Five people were arrested, two American flags were burned, shoes were thrown, and an effigy was beaten to a blaring Wu-Tang soundtrack as Montrealers gathered to protest a talk by former president George W. Bush on Thursday at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel.
The protest was organized in part by the George Bush Welcoming Committee, a coalition of many anti-war, anti-poverty, and solidarity groups. They held signs and banners, blew horns, and chanted slogans in French and English, calling the former president a terrorist and demanding that he return to the United States.
“George Bush, we know you. Your daddy was a killer too!” the crowd chanted.
René-Lévesque was shut down between University and Peel, as hundreds of protesters blocked off the street. Dozens of riot police guarded the entrance and street-level windows, one of which advertised the hotel as the site of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Montreal Bed-In for peace in 1969.
Matthew McLauchlin, who co-chairs the NDP’s Federal Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Transsexual committee, was present at the protest.
“It’s not every day that you get to denounce in person the man who started two wars this decade, ushered in an economic collapse, and did more to disrupt the world treaties and fragile agreements that kept the world at some level of basic decency,” McLauchlin said.
Inside, Bush received a standing ovation at the beginning and end of his talk. He spoke about life after the presidency, Canada-U.S. relations, and the milestones of his time in office – September 11, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the economic crisis – before taking questions from the moderator, John Parisella, the former chief of staff for Quebec premiers Robert Bourassa and Daniel Johnson.
The audience applauded Bush as he defended the U.S. response to September 11.
“When the first plane hit, it was an accident, when the second one hit it was an attack, and when the third one hit it was a declaration of war,” Bush said. “This is a war against ideologues who kill innocent [civilians]. I made the decision that my most important job was to protect citizens…. My mission was to stay on the offensive, and be relentless.”
Bush also commented on how he felt Iraq and Afghanistan were “two fronts in the same war” against “ideologues that spread hate in the name of false religion.”
“Some say Muslims don’t want to be free,” he said. “I believe freedom is universal.”
Bush was paid $100,000 to speak at the private, invitation-only event sponsored in part by the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations, and the prominent law firm Ernst & Young.
Judith Berlyn, one of the main organizers of Collectif Échec à la Guerre, was upset that prominent Montreal institutions had invited Bush to speak and paid for his appearance.
“The Montreal Chamber of Commerce is applying a double standard here. I mean they wouldn’t invite Pinochet. [Bush] should be treated as persona non grata,” said Berlyn. “The war industry flourishes in Montreal, and I personally wonder whether there is a connection with his visit,” she added.
During the question and answer session, Bush stated that if Saddam Hussein were still in power, there would be an ongoing arms race between Iraq and Iran. When asked for his thoughts on his achievements and failures, Bush said he felt his best work was helping to foster democracy in the Middle East, while his greatest mistake was failing to reform social security.
At least a dozen McGill students were present at the protest, and twice as many attended the event after winning tickets raffled by the political science department.
McGill student Sean Simeson, U3 Political Science, reflected on Bush’s faith in his own ideology.
“One thing that struck me was how candid he was. Everything that comes out of his mouth he believes to be true,” Simeson said.
Max Suderow, U3 Political Science and History, had a similar reaction.
“[Bush] frames the world into an ideological debate. I fundamentally disagree with him. The way he was discussing the Middle East seemed very naive,” Suderow said. “He talks about himself as someone who fights tyranny, brings freedom, but he picks and chooses.”
Bush responded directly to many of the criticisms of his administration, occasionally admitting to mistakes. In response to a question on what decisions he would have made differently, Bush pointed to his public image and his administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina.
“I think some of my language sent bad signals. I was a pretty bad speaker and did sloppy work,” he said. “When I think about Katrina, whether I should have sent federal troops, even if it was illegal…. I’ll leave the answer to my book.”
He commented on the financial crisis that escalated during his term in office and criticized the current American government for increasing involvement in the economy.
“I don’t believe the government should lead us out. I believe in the private sector only. Taxes must reward risk. In order to recover, the government needs to get out of the private sector, like autos,” he said. Bush’s prescription for poverty was similar, recommending that free trade was the only way out of abject poverty for developing nations
Ewald Friesen, a political science graduate student commented on Bush’s economic stance after the talk.
“One of the most unsurprising things is that he is unapologetically committed to neoliberalism,” said Friesen. “In many ways he is the embodiment of his brand of neo-conservatism. Trade is the answer to whatever ails you…. In response to the global economic meltdown, on bankers and stockbrokers, he claimed that ‘greedy’ is too strong a word.”
Despite admitting to his own faults, Bush maintained that the U.S. would see Republicans return to power.
“I believe 2010 will be a comeback for our party. The two presidents who picked up seats during their first term are FDR and me,” he said. “American people tend to reject extremes, and pretty soon sober leadership will show up. We’re not very long into the new administration. It’s the beginning of a new cycle, but the environment will change.”
The press was not formally invited to attend, though reporters from Le Devoir and Radio Canada were present. Claude Levesque, a journalist at Le Devoir, commented that the exclusion of the press may have raised eyebrows.
“The press wasn’t disallowed, but it wasn’t formally invited,” Levesque said. “It may look as if they wanted to hold this behind closed doors without the press.”
—with files from Michael Lee-Murphy