By Susan Semenak, The Gazette
MONTREAL – A crowd of 250,000 people or more inched its way through downtown and onto Mount Royal Sunday afternoon in what was Quebec’s largest-ever Earth Day march.
This time it wasn’t students wearing red squares, waving red flags and clashing with police. Capping a week of raucous student demonstrations, Sunday’s event was a peaceful, family-oriented rally that drew activists from around the province, who had come with a variety of complaints about the federal and provincial governments’ handling of environmental issues. They waved Quebec flags, carried banners that read “La terre n’est pas à vendre” and “Harper = dictateur”and blasted Quebec Premier Jean Charest for his Plan Nord project for oil and gas exploration in the north. There were plenty of Montreal families in the crowd, too: parents with little children in strollers who stopped in busy Place des festivals to eat picnic lunches, and senior citizens who came by the busload. Many said they had never before attended an Earth Day event.
Montreal police don’t provide official crowd estimates, but individual officers said they thought numbers had topped 200,000. Earth Day organizers themselves were stunned, pinning the number of participants at 250,000 or 300,000, given that for a solid 2½ hours marchers packed Bleury St. and then Ave. du Parc as they inched their way along the kilometre-long stretch from Ste. Catherine St. toward Jeanne Mance Park, where they formed a massive “human tree” to be photographed from above. For hours, downtown streets remained closed to traffic and there were lineups to get into the métro.
“The student protests seem to have sparked a larger feeling of malaise, of protest, among Quebecers,” said Claudine Allaire, a senior citizen from the Laurentians, who drove into Montreal with her partner for her first Earth Day protest.
“I am not any kind of activist, but I am fed up with the government, about how it is handling the environment and how often I hear about corruption when I turn on the news.”
Gregory Pratte came with his school-aged children, along with a group of 10 families from Laval and the north shore who had used Facebook and Twitter to enourage others to come, too. Standing in a sea of people at the corner of Ste. Catherine and Jeanne Mance Sts., Pratte said he had a feeling the protest was “the start of something big.”
“It’s cold and miserable, and still all these people came out. We came for the future of our children. We came to make ourselves heard,” he said. “Maybe, just maybe, we are ready to rise up. Maybe I will tell my children 25 years from now that we were here when a new social movement began.”
Turnout for the three-hour event was 10 times what Earth Day organizers had anticipated, said Yves Lanctot, one of more than 800 volunteers who kept marchers along the official route.
The crowd was a mixed group of environmental activists denouncing the Quebec government’s Plan Nord northern exploration plans and shale gas exploration, as well as the federal government’s axing of the Katimavik youth environmental program and Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol. Lanctot said activists from as far away as Rimouski, Sept Îles and Trois Rivières had rented buses and come to join the Montreal Earth Day march.
“We are a quarter-million strong and we have big ideas,” said well-known activist and co-founder of Equiterre Steven Guilbault, addressing the crowd on a giant screen set up at Jeanne Mance Park. “We want to be heard.”