For the next anti-globalization demonstration, I'm bringing a gas mask. I like to be where the action is, and these days you need protection, even in Canada. One of the effects of globalization is that countries become more and more alike. The violent confrontations in April between the police and protesters in Quebec City during the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) summit were unsettlingly like the Battle of Seattle.
But unlike Seattle, the script for this confrontation was written in advance, with the construction of a hideous ten-foot-high concrete and chain link fence built around one of the most beautiful cities in North America. At least six thousand police officers were more than ready to rumble in the largest show of force that Canada has witnessed in a generation. Within 48 hours, police shot nearly 5,000 canisters of tear gas and more than 800 rubber and plastic bullets. Approximately four hundred people were arrested, and several were held without bail. For the protesters, the vast majority of whom remained peaceful in the face of extraordinary police provocation, it was a life-changing experience. We thought we lived in a democracy, however imperfect. But what we experienced that weekend was a police state.
If you watched it on television, you probably saw people throwing rocks and assumed there was a riot going on. But as usual, the demonstrators' story was far more peaceful and hopeful than the one the media depicted. The march began at Laval University, about six miles from the hated fence. It was lively and creative, and included a replica of a medieval catapult, pulled by 12 "slaves." It periodically hurled teddy bears into the crowd and later, at the police. One woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty walked all the way on stilts. Another group of women, The Dandelions, wore T-shirts with painted slogans like "Persistent Radical Blossom That Will Always Bloom." The march was colorful and noisy. The gender mix, which seemed equal, and the diversity of the crowd were remarkable to this experienced activist.
There was no riot by the demonstrators in Quebec City that day, just a boisterous demonstration made up of people who insisted on their right to be on the streets. Quebec City is built on two levels. Throughout the Upper City, the stink and sting of tear gas was everywhere. I suppose that the police thought they could clear the crowd with the gas. They were wrong. Despite the pain, protesters refused to move. People ran to side streets to clear their eyes and then returned to the scene of the major confrontation. As the police's use of gas, water cannons, and concussion bombs increased, more and more protesters resorted to rock throwing. But even at the height of the retaliation, there were no more than a hundred people battling the police directly. Mostly, the tear gas united everyone.
What struck Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians, a citizen's group that has been battling free-trade agreements since the first one negotiated between Canada and the U.S. in the 1980s, was "the absolute courage. People took tear gas and stayed. We faced police brutality and stood our ground."
Barlow responded to media criticism of the demonstrators' violence—which was blown out of proportion—in a speech on Saturday: "These are young people born into a toxic economy, a society that deliberately sorts winners from losers and measures its success by the bottom line of its corporations, not by the well-being of its young. These youth are the result of years of poisonous economic and trade policies that have created an entrenched underclass, with no access to the halls of power except by putting their bodies on the line. Their anger is our collective societal responsibility. The question isn't what I am going to do with angry young people. The question should be put to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and President George Bush and all the other leaders he