October 25, 2011


In the camp at Place du peuple
By Johan Boyden
     As I step onto the night bus, bundled up in a heavy winter coat and sweater, a passenger looks at me curiously. I'm dragging a little rolling suitcase, a small tent and foam mattress. Tonight my partner and I will sleep in the financial district, but not in a posh hotel.
     Like many of the 26‑and‑counting occupations across the country, Occupy Montreal is in a downtown public space. Square Victoria encompasses about two city blocks, at a busy intersection on the edge of old Montreal. It is an ideal symbolic location. We've been coming down for a few days, but this is the first time to sleep.
     The camp set up on October 15, with about forty tents under the trees. A few days later there were over a hundred.
     "Now there are almost 300 tents," a woman at an information table tells me. Like a patchwork quilt, tents have sprung up over almost available place.  Most are sheltered under large tarps, between the trees. Political signs and banners hang like decorations.
     I roll my bundles into the square, looking up at La tour de la Bourse, the Stock exchange tower, once Canada's tallest building. Since then it's been occupied by students, bombed by Quebec nationalists, and heard the chants of countless labour rallies. Now we have it partly surrounded.
     From tree‑top level a statue of Queen Victoria looks back at me, silhouetted by street lights. Her pedestal is covered with signs, stickers and slogans in French and English. She is wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and flying the flag of the 1837 Patriote rebellion of Lower Canada. "Place du peuple" her new sign declares.
     On the opposite site of the street is a tiny empty spot under the trees. This where I put my tent, not too far from where Rouky lives ‑ a friendly fluffy dog.
     "It's growing fast and attracting all sorts of people," explains a young man who is looking after Rouky. That includes homeless people who need "basic medical care, like injuries to their feet". He's volunteered with the Medics because he has a First Aid certificate, and there are paramedics and nurses volunteering during the day. Sometimes Rouky carries medical supplies in dog packs and they move around the square, he tells me. "I had no choice to come down here," he says. He agrees with the Occupy Wall Street effort. "It is time to spread global awareness about Canada. We have major issues in our government and Canadians care about politics." He is unemployed and has been down here since the beginning. He talks about democracy, the need to get back our voice, and the Harper Tories in government. "It's time for the people to rise up" he says.
     It's dark as I put up my tent. An older man appears and helps. I can hear drums from one side of the camp, mixing with street traffic. Young people are still up, walking around debating and telling stories in different languages, having a drink or smoking. Suddenly there is a loud clattering noise - a group of women in high heels marching past, dressed up for a night out in the clubs. Later, I hear a heated argument. A man yells "No violence in the camp" several times. The debate quiets down.
     All around are hand‑made bi‑lingual signs. They ask for no alcohol or drug use and to make the camp a safe space for women. There are also signs saying women‑only tents can be made available.
     A little before midnight, my partner arrives. She's just been interviewed by a campus radio station, and talked about the Charter of Youth Rights campaign. We have to be back to pick up our baby at ten tomorrow, she says.
     There are some young families in the camp. A little girl is doing painting with her parents. Behind the future medic tent is a kid's play area. There are slides, small tables and plastic toys. But it's getting colder, even under our warm blankets.
     We're not the only people experiencing their first night. Amber is a student at McGill from the United States. A couple of her friends have been here all week. She's come down tonight because it is an experience.
     "The whole 99 percent thing speaks to how bad income inequality is" and how the "one percent are totally disconnected," Amber says, adding that the situation is "not democratic because the one percent have far bigger influence." She has been to student demos before, but this is her first time camping out for a political cause.
     We shiver and try to sleep. Around 4:00 the car noise drops. So does the talking. At 4:30 I hear the automated brushes and spray of street cleaners passing. It is a bizarrely soothing sound. We fall asleep with the rest of the camp.
     Despite the cold, Marie Kim, Louise and Genevieve tell me in the morning that they slept soundly. The three students at a Montreal CEJEP have been camping for almost a week. "I'm here because of the failure of the system" Marie Kim says, rubbing sleep out of her eyes. Genevieve likes the sense of solidarity and community. "We're building what we want, like a micro‑society," she tells me.
     Louise thinks the camp is "a site of experimentation." She tells me that in the camp there is no ideology ‑ either independentist (Quebec nationalist) or anarchist ‑ and that they will answer with spontaneity, not a school of thinking.
     As we wake up, the crisp morning light shines through the remaining leaves on the trees. We walk over to the kitchen station, which is becoming the center of life. Three people are making French toast. Reda calculates that he has made about fifty slices already this morning. The kitchen is a bit messy and damp. Another volunteer says they are getting donations from people's houses.
     "I'm not here for anything" Reda tells me. "I'm here because of what I'm against." He talks about wars for money, hypocrisy and petroleum, Israel killing Palestinian children, rich countries exporting their deficits to poor countries. "Everything is connected" he says. "I'm against all of what is going on."
     Reda has just finished a BA degree in Marketing. He is also part of the camp's "political and philosophical committee". Next to him is Caroline, making coffee. She is a CEJEP student living near Quebec City, where there is also an occupation. She has driven five hours to get here.
     Before we leave, I talk with others around the camp. "It is quite inspiring to be part of this kind of mass action and gathering" says Nicola, another student who also just set up a tent. "It is not about countries or communities" says Olivier, a musician who works for a theatre company, "It is about all humanity."
     Michael launches into a long story. "I've been on a political camping trip since I left Sault Ste. Marie in May," he says. "I've seen bears, goats, wolves." Mike is homeless. His shoes are split open. "My issue? My issue is everything."
     Time to head home. We pass through the Centre de Commerce mondial de Montréal ‑ World Trade Center Montreal. It's another world. The atrium is warm, clean and yet coldly silent and empty. Mannequins in fine clothes and jewels stare at us from glass cabinets. A frozen marble god quietly pours water into a classical fountain. Unexpectedly, we pass a grey block of smashed concrete, streaked with old paints. It is an authentic piece of the Berlin Wall, on display by the 1% like a Cold War trophy to scare us away from socialism.
     I glance back. Clusters of tiny tents huddle at the feet of giant skyscrapers: Quebec and Canada's most powerful corporations.
     Whatever you make of the protest, the outlook of the young participants is another crack in the social‑economic system that these buildings represent, a system that will inevitably break under the weight of its class contradictions. Whatever direction this movement heads ‑ and it faces difficult challenges ‑ it is a seed, a kernel of resistance. It can grow, with broad support from the working people and stronger organization.
     I start to hum the tune to an old labour anthem. "In our hands is placed a power greater than their horded gold, Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand‑fold. We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old. For the union makes us strong!"
     Solidarity forever, occupy!

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