If there was any confusion over whether the suspension of strikes at most schools signalled an end to the broader social movement the strike generated, it was put to bed with an emphatic bang Wednesday in the streets of Montreal. The largest demonstration since the spring sent a strong message that this movement is here to stay.
Place du Canada was packed by the time the speakers took to the roof of a truck to address the assembled crowd. CLASSE Financial Secretary Jérémie Bédard-Wien kicked things off with a characteristically strong speech, in which he made a noteworthy reference to this demonstration being the largest electoral mobilization in Quebec history. Coupled with the abundant placards reading "I'm voting for ____", which invited protesters to fill in the issue or party of their choice, there seemed to be a clear aknowledgement from CLASSE that while the election will not solve our problems, it would be folly for students to boycott it.
After representatives of the nurses union and the Quebec Women's Federation, it was the turn of CLASSE co-spokesperson Jeanne Reynolds.
Following the resignation of the intensely charismatic Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, Reynolds and her fellow remaining co-spokesperson Camille Robert are under heavy pressure to live up to his legacy of fiery, passionate speeches and dynamic leadership within a leaderless movement.
Reynolds did not disappoint, delivering the best speech I've ever seen her give, her voice trembling with passion as she proclaimed that the movement will continue before, during and after the election. As she closed to a raucous ovation the march set off, leaving the square shortly after 3 PM.
Close to the exit point, it still took around twenty minutes to get out of the square, as people were packed in like sardines while we ever so slowly filed out.
There has been much debate, as there always is, about the size of the crowd at the demonstration. Quebecor owned TVA initially estimated 2000 people, before grudgingly bumping that up to 5000. Radio-Canada hired an independent firm to estimate the crowd, and they produced a number of 12,500, which sounds great until you find out that they estimated at 2:35, half an hour before the march left. This is significant because most people, aware the marches always leave an hour after they are called, arrive after 3 PM, and many others join along the route.
Most journalists on twitter were conservatively estimating around 25,000, with gusts up to 50,000, while CUTV estimated 80,000 and CLASSE's official estimate was 100,000. In my opinion, the crowd was over 100,000. I base that estmate on two observations.
As we passed St. Catherine on University I stopped to watch the crowd pass by. I was there for about fifteen minutes, but spoke to a father who had stopped with his kid. He said he hadn't been near the front when he stopped, but had been watching the demo pass for forty minutes. I also noticed from that stop that the crowd was extraordinarily tightly packed, much more so than at any other demo I've attended.
I later spoke to a friend who had arrived at Place du Canada shortly before 4, and found the tail end of the march still streaming out of the park. A tightly packed crowd which takes between forty-five minutes and an hour to pass a given point, and stretches like a giant snake around most of downtown, is to me clearly in excess of 100,000.
Regardless of the precise number, it was an overwhelmingly large crowd which occupied much of the downtown core for several hours and sent a crystal clear message to politicians and voters alike. The movement is very much alive, and prepared to continue the fight for a better society.
The other interesting fact to note about the 'mega-manif,' as people have taken to calling the massive demos which occur on the 22nd of each month, was the presence of political parties.
The Liberals and CAQ obviously went unrepresented, and signs for those parties along the route most often ended up underfoot. I saw a handful of PQ and Option Nationale signs in the crowd, but they were few and far between. Quebec Solidaire on the other hand enjoyed a large contingent with several banners and dozens of signs, but more impressive still was the heavy concentration of QS signs throughout the crowd. It was hard to take a picture without getting a QS sign in the frame, and it seems clear that the movement is starting to coalesce around QS.
This should be no surprise, given that QS is arguably the only political party in the country which can legitimately claim to be a movement party. Their slogan, "a party of the ballot box, and of the street" represents the background of the party as a child of social movements, and fits nicely with the movement's feeling that no election will bring about the real change they seek.
It will be interesting to see how this show of strength for the movement influences an election campaign which has largely ignored the student issue so far, and whether students and allies will be able to throw off their counter-productive anti-electoral urges and come to the ballot box in large enough numbers to help QS win more than the three to five seats they are optimistically projected to pick up at this point.
But regardless of how members of the movement vote, the most significant impact of this demo was to send a clear message to all Quebeckers that no matter who wins the election, the issues raised over the course of the strike will continue to be pushed, and the students remain ready to return to the barricades at a moment's notice.
*Please also take a look at my colleague Roger Annis's excellent article on Wednesday's demonstration.