QUEBEC CITY – The Harvard sociologist Seymour Martin Lipsit once quipped that Canada was the only country in the world whose constitution had two railways and no bill of rights.

We’ve righted the balance in the quarter-century since Lipsit opined. We are down to one railway, but thanks to Pierre Elliott Trudeau, we have a Charter of Rights.

Friday afternoon, sixty members of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) boarded the last passenger train serving Atlantic Canada for an overnight trip to Quebec City and that stark affront to the Charter, the Wall of Shame, guarding heads of state negotiating the Free Trade Area of the Americas deal.

At dawn yesterday, Via’s Atlantic train disgorged the trade unionists – paper workers, posties and government employees from Halifax, Hantsport, Moncton, Bathurst and Campbellton – at Charney, Quebec, half an hour’s bus ride from the summit.

Fragmentary accounts of Friday’s events – the swift and surprisingly easy breaching of the reviled fence, followed by clouds of tear gas that enveloped the city by early evening – had filtered through to the train by cell-phone. The new arrivals saw little evidence of the fracas. The city, perhaps Canada’s most beautiful, was resplendent in brilliant sunshine. After scrambled eggs and sorely needed coffee courtesy of the Quebec Federation of Labour, the Atlantic contingent straggled up the hill to find welders reinforcing the concrete and steel barricade.

The military geniuses that designed the security perimeter had apparently forgotten their grade 6 science class on levers and mechanical advantage. As soon as a few of the balaclava-clad renegade demonstrators known as the Black Bloc clambered up the chain-link top of the fence and began rocking, the heavy concrete base toppled easily.

Behind the fence and the welders yesterday morning, a dozen Sûreté du Québec cops in army greens marched about the street in ragged formation. They were among the 6,000 police and 2,000 military personnel on hand to protect the thirty-four heads of state negotiating the FTAA.

The fence had morphed into an all-purpose, do-it-yourself, 3.8-kilometre billboard for the protesters, who festooned it with spray-painted slogans, flowers, fabric art and posters.

Along the concrete base, someone had written, “Cuba Pas Exclu Dans Nos Coeurs,” (Cuba is not excluded from our hearts).

Cuba barred

Cuba is the one western hemispheric nation barred from the summit table. “This is the Face of Free Trade,” read another sign.

“Don’t Feed the Cops,” read another, to which someone had appended, “Don’t Let Them Out.”

“Ha, Ha, You Lose.”

“People First Before Corporate Greed.”

Two Halifax women from the CLC train added their own four-metre-long string of hand-lettered handkerchiefs, bearing slogans such as “Fair Trade” and “Protest is Democracy in Action.”

At mid-morning, Maude Barlow’s Council of Canadians staged a rally in a giant tent near the Via Rail station. Running a protest movement can be as delicate a balancing act as trying to unite the right, and fiery speakers from a multitude of factions and constituencies – First Nations, trade unions, the cultural community, women, South Americans, Mexicans – took up nearly two hours.

To this pacifist ear, the Canadian actor R.H. Thompson struck the most eloquent plea.

Globalization and free trade produce “an enormously vital system,” and it produces enormous wealth, he acknowledged. “But it is energized by fear.”

“It only works by pitting us against each other,” Thompson said. “Only by pitting worker against worker, company against company, country against country, tax base against tax base.”

He cautioned the demonstrators who would soon pour into the streets not to fall into the same trap.

“When you fight, you become your enemy. If you make a monster of your enemy, you make a monster of yourself,” he warned.

“Isn’t this what the First Nations and the environmentalists have been trying to say to us?” he said. “We will honour them with the depths of our understanding.”

The Quebec Federation of Labour had decided to keep the day’s mass march of 30,000 people (according to police estimates) well away from the trouble.

But the handful of Black Bloc cadres and perhaps a few hundred supporters planned to break away from the main group and assault the barricades.

Senior strategists of the Council of Canadians debated all morning, which approach to take in light of what everyone saw as Friday night’s police excesses. In the end, Barlow’s group neither endorsed nor condemned direct action.

Meanwhile, two of the Halifax trade unionists conferred on how to ensure the safety of a 15-year-old girl who had insisted on coming along, and whose parents had entrusted her to their care. The main march went off peacefully, a festive parade through sun-drenched streets. Meanwhile, up the hill, small groups of protesters taunted police at the barricade, and were met with tear gas and water cannon.

At one point, a small band of demonstrators found a section of fence protected by fewer than a dozen police. With a few minutes’ effort, they succeeded in toppling a four-metre section. A tense standoff ensued as the small band of police – wielding nightsticks – fought to keep the protesters from entering the security zone through the hole in the fence.

Fired tear gas

A handful of police reinforcements arrived and fired tear gas, firmly implanting the idea of leaving in the protesters’ minds. But the gas soon dissipated and the protesters returned. For half an hour, cops and radicals played cat-and-mouse.

“This is just how they do it in Palestine,” one black-clad demonstrator hollered. “This is how they do it throughout the Third World when people protest.”

“Look out behind you,” someone yelled.

The protesters turned to see a phalanx of about 100 troops in riot gear marching four abreast up the hill towards them. Another large contingent approached from a side street and the protesters quickly melted away.

The cat-and-mouse game appeared likely to continue well into the night, long after the sixty Atlantic Canadian CLC protesters had boarded the bus for Charney and the train for the 16-hour ride home.

Originally published by The Daily News. All rights reserved. To contact the Parker Barss Donham, e-mail him at [email protected].

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