

A line of demonstrators formed near the fence. Some people kneeled down with their hands up in surrender, while others hurled rocks and other projectiles over the fence.

The tear gas continued to sift through the fence, and soon many were holding their faces in pain. Still, better equipped demonstrators managed to throw some tear gas canisters back at the officers.

Angry protesters shouted “shame,” and, “you work for us” at the police.

Soon after, my own eyes began to sting severely. I required medical attention from one of the many street medics that walked through the crowd offering assistance. The medic sprayed an acid-neutralizing substance into my eyes and the pain from the tear gas slowly went away. My eyes were hurt so severely that I was unable to return for Saturday’s protest.

The FTAA Today

Since the protest in Quebec City, many have discussed the implications of the protest itself. Many believe that the Quebec City demonstrations are just a faint shadow of what is to come in the fight against the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement. Others believe that the protest came at too high a price. A figure in the National Post suggests that the bill for the protest is in excess of $100 million, most of which is to be covered by Ottawa.

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