Protest, Canadian style

By Corky Thatcher

On July 22, Jean Chrétien made an announcement that excited, angered and scared many Calgarians. Next year’s Group of Eight conference–the scene of massive protests last month in Genoa–will be held in K-country. Is there anything to fear? How should we deal with security and protesters? Can we look to previous Canadian activist events to see how this one will play out?

Last summer saw the World Petroleum Conference in Calgary; it was essentially a non-event. The numbers of protesters never exceeded 500, but local police were still out in full-force, locking down large parts of downtown. Some say it was overkill, others say it was a necessary precaution.

Other protests, however, were not marked by such low turnouts. The Asia Pacific Economic Conference of 1997 has returned to the headlines, now that the inquiry’s chairman submitted his report. The findings are yet unknown, but excessive pepper-spraying and strip-searching of protesters are expected to set the RCMP up for censure.

Since then, however, activism has taken a different turn towards the direction of the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle and the recent protester death in Genoa. Will G-8 2002 follow that trend? One last place to turn for comparison is the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City this past spring. Famous for tear gas, a variety of protesters, angry cops in riot gear and a million-dollar barricade, the Quebec Summit offers a glimpse into what could happen in Kananaskis next summer.

Summit of the Americas: My experience

April 20, 2001 marked the day the Summit began, and the day I arrive in Quebec. Strangely, since the Ontario border, there was no police presence at all. As I enter Quebec City I realize why: every officer of the police force, Suréte, was here. At every bridge, at most intersections and, of course, all along the million-dollar barricade–the so-called "wall of shame." Something was definitely going down–and it seemed like the Suréte were over-enthusiastically prepared.

Old Quebec is on a plateau above downtown. Along the steep slope to it, I find what seems like an outdoor music festival. Around the perimeter and down the streets people with face paint and sidewalk chalk mingle. Everyone is calm, happy and amiable.

Protesters are outnumbered by journalists, who seem disappointed there’s no looting. Television crews walk around trying to find the most colourful protesters. A Cuban man refuses to cooperate with a corporation like CTV or Global unless the interviewer first urinates on an American flag. There are no takers.

A man in his forties walks around with lab goggles and a snowboard helmet screaming about hiring the CIA to poison us all. "Hydrogen cars are possible," he yells at a girl who tries to introduce herself. "It’s up to you to build it."

A lone capitalist walks the streets. "Stop free trade, starve children!" he tries to yell above the jeers of everyone else.

Suddenly I notice that we have been joined by a different breed of protesters–ones prepared for violence. They’re dressed in black. Their clothes are duct-taped. They have gloves for catching and throwing back tear gas. You can smell the vinegar in which they’ve drenched their bandanas. The atmosphere turns sour and menacing.

People begin to throw snowballs at the Suréte. The Suréte, dressed like storm troopers, are ready for a fight.

Snowballs turn to rocks. Some protesters even brought their own tear gas to throw. Peaceful protesters cry out for those throwing to stop. "No violence!" they yell. "Aucune violence!" People are afraid; we can’t tell what the Suréte are thinking. What are they going to do, and are the peaceful protesters going to get in the way?

Tear gas is launched. People run. "Don’t run! Walk! Walk!" people yell. The tear gas is thrown back, and all that remains is the smell and taste of gun powder. My nose burns slightly, but I’m no longer scared of the gas.

People climb onto the fence. It rocks under their weight, so someone ties a rope to it and they pull it down. The fence took many weeks and a lot of chest-thumping to build, but only seconds to tear down.

With the fence down, we’re scared again. How are the Suréte going to react? Now that the fence is down, what are they going to do? That fear of not knowing gives the police the advantage. All they have to do is dart at us and we flinch and run away.

Tear gas is thrown. One canister crashes through the window of a parked car. The fire department parades through the protesters to put out the flames on the seat.

Tear gas is thrown again. It’s always thrown back. A crowd stands around to watch. The Suréte want us back further, so a tank with a water cannon comes out to push us back.

A line of 20 maroon minivans with Budget Rent-A-Car stickers park a block away. Suréte officers sit inside with their protective uniforms, barely fitting between the seat and the steering wheel. They get out clumsily, like clowns at a circus, and I chuckle. But when they all pull out German shepherds, I stop laughing and start running again down the narrow, antique streets.

I return to the fence, take out my wirecutters and try for a souvenir. But tear gas is launched again and I have to run away. This time I don’t escape and the roof of my mouth burns. My eyes are watering and my skin itches from the gas. I wash my face with a bottle of water. All over the streets of Old Quebec people are sitting down crying and wiping their tears and washing their faces. The smell of gun powder lingers everywhere. Next summer, though, the tiny streets of Old Quebec will be traded for the wilderness of Kananaskis, and the Suréte for the RCMP. However, what will likely be much the same is the protesters, and of course, the tear gas.

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