Apr 252012


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.”

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