What Democracy Looks Like: Reflections on Trauma, Protest, and Quebec City, 2001

Protesters engulfed by tear gas on René-Lévesque E. Blvd, near Turnbull Street during Summit of the Americas protests and demonstrations in Quebec City, April 21, 2001. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

In April 2001, I set out on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. A dozen friends and strangers, all students at the University of Regina, piled into rented vehicles and began to drive. We crossed the familiar prairies and the never-ending shield. We drove through Winnipeg and Thunder Bay, through Ottawa and Montreal. Along the way we got neck cramps and ate junk food and talked of gas masks and made arrest plans. We were going to be part of something big. Something important. Something that would change the world.

Something that, as it turned out, changed me most of all.

From a young age I wanted to change the world. I saw injustice and inequality and (often naively) dreamt of a better future. And I believed wholeheartedly in the political system. But globalization (and its corresponding protest movements) shattered my faith; the injustices perpetrated by elected governments destroyed any hope I had in the system. I increasingly committed myself to extra-parliamentary activism and direct action.

And so, after thirty hours in a van, I found myself at the centre of it all. At the next stop for the summit hopping protests that characterized the almost two years between the Battle for Seattle and 9/11. I found myself in Quebec City.

And for a short time, all was well. We ate poutine and practiced our French. We found thousands of comrades at our accommodations in the gym at Université Laval. We marched down cobblestone streets at night, under the glow of street lights, and felt the power of a large crowd dancing and singing and chanting together. This is what democracy looks like, we said. I felt like I’d found my community. My place. My purpose.

And then everything changed.

Then I discovered how far the state would go to silence me and those like me. This is what democracy looks like, they said.

The Quebec City protests were divided into different sections – green, yellow, red – to reflect the anti-globalization movement’s commitment to diversity of tactics. I went to this summit because I could stay within a green zone; I was naïve and thought I could exercise my right to protest without risking police violence or arrest.

The police and military tasked with securing the summit site did not care about zones or diversity of tactics. While we marched and danced and chanted and sang, far from the red and yellow zones and the fence surrounding the summit site, we were attacked. Tear gas canisters were launched into the middle of our peaceful protest and chaos ensued. We couldn’t see. We couldn’t breathe. We couldn’t escape. And in the confusion, protesters were trampled, shot with rubber bullets and beaten with nightsticks. It was unexpected and unjustified. And it was terrifying and dangerous.

And it was nothing compared to what was to come.

It became almost impossible to find a safe space away from the tear gas, rubber bullets and other crowd control techniques used by police and military. I felt like I was constantly on the run. And I saw things I will never forget.

If I close my eyes, I still see the ambulance screeching through the protests. I see the path created to allow it through, everyone assuming someone required assistance. I see the vehicle stop and its back doors swing open. And I see officer after officer in riot gear jumping from those doors into the middle of the protest. I see it clear as day. Almost twenty years later. I have since been to worse places and experienced worse things, but that ambulance will stay with me forever.

I have friends who developed respiratory illnesses from the tear gas in Quebec City. I have friends whose welts and bruises from rubber bullets and rashes from chemical warfare lasted months. I have friends who spent time in jail and live with the repercussions still. I was very lucky, but I have never been back to Quebec City, to see it without an enormous fence. I don’t know that I want to go back.

I went to Quebec City because I wanted to express my opposition to a globalization model that reinforced and exacerbated inequality and injustice. I thought it was my right. I thought we could have a say. I thought that was what democracy looked like.

I left Quebec City with the knowledge of how far my government would go to repress that right. How far it would go silence us. And I am a coward. So I have never participated in another protest since that weekend in April 2001. I lost my faith in elected governments. I lost my faith in direct action. I lost my faith, in some ways, in social change. Maybe I just grew up.

I try to keep fighting, but Quebec City changed me forever. It turns out that was what democracy looks like.

Roberta Lexier is an Associate Professor in the Department of General Education at Mount Royal University. She studies social movements and left politics in the territory known as Canada.

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