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.
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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