The 12 members of CUPE’s International Solidarity Committee didn’t expect to be blinded by tear gas or be witnessing crowd control tactics straight out of apartheid era South Africa when they arrived in Quebec City.
We planned to attend the Labour Forum, meet for two days and take part in the big march on Saturday.
We came to discuss the proposal from CUPE BC to help fund their project with the municipal worker’s union in Cuba, to look over a report on the project sponsored by Local 974 linking health care workers in Chile with their counterparts in Saskatchewan and to talk about changing the kinds of projects that are eligible for money from CUPE’s Union Aid Fund.
But once we got there and watched the fence go up to seal us out of the official meeting something changed. We agreed to cram our meeting into one day so that we could join the actions taking place near the fence.
Here is what we saw.
On Friday we marched up to the fence as part of a large demonstration of students and workers.
We approached the fence with no problem; only a few police were in sight.
About a hundred young people approached the fence and started trying to pull it down by shaking it. Within a minute about 200 riot cops lined up on the other side of the fence. Three or four tear gas grenades where lobbed over the fence and those of us who were close by stumbled away as the gas started burning in our eyes and making us gag. We stayed for another twenty minutes as more gas came our way and as the people who had watched all this got angrier and angrier.
Saturday was different. Most of us took part in the huge labour rally that went no where near the fence. On the way back from the march, we could smell the gas from at least 2 km away. The eastern half of Quebec City became practically unlivable.
We heard that the cops were going after anyone near the fence. We thought that it was important to show our support for the kids at the fence so that they would not feel abandoned by the people who had chosen to demonstrate their opposition to the FTAA in more peaceful ways.
A few of us including Judy Darcy and VPs Wayne Lucas and Paul Moist decided to go back to fence about 7 PM on Saturday.
As we approached the gas got thicker and thicker. We got out our bandanas, doused them with vinegar and went forward.
As we rounded a corner we found ourselves in the middle of a war zone.
Up the hill about 20 kids where huddled behind whatever cover they could find. One or two would pop out to throw stones at the hundreds on riot cops behind the fence. They were met by a barrage of tear gas. From time to time a water cannon would go into action.
Behind us were 4 or 500 mostly young people yelling, banging on drums, garbage cans and anything else that would make noise.
Every once in a while a tear gas grenade would be fired into the middle of this crowd. Someone with a gas mask would usually throw it back towards the cops. A huge fan was also used to blow clouds of gas down the street. When they did this, the gas was so thick I could not see across the street.
In spite of all this the crowd stood their ground.
Around the corner dozens of people were lying on the street as their friends poured water into their eyes to relieve the pain. Others were doubled over vomiting and gasping for breath.
We stayed until it started to get dark. After we left, the cops charged out from the fence, cleared all of the crowd with still more gas. Then they moved down the hill to break up an impromtu rave being held a kilometre from the fence. They gassed hundreds of kids who were more interested in dancing, talking or sleeping than in confronting the cops or anyone else.
We straggled back to our hotel and talked about what we saw. All of us had stories to tell, all of us had been gassed, all of us were amazed at what we saw. None of us had a bad thing to say about any of the kids we saw.
Last week has given us a lot to think about.
- How can we convey what it was really like to watch the transformation of one of the prettiest cities in the world into a war zone?
- How can we explain what it felt like to be in the middle of it all?
- Why did we all feel compelled to support the kids who were trying to bust through the fence?
- What does this mean for the people we work with?
- What do we do next?
Graham Deline - Staff person assigned to the International Solidarity Committee