“I can’t believe,” my editor said, “you don’t have a photo of yourself in Quebec City back in … when, 1969?”
I felt a mix of guilty and stupid. I had said I wanted to go up there for the Summit of the Americas – to complete the circle, finish the journey, something of the sort. And it would have been a good shot, too: a leather coat I got for ten cents in Cobalt, a cowboy hat from a truck stop in Flagstaff, Arizona, cowboy boots patched with duct tape. The beard, the long hair. “I guess I just wasn’t thinking ahead,” I said. I could have added that I didn’t have a camera back then, didn’t know anyone when I got there and didn’t know enough French to ask for help.
I went to Quebec for two reasons: to return to Canada after a decade in the United States and to become a writer, after years of university and a late turn to left-wing politics. In my final phase as a grad student, when anyone had to risk their future career by “confronting” university bosses, I always volunteered. I realized I couldn’t be all that serious about academe, and I had always thought about writing, since reaping praise for English compositions in junior high, even if twenty-seven seemed pretty late to start life as a writer.
Quebec was a romantic choice. I had passed through once and it felt like a place I could wander around and face my demons – my idea of the writing life.
I rented what I thought of as a garret on Rue Ste-Ursule. My friends in New York thought I had made up the address. I wrote to Margaret Atwood, whom I had known since we worked at a summer camp ten years earlier, and she sent me a lifeline: an annotated list of places in Canada you could send your writing. I sent for Alice, my cat, and began to create an oeuvre.
I spent a lot of time in a boÃ®te called Le Chantauteuil at the bottom of Ste-Ursule. I didn’t speak much French, but it didn’t bother the regulars, who held forth to me anyway. Robert Charlebois was like a young Dylan then (as was Dylan). The province was transforming from rural and Catholic to urban and secular, and you could read the wrenching effects on the faces of patrons each night as the hour got later and the mood boozier. I would go down St-Jean to watch hockey games at a taverne. One night, someone explained to me the passion the Montreal Canadiens evoked. “They’re us,” she said. “Each winter, they go south and they return in the spring, the conquerors.”
I yearned for the kind of politics I had left, so I went to the university often. RenÃ© LÃ©vesque had quit as a provincial cabinet minister and started the Parti QuÃ©bÃ©cois. He was there often, seeking support for what seemed a futile project. He went everywhere; I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him at the chess club. That fall, a language bill, Bill 63, evoked huge nationalist opposition. There were rallies outside the National Assembly. All the vedettes of Quebec culture sang and spoke. I felt like the only anglophone for miles. So I became a Quebec nationalist before I became a Canadian nationalist – that’s nationalist in the political, not the cultural, sense, to borrow a phrase from Milton Acorn. I acquired the vocabulary and stance from the inside, rather than as a sympathetic outsider.
I wrote a lot of what I thought of as sensitive poetry (“The rain splats / On the curb. / No one says / A word. / Quebec / Is quite / Quiet / Tonight”) and sent out plays, stories and essays like messages in a bottle.
Only one thing was published, a poem in a literary magazine. It was about walking along the Terrasse Dufferin at night below the Chateau Frontenac, looking up at that ramshackle hotel, and thinking of all the history it implied. It ended, “Canadian Pacific must have been / The robber baron of our early past at least.”
Atwood was the only person who said she had seen it.
When I moved back to Toronto a year later, after another New York stint, Quebec’s number kept coming up. I got back the day Pierre Trudeau proclaimed the War Measures Act to deal with kidnappings by the Front de LibÃ©ration du QuÃ©bec. My first magazine piece, which ran in Harper’s, was on that crisis.
I went to Montreal and met political cartoonist Terry (Aislin) Mosher, who became a lifelong friend, and GÃ©rald Godin and Pauline Julien – the poet-legislator and chanteuse – who deserve to rest in peace if anyone does.
In Toronto, I met two union leaders, Kent Rowley and Madeleine Parent, who had been labour figures in Quebec in the 1940s, though they had relocated to Ontario. I worked with them (as an organizer, not a writer), heard a lot on the Duplessis years and sometimes travelled with them to Montreal. In 1976, a theatre in Montreal asked me to write a play about the Habs; it happened to coincide with the PQ’s first election victory, and Les Canadiens ended up being about both.
During the first unity referendum, in 1980, a group in Toronto, perturbed by all the federalist propaganda, decided to make a public statement and debated whether merely to back Quebec’s right to independence or to support a Yes vote itself. It chose the milder option. During the final meeting, someone asked how many people were prepared to be called the Benedict Arnold of English Canada. Only novelist Ian Adams and I raised our hands.
Friday, April 20
Day 1 of the Summit of the Americas
Three motorcades greet the flight I’m on from Toronto. The rest of us wait while the delegations get off. With flags on the limos, they roar away. Years ago, I came out here to meet Alice. Through the terminal’s windows, I could see passengers descend – in those days, you still walked across the tarmac – but instead I watched the little black cardboard box with air holes come bumping down the baggage conveyor.
The summit shuttle bus heads down Boulevard RenÃ© LÃ©vesque toward the security zone and suddenly there’s the fence. Wham, like the Berlin Wall, for those who recall it, such as the German journalist who says she can’t use the comparison in her reports since the wall has quasi-sacred status in Germany; it would be like comparing anything to the Holocaust. The border police get on and check IDs, just like in Berlin, then wave the bus through. Some protesters lounge in the sun as we go by. It’s like one of the scenes you never see in war movies: lovely weather, in the middle of the mayhem.
Inside, journalist Alison Blackduck says, it’s like an eighties film about The Day After. Vast spaces with concrete benches and nobody on them except maybe an overheated, overdressed cop. It’s Security City, that’s who you see mostly. Occasionally a motorcade passes, but you can’t see through the tinted glass to heads of state. Then they’re gone and it’s just cops again. Tomorrow, two local residents, who have the right to be here, will unfurl a banner opposing the proposed free trade area of the Americas. When a motorcade passes, they’ll honk a bicycle horn at it. It will be the sole direct sign of contradiction that foreign officials will be subjected to in all the time they’re here.
I cross in that hollow, Day-After silence and exit at Porte St-Jean. On the wall of the old city, literally behind its ramparts, police stand like guys with crossbows. I had thought the fence would shadow the wall, but it doesn’t; it cuts in and out of the old city – an odd effect. Outside the fence are many literal signs of life. The best is painted on the fence’s concrete base: “Perimetres chez nous” – a very witty (and hard to translate) play on MaÃ®tres chez nous (masters in our own house), the old slogan of the Quiet Revolution. Some stores outside the fence on St-Jean are boarded up with plywood. Free the plywood, another sign reads.
Out at Laval, where I went more than thirty years ago for a taste of the radical, today’s protest marches are forming. The various protesting forces have worked out a division of labour which sets today aside for radical groups, mainly youth, who plan to go right to the fence and protest … ah, vigorously. Tomorrow’s march, largely organized by unions, will skip the fence.
What marks these kids, as much as anything, is how equipped they are. The Internet has been full of advice. They have gas masks, goggles, bandanas plus lemon juice to soak them in, layers of clothing and cell phones. Later, when the tear gas starts to flow and side streets become congested, you’ll hear a ring and 400 people in polyester and gas masks reach for their phones. Some, especially the littler ones, look like drawings from Mad magazine.
Of course, they’re under-equipped compared with the cops, many of whom will drop from heat exhaustion inside their carapaces. But these are kids from the Stuff generation. They’ve learned to consume, they rarely go anywhere without shopping first, which itself is a source of their anger and insight. To their credit, they’re largely unburdened by theory, unlike my own set.
The mood, and the sun, is still bright. You ask cops where the manif is and they suggest a shortcut. We pass a van on a residential street full of Darth Vader cops, one advancing up a driveway. Is the house a hideout for explosives? No, he’s just gone to pee against the wall.
We catch up with another branch of the march. What makes people do this kind of thing? Their signs contain rage (“FTAA: Fuck the already rich.”) But also something more existential: Demain, c’est la mort. That could mean various things, like: Globalization is destroying the world. But I choose to think it means: You only get one life so live it as something worthy rather than as a cog in a stifling, commercial system, don’t let yourself be globalized to death. Something like that. It’s a thought that seems to come most often from the young, although it’s actually even more apt for the old.
When the march reaches the fence on RenÃ© LÃ©vesque, where we were just waved through, it changes. A few “punky anarchists,” a kid at the front calls them, scale the fence, lean on it from inside, and it topples. Who expected that? It looked so solid. How’s that for a metaphor of power and change?
Then begins the weekend-long dance we saw so much of. The tear gas, though it isn’t working well today since the wind blows it back at the cops and into the security zone, where far fewer folks have gas masks. Water cannon, lines of Darth Vaders advancing a few steps, beating their shields with batons, but stopping, not charging. Protesters move back, regroup, learn you can handle tear gas and realize the cops are into crowd control and maintaining the status quo for the rest of the summit, though things get rangier late at night and in the early hours of morning.
It’s the metaphor, really, that’s unstoppable, not globalization or revolution. Once the fence went up, everything followed. And once it came down. Le mur est tombÃ©, the papers said.
The government set the terms in which this event would be comprehended. Once there was a fence, it was about symbolism. “Breaching” it, which turned out to be pretty easy, meant symbolic victory. The Darth Vaders couldn’t retreat and protect the heads of state at the rare moments they were publicly visible, as at other such events, like United Nations meetings. They built a fence to defend them, and wound up defending it.
Late afternoon. I head down to the lower city and old port, where the People’s Summit is. From above, you see a big tent; behind, yachts bob in the slanting sun. No cops, no water cannon, nooooo fence. There, I run into Scott, Ken and Steve, from the first battle of free trade, fifteen years ago.
We were the first country on Earth to have the free trade experience and we have the bruises to prove it. The fight over the original agreement with the United States – from the so-called Shamrock summit of 1985, also held in Quebec City, to the election of 1988 – was a rehearsal for everything since. The terms of that deal were folded into North American free trade agreement and now are the model for the FTAA.
What I don’t get is why that memory doesn’t play a larger role in the minds of those fighting the FTAA now. Maybe it has something to do with a general absence of memory and sense of history today, especially among the young. I say this in spite of all the history theme parks, book clubs and cable channels. I’m not passing judgment. Lacking memory can give you a fearlessness and make everything you do seem fresh. But it also deprives you of a chance to acquire distance and learn from the past. I once had a theory about why this loss of memory has happened, but I’ve forgotten it. Maybe it had to do with consumerism and disposability.
Anyway, it’s a pleasure to run into people you battled beside long ago, more so if they’re still fighting. So here’s to old comrades. We go for dinner and another pleasure: a chance to talk globalization with guys who are masters of the specific. Information can be so refreshing, especially when there has been too much rhetoric and generalization on the subject (I do not exempt myself).
I ask questions, like: What can we do about free trade deals that already exist, since cancelling them at this point seems very hard? Steve Shrybman, a trade lawyer, says he has an elegant solution: Leave everything as is, but switch the enforcement mechanisms between the investment and human-rights clauses since only investors get real protection and human-rights victims get none. Scott Sinclair says he thinks the globalizers have finally overreached, in two areas: investor-state (the famed Chapter 11, which lets corporations sue governments for doing things that are in the public interest but interfere with their profits) and TRIPS (trade-related intellectual property rights) rules that let drug companies keep patents for twenty years and were just beaten back in South Africa regarding HIV drugs.
They talk excitedly about how the big U.S. law firms have started to add Chapter 11 lawsuits to the menu they offer their big clients, so we’ll see an explosion of such claims, and more overreaching. We finish and I head back up the hill to the old city and the total chaos of the security zone.
I’m thinking about that first battle of free trade that we almost won and how much the defeat had to do with Quebec. The lead seesawed through that election and at one point Brian Mulroney and the Progressive Conservatives were far behind.
But the nationalists in Quebec, who voted PQ and tended to be left, were decisive. They jettisoned one leader because he opposed free trade. Jacques Parizeau announced he was in favour of the deal because it would hasten the break-up of Canada. It all reflected the poisoned relationship between Quebec and the rest of us. One day, I appeared in a debate with PQ adviser Daniel Latouche. He said my arguments against free trade made sense for Quebec and Canada, but the nationalists had lost their dream of independence in the referendum of 1980, so why shouldn’t we lose ours in turn? It seemed a sad dÃ©nouement: something that began in such hope and pride, ending in spite.
I was travelling and writing a book on that election, Waiting for Democracy. By sheer chance, it was the only election in which I’ve got so involved, not through a party but through free trade. Near the end, I flew here. For no reason. I just did it. I booked the Chateau Frontenac, where I had never stayed. That night, I watched the news and somehow knew, from the tone more than anything, that we were going to lose. I believe you can be so close to a public event that you acquire an almost-neural connection to it, and I had it then.
I left my room and went for a walk on the Terrasse, as I’d done the night of my sole published poem. At some point, I glanced back. I had left the light on in my room and could see it. It was my only out-of-body experience – as though I were back in 1969, trying to become a writer and looking at the future, when I would be doing a book on an election and staying at the Chateau. Then I flew to Toronto to take some desperate, pointless measures and prepare for the wretched, inevitable result.
Around the perimeter, things have turned even uglier. The fence has been breached often; once you know it can be done, it will. People snake along it, chanting “Sol- sol- solidaritÃ©.” Police come out from the zone to try to control the streets outside, which would be no issue if they hadn’t put up the fence to start with. Soon, the dogs will appear.
Back in the summit centre, most journalists, having spent a fortune to come, watch the opening session on TV. It’s full of pomp and ceremony. In fact, they play Pomp and Circumstance as the leaders enter. It makes you wonder what it means to hold power today. To be a government in the age of globalization. There’s little you can do that is creative or rewarding. Mostly you clear the way for corporations, which often are richer than your country. You dismantle public programs so that services can be provided, if at all, by the private sector. You make way less money than people in the private sector. So what’s in it for you? What’s left is the stroking: the motorcades, people who magically whisk away your dry cleaning, the flunkies, the state dinners and signings of accords and communiquÃ©s.
This doesn’t mean governments are withering away or becoming pointless, though that’s a myth of the era – on both sides. For corporations still need governments: to create conditions for free trade and globalization through agreements and trade bodies, to enforce corporate rights against other rights such as human, national or environmental ones.
Most of all, they need governments to wield armies and police forces, since free trade and globalization don’t just happen. People resist them fiercely. And since no corporation can yet field its own army – the illegitimacy would be patent – they need the legitimacy of democratic credentials, which is why the democracy clause at this summit will be toothless but not meaningless. The more they suppress resistance to their form of globalization, the more they need the cover of people who can say they were democratically elected, now go away and shut up.
Getting back tonight is hellish, if you’re not sleeping inside the zone. Almost all entries are “closed down,” as the RCMP says. They built a fence to keep the rabble out and now they’re the ones locked in.
Saturday, April 21
Noon at the people’s summit site. Today’s march looks massive. Buses keep arriving. People ask how many marchers there are, but I don’t trust any count. You end up taking guesses on other marches as a basis to estimate the next. But someone from Quebec calls it the biggest march she has seen here, and that’s a lot. It fills a major street and takes three hours to pass.
It’s impassioned. It doesn’t have the drag-ass quality a lot of these events do. There’s a kid with a hand-lettered sign that reads: “No investor-state provisions.” He knows what’s bugging him. Another sign says, “Blah blah blah.” It must be satisfying. Instead of sitting home seething over the Prime Minister’s insult, you take it to the streets, where tens of thousands laugh with you. An endless cloth petition goes by: It must have more names than the petition to have Stockwell Day change his.
And there is the best street theatre – maybe the best theatre – I’ve ever seen: seventy-five people of different ages in fifteen rows, wearing black suits with bar codes over their mouths, moving slowly to drums. They jam their hands in their jacket pockets, hunch their shoulders and pace mechanically. Then raise their watches and freeze. Then crouch and cover their heads. Somehow, it’s sexy as hell.
Behind them is a huge puppet of a black-suited figure counting at a deathly pace. Their concentration is astounding. I ask a spectator who they are and one steps from her row, hands me a leaflet and returns with no loss of intensity. The group is Equiterre, from Montreal, and its concerns are ecological.
But many signs and placards here are printed; they aren’t creative individual statements, they just identify a union or group. It’s a way to say: I am me and I am here to take a stand, like that fine French word manifester. Yesterday, with its youth and challenge, was inspiring, but this mass of humanity has an inspiring normalcy to it. They are people who have moved on to a place in their lives with jobs, families, obligations. Each group has its place; it’s not about conflict between generations – everyone helps and eventually something may change.
It also implies a different politics. There has been debate around this event over whether violence is necessary to effect change – as if there’s a law of physics involved that you should be able to test. But when you have these kinds of numbers, and the people are so committed, you don’t really need direct action or individual confrontation – if you can find a way to channel them. One route is through elections. The New Democratic Party caucus is smart to be here because only the NDP could benefit from this group and the many more people it represents.
Harnessing those numbers is also the basis for such old theories as a general strike as a way to make change and mass non-violent resistance, like the sit-down strikes in India or the Deep South. With this many people, you find yourself thinking not about what kind of action you can take yourself, but how to mobilize and use these numbers, without taming or betraying them.
For those of us who recall the bitter loss of 1988, the strength and passion of the Quebec presence is poignant. If only it had been part of it then. Maybe the mistake we made was fighting that battle as though it were the War of 1812 and we had to repel the Americans – rather than a fight for global justice against dehumanizing market forces. You couldn’t get Quebec involved when it was about saving Canada. It stuck in its craw. But fighting for all the Americas, and the rest of the world, is different. As my friend Laurell Ritchie said back then, “You want globalization? All right, we’ll give you a globalization you never dreamed of!”
I run into Madeleine Parent, now in her eighties. She’s in the front row of the Quebec women’s movement. I march with them a while. This march isn’t going to the fence, though, which I find regrettable. The fence is there, you can’t pretend it isn’t, it defines the events of this summit. This mass of people could have gone right up to it and – whatever. Read a statement. Sit before it in silent shame and reproach. I peel away and go back up the hill.
It’s amazing how quickly violence can become routine – for everyone. It’s a tribute to human adaptability. The police have settled on tear gas and water cannon as their tactics; it’s messy and abusive, but, given the fact the wall is there, better than the alternative: charging in, pummelling people with batons and arresting them (which also happens, but mostly late at night).
The water cannon are any two-year-old’s Platonic dream of a truck: oddly shaped tanks perched on wheels with a single windshield in front and a hose shooting torrents. My son Gideon would love them. (In the middle of the endless gas and water, I get a phone call from his mother: “Do you know where The Tigger Movie is?”) By the way, if there’s any doubt that a major beneficiary of globalization is the security industry, here is proof: millions of dollars blowing away in the wind with each blast of gas or water, and it all counts as a plus in our GDP statistics.
Getting out tonight is even harder. Fires are lit, partly to disperse the tear gas, and cabs have a hard time getting up the hill. One intrepid pizza deliveryman makes it through and agrees to take me down. He drops me at the pizzeria and I make my way back to the Holiday Inn in Ste-Foy.
Sunday, April 22
The final news conference of the summit occurs with a backdrop of Nuremberg-like banners. I’m not being provocative; I don’t see how you can miss it. The heads of state don’t even try to pretend they aren’t rattled. Argentine President Fernando de la Rua, host of the next summit, says there will be no fences then. Mexico’s Vicente Fox derides protesters with full stomachs. Jean ChrÃ©tien says again he was elected.
This protest got to them. Imagine if they’d gone out into it, like Henry V on the eve of battle. They might have learned something. They seem stunned that anodyne terms such as globalization and free trade (“It’s free, it’s trade. Who can be against it?”) have turned into obscenities people are willing to be gassed, or worse, over. Maybe it’s no more than some perturbation on their part. Sometimes you’ll settle for that. Bertold Brecht wrote, “There was little I could but do, but without me the mighty would have rested less comfortably, at least such was my hope – “
Or the protesters can aim higher. They stopped the Multilateral Agreement on Investment in 1998, an amazing feat. In a world in which the Soviet Union simply vanished, and Nelson Mandela is now the retired president of South Africa, who can say what change is impossible?
Getting out for the plane is a pain. They’ve shut down most of the fence again because a march is coming from Laval to demand the release of the “political prisoners.” I leap off the shuttle and scramble the length of the perimeter, down the hill and into another pizzeria, where they call a cab. A pizza man has become my totem.
On the tarmac, we wait for Air Force One to leave since, our captain explains, no one may take off beside or before the presidential jet – anywhere in the world, I presume. It makes me think of journalist Tom Walkom’s explanation of the fence: It was really built to protect protesters from the U.S. Secret Service. If any of them had got inside the perimeter, those agents would have come out of the Loew’s hotel with guns blazing. Their idea of anybody else’s sovereignty is something that inevitably interferes with their own.
I did manage to visit my old place on Rue Ste-Ursule, accompanied by a photographer sent by my editor to compensate for my failure to have any pictures from thirty-two years ago. He shot me through the fence, which now slices across Ste-Ursule at about No. 45, with La Maison Acadienne, where I stayed, for background, along with a bunch of protesting high-school teachers from Ontario. There I was, saying “hi” (though not “hi, man”) to people going by and looking in the doorway where I lived, at my reflection looking out at me. It wasn’t another out-of-body experience though. There was a photographer over my shoulder trying to get the shot. (Postmodernism / Go away / Come again / Another day.)
At any rate, it doesn’t feel like the circle is completed. Or whatever the metaphor was supposed to be. I’m already looking forward to the next phase …
This article was originally published in The Globe and Mail‘s Focus section on April 28, 2001. Posted on rabble.ca with permission.
We’re so glad you stopped by!
Thanks for consuming rabble content this year.
rabble.ca is 100% reader and donor funded, so as an avid reader of our content, we hope you will consider gifting rabble with a donation today!
Whether it be a one-time donation or a small monthly contribution, your support is critical to keep rabble writers producing the work you’ve come to rely on as a part of a healthy media diet.