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.