And Then I Was Tear-Gassed

I get it. I am a white, middle-class, healthy, employed, man living in a small, safe, Ontario town. I understand the privilege all that affords. I understand the sensitivity to the challenges of others all that demands. But the day I was tear-gassed affords me a modicum of insight and empathy for those peacefully protesting right now in America and around the world.

Before dawn, in April 2001, my dear wife and I left for Quebec City. We and others were assembling not to protest against the national leaders at the Third Summit of the Americas, but for them. We wanted them to summon the strength needed to stand against the growing corporate power that was running roughshod over individuals and states.

We arrived in time to join a wondrously joyful parade. Colourful banners and flags were hoisted above thousands of people singing, chanting, and some even dancing on stilts. There were old people and children. 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 seriously.

The leaders 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 could not leave without venturing up to see the so-called red zone.

As I reached its outer limits I was stunned. It was like an eclipse had blotted the sun. It was eerily quiet. 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.

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 in black riot gear with face guards down and hand-held shields up. They were a column of Darth Vaders. Each was smacking a club into their palms to the song’s beat – ones and threes. They could not have been more intimidating. I guess that was the point.

Around the corner I found another stretch of fence blocking the road before me with another row of Vaders 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 sides. No one else was anywhere near us. We discovered that were both Ontario history teachers. We agreed that conviction had drawn us to Quebec and curiosity up the hill. We traded ideas about a restaurant for dinner. We were just two middle-aged white guys in shorts and golf shirts; very much tourists and not terrorists.

We were startled when a silver canister crashed behind us and white-gray tear gas spewed forth. We instinctively spun away and blindly careened into the fence. The 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 vanished. I staggered, dazed and bewildered, as people ran past in both directions shouting a jumble of French, English, and profanity.

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 stormtroopers. I joined them, yelling every ugly epithet that schoolyards 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 the anger 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.

And Then I Was Teargassed

I stumbled back to the sidewalk across the street and watched 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. My youngest brother is a police officer. I knew he was one of the helmeted cops assembled there that day. Perhaps he was the target of my mad abuse. I needed to get out of there.

I found out later that while my companion and I were innocently chatting, the security system on the other side of the red zone 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 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 trouble, who had done nothing at all.

I am reminded of the day I was tear-gassed when I see horrific videos of police brutalizing those peacefully protesting police brutality. I’m reminded of the intersectionality of my privilege and that if it happened to me, imagine all those who have suffered injury and injustice but were not filmed. There are too many George Floyds. We need to end the brutality. We need to end racism. We need to engage in a national conversation built upon the fundamental agreement that we are all fragile, mortal, and human.

The Written and Understood

Society rests upon written rules and established understandings. In the United States right now the written and understood are in tragic conflict.

From 1882 to 1968, 3,446 African Americans were lynched. Last week, we saw another one. A white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against George Floyd’s throat until he lost consciousness and later died. The written law responded. The officer was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. That makes sense. The protests that are rocking American cities also make sense. The legitimate protesters are not trying to bring attention to what is written but, rather, what is understood.

Written and Understood

After 700,000 deaths in a Civil War to determine if all men are really created equal, America’s original sin was vanquished. But the belief that had created slavery – a belief in one race’s inherent superiority – remained. The belief was seen in segregation and Jim Crow. It is seen in practices that still suppress African American votes. The belief was seen in the decades of lynchings and when African Americans are pulled over for “driving while black” or shot while walking home with a bag of skittles, or when jogging, or when they are suffocated while on the ground and handcuffed.

There were and are laws standing against all that. But the laws don’t matter. What matters is the underlying understanding. Too many white people and white cops understand that unless there’s a video, they can get away with harassment, assault, and even murder. Too many African American parents understand the need to teach their children to cower, avoid eye contact, and assume the worst in all encounters with white people to keep from being arrested, beaten, or killed. Too many white people think all of that is just fine and too many African Americans think it will never change.

All those understandings violate a bigger understanding. The notion of a Social Contract was first expressed by French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1762. He argued that we all surrender a little of our rights to live in a society that can then protect our essential rights. The Social Contract stipulates, among other things, that if I work hard and live right I can earn a good living and if I obey laws the police won’t bother me.

But what happens if the Social Contract is broken? What if you work hard and live right but the system is stacked in such a way that you still can’t make a decent living? What happens if you obey laws but police and the ignorant and intolerant harass you anyway? What happens if you live in a society where everyone simply understands that the way you are treated every day and the opportunities available to you depend primarily on your race, class, ethnicity, gender, or how long your family’s been here? If all that and more becomes part of what is simply understood, the written laws stand but the Social Contract collapses.

Rousseau wrote that laws are binding only when supported by the peoples’ general will. If the Social Contract dies, that will dies with it. The pandemic tore one part of the Social Contract and the economic collapse ripped another. The recent killings of African Americans, after years of similar murders, left it in shreds. And so, we have Minneapolis and 40 other cities in flames.

We Canadians have our own original sin – the treatment of Indigenous peoples. We have our own less flagrant but equally virulent racism. We can’t be smug.

Thoughtful Americans and Canadians alike should listen to those advocating a broad national conversation not about changing laws but righting systemic economic injustice, racism, and bigotry. We should listen to and support those seeking a restored Social Contract based not on new laws but new foundational understandings. After all, we know that changing laws is easy while changing minds is hard but, in the end, it is the only way to clear the tracks, douse the flames, and save our souls.

American Rage and the Day I Was Tear Gassed

Canadians are nice. We seem to revel in our 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 reveals that we are really not that nice at all. And that’s what scares me about the American election.

Fifteen years ago, 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 and shrinking concentrations of wealth at the third Summit of the Americas conference. As a historian and with my wife’s degree in political science, we were curious about being witness to the making of history and a political point.

We joined 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. Most of the signs were serious and many were good natured. We walked slowly beneath a wonderfully cloudless blue sky enjoying the positive atmosphere and folks who were taking their messages but not themselves too 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 the 4 km 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 couldn’t 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.

I walked slowly up the hill and then slower still. At red zone’s outer perimeter it was like an eclipse had blotted the sun. The world had morphed to black and white. It was eerily quiet. The parade had been a party but this was a war. The air reeked of gasoline. The streets were littered and dirty. Everything seemed wet. Everyone seemed sweaty. People wore varieties of battle fatigues and many wore bandanas and had ski-goggles dangling on their chests. No one smiled.

Down a narrow street, I watched 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 silver fence was a row of police officers. They were in black riot gear and faceless with face guards down. 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 swallowed the metallic taste of adrenaline. 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 in shorts and golf shirts, obviously tourists not terrorists.

We were startled when a silver canister crashed behind us spewing white-gray tear gas. We instinctively pivoted away and blindly careened smack into the fence. The line of cops charged forward and smashed it with their clubs. We spun 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 English, French, and profanity.

Woozy and blinded, I wobbled down the street and happened upon a group of young people shouting through the fence at yet another line of storm troopers. I turned and yelled every ugly epithet my years of school yards and hockey dressing rooms had taught me. But then, in mid-tirade, it was like I snapped awake. 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 at the sound of my own voice and what I heard that voice shouting.

The Day I Was Tear Gassed

I stumbled back to the sidewalk and watched two groups of Canadians – 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 was one of the helmeted cops assembled in Quebec City that day. He may have been among those standing in silence before me now; perhaps he was the target of my flash of crazy abuse. I needed to get out of there.

The day I was tear gassed 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. However, I am little less sanguine about the unwritten social contract that binds us and the thin veneer of civility that protects us.

Reflecting on that day and upon how that veneer has become even thinner makes me tremble a little as I watch Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump appeal to the rage that roils beneath it. How much longer can our niceness be sustained when the globalization of power and wealth in the hands of a shrinking few – the point of the Quebec protest and core of the Sanders/Trump appeal – has shrunk even further. What happens if the fraying social contract snaps? What happens when voting for change is no longer seen as enough? What happens if the police change sides?

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The Rich Man’s Riot and Democracy’s Dawn

Like each of us, a nation’s character is forged by triumphs recalled and tragedies we choose to forget. On an April evening in 1849, a Montreal mob burned Parliament to the ground. The fire and ensuing riots are among many largely forgotten incidents suggesting that Canadians are not what we like to think we are.

Canada is not the meek and peaceable kingdom of our collective mythology. It’s more complicated than that. We are more complicated than that. If we wish to understand who we are as Canadians, who we truly are, then we must understand and acknowledge the ugly but transformative power of riots whose fires, blood, and mad destruction dot our past and colour our character.

The flint that lit the 1849 flames lay in the muskets and determination of farmers who, twelve years before, marched down Toronto’s Yonge Street and up the road to St. Denis. They understood power. They knew they had none. A small, rich, urban elite – we would call them the one percent – was making all the rules and ruling only for themselves. A British governor held executive authority and he appointed only rich business and clerical leaders to his cabinet then heard only the advice of London and those well-heeled friends. The people and its elected assembly were routinely ignored.

William Lyon Mackenzie, in what is now Ontario, and Louis Joseph Papineau, in what is now Quebec, harnessed the people’s righteous indignation and led armed rebellions. The Toronto fight ended quickly with gunfire where Maple Leaf Gardens would later stand. Papineau’s rebellion was longer and bloodier but it too was crushed. Three hundred and thirty died, 2,000 were arrested, 151 were banished to Australia, and 12 were hung. The leaders fled to the United States.

The foppish Lord Durham was dispatched to find out what happened. He grumbled through five months of high living and then wrote a report revealing that he had learned little. Thinking the rebellions were inspired wholly by religious and ethnic tensions, he recommended joining the two colonies under one administration to overwhelm the pesky French Catholics. However, he also recommended that the new colony’s governor rule according to advice from Canadians rather than London.

The old conservative elite rigged the new game to keep their old power. People like Toronto’s Bishop John Strachan and Montreal brewer John Molson still called the shots. Reform politicians Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, however, forged an unlikely alliance. They insisted that members of the executive council – the cabinet – be appointed not from among the rich and clerics but, rather, from among those elected by the people.

After two violent elections that were corrupt even by 19th century standards, and then shifting priorities in Britain, a new Governor arrived. Lord Elgin allowed democratic reforms that farmers and urban merchants were demanding. The 1848 election afforded Reformers a parliamentary majority and Elgin asked Baldwin and LaFontaine to become co-premiers and form a cabinet. The 99% had won. The 1% were out – and they were mad.

Among the new government’s first legislation was the Rebellion Losses Bill. It pledged to compensate all those whose property had been damaged in the 1837 rebellions, including the rebels themselves. The old conservative elite was outraged. Their petition to the governor was dismissed. Although Elgin disagreed with the bill, he said that the people’s government had legally passed it and so he must sign it. At five o’clock on April 25, in the presence of the members of both houses of parliament, he affixed his signature.

As Elgin left the legislature, elegantly dressed business people and Conservative (Tory) MPs pelted his carriage with rocks. An egg smashed his face. With horses at a gallop Elgin escaped the melee. Drunk with indignation, 1,500 angry Tories and their supporters gathered at Champ-de-Mars. Holding torches aloft they marched, shattered windows, and chanted their way to the opulent St. Anne’s Market building that housed parliament.

The legislature was in session but members scattered as rocks smashed through windows. Sandford Fleming, who would later plot the railway route through the Rockies and invent standard time, grabbed a portrait of Queen Victoria and ran it out a back door. Several legislators, including John Sandford Macdonald, who would later be Ontario’s first premier, blockaded the large front entrance. Led by a well-known lawyer, the mob stole a 35-foot ladder and used it to crash their way inside. Legislators were knocked down and kicked. A fat man in an expensive waistcoat jumped atop the speaker’s chair and yelled, “I dissolve parliament!” Furniture was smashed. Gas pipes were broken and then torches thrown. Bankers, lawyers, and clerics cheered the collapse of the roof as the screaming, leaping flames licked the sky. The fire quickly engulfed a neighbouring house, two warehouses, and a hospital. And the cheering went on.

Rich Man's Riot.

(Photo: history.lbpsb.qc.ca)

The next night, men left their fine homes, expensive sherry, and imported cigars to reassemble downtown. There were more speeches about race, religion, class, and the natural order of things and power lost. This time their spitting anger was focused on the homes of political enemies whom they blamed for stealing what was considered rightfully theirs. LaFontaine’s house on rue de l’Aqueduc and Baldwin’s boarding house were among those attacked with torches and rocks.

As the mad violence threatened to fill a third night, the military assembled. General Gore warned of the arming of police constables and that the 71st regiment had rifles and cannon ready. There were scattered incidents of violence but a tense and eerie calm gripped the city.

Everyone knew the riot’s instigators. Everyone knew who had thrown stones and set flames. But Baldwin and LaFontaine restrained their reaction. They did not meet violence with violence. They ensured that some arrests were made but also that all were freed. They carefully enhanced security and for weeks there were flares of politically inspired violence but a bitter peace eventually prevailed. The army retired to base and the police locked up their guns.

Over the next weeks, Parliament was moved to Toronto. A Tory petition to London demanding an overturning of the Rebellion Losses Bill was denied. The payments were made. A Conservative movement demanding Canada’s annexation to the United States was initiated by new voices of the old Tory elite, including some who would later be fathers of confederation. It was allowed a natural death.

Most importantly of all, those still raging at the shift of power from the one to the ninety-nine percent fought not on the street but through committees, editorials, and speeches. The government remained in office with executive power, then and forever afterward, held not by the privileged, handpicked few but determined by the votes of the many.

The 1849 rich man’s riots did not signal Canada’s independence from Britain, but it was a crucial step. They did not give birth to true democracy, but parliament’s flames illuminated its dawn. Perhaps we are well served to recall incidents such as the Montreal riot to better understand ourselves and who we truly are. Further, perhaps we should ponder if the old fights regarding whose voices should be heard and interests served will be, or maybe even should be, re-fought. If so, let us listen for the voices of this generation’s Baldwin and LaFontaine, lest torches be lit again.

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