I was responsible for one of the buses leaving from Montreal. With me were 35 students. My role was to ensure that all the students returned to Montreal safe and sound. I talked to them all about their rights with regards to the police, how to react in the event of an arrest, what questions they are obligated to answer as well as lawyers who they could contact. I warned them all that the SQ has different tactics than the Montreal Police (SPVM). That there would be a risk of tear gas used in Victoriaville, contrary to Montreal where use of the gas is prohibited. I explained first aid at protests, from Maalox to lemon juice, the best ways to react in the face of tear gas, pepper spray, chemical irritants. To be sure to change their clothes when leaving the demonstration, to remove all traces of chemical products, or even paint markings from police, sometimes invisible to the naked eye. It's the typical demonstrator's routine. We were all stressed knowing that at any moment, the bus could be intercepted by police, or even fully searched. We never feel safe from the police, even though we're only trying to defend our rights. Well, anyway, once in Victoriaville, the city was dead. Under siege. The streets were blocked, the business closed, windows fortified, the trash bins, public ashtrays and flower pots hidden far from anyone. We, unions, student associations and citizens finally head toward Hotel Victorin.
In front of the hotel, it seemed as though everything was set up by the SQ to explode. Feeble fences that were easy to dismantle, pallets of bricks for some renovation, and knowing that the parking lot next to the hotel was still under construction, so had an incredible amount of rocks and broken pavement. Why did the police recommend all the flower pots be removed while in direct proximity to the hotel, tons of bricks were visible? Once in front of the PLQ meeting place, the demonstrators calmly surround the fence. Quickly, the barricade falls; it was not by staying quiet and obeying that we would disrupt the congress. Citizens, elderly and students on the same side, the other side of the "security perimeter." Shockingly the police didn't immediately intervene, leaving us wondering about the legality of our actions. Then, the police disappeared to make space for the riot squad. By the dozen, marching in step. Each equipped with a much longer and more imposing baton than the SPVM and already equipped with gas masks. Apart from the dismantled fence, a totally passive and symbolic gesture, in my opinion, no sign of violence on behalf of the protestors. All of a sudden smoke starts coming from everywhere. The SQ launches phenomenal amounts of tear gas into the crowd. Demonstrators start throwing projectiles in response to this unrestrained attack. Eyes irritated, breathless, some of my comrades vomit from excessive coughing. This is the kind of moment in which one recognizes the solidarity of a people. Demonstrators aiding one another. The youth helping the elderly get away from the gas, explaining how to manage the situation. Students giving relief for victims' eyes on one side, a group transporting a gravely incapacitated comrade on another. We rinse our mouths to avoid swallowing more of this disgusting product; we look for our close friends to ensure their safety. At this point, the majority of people are behind a nearby residence. Slogans are barely heard, but mostly people are very confused. They don't know where to head across the battlefield. I look up, a helicopter is less than 30 metres above. An incredible roar extinguishes the sounds of the tear gas cans exploding nearby. To my left, clashes between police and demonstrators. In front of me, a heart attack, they're trying to resuscitate him. To my right, a student falls, his face covered in blood. His eardrum has burst. While a team of nursing students comes running, I do my best to keep onlookers from the scene, to make space for the ambulance team. The ambulance is late; the riot squad is blocking its arrival. There's panic, no one knows the comrade's state, but one thing is sure, we have to act fast. A police car approaches to bring help; people move to clear the path. The police chat with demonstrators who are screaming at them to hurry up and save this student. The only response is that the police car leaves while the man is still unconscious, on the ground. I approach the first aid scene, continuing to keep onlookers back. Then, as if by surprise, the riot squad pushes the demonstrators to within two metres of the injured youth. We all rush to make a human chain between the tear gas, pepper spray and the medical team who is trying to move the victim as quickly as possible. It was useless to shout "THERE IS AN INJURED PERSON HERE!" We were met with the usual insensitivity.
Tears come to my eyes. For once it's not from the tear gas. It's from seeing all this repression we are suffering, from seeing this regime of fear and the police state in which we are living. It's the realization of, once again, the injustice, the government's desire to see us silenced. A cry. A liberating cry. A cry signifying all my distress escaping from inside me. I can't continue. We retreat from the police force. A police officer tries to randomly arrest a young man, a dozen demonstrators run to his aid to free him. To my right I see the one with the injured ear in the ambulance. I turn myself, full-heartedly, toward the assembly of people.
Slowly, the demonstrators succeed in advancing toward the hotel. They see the door is blocked; they quickly change their course under threat of the batons. The battlefield has moved toward the parking lot with earth and pavement. In the demonstrators' anger, rocks are thrown at the police. A desperate expression of the rage of some.
After ten minutes, the SQ pulls out their pressure guns used to shoot rubber bullets. I carry a student to a portion of grass a bit behind to attend to her ankle. A student medic arrives right away to inspect the bleeding wound, "You'll need stiches my love. You have six hours to get to a clinic before the bandage loses effect." The riot squad succeeds in advancing a bit. Chaos then descends; everything is blurry in my head. All I can see is a silhouette falling. I turn. I recognize it. On the ground, my friend, covered in blood, his eyes bulging. Shouts from my friends, tears on my face. I shout to people to back up, to give him air. I turn toward the riot squad, to try in vain to protect him from further violence from these "agents of peace." I scream my rage at the riot squad. At that moment, they're less than nothing, pawns of the state. I feel powerless. Everything happens so fast. A friend takes me by the arm to pull me away. I walk, in the rain, toward the starting point. I cry, I can't go 20 metres without crumpling into a heap in the middle of the road. My body no longer follows my thoughts. We're not in a movie, we're not in the Arab world. We're in ******* Quebec?? I meet a teacher who tells me about the shattered teeth of a young girl she had helped, having caught a rubber bullet. Farther on, a friend from nursing tells me about the shattered knee cap of another boy. Finally I arrive at the bus. We are all on the ground.
On the bus, our clothes continue to give off gas. Everyone is coughing, everyone is blowing their noses. The atmosphere is heavy. Being in charge of the bus, I was quickly warned about the police blockades on the highways. Buses from McGill, Concordia and Montmorency were arbitrarily stopped on the highway headed toward Montreal. We are all on alert with all the police lights lighting the highway 20. A roadblock filled with about 30 patrol cars chills my blood. The bus is filled with students who have already been caught by police, who would love to arrest them without cause. Many of us don't have the choice to wear a mask at demonstrations, because of the police photos taken. Some of us are under telephone surveillance and are followed home. Since the start of the student strike, more than 1100 arrests have been made. The majority are arbitrary, for blocking traffic or illegal assembly. A large part of the students on the bus risk a recurring arrest if their bus is stopped by the highway patrol.
Luckily we arrived safely. After an incredibly emotional week, a particularly difficult day, it is inconceivable to contain our hatred of the current system. We go to sleep at night even more convinced that the government's attempt to divide us will only further unite us.