THE DAY I WAS TEAR GASSED
Canadians are nice. We seem to revel in our international reputation as being so nice that when bumped we say sorry or when queue-jumped we say nothing. A problem, of course, is that a slight scratch beneath of the surface of ourselves and our history reveals that we are really not that nice at all.
I glimpsed beneath those surfaces in April, 2001. After reading about the 1999 troubles in Seattle and with Horton Hears a Who in our minds – I swear – my dear wife and I left our little Ontario village and headed to Quebec City. We were ready to add our little yop to voices being raised in concern over cascading corporate power on display at the third Summit of the Americas conference. As I am a historian and my wife’s degree is in political science, we were curious about being witness to the making of history and a political point.
We arrived in time to join a wondrously joyful parade. Colourful banners and flags were hoisted above thousands of people singing, strumming guitars and some even dancing on stilts. There were old people and children. There were families and groups who had obviously journeyed here together and other that had spontaneously come together. Most of the signs were serious and many were good natured. Many expressed self-interest and reminded me a little of the old Buffalo Springfield song as they seemed to shout “Hooray for Our Side”. We walked slowly beneath a wonderfully cloudless blue sky enjoying the positive, party atmosphere and folks who were taking their messages but not themselves too very seriously.
The world leaders discussing the possibility of creating a Free Trade Area of the Americas, of course, didn’t see the parade. They were ensconced far away and up the hill in the National Assembly building behind 4 km of fence and cordons of police. At the parade’s end most people milled about and there were hugs and goodbyes. But I couldn’t leave. I could not go home without venturing up to see the so-called red zone, the area closest to the fence, where the streets were blocked and businesses shuttered.
As I walked up the hill it was if I could hear the theme to some Clint Eastwood spaghetti western in my head. I walked slowly and then slower still. As I reached the outer limits of the red zone I was stunned. It was like an eclipse had suddenly blotted the sun and the world had morphed into black and white. It was eerily quiet. The parade had been a party but this was a war. The air smelled of gasoline. The streets were dirty. People were dressed in varieties of battle fatigues and many had bandanas and goggles dangling on their chests. No one smiled.
Down a narrow street I saw a group of about twenty young people sitting in a circle and singing John Lennon’s Imagine. Strung behind them from building to building was the silver, gleaming 3 meter high chain-link fence. Behind the fence was a row of police officers. They were in black riot gear with face guards down and hand-held shields up. They looked every bit like a row of Darth Vaders. Each officer held a club and each smacked it onto their left palms to the song’s beat – ones and threes. They could not have been more intimidating. I guess that was the point.
I moved on to find a spot where I could be alone to swallow the metallic taste of adrenaline and catch my breath for I suddenly realized that I was breathing as if in a race. Around the corner I found another stretch of fence blocking the road before me with another row of police officers behind it; but I was alone. I did what I always do when I see a police officer; I smiled and waved. None waved back. In a minute or so a man about my age joined me and we stood chatting quietly. We were about ten feet from the fence, looking at each other and not the officers off to our right. No one else was near. We discovered that curiosity had drawn us both from Ontario to the parade and then up the hill and that we were both shocked by the incredibly tense atmosphere. We traded ideas about a restaurant for dinner. We were just two middle-aged guys dressed in shorts and golf shirts, very much tourists and not terrorists.
We were suddenly startled when a silver canister crashed behind us and white-gray tear gas spewed forth. We instinctively spun away and blindly careened right into the fence. The line of cops charged forward and smashed it with their clubs. We turned and stumbled through the noxious cloud with eyes and lungs on fire. A masked and khaki angel pulled me to a curb, sponged my eyes from a galvanized pail, secured a red kerchief over my nose and mouth, told me to run when I could, and then was gone. I have no idea what happened to my companion. I staggered dazed and bewildered as people ran past in both directions shouting that crazy Canadian jumble of French, English and profanity that transcended them both.
Woozy and blinded, I wobbled down the road and happened upon a group of young people shouting through the fence at yet another line of storm troopers. I turned and joined them, yelling every ugly epithet my years of school yards and hockey dressing rooms had taught me. But then, in mid-tirade, it was like I suddenly awoke. Perhaps the gas had worn off. Perhaps my righteous temper had peaked. I was suddenly embarrassed that every ounce of anger I had imprisoned since childhood had been so quickly and completely un-caged. I was shocked at my rage and the sound of my own voice and what I heard that voice shouting.
I stumbled back to the sidewalk across the street and stood watching the two groups of people – protesters and police – probably much the same age, who probably grew up in similar neighbourhoods, separated only by twists of fate and a fence that I was suddenly glad was there. My youngest brother is a police officer and I knew that he was one of the helmeted cops assembled that day. He may have been among those standing in silence before me now; perhaps he was the target of my crazy abuse. I needed to get out of there.
I walked back down the hill to meet my wife and breathlessly told her what had happened. We ventured cautiously up the hill just a little so she could glimpse the place but we then turned back and were soon in our car and heading for home.
I found out later that while my companion and I were very innocently chatting, the security system on the other side of the red zone, far from where we were, had faltered. Protesters or anarchists or whatever they were had torn down part of the fence at Boulevard René Lévesque and police had reacted around the whole perimeter with gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. In their attempt to re-establish order, police were attacking those on the fences and those singing songs. They attacked those with rocks and those with guitars. They attacked those administering first aid. And they attacked my companion and me, over a kilometer from the real trouble, who had done nothing.
On the streets of Quebec City I left a certainty about myself along with my naive conviction that Canadians are nice. I am no different than anyone else. As individuals, nearly all rational Canadians are guided by ethical and moral codes that afford us the opportunity to forge happy lives, secure in our nearly always rational society. But sometimes we find ourselves in crowds. In crowds we occasionally do things that we would never remotely consider doing on our own – like swearing at police officers, tearing down security fences, smashing store windows or overturning cars. Sometimes it’s for a political or social cause and other times it’s simply because our team lost the big game.
Riots are not nice. Neither are all the people who perpetrate them nor all the police who stop and sometimes start them. And yet, riots are as much a part of Canada’s civil society as voting and kids’ hockey and soccer leagues. We are a nation of riots. Consider the 1848 Quebec City Parliament Buildings riot, the 1907 Vancouver Race Riot, the 1929 Winnipeg General Strike riot, Regina’s 1935 On To Ottawa Trek riot, the 1955 Rocket Richard riot and many, many more. Some led to good things happening and others to nothing more than the revealing of ugliness and an undercurrent of furious indignation that we thought only existed elsewhere. Perhaps we need to think about the riots as I thought of my reaction to being caught up in one. That’s what history for – to teach, to expose, to challenge.
The day I was tear gassed changed me. It made me a little more reflective and a whole lot more wary. It did not rob me of my optimism for Canada, pride in being Canadian or my respect for those who legally and reasonably protest or those who reasonably and legally keep law and order in our society. I still believe that Canadians are inherently nice but my being tear gassed made me put aside old comforting thoughts and ponder the degree to which our niceness is a thin and vulnerable veneer.