Near a thousand protesters rallied in Montreal’s Victoria Square, site of the Occupy Montreal movement, before marching through the downtown core to Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s office on Saturday.
Dubbed the People’s Plaza by Occupy Montreal organizers, Victoria Square and the surrounding area is now home to over fifty tents on three adjacent lots in Montreal’s financial district.
The Montreal movement, part of the larger Occupy Wall Street protests against economic inequality and excessive corporate influence in politics, organized the march in solidarity with international Occupy protests. Marchers wound their way through the streets up to Premier Jean Charest’s Montreal office chanting, “Whose Montreal? Our Montreal!”
Retired Canadian air force pilot Joe O’Connell watched as the march passed his hotel. “I wasn’t expecting it,” he said. “We just got back from a tour in old Montreal and we had to get out of our taxi a block sooner because we couldn’t get to the hotel.”
O’Connell, visiting from Ottawa, hadn’t yet seen what he called the tent city in the capital, but sympathized with the middle- and lower-class or what has come to be known as the 99 percent.
“I think the fact that the big industrialists and millionaires get away with the taxes, that’s the hard part of it,” said O’Connell. “They have all this money and they have the wealthy lawyers to do everything they can to reduce their taxes whereas us middle class guys are taxed 45 or 50 percent– you’re struggling all the time.”
Across Canada, cities are publicly considering what to do about local Occupy protests. Calgary has decided against forcibly removing Occupy protesters from the city’s Olympic Plaza, while in Vancouver, mayor Gregor Robertson has acknowledged that the city must take protester plans seriously, but has raised concerns about the mounting cost of police monitoring and security.
Protesters and police have maintained peaceful relations in Canadian cities, in stark contrast with confrontations that have exploded in the U.S. over the last week.
In California, the Occupy Oakland protest took a violent turn on Tuesday night when U.S. Marine Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran, was struck in the head by police with a projectile that left him bleeding and incapacitated. Video from the protest shows police launched a flash bang grenade at people attempting to carry Olsen away for medical attention.
The incident lit a fire under Occupy movements across the U.S. with thousands marching in solidarity with Oakland in New York City and elsewhere. The image and story of the injured veteran have circulated rapidly over the Internet.
A laminated photo of Olsen was on display at the Occupy Montreal camp, an image which seems to have become a rallying point for protesters in the movement.
“The fact that he was a veteran, for the movement and for the general population’s understanding of what’s going on, could not have been better,” said Laurence Earner, a businessman in machinery sales visiting Montreal from New York City.
“It demonstrates to everybody who is seeing it that the people who are protesting are not a bunch of stupid, down and out, nut job kids,” said Earner. “They’re stand-up, employed or currently unemployed people who are saying to society at large that the balance isn’t quite right and we have to address it.”
Earner and his wife Ilze, a professor at Hunter College in Manhattan, crossed paths with the Montreal march as it arrived on McGill College Street outside Premier Jean Charest’s office. The couple had participated in demonstrations in New York City where they witnessed peaceful protesters beaten by police.
“Veterans know what violence is about. And anyone who knows what violence is about knows they don’t want to see any more of it. That’s understandable,” said Earner.
Canadian army veteran William Ray marched with the protesters on Saturday and said he helped set up the Occupy Montreal kitchen with members of the anti-militarism activist group Food Not Bombs.
Ray lamented the injury to Scott Olsen while pointing out the need for veterans to get involved. “We have a lot of the organizational skills for day-to-day living that are vital,” said Ray.
“There was a fellow named Felix from the Royal 22nd Regiment who dropped by [Occupy Montreal] and had just come back from his sixth tour in Afghanistan and he’d been on the ground [in Canada] for five days.”
“We need that set of experience because nobody who hasn’t had their face shoved right in real warfare can really convey the horror of it,” said Ray. “Most people have a very Hollywood entertainment industry idea of what war is and the reality of it is so much worse and certainly an excellent reason to change the system, a system that seems to perpetuate endless war.”
For Ray, the movement’s biggest challenges lie in integrating with other protests around the world and in communicating with the public. “These are complex issues and you’re not going to explain this to somebody in five minutes handing out a pamphlet on a street corner,” he said.
Photos by Tomas Urbina