On the evening of Wednesday, October 26, more than one thousand people gathered at Place Émilie-Gamelin for a demonstration against rape culture. Organized partially in response to a series of recent high-profile sexual assault cases in Quebec, the demonstration united a broad and diverse cross-section of the local community in support of those who have experienced sexual violence. Protesters also marched that day in various other cities across the province.
Speeches call for action
At roughly 5:45 p.m., a series of speeches began, as representatives of different movements and organizations from Montreal addressed the crowd from a raised platform in the center of the packed square. First to speak was Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, a feminist activist and member of the Innu people, Indigenous to northern Quebec. Greeting those assembled, she explained the reason behind the demonstration:
“In the context of the case brought against Radio Canada by police officers of the Sureté du Québec of Valdor, in connection to the broadcasting of a report on abuses committed against Indigenous women […] and with the grave and serious allegations about a [Quebec] National Assembly deputy, thousands of women and non-binary individuals demonstrate with their allies to send a clear message: we’ve had enough of rape culture and of sexual violence. […] We hope that this day represents a renewal of solidarity between many different struggles for equality, uniting militants from many communities and representing our diversity.”
Like the other speakers who addressed the crowd, Fontaine spoke in French, accompanied by a sign language translator.
Next to speak were three leaders of the recently founded Quebec Against Sexual Violence, Kimberley Marin, Mélanie Lemay, and McGill student Ariane Litalien. Having experienced sexual assault themselves, they spoke passionately and with an understanding of the complex circumstances that often lead people in their position not to report an assault.
Another speaker, Catherine Roy-Goyette, the constituency assistant of Hochelaga’s Member of Parliament and a member of the New Democratic Party (NDP), criticised governmental inaction in no uncertain terms, telling the crowd that change doesn’t come only through bills and parliamentary debate.
“We hope that this day represents a renewal of solidarity between many different struggles for equality, uniting militants from many communities and representing our diversity.”
“It takes a diversity of actions,” said Roy-Goyette. “Demonstrations, like we’re seeing today across Quebec, journalistic investigations, articles in the media, discussions in our kitchens and on social media. But […] government also has a role to play.”
“[We need] funding for victims and for the groups that take care of those victims. It will also take a complete revision of the Criminal Code to equip our judicial system to convict aggressors,” she continued. “When I think that for every ten complaints filed with the police, only one results in a conviction, […] I am sickened.”
Emilie Nicolas, co-founder of the non-profit Inclusive Quebec, also addressed the crowd, beginning her speech by thanking Alice Paquet, who recently accused Liberal member of the Quebec National Assembly, Gerry Sklavounos, of sexual assault in 2014, for her courage in the preceding week. Paquet has been criticised in the media and her story has been discredited on the basis of her support for sex workers.
Importance of intersectionality
Nicolas also spoke strongly in favour of approaching sexual violence intersectionally.
“When I think that for every ten complaints filed with the police, only one results in a conviction, […] I am sickened.”
“To all the Indigenous women who carry the weight of feminicide that has been ignored for years, […] to all those who fear for their security and their credibility in the eyes of the police, […] to all the women whose [experience] is ignored by those women who claim to fight for all women, […] to all those who were assaulted by […] someone responsible for their well-being, and who fear being left without resources if they denounce, […] to all those who are torn between denouncing sexist violence, and denouncing the racist representation of men of their community, […] to all those who are afraid of being deported from the country if they denounce, […] to all those whose financial means or support system […] don’t allow them to denounce, […] we believe you, we respect you, we support you.”
The event was open to people of all genders, though cisgender men were encouraged to give space to women, as well as trans and non-binary individuals, as these communities typically experience a disproportionate amount of sexual violence.
Speaking to The Daily in English, Kyle, a student at Concordia, said that as a cisgender, masculine-presenting person, he felt that he should “definitely [be] taking a step back” at a protest like this.
“I see my role as an ally and as someone who is also taking a stance against toxic masculinity on campuses and in our society at large,” said Kyle, “because it’s not something that’s just restricted to university spaces.”
Kyle also addressed the fact that in supposedly progressive university spaces, insidious forms of gendered and sexual violence can also be present.
“There’s definitely […] people who can talk the talk and [quote] the literature, but aren’t actually living their politics,” he said, “and I think that there needs to be a culture of both cis dudes calling that shit out, but then also more broadly men need to take a step back and listen to when they’re being called out,” he said.
“My experience is, having been called out for saying fucked-up things, […] it doesn’t feel good, but it’s also [important] to learn to take a step back and listen, because if people are calling you out there’s reason for it,” he continued. “If you claim to […] live radical politics, then a key component of that is abolishing patriarchy and recognizing privilege in the spaces that you have and the spaces that you take up.”
The demonstration not only brought together people of diverse ethnicities, genders, sexualities and faiths, but also people of all ages. A “baby bloc” was organized in which parents of small children gathered to march together, often pushing strollers.
One woman who had brought her daughters – aged three and six years old – to the protest told The Daily in French that she “[came] for them, […] to change something so that my daughters don’t have to find themselves in uncomfortable situations at some point, and so that they can have all the resources to be able to control the situation.”
“If you claim to […] live radical politics, then a key component of that is abolishing patriarchy and recognizing privilege in the spaces that you have and the spaces that you take up.”
Despite the Service de Police de la Ville Montreal (SPVM)’s history of dealing violently with protests, she explained that she hadn’t been nervous about bringing her children along, trusting the organizers and expecting a peaceful protest.
“We’re here to denounce violence,” she said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have brought them.”
Peaceful march leads to second demonstration
Indeed, the rally at Place Émilie-Gamelin and the subsequent march were entirely peaceful, with an extremely light police presence. After roughly an hour of speeches, the crowd left the square and walked west along Maisonneuve, led by a small group of Indigenous women. Overall, the mood of the demonstration seemed relaxed and cheerful, with most participants chatting among themselves.
The march proceeded west as far as Union, before turning south and circling back east to Place des Arts along Ste. Catherine. Once there, they spread out into a wide circle, in the middle of which the Innu women who led the march performed a traditional song. They then invited the assembled crowd to join in, and dance around the circle holding hands.
“There’s definitely […] people who can talk the talk and [quote] the literature, but aren’t actually living their politics.”
At this stage, some of the participants dispersed, while several hundred remained in Place des Arts, dancing and cheering in a display of defiance and solidarity. Ultimately, this group left the square en masse and held a spontaneous demonstration.
Consisting mainly of students, and adopting a far more militant tone, this second demonstration proceeded at random through the lower Plateau, chanting “We believe you!,” “Whose streets? Womens’ streets!,” and “Your hand on my ass, my fist in your face!” in French.
In sharp contrast to the earlier and more sedate demonstration, this one garnered significant attention from law enforcement, with large numbers of police vehicles following the crowd and rushing to block streets ahead of them. No confrontation occurred, however, and having dwindled to roughly a hundred participants, the protest dispersed peacefully at the Beaudry metro station.