Cover Story

What Really Happened At The Quebec Summit?  by Heather Menzies
What Really Happened At The Quebec Summit?

The media stake out their positions on Boulevard Rene Levesque, telephoto cameras slung low on their hips. They are waiting for High Noon, the moment when the Black Block will arrive for their scheduled confrontation with the chain-link fence that is erected to keep anti-globalization protestors far removed from the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) summit site.

So focussed arre the media on this one expected-to-be-violent moment that they miss us women completely. Not that we cared if the media ignored us. We aee there for ourselves and our own agenda. We are a loose collection of groups ranging from the young women of Eden in Montreal to the older Shape Shifters of Toronto, plus members of the Voice of Women and other women's groups.

We came to speak for the world's water. Our icons are boxes of water bottles, passed from hand to hand around our circle, then out through the crowd with the invocation, "May you never thirst." Our mascot is a papier-mâché mask of the River Goddess, named after the spirit of the St. Lawrence River, Magda Goek.

Then, with writer, witch and Seattle-veteran activist Starhawk beating her drum and leading us in singing "La rivière roule, roule et coule," we unfurl banners of silk, taffeta and broadcloth, in multiple shades of blue. We become a "living river," flowing with purpose and power, drawing in bystanders as they learn the song and its hip-swaying beat.

We make our way towards the chain-link fence and the gathering phalanx of police. And there, with powder-blue chiffon ballooning in the breeze, we make a symbolic presentation of The Cochabamba Declaration to the summit. The people of Cochabamba, Bolivia, whose city water had been privatized and turned over to the U.S. multi-national company, Bechtel, wrote the declaration. Through direct action and civil disobedience, the people of Cochabamba took back local, public control of their drinking water and sealed their action with the declaration that water rights are human and natural rights; it neatly frames our vision of the world. Within minutes, the square fills up with the anti-capitalist coalition march.

The Black Block is with them, in tear gas proof clothes and gas masks. Minutes later, a couple of them scale the wall and with just a bit of rocking, brings it down. Then the tear gas starts-the first of what totalled an astounding 4,700 canisters of gas warfare will be hurled by the police over the next 48 hours. The cameras click into action, and finally we too are part of the news; though by then who we are and what we have to say don't matter.

By then we are all targets and victims: all indiscriminate fodder for the cameras, the water cannons and the tear gas guns. Moving in shoulder to shoulder formation, one row from the East, another from the South, they advance upon the thousand or more of us just standing around in the square.

In what appears to be a well-planned attack, they drive us out of Rene Levesque, hurling tear gas. Suddenly my mouth, my tongue, my throat are on fire. And my eyes. It hurts too much to open them. I stumble, my eyes streaming with tears. We take refuge in a little park several blocks away and form a grounding circle. But even there we aren't safe; a resident comes rushing over, out of breath, to tell us she'd just heard on the radio that the police are clearing the entire district. We pick up our banners and wearily trudge on, down the escarpment stairs into the quiet of Lower Town.

There, with face paint smeared, costumes askew and faces pale, we link hands in the middle of a street and try to recentre ourselves in our vision of the world. The next day at the People's Summit, staged in a huge, white tent and addressed by a cast of national and international anti-globalization activists, Council of Canadians' Chairperson Maude Barlow defends the anger of young people.

"These are people who grew up in a toxic economy," she tells the crowd, "One pre-occupied with sorting winners from losers.

"The real violence," she continues, "lies behind that goddamn hideous wall, with those leaders and their spin doctors staying in five-star hotels, eating in five-star restaurants and thinking they can run the world by themselves. Well I've got news for them," she declares. "There are more of us than there are of them!"

The tent erupts in a standing ovation, and soon we are off. A staggering number of people-upward of 65,000, carrying signs full of wit and political insight. The radical cheerleaders lead the crowd: "FTAA, what do you say? They capitalize, we democratize. They privatize, we radicalize...."

At the corner of Charest and St. Valee, the main march turned right, and those of us who chose to go back to the wall turn left. We are going in a gesture of solidarity with Jaggi Singh and the other demonstrators arrested, to express solidarity between the people stressing what we are against and those stressing what we are for; the importance of keeping the two parts together. Naomi Klein is right about the bonding qualities of tear gas. The most precious bonds for me are forged during the time spent with women I march with, sing with, form 'peeing circles*' with and, back at the women's space--a gym in the Lower Town generously made available by the federation des femmes du Quebe,--share tea and hummus, bathroom chat and floor space.

Singing "We are the turning of the tide," we march up the escarpment stairs, past young men and women running away with streaming eyes. Our scout returns to inform us that there is a lull in the action on Blvd. St. Jean. Those of us willing to risk arrest pull ski masks and bandannas back on.

Still holding our 'living river' blue banners, we march toward the wall. Then we turn up a narrow side street to a spot where the riot police stand two deep and in full armour across a gaping hole in the fence. Singing "Gardez la Vision pour la Naissance," stretching our fingers in the air in the peace sign, we approached the police. One of them calls out to us to leave. Starhawk calls back, saying 'This is a peaceful protest.'

Then Robin, one of the Toronto Shape Shifters calls for everyone to sit down. We do, hands waving back and forth in peace signs, voices chanting on and on, settling on a tonal fugue of "Aohhh."(part yoga chant, part invocation and prayer) I marvel at its calming effect. Soprano, alto, tenor and bass, the voices weave through the gas-stricken air.

Suddenly, I know what to do with the daisies I bought that morning from a florist, who, as it turned out, is a pacifist. He topped up my bouquet with half a dozen gorgeous big roses, and said "En solidarite!" as he handed them to me.

Sitting on the edge of the sidewalk, I pass the roses forward and watch as they are passed to the front. Then, one at a time, I hand the daisies forward, too. The Cochabomba Declaration is read.

There is applause from the crowd watching us from the boulevard at the bottom of the incline. Silence. Calm, beautiful silence. In the midst of this terrible afternoon, with tear gas and water cannons, rubber bullets and random savage arrests, these women and a few dozen men seize a bit of time and space, and convert it into peace and calm. A young man at the front stands up, holding one of the beautiful roses from the florist. Pulling the protective bandanna away from his nose and mouth, he approaches the riot police, offering his rose.

"We can't take it," the cop mutters fiercely from behind his gas mask and Plexiglass face shield. Gracefully and quietly, the young man bends down and places the rose at the toe of his boot, then retraces his steps. Then, one by one, the river women at the front carry forward more flowers and add them to the pile in front of the boot.

A conversion has taken place.