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Lost (& Found) in Translation: Social Solidarity, Montreal, Night 82

by Cindy Milstein

Lost (& Found) in Translation: Social Solidarity, Montreal, Night 82
Lost (& Found) in Translation: Social Solidarity, Montreal, Night 82

la grève est étudiante, la lutte est populaire / the strike is the students', the struggle is everyone’s

* * *

I took the above photo shortly after I got to Montreal, some two months ago, never intending to stay so long, and having little idea what the black letters on this banner meant. I knew that red -- usually square, yet sometimes stretched in other shapes when needed -- stood for the student strike, particularly being in solidarity with it.

But I'm an anarchist. So even though the only word I clearly recognized in the above slogan was popular, the tangible struggle that I saw on the streets over my initial five days here convinced me that the one term I understood rung true and I should stick around. Something remarkable was -- and is -- going on in Quebec. Anarchists do a lot of things wrong. One thing we've done right since the beginning of "anarchism" as a named political praxis, though, is gladly cross nation-state borders to lend solidarity based on a shared humanity along with shared desire for freedom writ large and egalitarian. In my case, I'm not sure how much solidarity I'm supplying. I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm largely the recipient of the solidarity that going on here, both as receiver and witness.

Take today.

First there's the + 1 - 1 = 0 sort of solidarity. Where you think you're holding out some universal, nonstatist handshake of solidarity, and then realize that even if the same canceling-out dynamic happens in one's own backyard, when it occurs outside one's "own" country (that is, if one has citizenship), it underscores how you're a "guest" in a struggle that you'll never fully comprehend.

Plus One: I now nearly always carry a batch of red felt squares with safety pins in each to give out -- a quite simple act to show my solidarity and let others, in turn, then display theirs. When I overheard two cashiers in a store speaking, in French, about their carré rouge, and saw one pat her upper-right chest sans red square and frown, and saw that neither wore squares. I understood enough to know she had lost hers, for what in French sounded like four times. "Parlez-vous anglais?" I asked. "Qui, I speak English," she responded. I held out two fresh cherry-red squares. "Would you both like one?" "Qui! Merci!" Their eyes lit up, at me and then each other. "Merci beaucoup! You can't get these anymore. They are all sold out." (Her English was better than my near-nonexistent French, but it still wasn't great, and I think she meant sold out of red felt. When the student strike and its "squarely in the red" square symbol became popular, rumor has it that red and even off-red felt disappeared from the shelves of every Montreal store. So people started knitting squares out of red yarn.) The pair both eagerly pinned their new red badges of solidarity to their shirts.

Minus One: Like the two clerks, I too wanted a red square, way back after my first illegal night demo some two months ago. That evening, after hours and kilometers on the streets with thousands, I was walking back the hour or so to where I was staying, at 1 or 2 a.m., and at one point noticed a flash of red on the pavement. There it was! My little red felt square! I've worn it, daily, ever since. So today, as usual, I had it pinned to my shirt. Just moments after I left the now-happy cashiers each sporting their own carré rouge, a guy on the street yelled out at me, in English: "Hey, red square! Yeah, you! You're a fucking douche bag!"

I've experienced a few disapproving gazes and downward-pointing thumbs for wearing a red square here, but the only times people have directly confronted me, verbally, briefly or for extended conversations, has always been in English. And that's never been preceded by a "bon jour" or other nicety, then allowing someone -- via my accent in response -- to ascertain whether to speak French or English to me. French is the official and most-often-spoken language here, and by and large, the language of the student strike. This person didn't know, of course, that I'm from the United States and barely know French; those two facts only heighten, for me, the legacy of the history of domination in which the English language plays a part. Even without that knowledge, or particularly without it, this person is signaling the still-felt tensions of the legacy of the French-English divide here, which for them (and the other folks who've chosen to instantly yell at me in English) is now displaced on to a little red felt square. A big part of the legacy leading to this student strike can be found in the 1960s' and 1970s' so-called Quiet Revolution, which illuminated many of the social inequities related to language (with, you guessed it my English-speaking readers, the Francophones often receiving the short end of the stick), which in turn gave birth to many of the French-language colleges that are at the heart of Maple Spring and also underscored a host of other social injustices related to other languages (First Nations peoples, for instance, or the "body language" of gender). As a related aside, I want to again recommend the book The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Political Activism in Sixties' Montreal by Sean Mills.

Zero: Maybe the pleased cashiers versus the displeasured man on the streets don't cancel each other out. Various polls while I've been here have hedged the truth or outright lied in order to claim there's little support for the student strike, or have more "scientifically" leaned toward numbers emphasizing popular support. The felt experience of being among, say, five thousand, forty thousand, or two hundred thousand at a demonstration, not to mention seeing red squares on shirts and houses, tends to make one think there's broad support. And the picket lines and other bold tactics of tens to hundreds of thousands of students and their allies to hold the strike for five months -- often against scare tactics by school administrators and brutal tactics by the riot cops -- add further proof that this struggle is indeed popular. But now, on this hot July day in anticipation of what may be a really hot August when the schools are supposed to start, every little + 1 - 1 = 0 can't be ignored. As someone at the anticapitalist assembly I was at this afternoon said, whether the strike can stand strong in August against intensified policing, the chilling effect of special law 78 (whether or not it gets enforced and/or tossed out in court later), the distraction of provincial elections, and other pressures is, perhaps, "all a matter of our capacity." That is, lived social solidarity, and whether it's tangibly there or not when it really counts.

Which brings me around, secondly, to the -1 + 1 = 0 sort of solidarity.

Minus One: Me. I can now read the words in the photo that started this piece, and because I've been a participant-observer within a specific moment/movement, I can increasingly read key words and phrases, and maybe sometimes understand them when I hear them. Like grève étudiante: "student strike." Or better yet, grève sociale: "social strike," which I can also even somewhat pronounce. And I now generally get the play on (g)rève, with rève meaning "dream," as in the above-photographed street art. At the time I snapped this shot about a month ago, I didn't know that. I also didn't know the designer behind this poster. Now I know both, so can share both (hence, credit and appreciation to LOKi design's #ggi downloadable poster portfolio, ready for others walls,

Today, I could basically read the large-type summary sheets taped to the wall at the start of the anticapitalist assembly, offering ideas of, for example, various antiauthoritarian strategies related to struggling against hegemonic forces of social control like the state and capitalism while supporting the grassroots student strike as well as notions of a social strike. But when it came time for the meeting to begin and the facilitator checked in about who needed whisper translation from French to English, I was the only person out of some forty to fifty people. (And when the facilitator asked if anyone needed whisper translation into French when, or rather if, English was spoken during the assembly, no one did.)

Plus One: An anarchist I've known as an acquaintance from various anticapitalist convergences in Canada instantly volunteered to be my English whisperer (fortunately, he talks as fast as I do, but in two languages!). When I thanked him, with embarrassment, for having to translate the whole three- to four-hour assembly, he simply waved a hand in the air, tossed back his head, and muttered the French equivalent of "Pshaw, it's nothing!" But of course, it is something: a huge act of solidarity, especially given that he's an active participant in this social struggle and wants to talk at the assembly. Equally of course, he meant it: no big deal. We're both anarchists, after all, and this is what we (try to) do for each other.

For a third of this assembly, we then broke down into discussion groups around topics and/or projects. I and my personal whisper translator both decided to go to the student-social strike conversation, which attracted some twenty to twenty-five folks. He looked around the circle, and exclaimed, "OK, is there anyone here who doesn't speak and understand English?" Silence. "OK, let's just fucking do this in English, since Cindy can't speak or understand French." He meant "fucking" in the kindest of ways (indeed, several times during his whisper translation from French to English in the main assembly, he apparently added that same word to sentences, and many people around the room who could hear laughed, finally explaining the source of their mirth to me, to which he laughingly responded to everyone, "I'm adding enthusiasm!"). Again I felt the sting of embarrassment, and again the implied "Pshaw!"

Zero: Maybe the fact that I could hear, listen, understand, and even speak a couple times versus the fact that one person spent two-thirds of the assembly whisper translating to me (and a hefty chunk of the assembly spent another third switching languages for me) don't cancel each other out. A longtime anarchist friend who has lived here in Montreal for a long time, an Anglophone too, said that no matter how good their French gets, there's still a way in which one can't articulate oneself as well in political meetings, and thus it feels like it creates power dynamics around language, and who gets really heard and listened to politically. Being whisper translated to is, in some way, like experiencing a mediated or "representational" form of politics, where you're getting the sense of what the person translating for you -- kindly, out of solidarity -- thinks is necessary or important for you to know, or worth adding enthusiasm to. On the other hand, it feels acutely, for me, like I'm a burden for needing this help, especially since I'm here only short term, so don't need to be included substantively in the same way as, for one, the Anglophone anarchist mentioned above. I also, equally, acutely felt how it does indeed make you feel the outsider, or the less than fully "enfranchised" participant in a directly democratic assembly (where, as an aside, rather than "twinkles" for affirmation, the facilitator jokingly asked for a show of "caribou," as in the animal antlers). In terms of me -- the minus one -- it is merely a "Pshaw" moment. In terms of social solidarity, much less solidarity among Francophone and Anglophone students, it's been a factor that, at a minimum, makes it hard to translate this struggle to certain people, like my "Hey, red square" guy mentioned earlier, or across certain places, such as English-language schools, and that could be a bigger deal in terms of tangible solidarity come August.

Third, and finally, take yesterday, night 81, Mile-End's Popular Assembly night.

Now solidarity equates to 1 + 1 = 2, or maybe a whole lot more.

One Plus One: We're now in week four of the Popular Assembly of the Mile-End Quarter, which meets every Thursday at 6:30 to usually 9:00 or even 9:30 p.m. at a "park" wedged between two near-highway urban streets -- hence, the assembly promo always adds quotation marks to the location of "Clark Park." The park is always bustling with dinner picnics and kids running from the "water park" fountains to the playground equipment. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles whiz by. It's hard to hear under the best of circumstances, and like the anticapitalist assembly, the popular one necessitates whisper translation. Fortunately, it's been not only me but three, four, or six others we need it. We huddle in a corner of the assembly circle, hardly able to hear the already-circumscribed version of the conversation (again, the "translators" are always whoever kindly volunteers and are always doing their best!). Most of us English-as-first-language folks don't speak up, except those who can speak French but have a harder time understanding it, so need the whisper translation.

Every Wednesday -- well, the last two -- we've also held a new casserole plus orchestra, or "orchestroles," bringing instruments of all shapes and sizes along with pots and spoons mixed with good cheer and free lit/red squares together for an illegal marching band in the streets. It's a powerful and noisy show of solidarity for the strike, and actually creates an incredibly rich and wonderful sound; the musicians are good, and the rest of us manage to make our cookware a palatable accompaniment. (One passerby this past Wednesday asked if we were from a music department, bringing songs to the neighborhoods, and another wanted to hire the horn section.) But it's also just a whole lot of silly fun. And so it's been an icebreaker of sorts for us. Switching and tangling up languages, or pantomiming what we mean, or simply laughing together, the past two weeks have opened up communication in a way our assemblies might never have accomplished.

So this Thursday -- yesterday -- after our breakout working groups, it turned out that those who stayed for our re-assembly into a big group again were majority English-language listeners/speakers, and only two people were exclusively French-language listeners/speakers. So it made sense to now whisper translate from English into French for them -- a first at our popular assembly. One of the two Francophone listeners/speakers looked like she was struggling to hear/understand through the whole of this whisper translation. We wrapped up the assembly, in the gathering darkness, with feedback on how the assembly went. The Francophone woman, in French, explained that it was awful having to miss so much of the conversation, it was awful feeling left out, and yet it was wonderful to truly not only understand but also viscerally feel how awful it is to be in my (and others') shoes when we're getting French to English translation. Her face lit up as she explained how glad she was for that experience and, more specifically, our assembly now, because as she put it (translated to me, of course), "Together, we've finally broken through the wall of silence between us all!"

Equals Two, or More: This was true of the fourth Mile-End Popular Assembly, but also today's anticapitalist one, and last week's interneighborhood meeting, and a social strike consulta last weekend, plus the few other neighborhood and student assemblies I've gone to so far: there's always talk about the ongoing student strike, on the one side, and notions of a social strike, on the other, and how the two are inseparable as a question, discussion, and problematic. Each time someone tries to separate them, it's clear that's impossible -- that they need to breath together, and breath life into each other. Which is not to say that they are equivalent. There is this sense of reinforcement or complementarity, in terms of how they can and could lend solidarity to each other. Or perhaps reciprocity is the best word choice here.

The May 22 grand demonstration called monthly by CLASSE to display support for the student strike, for instance, brought upward of a half-million people to take the streets of Montreal, illegally according to special law 78, and for all intents and purposes, such an enormous march starting in the middle of a weekday was a social strike. People left jobs and other compulsory duties to participate; stores and offices didn't open; traffic got snarled; public transit couldn't run. Another night, on an illegal nocturnal demonstration, some forty thousand or so inadvertently shut down a main bridge into Montreal simply because it took about an hour to march up a lengthy north-south street that leads into that urban artery, again offering an albeit short social strike (as in "economic disruption" writ large; the definition of "social strike" is often a topic of conversation lately, but that will have to wait until another blog post).

But without the striking students physically blockading their schools' entryways, so that strikebreaking students and other college-related people can't get inside, can't go to class, can't teach and go about the (literal) business of academia, a social strike would mean nothing. The student strike has already been victorious in many ways. It is the heart and soul of this Maple Spring, but not as a cry for present-day students' self-interest. It is a demand for solidarity across generations, where these present-day students understand that they are doing this for generations to come, so cheap or (as the demand now seems to be moving) free education is something that everyone desires, as a social good, in a good society. This has, in turn, emboldened others in what could be seen as newly emerging related struggles, to offer equally compassionate forms of solidarity. The Canadian government just passed a bill that cuts off health care access to refugee claimants (see, and health care workers, along with others who see this as a first step toward privatizing all health care and just plain inhumane, are starting to pledge to offer health care anyway, even if they have to do it for free. [Note, thanks to comments someone sent me after I posted this blog, people without papers/legal status as permanent residents or refugees have long been unable to access health care in Canada.]

All to say, that there are conversations going on at every assembly and consulta about what solidarity for the student strike is, what it will look like, and how it will be implemented as August inches closer and closer, and how that might or might not relate to a social strike, as solidarity and as something unto itself. All to say, there's a whole lot of grand conversations about solidarity, and a whole lot of micro-examples of it, in the lead up to a grand experiment in solidarity on what's possible next with this student-social strike.

Those conversations never fail to mention that each striking school and/or school department or association has its own autonomous decision-making structure, and that any real solidarity has to involve taking the strategic and tactical lead from each of these autonomous bodies. They explore moral and material forms of solidarity, such as neighborhood assemblies holding festive "block" parties as teach-in, socializing, and mobilizing spaces just before thirteen of the key striking schools are supposed to go back or raising funds for legal support in advance, or students informing assemblies of their needs or coming to do teach-ins, such is as happening now with CLASSE touring to share how students have organized this strike and their direct democracy (take 4.59 minutes at the end of this post to watch CLASSE spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau Dubois speak, mostly in English and with subtitles when in French, on the how and why of this strike at The discussions also grapple with what can and cannot be said, because special law 78 (and the fallout from the G20) seems to criminalize so much that's just common sense and humane, like voluntarily gathering with groups of people to speak one's mind, and strategize toward social solidarity and social goodness.

What, then, does solidarity look like when those who want so much to be in solidarity with each other -- students and neighborhoods, and assemblies of all types -- can't speak as openly as they'd like, in French or English (or as one reader pointed out after I posted this piece, in many other languages that aren't part of the binary or unitary ones that predominant in most places), so have to read and whisper behind the lines, because of an emergency law meant to rip all this solidarity to shreds? Or just because of our own linguistic capabilities? Maybe our struggles to make language work, to hear and listen and speak and act in new ways, as a connective bridge between us, rather than a dividing wall of silence, are part of the answer. Or at least help to illuminate part of the (unintended) difficulties of reciprocity and solidarity in any language.

* * *

As always, if you stumbled across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, please excuse the typos/grammatical errors (it’s a blog, after all), and note that you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, Share, enjoy, and repost–as long as it’s free, as in “free beer” and “freedom.”

(Photos: Unless otherwise noted, all photos were taken in Montreal, summer 2012, by Cindy Milstein)

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Cindy Milstein (Cindy Milstein)
Institute for Anarchist Studies
Member since June 2012


3627 words


Oh my

Cindy you are open about the fact that you don't speak french and haven't spent much time in montreal or quebec, and that's appreciated, but your analysis seems stuck in an overly rigid anglo-franco binary that masks the complexities of life in this city.

There are many people who, like you, speak only one "official" language. But there are many many others who speak "other" languages, "unofficial" languages... yesterday evening, for example, there was a demo/casserole/vigil called by mexicanxs unidxs por la regularización that took place primarily in spanish...

The anglo-franco binary, and the reflection of the "disenfranchised" anglo anarchist is quite honestly just bizarre, it really misses the reality that so many folks (esp from migrant communities) experience in quebec and in kkkanada and across the US on an every day type basis... 

Later on you write that "The Canadian government just passed an omnibus bill that included many awful measures, such as cutting off health care to adults and kids without citizenship status" 

Please do your research! The bill cuts off access to refugee claimants. People without papers/legal status as permanent residents or refugees have long been unable to access healthcare in this country.


mea culpa re: languages. It doesn't negate my experience of how binary things are around language here, in the same way that are unitary in the United States. But like the gender binary, I should be troubling that institutionalized/structural and social binary more than I am (or did). Alas, that binary definitely structures most or all of the situations I've been in here these two months and during many other visits -- a binary that misses people in the room or park for whom neither french nor english are first or comfortable languages.

Thanks for the correction on the bill. I'll change my blog post, where I can, and try to do a better job of my "facts" next time.


High score on accountability, Media Co-op!

Something I really value from Media Co-op is the responsiveness of journalists who publish the stories. This shows that journalists or writers here feel the responsibility to be accountable to the audience. This is how all media should behave!

Ability to admit a factual error on the part of writers (like Cindy) is also valuable. These qualities of the co-op encourage readers to be engaged seekers instead of passive receivers of information.

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