Québec City: 20 Years Since The Storming of the Wall

Monday, April 16 was the day it began for me. The last time I used that opening sentence was 20 years ago, minus about two weeks. On April 16, 2001, I had finished hitchhiking to Calgary and was about to leave the Greyhound station from there to get a 3-day ride to Montréal. Once in Montréal, it was a matter of finding the buses that had been arranged by a lot of people I didn’t know at Concordia University– and I’ve known many of them deep in my heart since not very long after. And that’s the kind of theme I’ll return to here as I tell my story if you’ll indulge me. Those future friends had booked many, many buses to Québec City to transport those of us who were converging upon all the non-Cuban governments in the Western Hemisphere, as they tried to carve up the entire Americas to corporate profit and environmental devastation.

A phrase I would learn, or perhaps steal, from an internet-based friend (in meta irony) shortly after I returned to BC summed up the totality of my lessons from Québec City:

“The revolution lives and breathes, it does not come out of books.”
Heading into the convergence, I had read and devoured every book I could on the subjects of the day, mainly corporate globalization and debates around pacifism vs militant tactics. When I gathered myself up and got on the bus in Calgary, my youthful confidence in our historic mission had me announce myself to the entire bus, along with where I was heading, expecting to find other travelers to talk, chat, perhaps gossip but definitely debate strategy with for the next 2 + days.

Those debates proved utterly pointless. Once I arrived in Québec and ended up at Laval University, I headed out to the events the next day. I got up very early– something that happened to me by accident in Seattle a year and a half prior, waking up in a church and getting thrown out at 7 am, and it gave me so much insight to be out ahead of everyone that I tried to do it again here. I wasn’t as early as I thought, and the bad instant coffee I had thickened heavily with Coffeemate is almost as burned into my brain as the other toxic substances I’d be greeted with later that day.

What was happening felt new and exciting, but what was really new were the lessons and the bluntness with which reality taught them. The entire city was like a living university, where the words of our leaders stood side by side with the actual implementation of their policies. The teach-ins, break out sessions, places where issues were fleshed out and people educated themselves and one another were everywhere:

The Cold War is over, but the military budget keeps growing. We know about the irreversible long-term damage of environmental devastation, but the discussions are about taking environmental control out of the hands of states themselves. The leaders of the planet talk about “globalizing,” yet we are seeing a deepening of poverty, removal of democratic controls and the elimination of popular sovereignty instead of the discussed removal of national borders. While the leaders spoke about expanding internationally, the first discussions about trying to privatize our water supply the planet over were starting to take place.

In short, we had been told that the world was expanding its freedom, yet these anti-democratic discussions were taking place to deprive us of control, rights and a future. We wanted an international movement of justice, because most of us were internationalists– but not an international struggle to race to the bottom.

The stakes were clear then. But still, ‘book learning’, right? Well, when the very, very long march– I had it explained to me there were three marches– red, green, yellow– and that each one had a danger level represented by their colour– had been moving for hours, I started to gain some level of insights from mere observation. I saw black-clad anarchists in masks carrying mattresses to use as a battering ram when dealing with police lines waving billy clubs, and I saw red-masked people– I believe they were Quebecois Maoists– who moved almost like a military formation towards a police line. When the police line was busy dealing with the surge of coordinated mobilizations coming straight at them, black-bloc types immediately went about doing their damages unmolested and protected by the accidentally on-purpose diversion that was being created. Having been more than willing to engage in a loud polemic with other leftists me, I was quite struck that two types of a militant revolution seeking movements– neither anywhere near an actual dismantling of power structures– being so completely complimentary, yet simultaneously knowing that these same people could not celebrate over a pint with one another at the end of the convergence? This spoke major volumes.

Once I was at the “front” as it were, where the fence was being protected by Darth Vader looking cops, quickly I couldn’t see political affiliation when the tear gas drifted away enough that I could see at all. What I saw were people, how they comported themselves, who was doing what, and who I felt I could trust. I didn’t have an affinity group, but I found myself simply trying to tell people where attacks were coming, help people struggling for breath to a safe spot where volunteer medics could help out, and more. I probably accomplished very little, but that ended up being my day one.

When I got back, it was all just discussions of who got attacked, who was arrested, who had their gads mask stolen, and so on. I simply do not recall a single person talking about giving up or not doing any of this again. It was all “Now what? They can’t get away with this…”

I am writing this after a year of lockdown for Covid19, and after 6 further years for myself of constant partial isolation from caregiving. So the impact that was made in Québec City by the citizens of the town who did not want the Canadian, American and other governments turning their city into a war zone to host a series of war criminals. Seeing how often people would get cornered in some alleyway, or get tear-gassed into some side street, and the locals would sometimes open their doors, provide water to tear gas victims, and so on, made the “silent majority” in Quebec clear and changed the entire feeling of the whole event. The state may have dressed cops up like Stormtroopers to wander around with lethal weapons to protect an unconstitutional wall, but we felt much more freedom to be in QC than they could possibly have felt.

The population themselves were under siege, and as such in our opposition we were united with the non-participating civilians of Old Québec. A movement must get its strength from people who are not in the streets, for only those people can help keep the streets themselves as safe as possible.

On the 3rd day, I woke up and tried to tell myself that I was too tired, beat up and unsteady to go anywhere near riotous violence that morning. So I went into town and started to head towards a pavilion I believe was being hosted by the Council of Canadians. I never made it, I was walking along and I looked down an alleyway and saw lots of comrades running tear gas wafting, and cops taking a block. I had no choice. I was back involved within 5 seconds, doubling back to where I could join the crowd without going through those same cops.

I watched as the cops tried to teach lessons to the people through violent punishment. A young woman had a copy of the Canadian Charter of rights and freedoms, went into an open intersection (the entire area of town was closed to traffic, “open” here means neither people or cops) and began to read the section about the right to protest aloud with her bullhorn. I watched as a cop lowered a gas launcher and pointed it at her and fired. Point made. The cat and mouse of it all was intense. This kind of dynamic: Cops gas an intersection, people fall back, cops clear it and move back, people move in again. The cops would not stop this torture of the people game, much like I watched my cat play with a large spider last night. The difference is that the spider was trying to get away– every time the SQ fired rubber bullets and more tear gas at us? We said “no.” We are not giving up these rights and these streets.

Well, two things of a personal note from that day. Earlier in the day, I saw a man in a leather jacket get tear-gassed, and start to convulse. He literally just fell to a seated position, started to seize, shaking and quivering while making a gurgling sound. I grabbed a bottle of water out of someone’s hand and pushed the guy’s head back and flushed his eyes out. I wasn’t a medic; I knew what to do (at least that much) because it had been done for me at least a half dozen times already. But some Globa and Mail reporter saw this and snapped a pic of me helping some random guy get his eyes clean. It ended up on their front page and I’m still aggravated that I never grabbed a copy for good. But I digress a little: Later that afternoon, watching the cops play cat and mouse, I was feeling indignant and walked into such a recently gassed-out square and held up my raised fist and a red bandana that I found on the ground. I still have it, in fact.I also still have a rubber bullet, about the size of my fist.
Just as with the woman trying to read the charter, a cop looked at me, loaded the tear gas canister and fired right at me. I turned the other way and it hit me square in the back, millimeters off of my spine. I was picked up by street medics (one of whom I briefly dated a few months later, and we would have had the greatest “how we met” story ever) and taken to a safe clinic. The guy who worked it had been a Black Panther medic and I was amazed, even stunned at how well this place operated. Given that we were all hearing about cops raiding hospitals and taking away our friends, having this medical support was not a small thing.

“Revolution lives and breathes, it does not come out of books.

Revolution lives and breathes, it does not come out of books.

Revolution lives and breathes, it does not come out of books.”

What is there to say about this, 20 years on? None of the problems we were addressing have been solved, right? Well, the FTAA is DEAD. Yes, there are other attempts to do much the same thing, of course. We have not defeated late capitalism, imperialism and the power structures of obscene wealth yet. But that moment in time was where a generation stood up and spoke its message: We are everywhere. “La Terre es a Nous.” But the parallels between the world we were promised prior to Québec City, Seattle, Vancouver’s APEC struggles began? We should flesh them out more.

The end of the Cold War did not see a major reduction in arms spending. It did the opposite in terms of democratic openings. There was an acceleration in the destruction of the climate and the water systems we all rely upon. The corporate global vision turned everything there is into a commodity. Your data– barely much more than what a cop could look up in their records at the time of Québec’s FTAA protests– is now one of the most important industries alive.

The beginning of the Covid pandemic, oddly, came with promises as well. As a caregiver to an elder for over 6 years, despite the terror of the virus itself, the beginning month or two of the pandemic showed a human side to the world. These sweeping actions that many governments made that appeared to reflect a belief that “We are all in this together” made things far easier to accept. For years, helping an elder had rendered us invisible, and unvalued in our home. Suddenly, the talk was about protecting the vulnerable, talking about how others needs were the top priority, and how this was an international phenomenon. That last part was what truly gave my heart a tiny, pessimistic but real flutter.

Trump’s government wasn’t the only one to prove the evil of imperialism is stronger than humanity itself in peril. Canada, now in April 2021 locked (west of the Maritimes) in a vicious, killing third wave, bailed on any internationalism very quickly– Banning doctors from Cuba that had been arranged and negotiated by First Nations in Manitoba as an exercise of their sovereignty– an act so vile it manages to deny health care to the indigenous by denying their sovereignty and refusing to provide the same measures that the Cuban doctors had already agreed to provide.

These same Canadian governments have made certain– even when EVERYTHING else was shut down– that construction of natural gas pipelines that are already illegal in Canada, that are already a violation of international law, that are already dooming emissions reductions– they had to continue. Why? In large part because of FTAA-like investment agreements made with companies in other countries that own parts of the planned infrastructure. China (or any other owners) can literally expect full payment for losses incurred if Canada stops a pipeline, even when it’s done for clear human rights and international law reasons, or during a pandemic.

This is EXACTLY why we fought in Québec City.

Canada then backed the US as it tried to use the pandemic to starve the entire countries of Iran (in the midst of the pandemic) and Venezuela (by laughably claiming an interest in drug traffic and setting up a naval blockade of the sovereign country). Canada continues to back illegal coups to overthrow a government in Caracas that first pissed off Ottawa at those very same FTAA talks, when new President Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias refused to sign a democratic charter until the wording was changed from “representative” to “participatory,” making popular sovereignty as important as the shredding of national, at least in words.

Today, just as 20 years ago, those who use tear gas, illicit deals, create corporate laws that make democracy unachievable and who wish to continue to privatize the human genome itself have made it very clear that they are absent from any discussion of who speaks for democracy. Their right to do so has never been vapider, more utterly without shame. We are democracy when we speak together. And today, what do we have?

Let’s just recap this “new” situation that Covid brings to us. The 3rd Wave, currently killing elderly and now not-so-elderly alike across Canada, has come to be not because of incompetence alone. But because of the evil we are not supposed to speak of: Capitalism makes *us* the commodity. Capitalism is it’s own logic, and the virus is one separate from that. When Covid appeared, everyone was shocked. And in that shock, the ability to think outside the box became instantaneous for many. But a year on? All of those new ideas have disappeared. We now have a corporate dictatorship in extremis.

By refusing to accept the science on how to prevent spread as much as possible, governments have taken to trying to force entire populations to become idle in place. You must stay at home, indoors, regardless of the safety of being outside with your own (bubble) family, so that the numbers of new infections brought about by Amazon workers, hockey players, meat packers and oil construction workers can be limited. There is to be no further remedy of the virus itself, unless it can be done on the level of attacking the individual who walks their dog for too long.

I’ll finish with this: I’ve been caregiving for almost 7 years now. The pandemic made me “stick it out” to protect my beloved COPD-laden mother for another year, when I should have stopped already. Isolation does strange, very unhealthy things to your mind over time. But the last year has been the best and the worst of it, thanks to this pandemic. Even when support systems collapsed at the outset of this pandemic, the feeling of being “all in this together” was like a beacon of light, and a shot of adrenaline that lasted a couple of months– until the bitter reality set in. And what I see in general but in particular in Ontario right now? The doubling down of the state to repress you in your home is an attempt to break you, even if they are not consciously doing so but are bumbling in incompetence.

Letting them isolate us while they dismantle our society is insanity. There is nothing that I personally can do until I can get a very late vaccine– I am the home caregiver, if I get sick, not only do I watch everything around the home grind to a halt, but I likely kill my mother in such close quarters. But let’s be clear: BLM proved there are times when resistance is still a better option than acquiescence even in a pandemic.

Retelling these stories made a million things clear: The number one of these is that we need each other. There is no such thing as a gathering of thousands that has no positive outcome. You who are reading this may very well know me because of those amazing days. I have stood and paced writing this, to stop and close my eyes and smell the streets of Quebec. To hear the explosions and feel them in my soul like fireworks at midnight on New Years are to so many others. To remember being on the ground and the eyes I met of strangers I instantly trusted. To never again categorize people I know as “communists” and “anarchists” and “hippies” and … but instead revolutionaries, and who I could trust and would tell others to trust has since forever been based on how they react.

To have tears streak down my face as I remember the day when my own soul claimed its right in this world and never let go. We must NEVER let that go. It’s a fate far worse than death.
Lessons about the unity of all peoples, globally and not ideologically, have fed my soul ever since. People I have not seen in years but who were eating the same tear gas those days? They are distant relatives no less than my cousins in Wales.

Now is the time, not later, to fight back and toss the provincial governments who are condemning us to mass deaths for their corporate friends’ profits. BC Premier John Horgan, when he isn’t yelling at youth for problems caused by his reopening fantasies, is telling people they need to “make it that last mile” in this marathon. Hence their abdication of being serious about saving human life. This is not the “final mile”– this is another entire, new, third wave of a pandemic with far worse variants than prior. The conspiracy theories around Covid are disgusting, anti-social, anti-intellectual and cover for the incompetence of our capitalist overlords. You don’t need to take complete leave of your senses, start spewing anti-vaxxer nonsense, or call anything a “plandemic.”

Do not cede resistance to these insane lizard-chasers.

Resistance from those who take the pandemic as seriously as we took the FTAA, is what the 20 year anniversary must become. They have had 20 years to sort it out, and now they want you to die at home, psychologically breaking down into a deep depression from isolation rather than even go camping, so they can use that as an excuse for why giant gyms, Amazon and unnecessary businesses are open, and workers cannot get paid sick days off.

This is truly brilliant. If we fight back, we are not taking the pandemic seriously. If we don’t, we will have permanent damage to huge sections of the population and it will achieve nothing as everything keeps playing out. In these circumstances, resist or die.

They have revoked their own mandate. The lockdowns of the economy must begin, and the lockdowns of the people must end. It is time to lock up the governments who sacrifice us at their altar, and during our soon to be paid sick days, we can plan once again– because ANOTHER WORLD IS STILL POSSIBLE.

When the cops gassed us out of an intersection in Québec, we knew they were trying to force compliance. That’s why we kept wandering back into the same intersection.

Remember the best moment on those streets? When we tore down that blasted wall. The symbolism was huge. Today, the Wall is being built upon our minds. Tear it down. Take the streets.
Honor our history, fight back.

Macdonald Stainsby is an anti-tar sands and social justice activist, freelance writer and professional hitchhiker looking for a ride to the better world, currently based in Vancouver, Canada. He can be reached at mstainsby@resist.ca