Florence Vallières

Concordia Salus


Illustration by Florence Vallières

“I will, if you’re consistent about moderating!”

I’m watching Evan stand at the mic in the Hall auditorium, stiff amid a sustained round of applause and hoots by the students in the seats. That was for when he was asked to pipe down. There were three or four in suits on the stage that day—our interim president Lowy and various vice-chancellors and officials. Evan presented them with an open letter drafted by himself and one of his teachers and signed by faculty, students, and staff alike, at Concordia University proper and elsewhere, basically overnight. The letter demanded, among other things, that the $20 fee for incomplete grades to be granted be waived. For most active participants in the Concordia strike that meant either paying $100 or so to buy yourself more time to complete your schoolwork or losing your semester.

A few days later the administration, in a placating gesture that was nonetheless a lifeline, granted the waiver.

This strike is the first of its kind at Concordia. The Francophone universities in Québec, however, are used to this type of arm-wrestling. The most politically active of these, UQàM, was born from the school reforms of the late 1960s that sought universal post-secondary education. The stronghold of the student union CLASSE and home to the typographic initiative École de la Montagne Rouge, UQàM, along with other universities and colleges across the province, has seen its semester completely disturbed since February, when they went on strike, and ultimately suspended with Bill 78. Concordia and McGill, the two biggest Anglophone universities in the province of Québec, saw themselves tackling both the hikes and the cultural divide that complicates (and spices up) Francophone and Anglophone co-existence.

* * *

I’m on the terrace at le Pick-Up; there’s no connection. I have to get this out. I can’t weasel out of all the tics and mannerisms that make up my writing. I can’t shy away from the sticky emotions, the way they grabbed me, the way I’d find myself among all these people, my people, thousands of them speaking all my languages. Chanting. And chanting with them, like I did on May 17th, 2012, the night we found ourselves screaming all the louder after Bill 78 attempted to gag us, I found I could not chant in French, I could only chant in québécois, my mother tongue, my childhood tongue I erased, reworked, and all but lost but never quite misplaced.

* * *

The Printemps Érable started in November of last year for me. Earlier than that for some—when the Bachand budget was released in the spring of 2011. Our premier, a monsieur Jean Charest, has been a barnacle on a rock these past 10 years with none of the latter’s elegance, suffering his name to be associated with corruption and financing scandals over the years without batting an eyelid. His contemptuous, slow, flabby, manipulative speech has managed time and again to throw me into day-long rages where I bite my cuticles raw and apologize endlessly.

* * *

They’re playing Sonique in the kitchens and the girls are singing along.

* * *

“Printemps Érable” bears that adorable and infuriating resemblance to other parallels we in Québec tend to draw between international crises and our own provincial grievances—comparing ourselves to Northern Ireland in the 1920s, to Israel and Palestine, and I’m not sure I want to pull out more examples, they’re embarrassing. I like our Maple Spring, though, with its Arab Spring echoes, because the expression is born from an admiration for the peoples that only last year shook themselves into what could have been political agency. More humorous emulation than appropriation.

* * *

This is sometime in the fall, early in the term; it got cold pretty fast. We’ve been granted amnesty by the school, haven’t we? I seem to remember an email or communication that stated that if we wanted to take part in the march, it’d be okay, teachers should practice leniency. I’m just out of drawing class, I stuffed my great roll of newsprint in a black plastic tube I slung over my shoulder. I’m mildly worried it looks like a bazooka. I’ve never been to a march before.

* * *

I’m amused my life and person bear the mark of my family’s ascent in the world so unequivocally—I’m the daughter of a musician and a journalist, themselves the children of working-class families that largely profited from the same measures that created UQàM. They sent their numerous kids to university and on their way to comfort. My parents, who felt my public school left a lot to be desired in terms of, well, schooling, sent me off to a French institution typically attended by the children of European diplomats and expatriates. In the 10 years I spent there I grew disconnected from Québec culture and my mother tongue, both by habit and design, and absorbed the relative scorn towards it I felt floating around. Learning English, learning to speak it, was ever a way out of my confused accents, a tender topic if ever there was one in Québec. But even that comes with its quirk ; I speak English too well, I speak it too much. Québec is a place where learning a language, or failing to, can be political.

* * *

Early March 2012. The Fine Arts Student Alliance is holding a Special General Meeting on the seventh floor of the Hall by the People’s Potato, the vegan cantine that serves free food weekdays for a couple of hours. It smells like barley and thali. I came with my friend Didi and we sit on the floor. There’s a lot of people, and the meeting is long. We end up with an open-ended strike effective the following Monday that does not affect student-run initiatives like shows or festivals. We can use the facilities, studios and editing suites to make art—we are encouraged to make art in the open, in the hallways, in the lobbies.

* * *

The police’s sporadic bullying of unilingual Anglophones students (the Concordia Student Union distributes wee cards with French text before protests to be given to officers in case of an arrest to avoid stoking up the fire), the relative reluctance of some to enter Eastern Montréal territory where my parents grew up and where balconies are adorned with posters reading “Québec : un nouveau pays pour le monde”, the Patriot and Québec flags blooming in the protests, the anti-anglo sentiments riled up by the unfair coverage of the strike and protests by the Canadian media, initially excessively scathing towards the struggling students… and Québec politics, all of this, should I linger on it, would paint a picture of Québec nationalism too dark to be accurate. I tend to be extremely severe in my judgements of Québec, but let me rephrase… A drop of French in a sea of English…

* * *

I press my face against the window of the VA gallery. This one is messy—the police cars are in the middle of it. It’s carnival-themed.

* * *

The “silent majority” invoked by the current government to root its power and decisions in presumed consent hasn’t shook itself as of yet—not yet.

* * *

My harsh judgements are tempered by my strong ties to Québec culture, despite my appearances of a disconnected, Frenchified English sympathizer: my Montréal brand of chauvinism and my indomitable fondness for my extended family, all Québec Montrealers, my participation in the protests alongside countless Québec youths my age, have made me feel of late that I belong, that I am a part of it all, despite having been estranged from it for a decade or so.

* * *

My grandma has always been proud of her rather good English accent. Lately she’s been remembering that at work—she was a telephone operator for Bell Canada—she was not allowed to speak French, not ever except at her switchboard to connect Francophone customers. She was not allowed to speak French on the job to her francophone coworkers, not even in the cafeteria to her friends.

* * *

I had a presentation due that day for my Performance class. I borrowed the keys to the classroom, my roommate’s camera and tripod.

It was darkest, coldest night when I left the house.

Past security I went up to my locker and left my shoes. In an effort that felt tacky I wore my red scarf. I gingerly kneeled on the concrete floor, set up the Canon, and lay down across the open door. I had amended my initial idea and opted to do my homework striking by turning into a limp, 5 foot 7 (lengthwise) picket line. I drifted in and out of sleep. I tucked myself in under my coat. The noise was incredible—high-pitched hums all-surround. A few feet away from my head a pair of sturdy shoes—the security guard crackled in his talkie, tout est normal.

* * *

Dance workshops, gigantic drawn cadavres exquis and spontaneous knitting stations bloomed all over the Sir George William campus.

* * *

I was safest here, in-between waters. I felt like a witness to the debate that unfolded over my body between students who didn’t care and students who cared too much—the teacher’s obvious sympathy for and understanding of the strike took a while to sink in their heads. They wanted to argue themselves a shield.

* * *

My mom said they never used to go over the mountain, out West. That was all English there.

I grew up out West. Still on Montréal proper but out West tucked by Westmount, one of the cities on the Montréal island that sprinkles its castles on the western flank of the mountain.

I’ve heard English on Saint-Denis these past 6 years—I don’t remember hearing it as a child—I’ve heard English all the way in Hochelaga, where my wee dad played cowboys in the vacant fields.


* * *

The great rush of recognition, of belonging, brought about by this last spring hasn’t been one of these all-enfolding redemptions I’m not entirely sure exist. A crowd allowed protesters to march in black face paint pulling a giant puppet of our premier. There is not the same stigma on the practice of painting oneself black in French culture, I believe, but while I used to think it was “cultural” and that our cinema, French or québécois, never really had this as a common practice, I now shudder to think that somehow we all miss out on how completely nonsensical this is—to associate blackness with slavehood and think we are only criticizing the practice while we are in fact enforcing the connection. I also couldn’t quite get the student videographers and leaders as they shrugged and claimed there was none around when asked about why no visible minority was represented by the student unions. Are we really that small-town? Is it that hard to reach out?

* * *

March 22nd. I got to Concordia early on this fine day—it was uncommonly warm. There’d still be snow this late in March. I’d parted ways with Alonso who would be marching from McGill. The University had closed in preparation for the huge crowd expected to gather at its doors.

In retrospect I brought much too much paint. I headed for the park benches on Mackay and made my way down from cluster to cluster, painting the left ears red of those who would allow me and photographing the profiles. In my first tries in performance nights and events I used sponges but this time I compromised on hygiene—I made up for it by getting a thick enough layer of red face paint on my index finger that only the paint would touch the outer ear.

I painted everyone I could approach till I couldn’t talk anymore. To those who felt the ear was too weird I gave cheek stripes or drew squares over their right eyes for Francis Grenier. Some sent friends over for me to paint.

* * *

“You may be the first Canadian I meet,” my dad said after another discussion of Québec and its status in the greater Canada. No, he amended, his own father was one. This grandpa I never knew was bilingual and believed in confederation. In his day, Québécois were called Canadiens-français. That expression fell into disuse after the ’70s and the great wave of separatism that came about after Québec shook itself from its cancerous clergy. I use it at times—I tend to deplore that this specificity of Québec means we cut the pockets of French found across the other provinces from our discussions on language and cultural specificity. I tend to feel the most common brand of separatism is close-minded and exclusive. Yet I hear, sometimes, of a separatism that considers Québec as the merging of multiple cultures, and considers its social-democratic tendencies a proof of its difference and a reasonable claim for its sovereignty.

A speech at the provincial assembly that defended separatism depicted an independant Québec so green, so fair, so feminist and so baller I got all riled up against the existence of a federal government and then laughed at myself. We do what we can with what we’re given and the best we’ve come up with is Charest. A sovereign people and an actual confederation, concordia salus, are dreams I live to dream again, simultaneously.

* * *

This was the saddest Special General Meeting. After my friend Didi read out an address that challenged us to participate and preserve what makes people flock to Montréal, to Québec, namely the cultural scene, the schools and cheap rent, the long string of people in line for the mic listed their woes and laid bare their discouragement. Self-titled veterans of the movement were ready to acknowledge defeat or find new strategies and depart from a strike. I rested my head against the back of a couch somewhere in the middle of the 7th floor lobby and closed my eyes.

We never made quorum that day, but the suggestion to go to Lowy’s offices and sit out there was taken up on. I dropped in on my Electronics class to let them know and found the crits in full swing, with a wee robot on wheels outlining a shadow on a pad of paper on the lab floor. I had to sit down. The sympathetic smiles weren’t enough to dull my disappointment in missing out on the work, nor to soothe the embarrassment I felt over emailing everybody the night prior to encourage them to attend the Fine Arts Student Alliance meeting as a class. I’m way out of my depth here. Not only was I never politically involved, apart from a fair-trade stint in high school ; in the past years I’ve developed a sturdy reluctance to debate an opinion or take a stand. I have a terrible distaste for arguments and I resent having to defend myself. I tend to walk away. I tend to be quiet. I’ve been a bit of a coward.

I went up to Lowy’s offices in the John Molson School of Business building and was welcomed by a smattering of applause as a few of us got off the elevator. The sit-in gathered a good crowd that hooted and drummed beats and cracked jokes with the agent at Lowy’s door. I stayed but a little and made my way home.

Later on I saw a video of my friend Evan face to face with Lowy in the crowd. He’s much taller than our interim president. His back was hunched and his fingertips joined, stressing each word. What struck me was that despite the apparent anger on his face and the intensity of his posture, despite having found himself the spontaneous spokeperson for the 60 or so students gathered at Lowy’s door, Evan made an articulate, clever address that staked our demands strongly but without rigidity—I could hear in his words a wish for consensus. Concordia salus.

A day or so later we all got emailed.

April 5, 2012

Concordia President hosts Town Hall April 10

Students invited to attend meeting

Following an impromptu meeting I had with some students earlier this week, I have decided to host a meeting to listen to students express their opinions about the increase in tuition fees, as announced by the Quebec government.

Please join me for a Town Hall meeting on:

Tuesday, April 10
12 p.m-1 p.m.
Henry F. Hall Building, Room H-110
1455 De Maisonneuve Blvd. W.

Frederick Lowy
President and Vice-Chancellor

* * *

On Earth Day Ben and I walk down Saint-Urbain Street towards the Place des Spectacles along with a throng of people. All sorts. It is vaguely reminiscent of the Zombie Walk I saw file down the same street. We rode the bus for part of the way—it was so incredibly crowded that we were crammed in front right next to the driver and a little old lady kept grabbing Ben’s sleeve to keep her balance, apologizing and smoothing it as soon as she was confident enough to let go. The gathering is enormous; the greenery of the banners here and there accented with red felt.

* * *

Sometimes I pun. These days when there is horse poo on the streets downtown I no longer go aw, horsies, but ew, pigs.

* * *

The most common nickname for the student protesters in the first few months was to call them petulant children—a girl my age on CBC News under the McGill gates with a sneer and a chuckle—and I’m brought back to my job at the daycare where the kids said the same of their peers (not as articulately—it was mostly done in finger-pointing) to be in my good graces, I the adult and Mighty Provider of second helpings.

Who do they want to ingratiate themselves with me, I wonder? I won’t give them desserts.

* * *

After numerous unsuccessful meetings where we never reached quorum, Fine Arts Student Alliance’s annual meeting determined that the question of the strike’s continuation would be voted by referendum, but even that failed to resolve anything. After the meeting with Lowy I came out so incensed that despite my qualms over still handing in work and yet being nominally on strike I voted to continue. Silly me to be so literal; I lacked strategy.

Those who voted in the referendum—again, a fraction of the quorum—all voted in favour of the strike and the problem of active participation remained unsolved.

* * *

A week into my new job and a bunch o’ scallywags march against traffic on Sainte-Catherine Ouest. They’re in pirate suits. They’re CÉGEP students, they must be. We’re all beaming.

* * *

May 17th. At work and back home all I do is check the news, flickering online off and on. Signing petitions upon petitions in a doomed collective attempt to invalidate the proposal for Bill 78 before it’s voted on.

It’s being voted on.

It just passed.

I can’t stand still. I’ve been out of protests for a few weeks, following them on the news, and the images of student-police rumbles, circulated by the media, official or social, have made their way into my guts. I’m mighty scared. I can’t stay home, though. That new law is nothing short of an insult. It’s just begging to be broken. It was probably written to that effect. That new law demands broken skulls.

We bike down, lock up and make our way into the grumbling shouting throngs. New chants were invented for the occasion and it’s furiously contagious—a minute in and I’m cracking my voice screaming, “Justice, yoohoo?”

Looping our trajectory we descend towards where it’s lit. Towering officers. They are huge, tall and burly, they look older, in their forties, in riot gear. They are unequivocally white. They’re all big men. We’re mostly kids with painted face. We’re soft-bellied and skinny both. They are so big. They stand in the street lights, legs wide spread, truncheon in hand. We have to walk past them on our way and it chills our blood, it’s like in a bad dream where things are immobile and threatening, it’s like Chihiro on the bridge holding her breath to stay unseen.

Aw, I always leave too early to get beat up.

We found our way to an ice cream parlour.

* * *

I’m walking down Guy Street along with the protesters. May 22nd. I’m on the sidewalk, just off work. On the asphalt the crowd is scattered and slow—not as packed as I know. A few cops on dark gigantic horses are shifting and shuffling behind me. I’m a little scared of the big please-men on their giant horses with the plexi visors.

I get off the curb once I’m on René Lévesque, and into the throng. I’m marching home. I weasel in and out of packs—I remember graying heads, women as old as my auntie. This is the first monthly protest since the passing of Bill 78. I’m in a hurry but I can’t help looking around. The banners are great. A flash of skin and two girls my age tumble in front of me, naked as needles, clutching each other giggling. The crowd around us grins sheepish grins, titillated, complicit, proud grins. I crack up when I see a couple of businessmen in suits on René Lévesque and Peel ogling beamish.

I fall in stride with Evan and friend and we pass a reeducation center. They wheeled their patients out; they’re waving at us. Red square pinned to their shirts, Québec flags tucked in their armrests.

* * *

From the third floor of the EV building we hear the din of the monthly march. June 22nd today. On Guy, trickling up towards Sherbrooke, Patriot and Québec flags pricked with felt squares poke at us.

* * *

When I think of the upcoming provincial elections, I see the inevitable split of the left and the very good chance Charest has of sprouting right in the middle like a great ugly mushroom.

I also remember the federal elections of last year where Québec essentially flushed their federal champion Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois (a party only represented in Québec) to vote New Democrats, a center-left party, into official opposition, and change the perennial binary of liberals vs. conservatives in federal politics. So desperate were we to rid ourselves of Harper, so disgusted with the federal Liberals, who like their provincial counterparts raked in the public funds scandals. Québec can do strategic.

But Charest and his cabinet have been unmatched in their manipulation of the information, taking the paternal stance of “responsibility” and social order. They’re claiming that the elections early in September will “solve” the conflict. They’re essentially saying that if they’re back on the horse they were right all along. I’m not entirely sure I understand the timing. In August, classes will resume as stipulated by the special law. Could they be thinking that the predicted ruckus and resurgence of the strike and protests might just distract students from the polls ? Charest has recklessly and relentlessly taken us for fools and gotten away with it. His government weathered the historical uproars of the tuition increase and Bill 78 with the tenacity of a parasite. Everything that was bound to backfire, every unscrupulous strategy has incredibly maintained them in power. Common decency would require Charest to step down and walk around with a turd on his head for the rest of his life.

I think Charest might not mind turds as much as most of us.

* * *

I’m on the phone with the police call center, waiting to be transferred, because earlier a man was verbally abused by two police officers right under my window. No idea what the man did, and he was not arrested.

I tell the operator what I’ve seen and that I want it duly noted. When she asks for my name, I fumble. Sure, if you make a complaint you give your name, that way you avoid abuse by making the plaintiff accountable; thing is, after all that’s happened over the past few months, after reports of people wearing the red square arrested in the metro, the “preventive” arrests at the F1 Grand Prix, the countless videos of gratuitously pepper-spraying officers, the skateboard thievery and the wee kids with cayenne in their eyes or confiscated Buzz Lightyear backpacks, I’m paranoid.

When I tell the operator I’m not comfortable with the idea of giving my name, she says something that ends with “officers doing their job.” Gulp. Please remind me what part of an officer’s job is verbal abuse.

Please don’t tell me I’m being naive.


* * *

Sexe! Amour! Et gratuité scolaire!

We’re on Laurier and Saint-Denis and there’s a young man with his dick in a stripey sock. He’s at the tail end of an undies march. In the thick of the crowd a few brazen ones have done away with it all. It’s a body art march. It’s a hairy titties march. Tummy finger paint screams “If we’re fucked anyway we might as well get naked.” Banners read “The student body against the hike.” Nipples are red square strips of tape or red frilly bows.

My shirt’s itching me. I want to kick my shoes off. The goofy smiles of the police are no longer endearing.

* * *

Another watercolour hair on the belly of a bear and the clanking continues. It sounds like hard work. Only it doesn’t: clang, clang, clang, on and on, and the noise doesn’t morph into goal-achieving clang, it persists in opaque clang-clang, and it’s getting on my nerves.

I go out back to sight the poor bloke who’s breaking his back at it; instead I hear a “Hey!” and look up to see Guido on the fire escape banging a spoon to a cooking pot. I climb to him and in yells he tells me that scattered everywhere in town are people with pots and pans banging away to protest against the new gag law. Every night, 8 pm.

A minute later I’m back up the stairs with a mixing bowl and a spoon and I’m clanking all the louder I can’t stand the noise. We’re eye-level with our neighbors, the granddaughters and -son of our landlord I should think, Hassidic like much of the neighborhood, and the boy after pulling a few faces at us zooms to the kitchen and back and clanks along. A little while later he pulls the window up and yells, “What’s the reason?”

* * *

The following night I’ll clank along with girls of my building I’ve never seen before, and out front by myself staring across the street at this mom and her toddler, these three teenagers, these elegant strangers.

* * *

The Labor Day march produced this magical picture of a row of police officers facing a row of protesters dangling doughnuts from fishing rods.

* * *

Avenue du Parc, first summer storm.

Sitting on the terrace at Tachico, the toyful Mexican sandwicherie close to home, and the sky flashes purple intermittently. Sitting across from us, a man in a dark clothes, in his early fifties, is writing his journal with a dip pen. I know his face; it’s Jean Leloup. I stare a little amused. A couple of kids walk past us banging pots. It’s 8 o’clock. A mom and her wee daughter, skipping-clanking. The sky darkens and further flashes. Ben and I must be talking about it because the gentleman chimes in and says it’s too bad they didn’t get to it earlier, say a few years ago. It’s too late now. They can’t even stay on the beat.

Trickitik-tik-tik-tik-tik-tik-tik. A threesome of bluish-haired scrawnies contradicts him a moment later. With a smile he concedes. I want to say, but isn’t that what’s great about this? The possibility of dissonance, of discord?

Go home, dolly daydream. Go on home and built a fort.

More purple flashes. We turn back to our plates and the gentleman leaves with his kerchief and leather boots. More clanking passers-by. When it’s raining in earnest we head towards home just as a clanking hord scatters itself on Saint-Viateur. In it I find my roommates Sean and Harmony who are banging away. We share utensils and I look around—it’s all of us young and it’s raining and we’re turning North on Hutchison. We’re drenched in minutes and pass the trees, the balconies with their turbaned ladies and frizzy toddlers. On Bernard st. the crowd dwindles, we find ourselves in tow. No cop in sight, no honking cars; a march of all of us young people in the blurry streets, our senses jumbled by the hotness of the day and the chilly rain, the green all around, basking in our own high spirits, grinning at the car drivers, safe and undaunted.

Meanwhile I want to build a fort.

* * *

“Two solitudes” has been the phrase used to denote the mutual indifference of Francophones and Anglophones within Canada. My friends and I disagree.

“Two solitudes” fails to address the 12 or so nations to whom Québec belongs as well.

Some of us are callous, and unfortunately these days those of us who are callous are in power; meanwhile we organize. The law school kids put up a website with our rights qua picket lines and arrests. The nurses run around in arm bands and they are busy. The artists make our banners, write our songs, edit their footage.

* * *

I’m working on an incomplete on the balcony of my parents’ house in Notre-de-Dame-Grâce. My neighbour and childhood friend tumbles down the stairs and from my perch I hear the faint clanging from inside her pink purse.

We haven’t talked in a while; it’s nice to know we’re still getting along.

* * *

Late evening and I’m biking to Ben’s and catch up with an impromptu march escorted by Hassid youths on their bikes. It’s a very quiet, residential street and the police car following the minime protest doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing.

* * *

I’m eight and driving around with my dad. He’s telling me about it. Our history and struggles, our declining birth rates and the chance we might someday go extinct. Québecosaurus. For the next few years I’ll stop doing my English homework.

I’m glad curiosity won out. I feel English is very much constructive of our language and identity. Maybe it’s like blood iron. Too much and you dwindle.

If we must dwindle in the end, let’s make beautiful art.

* * *

I still sense, at times, in certain discourses, in certain tones, some sort of disappointment that we’re not all little frogs in bonnets anymore. Oh dear. Friends, we’re not dying out; we’re changing. Fittest beware.

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