Quebec -- Where were the unions?

Stuart Lawrence stuartwl at
Wed May 2 12:05:01 MDT 2001

Straight Goods, April 28, 2001

Where were the unions?

If labour marchers had gone to the wall, the fence
could not have held

By Paul Jones

The Student/Education Sector march left Laval University at 12
noon on Saturday, April 21, 2001. Two kilometres from the fence
the march split in two. One group went south to listen to speeches.
The other group headed to the fence. I and the three others I
traveled with to Quebec City decided to go with this second group.

We walked slowly up Boulevard Rene Levesque. At first
everything seemed normal, but as we moved east we could see
puffs of white smoke up ahead and hear the distant sound of some
kind of weapon being fired.

We continued to move forward, past rows and rows of boarded
up storefronts. Soon we came upon a near equal number of people
walking slowly back towards us. I stopped at this moment to rest
and to try and figure out what was going on. People continued to
flow towards the fence, others came back from it. Finally our little
group moved forward again and we encountered tear gas.

This was something new to me.

At low concentrations it stings your eyes. As it gets denser, but
still invisible, it begins to rip at your nose and throat. When you are
in the smoke it is absolutely, horrifically, overwhelming. Eyes
immediately burn shut, lungs wrench closed. It is terrifying. There is
no question of toughing it out. Unless you have a gas mask, there
is no choice but to leave the poisoned area.

After being gassed the first time, we walked back slowly from
the fence, gasping for air, tears streaming from our eyes. We
waited, rested, and then headed back to the fence, a process of
advance and fall back that we repeated all afternoon. It was this
phenomena, groups of demonstrators moving to the fence and then
being gassed back, that we encountered when we first approached
the summit area.

The thud of tear gas guns was continuous. The canisters would
fly in a high arc, maybe 100m up and then crash down to the
ground. We would try and chart the parabola and avoid being hit.

When the canisters smashed into the ground they would bounce
and spin, spewing out poison. Then, something amazing would
happen. A black clad figure with a gas mask would appear from
nowhere and hurl the bomb back over the fence at the police. Every
time one was lobbed back, a huge cheer went up from the crowd.

I guess these "bomb disposal teams" were the anarchists,
CLAC, the Black Bloc. Usually they were like ghosts, invisible and
then suddenly appearing to deal with the tear gas. Other times they
would snake in a line through the protest, heading towards the
fence. The crowd would part and let them through. As the afternoon
continued, admiration for them steadily grew.

Our small group, like most people in the crowd, I suppose, was
there as individuals to bear witness at the fence and to try and let
the politicians hear our views. We had no desire to engage in direct
confrontation or to be arrested, but we felt it was important to be at
the fence. For our peaceful efforts, we were gassed and attacked
by the police as far back as a kilometre from the fence. In this
environment it was apparent that the distinction between violent
and non-violent protestors mouthed by so many (including people
on "our side") was a false one. Folks such as the Black Bloc had
the courage and organization to be right at the fence. This created
a shield for the rest of us to do our thing. Instead of categories of
protestor, there was rather a single mass at the fence, using a
variety of tactics on the confrontation/non-confrontation continuum.
Everyone's contribution was valuable.

Well, almost everyone's. As the crowd grew at the fence through
the afternoon a question was repeated again and again: "Where
are the unions?" The answer, sadly, was that the labour march was
kilometres from the fence and headed in the wrong direction. We
learned that the unions had routed their march away from the
summit and planned to conclude their event, not with protest, but
with 22 speeches.

22 Speeches?

Jean Chretien, in a rare moment of articulateness, nailed it
exactly with his "blah, blah, blah" reference to the speechifying
element of the trade protest movement. Labour's strategy of
conducting speeches, both in terms of its impact on politicians, and
its contribution to the summit protest, was absolutely pointless.

Actually, it was worse than pointless.

By mid-afternoon there were probably 5,000 people at the
fence. The conservative media estimate of the total number of
protestors was 25,000. That leaves at least 20,000 people
wandering aimlessly through the suburbs of Quebec City, five or
ten kilometres from the fence and even farther from the summit
site. If labour had brought even half that number to the fence in
a timely fashion on Saturday afternoon, the fence would have come
completely down. We then would have had the choice of
proceeding forward.

Instead, we were left in a stalemate at the fence, pounded by
tear gas and increasingly violent police, with leadership provided by
a bunch of extraordinary kids dressed in black.

Where was labour? That is an angry question that I cannot
answer. The process of expedience and concession that came up
with the plan to avoid the fence is beyond my understanding. It is
as if the second world war generals who were preparing to lead the
attack on Europe to drive the Nazis out turned around and
launched an invasion in the direction of Baffin Island. The presence
of individual workers at the fence on Saturday was no
compensation for the mistaken union decision to avoid meaningful
protest in the first place.

I am angry, but this piece should not end on a bitter note. The
demonstration at the fence was still awe-inspiring. My heart goes
out to all my friends who I know wanted to be there but could not
make it to Quebec City. My condolences also to those who were
(mis)led on the march to nowhere by the unions.

Memories are already starting to sort out in my mind. The smell
of apple cider vinegar (used to soak our scarves and ward off tear
gas). The sound of tear gas guns and our own drums. The sight of
gas canisters ripping through the sky. And memories of all the
people - too numerous to all do justice to - except I have to

Coming across some of the national leadership of the student
organizations, red-faced and exhausted, resting on the sidewalk
just back from the fence - talking tactics and strategy - and
preparing to move forward again.

And most especially (and fondly in retrospect), grasping for the
hands of my own "affinity group" - the fearful foursome - and being
lead blinded out of the tear gas. Thanks for everything, comrades!
For those of us who were at the fence, or who wanted to be there,
the struggle continues. For others, it has to start.

That's my story.

Paul Jones was an individual protestor from the education sector
and shop steward at his local (OPEIU L 225) in Ottawa.

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