A woman in her fifties lies motionless on the ground, unconscious or almost so. Bystanders hold up her legs and three masked policemen rush to the scene. A little man in army clothes is also frolicking around the scene. When one of the bystanders asks him what his job actually is, he answers diligently: ‘I am a buffer between the police and the people. I am here to protect the citizens, it is certain that something is going to happen today.’
Thousands of people continue to flock to the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, Canada, where the demonstration against the covid-19 measures will soon start. It is noon, the sun is shining and Bob Marley’s protest song sounds through the speakers: ‘Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights‘. There is no social distancing here. The vast majority of the demonstrators are not wearing a face mask either. Today it seems to be party time.
‘Do you want a hug?’ a man with a beaming smile asks everyone who walks by. Many accept with pleasure. If you look around, you will see that there are numerous T-shirts with the text ‘Free Hugs’. But for every hugger, you also see someone in paramilitary outfit keeping a close eye on things, ready to ‘protect the people’ from the police. It makes for a strange picture.
Suddenly, Daniel Pilon, one of the organisers of the demonstration, walks by. Surrounded by three hefty bodyguards, he moves triumphantly through the crowd like a Sun King. Pilon is a conspiracy theorist with a YouTube channel and 60k followers on Facebook. Not long ago, he insinuated that Bill Gates would integrate a microchip into the covid vaccine, in order to control the world’s population through 5G technology. Here at the demonstration in Montreal, people are lining up to gratefully and admiringly shake Pilon’s hand. I wonder if I have contracted covid-19 yet.
In Daniel Pilon’s wake follows Maxime Bernier, the leader of the right-wing populist Parti Populaire du Canada. There are also plenty of Trump flags and red caps at the demonstration. The Donald clearly still has fans in Quebec, who also have all the attributes to show this off today. ‘We will not be fooled by the media‘, a bearded man roars in my direction.
I promptly march on a bit faster and end up in a thick haze of incense. Next to me, a woman with long black hair is walking. She is enthusiastically blowing on a large pink conch shell, her eyes devoutly fixed on the sky. On her index finger she wears a silver ring with a large turquoise stone in it, the kind you also find in the oriental jewelry shop. In the background, we hear a drumbeat that gets louder with every step we take. We are approaching something, but what?
Deep guttural sounds
Thirty metres later, the drums turn out to be fervently played by five men and women, who together form an improvised circle. The people here are adorned with wooden earrings, flowers in their hair and small jewels on their foreheads. A slender girl is in the middle of the circle and holds a smoking bundle of herbal leaves in the air, like a burning torch. She dances wildly to the rhythmic drumming, spreading the smoke of the smouldering sage. Besides the hypnotic drumming, deep guttural sounds now rise from the circle. It seems that I am witnessing a purification ceremony. The people around the drummers crowd together to catch a glimpse of this spiritual spectacle. Or to be cleansed of the virus, who knows?
A man with curly brown hair tied in a ponytail steps into the circle. The girl with the herb leaves stops her ritual dance and the two fall into each other’s arms. The close embrace lasts for some time and is visibly intoxicating for the girl. Every time she opens her eyes, I see the mild glow in her dreamy gaze. Just before the entwining is broken, she kisses the man tenderly on the cheek. The audience feasts on it; this is what everyone is longing for.
Against the truncheons
Montreal is a red zone. A curfew has been in place here for months. Cafés and restaurants are closed; friends sometimes see each other in the park, with a two-meter distance. In Canada, nearly 25,000 people have died from covid-19 so far. That is 65 deaths per hundred thousand inhabitants. In comparison: Belgium has 214 covid-19 deaths per hundred thousand inhabitants, the United States 177. (Source: Johns Hopkins University, last update on 10 May 2021)
A blonde woman in her forties walks by and holds up a large placard. On it, in huge letters, is written L’amour gagne toujours. I ask the woman how I should understand this slogan, in relation to the coronavirus and the fight against it. She looks at me in surprise, as if I am asking her about the square root of 537. Then she begins to ponder deeply for the right words in her head, until she sputters out an answer: ‘L’amour is the light. And the light will drive out the dark’. ‘All right then’, I think to myself.
Again, a guy in commando style walks by, with heavy boots, an army helmet, camouflage trousers and a bulletproof vest. I approach him cautiously and ask as politely as possible what exactly his job is. ‘To intervene when the police act, but in a pacifist way. I hope the demonstration will be peaceful.’ ‘But why are you wearing these war clothes then?’ ‘It protects me from the truncheons’, he explains. ‘I see’, I nod. ‘Did you bring a weapon as well?’ ‘No, I’m just wearing a bodycam to record everything’. A camera is indeed attached to the man’s helmet. ‘With how many more colleagues are you here’, I ask. ‘No idea, everything is organised online through our network. I don’t know how many of us will actually show up’.
There’s that girl with the herb leaves again. This time she walks alone, without torch and drumbeat. I walk with her for a while and we get into a conversation. ‘It’s just too much, this curfew and the face mask requirement. People should have the freedom of choice, so that everyone can take responsibility when they need to.’ ‘Aha,’ I say, ‘but do you wear your mask when you visit your grandmother, for example?’ The girl hesitates and then says ‘No, my grandma doesn’t care’. ‘And so you still see your friends too?’ ‘Yes’.
Of the nearly 25,000 people who have died from covid-19 in Canada so far, more than 4,600 have died in Montreal. Of those 4,600 deaths in Montreal, more than 4,200 were over the age of 70. The organisers of the demonstration consider the measures taken by the government disproportionate and unjustifiable. They want their normal lives back. A large banner in the sea of people catches my eye. The slogan reads Make influenza great again.
In various places, parties spontaneously break out. One guy has brought his complete DJ table and connected it to an impressive sound system. He stands happily pumping out beats at the edge of the parade and the crowd goes wild. You can taste the sweetness of regained freedom. All the playlists seem to be tuned to that today, with earworms like Everybody’s free (to feel good) by Rozalla. A man climbs to the top of a traffic light and whips up the crowd from there.
Around 4 pm, the march is over, the route has been covered and the majority of people go home, with or without covid-19. A few groups of demonstrators stick around at the end point. I try to score some interesting photos and my lens catches two tough men in motorbike gang style. Even before I have focused, I am presented with a raised middle finger. I snap them anyway and nod to the men in greeting. ‘It’s about done here isn’t it?’, I add, trying to break the uncomfortable atmosphere. ‘Do you think so?’ one of them retorts. It’s a man with a long orange beard, about five piercings in his face and a black leather cowboy hat on his head.
He looks at me grinning from behind his mirrored sunglasses. ‘Some of the demonstrators will probably stay a bit longer today, to smash up things. Not the little shops, but that building over there, for example, it looks a bit “rich”’. He points to a charming little castle across the street, which nowadays serves as a historical museum. ‘Is that perhaps the reason why you’ve come here today’, I ask with a wink. ‘Oh no, not at all, but of course something can always happen’, the man replies somewhat mysteriously.
The cat and mouse game with the police can begin. A small group of hotheads is looking for a confrontation. The first flares are fired and smoke bombs thrown, but the police are not provoked and keep their distance. ‘No pictures of me, please, I have a job‘, one of the troublemakers shouts at me. In the end, four arrests are made, everyone leaves and around 5 p.m., the streets are quiet again.
Prime Minister Trudeau
According to a police officer, there were at least 15-20,000 people at the demonstration. Of course, not all of them were ‘huggers and Trumpists’. Many layers of the population were present, from young to old.
On the eve of the demonstration, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau already said he was very disappointed by the planned protest. ‘The irony here is that by gathering, people are putting each other at risk, spreading further cases of covid-19, and extending the time in which we will have to be faced with restrictions and public health measures.’
A few days after the march, I had myself tested for the virus; fortunately I turned out not to be infected.
For more pictures on this article: see my Instagram account (story highlight titled ‘MTL Protest’).