Occupy Montreal: Reflections after one week

by Jason Stanley

October 25, 2011

On October 15, over one thousand Montrealers rallied to support Occupy Wall Street and the quickly globalizing Occupy movement. That night, activists erected some 50 tents in Square Victoria, a small public space in the heart of the city’s business district, at the foot of the Stock Exchange Tower, the city’s World Trade Center, and the historic Bank of Canada building. Activists quickly renamed the square the ‘Place du Peuple’ (the People’s Plaza), remade the Square’s towering statue of Queen Victoria with a Guy Fawkes mask, and handed the Queen-cum-Fawkes a Patriote flag, the 19th century symbol of Francophone rebellion against Anglophone domination. Occupy Montreal was born!

Over the six days since then, the encampment has grown to close to 200 tents, covering all of the open public space in the ‘Place du Peuple’. General assemblies, lasting several hours, have been held on each day, and the logistical organization of the occupation has grown in sophistication. The space now includes a ‘cuisine du peuple’ (people’s kitchen), a system for providing blankets and warm clothes to campers, and a childcare. General assemblies have seen between 200 and 300 participants, though Thursday’s assembly was much smaller due to the downpour pelting the city that evening.

Participants are overwhelmingly young and white. Most are Francophone, reflecting the city’s own linguistic makeup. In the discussions I have had with a number of participants, few seem to have any ties to organized political groups. No speakers identify themselves as unionized, nor have I seen any organized trade union presence at Occupy Montreal assemblies.

The decision-making process for the general assemblies allows any person to participate, speak, vote, and make proposals. Any person wishing to do so can attend a one-hour class on facilitation and then sign up to facilitate a general assembly. Unlike some other occupation sites, the occupation has been allowed to use a megaphone and sound system, so no ‘people’s mic’ is in use. Voluntary simultaneous translation is provided for those who do not speak the language used by the facilitator. In general, assemblies have been held in French, with English and Spanish translation available in one section of the crowd.

When proposals are made, the crowd makes its feelings understood by using different hand gestures. In order to pass, proposals must receive an overwhelming majority of support from the crowd, with only a small minority communicating unease. Any participant can block a proposal, in which case a group discussion ensues about the merits of the proposal. Once the discussion ends, a second vote is held. A proposal can technically pass if one or several blocks remain, but facilitators regularly underscore the gravity of ignoring a block given that doing so might come at the cost of lost participation in the future as ignored blockers feel overrun by ‘majority rule’. I have not yet seen a proposal supersede a block. In fact, I have only seen a small number of proposals pass at all.

As at other occupation sites in Canada and the United States, this decision-making procedure has caused frustration among those wishing the movement to move forward on demands and political action. Some proposals have been passed – for example, those relating to limitations on alcohol consumption and creating smoke-free zones. However, proposals related to larger questions around demands and the organization of political actions rarely achieve consensus.

Some political discussions do arise in general assemblies. For example, Wednesday’s assembly saw a 45-minute long debate on whether or not Occupy Montreal should declare itself to be anti-capitalist. Thursday’s assembly included a debate over whether or not the occupation should declare itself opposed to Canada’s participation in the war in Afghanistan. Yet, even here, these discussions represent little more than efforts to make public declarations. For example, the anti-war proposal has as its goal the formulation and communication of an official statement from Occupy Montreal about its anti-war stance and nothing more. That is, it is not a proposal designed to dedicate resources to supporting the anti-war movement (does one exist?), nor is it a proposal designed to get an anti-war movement off the ground. Rather, the proposal simply aims to make a public statement. Void of a strategy linking such a statement to movement-building activities, such a proposal is hardly more political than discussions about internal logistics.

To be sure, these are early, early days for Occupy Montreal. While Occupy Wall Street has already been under way for over a month, Occupy Montreal hasn’t yet been up and running for a week. Nevertheless, there are troubling signs already. The slow and cumbersome nature of the consensus-based decision-making process, leading to frustration and departure among some participants, is one such troubling sign. Yet, a more serious weakness is evident in Occupy Montreal’s isolation. Media coverage of the occupation has been widespread and largely positive. A number of local politicians and community leaders have voiced some level of support. Yet when it comes to real links to struggles on the ground, the occupation has virtually none. Instead, as is evident from the above discussion, much of the occupation’s first six days have been dedicated to sorting out internal logistical matters.

There are a number of struggles that Occupy Montreal could better link up to in the weeks and months ahead, but two stand out in particular. Quebec’s Francophone student movement – long one of its most organized and mobilized social movements – is currently gearing up for a big fight against a government intent on raising tuition fees. Some public demonstrations have already been held, and the movement is preparing for a national day of action in November. That this struggle is ongoing and likely to build in the near term, and that most occupation participants are young, seems to create the conditions for a possible convergence or re-enforcing. Yet no movement in this direction seems to be taking place at all.

Also in the realm of education, the non-academic workers at McGill University are now in their eighth week of a strike. McGill is the wealthiest university in the province of Quebec and one of the wealthiest in Canada, not to mention a globally ranked university. Yet, it is demanding concessions from its non-academic staff and refusing to grant them parity with similar workers at other Montreal universities on a number of points. Eight weeks ago, this was a group of workers that had never before engaged in strike action and that had only a weak sense of collective identity and union spirit. Yet after eight weeks of struggle, quite the opposite seems to be true. Yesterday, strikers took the fight to a new level by blocking access to Quebec’s largest construction site, for a massive McGill-affiliated super-hospital. Significantly, unionized construction workers refused to cross the picket line, bringing the project to a temporary halt. This is an exciting development, not least for the 1,700 strikers who are beginning to see what they can do collectively and what can happen when workers in other sectors join their struggle. Unfortunately, Occupy Montreal is nowhere to be found, despite the fact that the University’s main campus is only a ten-minute walk from the ‘Place du Peuple’.

The absence of such links to existing struggles in Montreal is particularly evident in light of positive developments in New York City. Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has been criticized by many on the left for lacking political direction and for getting bogged down in procedural issues related to consensus-style decision-making. Nevertheless, segments of OWS have taken the initiative to build strong working relationships with ongoing struggles. One excellent example is the links that have been built between OWS and the Teamsters battle against Sotheby’s, the luxury art auction house. The outcome of that labor battle remains up in the air, but the struggle has been undeniably strengthened as OWS activists have joined the fray.

Sorting out why OWS has been more successful at building these kinds of links than Occupy Montreal would take much longer consideration than I can provide here, but one difference that strikes me as immediately relevant is the presence of a core cadre of solid radical activists in New York and the absence (or invisibility) of such a cadre in Montreal. These New York activists seem to be playing an instrumental role in building links between OWS and the Teamsters struggle, and they seem well placed to build helpful links in upcoming struggles among workers in the communication, transit, and educational sectors. Sometimes these activists are inside unions – as rank-and-file members or as organizers – but sometimes they are simply community members with no formal attachment to the unions in question. In all cases they are committed to building a strong labor movement as part of a much larger political project. Their importance shouldn’t be overstated in the New York case, especially given their small number, but it would be folly to ignore their role in cultivating these important links to OWS.

In Montreal, no similar cadre seems to exist. (As a caveat, I should make clear that I know New York better than I know Montreal.) A large part of the radical left in Montreal, including activists in Gauche Socialiste (the Quebec section of the Fourth International), has committed itself to building Quebec Solidaire (QS), a political party that aims to regroup a wide swath of the anti-capitalist and alter-globalization left. At this point, QS is overly committed to its electoral activities and not involved nearly enough in building and sustaining movements and struggles on the ground. The examples pointed to above suggest that an important priority for the left in Montreal, and for the future of QS, must be the building of a cadre of activists committed to working in movements.