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This piece was originally aired on CKUT's Off the Hour on Friday, September 21st, 17h-18h.
Last October, a band of unlikely bedfellows occupied Square Victoria, which they promptly renamed la Place du Peuple (the People’s Place) and transformed into a tent city in the style of Occupy Wall Street. For the weekend of September 15th, a similarly diverse crew organized Occupons le Sud-Ouest, an occupation of Parc Sir-George-Étienne-Cartier in St. Henri.
François Genest, an active participant Occupy Montréal projects, doesn’t think that the lack of a permanent home substantially changes the nature of the movement.
“Obviously we can’t have any tents anymore, but we can still continue to meet in public spaces and say, we’re here, the problems are still here, and we are working with the people.”
Despite the lack of tents, the occupiers managed to make the park feel homey. On an asphalt pathway, someone had chalked “Welcome Home” in French. Next to a play area with children’s toys, there was the “free market”; clothing, books, and other miscellaneous items laid out in the grass, where people could give or take whatever they wanted to.
There was a large red sheet spread on the ground where people held workshops throughout the weekend. Shannon Franssen, a spokesperson for Mobilization Turcot, led a presentation about the Turcot Interchange project. The Turcot Interchange is a major highway intersection between St. Henri and Côte St. Paul that the Charest government had been planning to renovate and expand.
Shannon Franssen explained Mobilization Turcot’s opposition to the plan. “The current project has some really disastrous effects on local neighborhoods, but it also has some disastrous effects on all of Montréal, and is going to cost the taxpayers about 1.5 billion dollars more than it should.”
On Sunday, people from different Assemblées populaires autonomes du quartier (APAQs) met to share ideas about popular education. APAQs are neighborhood organizations that emerged from the mobilization and general discontent of last spring.
According to Christine Dumas, an active member of the APA Hochelaga/Maisonneuve, the APAQs have great potential as tools for political organizing and bringing about tangible change. She told me, in French, “[An APAQ] is a place to take hold of the dialogue, a place where projects for the neighborhood and for the society can emerge, and it can go in all kinds of different directions.”
Hugo Martorell, a McGill political science student, participated in a workshop on popular education on Sunday. He has been involved in the Alternative University Project, which aims to re-imagine the way that we think about education.
“In March, [Alternative University organizers] started realizing that there were other groups that were doing the same thing we were doing, and there was this willingness to build a network, and trying to get out of your own social groups that you are predestined to be in, and being in this experiment where you learn from people that have different experiences from you.”
Sophie Thiébaut, St. Henri’s municipal councillor, spent most of both days at the occupation of the park. She explained in French why she had come to the park this weekend, and emphasized the importance of treating elected officials as people like anyone else.
“An event like Occupons le Sud-Ouest allows elected officials to listen to the population, because I think that there are few places where you can hear what people think about politics, so a place to listen, and also a place to exchange, because an elected official is, above all, a citizen, and nothing more than a citizen.”
It was hard not to get drawn in by the hopefulness that lit up Parc Sir-George-Étienne-Cartier this weekend. Organizing such an event demands a relentless kind of optimism, an optimism that was perhaps most evident in the details.
It was evident in the free food served all weekend, with only the hope that the people who came for the food would stick around for the politics. Whether that optimism will bear fruit in bringing about real change remains to be seen.
photography courtesy of Sophie Blais