On Tuesday evening, just before midnight, I was assaulted by a police officer. No warning, no explanation, just a swift swing of a nightstick to the back of my leg.
It was on Rene Levesque Boulevard. I was walking west, away from the protest area, near the corner of Sanguinet. I was with one other person. Both of us are freelance journalists, and had been observing the protests from Ste. Catherine Street for about 90 minutes.
About a quarter of the way up the block two younger looking kids ran past us. Ten seconds later, we heard a police car pull up behind us. It stopped and two officers got out, wielding batons. Right away we moved to the edge of the sidewalk, assuming that the officers were about to give chase to the two that had just ran past us. We were mistaken. For reasons I still cannot understand, they charged at us.
"Bouge! Bouge! Bouge!"
Two police officers, both swinging their batons, were charging at us, telling us to run in the same direction we had been walking in. My colleague ran until the end of the block. Once he crossed the street, the officer stopped giving chase. The officer chasing after me threw me into a parked van. I bounced off it and started to run up the block, towards the officer, who had chased my colleague and was holding his ground on the corner.
I knew that as I ran by he was going to hit me with his nightstick. I felt like I was about to run a gauntlet.
As soon as I was parallel to him, he hit me in the back of my calf. I yelped, kept running, and crossed the street to relative safety. Just like that, they were gone. I didn't get a badge, a name, and their faces were a complete blur to me. It happened extremely fast.
There were other points in the evening where we were observing the protests and felt much more susceptible to danger than we had at that moment. It was an unprovoked attack on two innocent people walking on a (at that time of night) completely empty street.
This is Montreal under Bill 78.
I am not a student, I don't wear a red square, and I am not on strike. After four rogue protesters left smoke bombs in the metro, any public support of the "Maple Spring" was as good as dead. Public opinion was at a low, and it looked as if the movement would fizzle out. Then, the provincial government ratified a bill that is likely in violation of rights guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, like freedom of speech and freedom of association.
There was a peaceful rally on Tuesday afternoon through the streets of Montreal. Over 100,000 people marched, possibly more. There were professionals, retirees, moms and dads, immigrants and "pure laine," and Anglos and Francos. It was one of the single largest acts of civil disobedience in the history of our country.
It's a shame that so much of the rest of Canada doesn't understand that this is now an issue about basic rights in a democracy. There are several factors for this, namely that the people who make the most noise are usually the ones who get heard.
While a broken bank window makes for a great visual for television, it does not tell the
story. Watching some news channels one would get the impression that there are wild packs of roving students causing havoc all over the city. While I'm not everywhere, what I have seen seems more like a disproportionate response by the government to a public exercise in civil disobedience.
The police are not in a favourable position here either. They are overworked, underpaid, and are being asked to enforce a law that has done nothing but make their jobs harder and lives more difficult. That being said, both sides need to be held accountable for their actions. To paraphrase Rodney King, both sides need to find a way to "just get along."
And this is the biggest problem. The movement has degenerated into an "us vs. them"
mentality on both sides, and this leaves a potential for the strife to continue well after the dust from this conflict has settled. Our country has always been renowned for its tolerance and acceptance of differences, be them cultural, religious, or many things in between.
Both Quebec and Canada need to look to the bigger picture. This is not about the
$325 a year raise in tuition anymore. This is about the fundamental rights and freedoms that define Canada. The public response to Bill 78 is democracy in action.
For that Canadians should be embracing Quebec, not shunning it.