The law’s severity came as a big shock for striking students and supporters of the strike. Few of us had predicted such harsh, unprecedented measures. It even prompted a number of groups outside the movement such as the Quebec Human Rights Commission and the Bar of Quebec to condemn the legislation on the grounds that it violated fundamental charter rights.
But like other attempts to beat the movement into submission, the law failed to break the momentum of the strike. The night of the law’s adoption, a huge riot broke out in downtown Montreal, with several improvised barricades set on fire. Subsequent nightly demonstrations saw renewed fierceness and vitality. Instead, it caused anti-government outrage to spill over, of which the May 22nd rally was a testament.
In a press conference two days before the rally, CLASSE publicly announced that it wouldn’t provide the itinerary of the march to police1 in overt defiance of the emergency law and calling for acts of civil disobedience against it. While FECQ and FEUQ promised to challenge the law in the courts, the CLASSE student delegates, meeting in a congress just days before, agreed to face it head-on, in the streets, even if it brought with it the possibility of arrests of its officials or crippling fines. The entire organisation was put on the line: if the government wants to destroy CLASSE, better to go down in flames than submit.
The May 22nd rally, in which more than 200,000 took part, was labelled the largest act of civil disobedience in the history of Quebec. Although it was illegal in regards to the emergency law, the Montreal police spokesperson declared that the march would be tolerated as long as no criminal acts or misdemeanors were committed. Aside from a smaller break-away group that targeted a few banks and storefronts along their own route, the main demonstration remained entirely non-violent.
The event also highlighted the obsessively law-abiding strategies of the leaderships of the FECQ, FEUQ and labor unions. While the context cried out for action against the new emergency law, they all acted separately from CLASSE and provided a route to police in advance (as they always did before, anyway) and led their own groups away from the “illegal” main protest. With only a few hundred following in the footsteps of these usually well-organized and disciplined processions, the initiative was an obvious failure. The events of the following days would demonstrate: masses of people were ready and willing to defy the emergency law on the streets.
This, of course, was a most exciting development. Up until then, the state, with its vast security apparatus, had again proven its ability to endure bunches of activists symbolically attacking property and confronting riot police. But against vast numbers of people refusing to acknowledge the law-making authority of the state, and prepared to take action, albeit peacefully, its options were likely more limited. In our view, the government was pushed into an even trickier situation, with seemingly shifting odds.
Its problem of legitimacy worsened in the following days and weeks with what became known as the “casserole movement”. The original idea, launched as a call-out on social media, was for people to bang pots and pans on their front door every day at 8PM, for twenty minutes, as a sign of opposition to bill 78. Early on, people began occupying sidewalks, parks and street corners with these very loud and noisy casserole rallies, eventually turning into improvised and illegal marches on neighborhood streets. On every street, upon hearing the rally passing in front, residents would come out and bang their pots and pans in concert with the protesters. These marches became so prevalent across the city that the mayor publicly asked for people not to take part in them, and instead stay in their homes to bang pots and pans. Of course, the demand went unheeded.
It was hard to predict the police’s reaction to these protests, but it soon became clear that it wouldn’t enforce the protest-restricting aspect of bill 78: not only would this mean arresting thousands of people in many different points in the city, with all that would entail, but aside from the police’s great difficulty in directing and routing these marches, they were mostly peaceful and not big a threat to public order.
In Montreal, these small and numerous neighborhood protests often continued late into the evening. They would merge together and eventually converge into nightly 9PM rallies in the downtown area, forming a single gigantic and often deafening demonstration. While the movement was centered in Montreal, suburbs and small towns also saw their own pots and pans rallies, with several similar events also appearing in cities across Canada and the US.
This period also marked the birth of several autonomous neighborhood assemblies in Montreal, which aimed to consolidate the struggle outside of campuses by tapping into the enthusiasm of the pots and pans movement and the community it created among residents. Although there was little coordination between the neighborhood assemblies themselves, many set out to work on related matters such as mobilising in favor of a “social strike”, providing support for the arrestees of the strike and organising popular education and teach-ins.