Montreal·Analysis

Anti-G7 protests both a test and an opportunity for Quebec's social movements

How large will this week's anti-G7 demonstrations in Quebec City be? With Quebec's left in soul-searching mode, the G7 Summit is unlikely to see a repeat of the clashes that occurred at the Third Summit of the Americas in 2001.

With Quebec's left in soul-searching mode, anti-G7 demos unlikely to be repeat of 2001

The left in Quebec, at a crossroads, will attempt to revive its fortunes during the anti-G7 demonstrations later this week in Quebec City. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Quebec City — like every other provincial capital — has seen its share of protests over the years. But as demonstrators gear up for the anti-G7 protests planned for later this week, one stands out in the memories of residents and activists alike.

In April of 2001, between 30,000 and 50,000 people gathered in the city to voice their dissent during the Third Summit of the Americas, a meeting of North and South American leaders who were trying to hammer out a deal to create a free trade area that would encompass the western hemisphere.

The old city, already a fortress, was fenced off. Those fences were felled. Shops were vandalized. Throngs of protest marchers — most of them peaceful — were dispersed with tear gas and rubber bullets. 

Locals remember the millions of dollars in damage, and many fear something similar will occur when three days of demonstrations begin Thursday.

For activists, though, the 2001 Quebec City protests represents a high-water mark for the progressive cause.

For activists, the 2001 Quebec City protests during the Summit of the Americas represent a high-water mark for the progressive cause. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

It was, after all, Canada's contribution to the string of massive demonstrations against the inequalities of globalization that began in Seattle in 1999.

"There was a certain sense in which resistance to those oppressive institutions had momentum," recalled Jaggi Singh, a prominent Montreal activist who, as a member of a local anti-capitalist group, helped organize the 2001 demonstrations.

"It was something that was genuinely a social movement."

Smaller this time around?

Many activists and union organizers have more modest expectations of the protests that will coincide with this week's G7 meetings in La Malbaie, Que., a remote town 140 kilometres northeast of Quebec City.

Many of the province's student unions, which mobilized hundreds of thousands of people during the 2012 student strikes, aren't taking part in the demonstrations.

Moreover, there are concerns that the sizeable security operation — which is soaking up almost 70 per cent of the summit's $600-million budget — will dissuade all but the most ardent protesters from taking part.

"We're facing a state apparatus that is deploying all its tools of repression," said Gabriel Dumas, who co-ordinates a popular education group that is helping to organize anti-G7 demonstrations.

Jaggi Singh, centre, clashes with provincial police during a protest in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., last month. Singh was later arrested at the demonstration. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Many activists also suggest progressive groups in Quebec are looking for the next great cause to rally around.

"The health care unions are rebuilding themselves. So is the student movement," said Dominique Daigneault, a representative of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), one of Quebec's main labour federations which is also organizing anti-G7 demonstrations.

"We're in a period where social movements are recomposing themselves."

A short history of social movements in Quebec

Since 2001, the strength of left-wing social movements in Quebec has ebbed and flowed, the product of world events, local governments and ideological infighting.

The Sept. 11 attacks, for instance, ruptured many of the alliances forged during the demonstrations in Seattle and Quebec City.

In the aftermath, some on the left decided it was bad form to continue protesting outside global summits — a move viewed with disdain by anti-capitalists such as Singh.

A measure of unity returned with the opposition to the Iraq War, which in February 2003 produced one of the largest demonstration in Quebec's history when 100,000 people walked through the streets of Montreal.

Quebec's more radical groups argued the failure to prevent the war in Iraq reinforced the need for direct action — protest tactics that often entailed property damage and physical confrontations with police. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

But the war went ahead anyway and, as a result, cleavages within the left became more apparent.

"There was this idea that somehow if you got the pope or some famous person on your side, or if you just played Give Peace a Chance, that that would be enough," said Singh.

"That was problematic in my view."

More radical elements argued the failure to prevent the war reinforced the need for direct action: protest tactics that often entail property damage and physical confrontations with police.

Singh is a well-known proponent of direct action, his long arrest record evidence of his commitment to the tactic over the years.

It is counter-productive to attempt to reform oppressive institutions, he says: that only allows them to continue operating.

Effective resistance, from this perspective, requires active disruption of police, commerce and government.

It is a viewpoint that represents a minority opinion within the Quebec left, however, as many question its legitimacy and effectiveness.

Donald Cuccioletta, co-president of the social justice group Alternatives, questioned the efficacy of direct action tactics. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

"You can't do confrontation, confrontation, confrontation. There is no popular education in that," said Donald Cuccioletta, co-president of the social justice group Alternatives.

"I can throw a stone. So what? Does that educate the three ladies on the corner saying, 'What are they demonstrating for?'"

"They don't know. They only see violence."

The highs and lows of the student strikes

After the gargantuan anti-war demonstrations of 2003, the progressive movement in the province entered a lull.

Though unions were active in the early years of Jean Charest's Liberal government, it wasn't until the student protests over planned tuition-fee hikes in 2012 that the movement once again surged to life.

As Charest resorted to increasingly harsh tactics to suppress the strikes, they came to represent something more than just a battle over tuition fees.

The students were eventually joined by other unions and civil society groups who vented their own grievances about the Charest government, which included concerns about corruption and cuts in funding for social services.  

Though unions were active in the early years of Jean Charest's Liberal government, it wasn't until the student strikes of 2012 that Quebec's progressive movement once again surged to life. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

But the student strikes, dubbed Quebec's Maple Spring, came to a bittersweet end for their young leaders.

While they contributed to Charest's defeat in the fall 2012 election, many were left jaded by the Parti Québécois government that followed.

They felt especially alienated by the PQ's charter of values, a failed proposal that would have placed wide-ranging restraints on any ostentatious public display of religious symbols.

In the eyes of its critics, the proposed charter unfairly targeted the province's Muslim population and flirted dangerously with ethnic nationalism.

"The return of the PQ to power cut short the mobilization," said Dumas, who was a senior official with ASSÉ, the most militant student union, during the strikes.  

"The charter of values fed a racism. There were a lot of people who said that's what we have to fight at the moment."

The anti-fascist movement is a loose coalition of activists dedicated to confronting far-right groups at every turn. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

That struggle has occurred largely outside of the student unions and has oriented itself against the proliferation of far-right groups in Quebec.

It's most visible expression is antifa, or the anti-fascist movement, a loose coalition of activists dedicated to confronting far-right groups at every turn.

Aside from efforts to counter the far right, said Dumas, a lot of energy is also being directed at less visible types of activism, such as groups fighting for Indigenous rights or against gentrification.

With the progressive movement in Quebec so fragmented among various causes, the upcoming anti-G7 demonstrations will likely not be the show of force that 2001 was.

Instead, they are being seen as an opportunity to forge the alliances and common fronts that will inform the next major round of demonstrations — whatever they will be about.  

"The organizing we're doing now, the seeds we're planting now, will emerge at some point as part of a larger movement," said Singh.

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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