The Walrus Blog

Dear Fellow Torontonians

A lament for the student protests of Montreal — which could never happen here
Montreal street protestYanik CrépeauScene from an earlier (March 22, 2012) street protest in Montreal.

Dear fellow Torontonians:

I went to Montreal last weekend, one of the few times I’ve returned since graduating from McGill, and as I stood outside Mont Royal station with my bag, peering through the rain for the restaurant where my friends were waiting, I heard loud dance beats echoing against the boulangeries and bike shops. Immediately thereafter — they must have turned a corner and I didn’t notice — a crowd of boisterous Montrealers marched toward me. They came down the street, pots banging, their red felt squares prominently dividing me from them. The mood was festive and determined — placards calling for the end of the Charest era and the freezing of tuition fees left no doubt this was a protest — but whole families took part: small children, elderly couples, and mothers (some of whom identified themselves as “mères en colère“) mixed in with young people: students, I assumed. And while marchers blared their long, rainbow-coloured horns toward surrounding buildings, residents came out onto balconies to wave and cheer, including a small group of blue-robed nuns, who in turn were greeted with raucous whooping from the crowd.

And as I stood on the sidelines with my Toronto bus ticket still in my back pocket, I felt dejected, and wished we were so brave. What kind of city is ours that this scene would never play itself out here? Imagine King Street office workers heading up to Bloor and joining U of T students’ protests against raising tuition fees. Can’t do it? Me neither.

I immigrated to Canada at six years old, and as a child in grey suburban Toronto, always felt disconnected from the city’s political life. Like somehow people were engaged, and involved, somewhere I couldn’t see. But I wonder now if maybe the political community I had imagined doesn’t exist. I give Toronto the benefit of the doubt, but it is tough to stomach its political apathy. St. James Park never had more than a few hundred people for Occupy Toronto, and a few thousand joined in early day marches. The G20 protests, surrounding a homegrown event, had some 10,000 participants — less impressive in light of the damage, much of it done by mask-wearing young people, that shamed so many of us. Milder protests failed to draw the same keynote attention, and the legacy of that day is empty. Our recent half-hearted attempts at protests in solidarity with Montreal barely crawl into our newspapers, the nation’s largest.

There’s a particular crowd in Toronto that migrates from cause to cause, protest to protest, backpacks at the ready and righteousness in its cape. This crowd made headlines during G20, lived in the Occupy tents, and now wears the red square at Quebec solidarity events. And seldom do we see the “general population” mixing in.

Not so in Montreal, not now. More than 5,000 Montrealers turned out for that rainy Saturday afternoon march I had witnessed. And while I’m told the protests were more violent in the beginning, what I saw was a community celebrating its identity and reminding its elected officials that it very much has the power.

When was the last time that Toronto — in many ways the economic and political centre of Canada — tried hard to overthrow an unhappy reality? We are saddled with an incompetent municipal leadership; our greenery is being sold off; our transit is deadlocked; and still we are silent, apart from angry letters to the editor. Those of us living west of Quebec watch the south much more than we gaze across the Atlantic, and have adopted a complacency toward institutional injustice that accompanies our low political bar.

My own stance on Montreal’s protests is a teeter-totter, but I find the city’s sense of community astounding. For those of us on the outside, Montreal is a reminder of how foreign Quebec is, and of how far we have diverged as citizens of the same country. In Toronto and farther west, we have accepted the miserable status quo of enormous debt as a graduation present, imprisoning us in jobs we dislike through at least our twenties. More power to Quebec students for believing their fates can be different.

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  • Jeremy

    Respectfully, I disagree.  There are groups out there organising – right this second – plans for a summer (and beyond)’s worth of student protests.  There have been thousands out at the weekly Casseroles Toronto, and the Canadian Federation of Students has given its support to an Ontario (Read: not-just-Quebec-solidarity) protest movement.  

    The numbers and demographics have already proven this is not simply some group who migrates “from cause to cause”, and while the mainstream media has at times failed to follow the story, that hasn’t precluded CTV, AFP (international), or even (gasp!) the Toronto Sun from reporting on what’s going on.
    This is not half-hearted, but merely the “heart of” a growing movement.Stay tuned to for details, and watch for the Maple Spread in the news.

  • davescrivener

    Ugh, defeatism sucks. 

  • Cmoabob

    Wow, *great* conveyance of the pulse, the spirit, the vibe of a city.

    Make that two cities, actually.

    I positively adore both you and your writing.

  • Laura Secord

    Exercising agency, a must! Democracy is meant to be practiced! Wonderfully argued. Whether or not the Quebec students’ protest is a good example is, however, another matter. Recalling that York University was shut down by a TA strike not long ago, I’m pressed to wonder what would become of these institutions if protests occurred across the country — where universities (excluding tech-oriented schools which are doing quite well) are largely in the red, not so heavily subsidized as McGill, and are often required to deflate entire departments while still not meeting the expectations of their employees (e.g. UofT)… Reducing tuition might mean fewer jobs for academics and graduate students over time, poorer university resources, and worse, standardization by a low-standard.  Might this agency be misplaced? Wouldn’t the anger and zeal of today’s youths be better directed at the baby-boomers (in our revolutionary spirit, we might as well refer to them as the ancien regime) who’ll occupy the jobs that could help them eliminate their debt till they croak? The line between passionate protest and ineffectual mobbing seems rather muddled. There’s a term they use in the military for when you shoot without having a proper target: blind firing. It seems especially appropriate here.

  • Don’t agree.

    I don’t think the writer–however great her words are–should undermine the power of “10,000″ protestors in Toronto fighting injustice and police brutality. (After all, only “5,000″ people showed up to the protest this writer praised.) Also, Torontonians’ defense of libraries an social services this past year was astounding, and reinvigorated my love for a city that so foolishly elected a mayor completely opposite to the culture of Canada’s most progressive metrropolis. Dig the call to action, though.

  • Gordon

    Much of the damage inflicted on Toronto during the G20 by “mask-wearing” young people drove in from Montreal.  Frankly, I think Toronto is better off.

    • Anon.

      You’re certainly educated. 

  • AlaninMontreal

    Just a point here.   Sure — “only” 5,000 protesters showed up THAT day, but these protests go on with large numbers in Montreal several times a week. Big difference!

  • BK

    +1 to the above. The response of Torontonians to the proposed social service cuts recently was astounding–people showed up, one after another, for two all-night meetings, to have their say. There is a great deal of attention and writing dedicated to what’s going on in City Hall. We may not be marching (as much), but we are engaged.

  • Timothy King

    I’ve a complicated response to this.  As an immigrant whose parents didn’t do their homework and moved to Montreal from the UK in 1977, I’ve got not-so-happy memories of the Quebecois sense of self that seemed to involve beating an 8 year old repeatedly into submission because he had an accent.  That sense of community can be violently culturally exclusive; one of the reasons I suspect this is very much a Quebecois movement.

    Moving to the Toronto area meant community and acceptance for us, being allowed to learn in English, and less time in the hospital for me.  When I see their devout political action, I can’t help but wonder how exclusive it is.

    Having said all that, I’m now a Canadian citizen and teach in Ontario, and we’re facing what looks like imminent labour problems as our provincial government, who has no trouble creating a financial crisis bailing out incompetent banks and private businesses, seems determined to make those who have done their jobs well pay.  The apathy in my union is frustrating, as is the apathy I see in voting in municipal and federal elections.

    I’m not sure that I’d want the vibrancy and exclusivity of Quebecois political activism (nationalism), but I also know that Ontario apathy is a frustration.  Maybe that’s the price to pay when you’re one of the most multi-cultural places in the world.

    A good post, and a complicated look at a complicated situation.

    • eb

      You neglect the fact that comparing montreal 1977 to montreal today is completely absurd. Things have a tendency to change over 30+ years. 

  • atorontoguy

    I think that in the past, in the 60s and 70s, we had much more large protests in Toronto. I think a lot was brought to light through protests and parades. But I think that a lot of pent-up demands were satisfied. I can see that especially in light of the open-ness around the gay community nowadays. And a lot of environmental issues are entrenched in the system. So we need to keep some perspective on this. As another has said, Toronto has become very progressive, compared to my childhood in the 60s. Some things have not changed, such as the police. As reactionary as ever.

    Now all that said, I think over the past 20 years, the organized protests have been left to a much smaller group, such as the poverty activists. The mass populace has not been engaged enough to come out in person in protest. The large number of immigrants have not organized around in an activist way. They have been focussed on establishing themselves here in Canada. The establishment has entrenched and is very ready to dismiss any organized protest, as that of “special interest groups”. The private media has latched on to this. See talk radio. A bit of an opiate, but also a dis-information one. A lot of outrage gets expressed on those talk radio programs, but it is basically the same sort of right-wing claptrap repeated daily, only on a different item of news. Always over some sort of trivial point of government behaviour.

    I thought the G20 brought out a lot of people for peaceful protest. But we need to re-ignite the legitimacy of peaceful protest and not incur the wrath of police being used like goons. I, like many people, are there in spirit. Let’s make it more possible to be there in person.

  • Anon.

    No mention of what bullshit these Montreal protests are though…how school fees would only rise about 300 dollars and still be literally thousands lower than everywhere else. Whatever. Go read a  book.

    • Georges_Kanoute

      you probably shouldn’t be condescending and tell people to go read a book when your two lines of text were filled with blatant falsities :
      1) the rise is 1778$. the $325 figure you allude to was going to be the yearly *cumulative* rise over five years, for a total of $1625. The government has since upped the ante, saying it will raise tuition by 1778$ over seven years. 
      2) the rise would bring quebec tuition to about $5000, i.e. very close to the national average. not “thousands lower” than the rest of Canada, which is what i assume you meant by “everywhere else.”
      3) if, however, you meant everywhere else in the world, then you are doubly wrong because we are currently at the OECD average and with this rise will be thousands *above* it. there are also countless examples of fully funded post-secondary education in countries both rich (France, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, etc.) and poor (India, Mexico, etc.)
      So, um, maybe you should try to be better informed next time you choose to be condescending.

      • Michael

        omg    so, if I am still struggling to fininsh my BA in seven more years (2019), it will cost me $5000?   You mean, like, what Ontarians pay now in 2012?  omg, that is so unfair, you know?

        post-graduate education must be free!  Like it’s totally unfair to make us pay anything. 

  • drybrain

    It’s not about Torontonians being apathetic; it’s about Quebecers being who they are. It’s a province with a much more entrenched radical community, and a much longer history of activism and unrest.

    As some commenters here note, Toronto has an astonishing amount of civic activism. Witness the massive response to the proposed city service cuts, a public outcry that ended up reversing most of the. But we tend to work within the system, rather than try and foment revolution, banging pots and pans in the streets. Sometimes, of course, we’re TOO apathetic. You can really say that about most of Canada, in fact–except Quebec, who are sometimes TOO intense.

  • Womanimal

    ugh. what a waste of 2 minutes reading this article is. maybe the author might want to learn about the organising efforts of torontonians before dismissing them as a “particular crowd” who move from “cause to cause”. 

    perhaps because you do next to nothing you know next to nothing about the city’s political scene? have not bothered to get yourself to a manif casseroles in toronto that will enter its third week this wednesday? weren’t a part of the movement to upend an unhappy reality in the 1990s with the province-wide actions against the harris cuts?
    listen, defeatist author of this sad excuse for a commentary: don’t mourn, organise. and if you won’t do that, then just step aside while the rest of us try to change things.

  • Michael

    The casserole protest is slowly morphing back into the Occupy movement (protesting the exploitive nature of capitalism) which I support whole-heartedly.  Sadly, the student ”leaders” think it is support for their anti-tuition-hike protest. 
    Given that the average tuition for a year of undergrad study in Quebec is only $2600 (according to Canadian Press), I have NO sympathy for them there.  Maybe if they’d spend less money on pot and draught they could ”afford” to pay thier tuition.

    I had some sympathy for their original plight until protesters started ”patrolling” the hallways of Comcordia and UdeM and UQAM, looking for students who had dared to return to class and get an education, and disrupting those classes, ensuring that those students who did not support the ”strike” were harassed and punished and denied their education.  Just like the mobs of cityoens patrolling the streets of Paris après la chute de la Bastille.

  • David Newland

    Demonstration is impressive, but less dramatic civic engagement may be no less effective. We may admire the students’ verve, but if their methods fail to carry their cause, it’s moot.

  • Derp

    I love the “b-b-but tuition is high everywhere else!” argument. No, these people aren’t wrong to protest, the rest of us are foolish cowards for not joining in.

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