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Radical cities: Montreal

Andrew Winchur offers a quick guide to the radical capital of North America

April 1, 2015
6 min read

On the evening of 22 March 2012 almost 200,000 people filed through downtown Montreal, banging on pots, pans, woks, roasters, French skillets, griddles, dutch ovens and barbecue lids. They had come to protest against the Quebec government’s ‘Bill 78’, an emergency law designed to quell a growing university student strike. Overnight, spontaneous demonstrations of 50 or more people were declared illegal. Many who had once expressed ambivalence or even hostility towards the striking students now joined them, decrying state overreach and the shredding of civil rights. Inspired by protesters in 1970s-era Chile, who banged on pots to express their frustration with the Pinochet regime, the ‘Casseroles’ movement swept through Montreal, greater Quebec, Canada and even overseas. By the beginning of June, sympathy marches were planned in Vancouver, London, New York and Paris, among dozens of other cities across the world.

Welcome to Montreal, North America’s bastion of radicalism. Pundits and critics will try to convince you otherwise, arguing that politics in this island city fall along a linguistic fault line: Francophones and Anglophones locked into a generations-old pattern of mutual distrust and ressentiment. But beyond this stale rivalry lies a rich history of leftist struggle and a far more heterogeneous political culture.

Hop on the metro and travel to Côte-des-Neiges, one of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in all of Canada. There, you can visit the Immigrant Workers’ Centre (4755 Van Horne) and learn about current struggles to defend immigrant rights and improve their living and working conditions. Besides organising popular education and language workshops for local residents, the IWC plays an important cultural role in the activist community by hosting community dinners, working-class arts festivals and even anti-racist football tournaments.

Be sure also to stop by the Jewish Public Library – just down the road from the monumental St. Joseph’s Oratory basilica (3800 Chemin Queen Mary) – for a peek into Montreal’s legacy of Hebraic and Yiddish radicalism. Although it survives today as a liberal institution, the JPL took shape in the early 1900s, quickly establishing itself as an important cultural hub for North American Yiddish and Hebrew speakers. Thanks to the influence of Jewish radicals such as Hirsh Hershman, Yehudah Kaufman and Leizer Zucker, it was explicitly modelled as ‘a People’s Institution, founded by the People for the People’, where socialist and anarchist workers could access radical broadsheets and meet to discuss the pressing issues of the day.

When you’re ready to take part in some of Montreal’s famed nightlife be sure to check out Sala Rossa (4848 Blvd Saint-Laurent), located in the picturesque (and mostly gentrified) Plateau. Try some tapas in the resto on the main floor, or see what’s playing at the hip concert venue upstairs – homegrown indie acts such as Mac DeMarco, Grimes and the Arcade Fire have graced its stage numerous times. As the name suggests, this massive institution serves as the home of Montreal’s Centro Social Español (Spanish Social Centre); originally, however, it was conceived with very different cultural priorities in mind. Built between 1932 and 1936 by the Arbeiter Ring, a New York-based labour Zionist support network, the Workmen’s Circle Centre – as it was known then – originally functioned as another political and cultural home for the Jewish working classes, and maintained strong ties to the Canadian and American labour movements.

Sadly, recent decades have witnessed the divergence of Zionist and leftist energies, and by the turn of the millennium Zionist supporters were among the most vociferous opponents of leftist activism, as evidenced during the infamous 2002 ‘Netanyahu riot’ at Concordia University. You won’t see a trace of it when you stop by the school’s Henry F Hall Auditorium (1455 Blvd de Maisonneuve O), but chaos broke out when Israel’s then-former and future prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived to speak in September of that year. Hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists and supporters tried to block entry to the event, and a small group of protesters managed to sneak their way into the building to confront the heavy police detail guarding the auditorium. The ensuing melee led to several arrests, the shattering of the building’s glass façade and the firing of tear gas canisters into the school ventilation system. As a result, the building was evacuated, Netanyahu’s talk was cancelled, and Montreal plunged into an intense public debate on Canada’s role in the Israel/Palestine conflict, as well as the place of politics in public universities.

From Concordia, travel east through the downtown core along Boulevard de Maisonneuve, past the art galleries, performance spaces and public plazas that make up Place des Arts, until you reach L’insoumise (the Insubordinate, 2033 St. Laurent), the final stop on the tour. Since 2004, this small, volunteer-run anarchist bookstore has become a fulcrum for leftist thought and conversation in both English and French. Browse the store’s packed shelves for eye-catching texts on Marxism, the Situationist International, critical psychology, radical education, and every conceivable strand of anarchism.

Ask one of the friendly volunteers about Dira, the anarchist library and archive operating one floor up, or inquire about the cabarets periodically staged on the third floor by the Anarchist Writers Bloc. If you’re feeling brave, take advantage of their open mic and add your own poetry, theatre piece, song or comedy routine to the mix.

For those visiting during May or early June, brace yourselves for an explosion of radical actions and art, as the city plays host to a full-fledged, six-week long Festival of Anarchy. One standout event is the Glamarchist Lookfair (2015 time and location TBD), a combined DJ dance party and fundraiser for the anti-capitalist Queer Between the Covers book collective. For theatre buffs, there’s the option of show after show at the International Anarchist Theatre Festival. Inquisitive minds can look for talks and screenings throughout the city (past sessions include ‘À qui la ville? Montreal organising assembly against gentrification’ and ‘Defending the land: indigenous resistance to extraction’), or peruse the stalls at the annual (and enormous) Anarchist Bookfair (2450 rue Workman & 2515 rue Delisle).

For those in town on 7 June, the annual Status For All demonstration and picnic is an activist must, bringing together as it does Indigenous struggles for autonomy and self-determination with migrant workers’ protests against deportation and detention (2015 location and time TBD).

Above and beyond their political demands, the organisers of Status For All represent some of the best of the modern left: multi- (rather than bi-) lingual, multicultural, multidirectional. While conservatives, liberals and even some progressives continue to fixate on Montreal’s tired language woes, the city’s radicals have long since moved on to more interesting struggles.


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