A social revolution is based on social relationships

I had the privilege of working for The Council of Canadians in Quebec City. The material benefits of this included the fact that the cost of my $730.00 cellphone bill was borne by my employer. The list of the phone charges in the bill is 30 pages long; it forms the physical backdrop for the following narratives, dialogues and vignettes.

A social revolution is based on social relationships, and one way we maintain those relationships at major actions like Quebec City is with cellphones. [Keep in mind this was written in 2001!] Quebec was a microwaved trans-nation of back-and-forths, of where-are-you’s, of how-are-you’s; voices interconnecting through over-and-underlapping networks of cellphones, radios and megaphones both electric and human.

This project is not meant to valorize a technology over the primacy of human emotional and social connexion. Still less is it meant to offer some kind of backhanded homage to Rogers — towards the public takeover of corporations that make useful widgets!

Imagine, indeed.

What made Quebec frickin’ amazing for me was knowing, personally, about a hundred people there. I never felt alone, or disconnected. I can’t say, even as I battled blind through that frickin’ gas, that I ever felt at risk — of being arrested, sure. But abandoned? Forgotten? Never. The one time I was pulled over by a cop I was on the radio instantly, and Alan and Jamie were by my side in two minutes flat. The radio assisted, but it was the spirit of and commitment to solidarity and mutual aid that connected us all as individuals, within a movement that is currently rediscovering its own first principles. When I talk about social relationships, I’m talking about the people in my rich, expanding, neighbourhood. I am a lucky man.

This writing is dedicated to all the medics in Quebec City, without whom our hurts would have been much, much worse. Their dedication and courage — in the face of targeted, systematic police repression and violence — brings tears to my eyes to this day (and no, not from the gas! but from the fierce spirit of resistance, truth and joy in the face of it all).

This project is dedicated especially to Dayna, who, and she’ll hate me for saying it again, is truly one of my heroes from Quebec.

Be safe.

David Robbins



Getting our sticks on the ice

Two days before the protests begin, there is no coordinating centre for the street medics. 

Dayna starts working with other medics to find a storefront to serve as the medical space. We can’t say “clinic”. Patty finds money for the rent, through Carol and Rick. A social revolution is based on social relationships.


It is Sunday, April 22nd. Dayna calls me. The morning has been thick with fear.

“Hey honey,” she says.

“Hey. Where are you?”

“I’m at CMAQ, out the back having a smoke.”

“Do you have a buddy?”

“No. But there are people around.”

“How are you?”

“I haven’t slept in 40 hours. I’m a bit stunned.”

“I have a safe space for you. Sarah’s B&B, I’m taking over the room for the next two nights. It’s three blocks, five minutes away. I’ll walk you there. You can rest. It’ll be good. It’s a safe space.”

“Thank you.”

“Or do you want me to drive you there?”




“Are you there?”


“I’m here.”


“You okay?”

“I’m feeling a little broken.”

“We’ll go to Sarah’s.”


“We’ll walk over there together.”


“I just gotta find a buddy to walk with me.”


“I’ll be there in ten.”



“Thank you.”

“You’re my fucking hero, Dayna.”

“Go on.”

“I love you, you know.”

“I love you, too, honey.”

“I’m looking for a buddy to walk with me.”



“Are you loving your liver?” Dayna asks me.


“Are you loving your liver?”

“You mean am I drinking lot’s of water and eating grapefruit?”


“Uh, well, I’ve only had two cups of coffee so far today.”


“Yeah, I’m liking my liver.”


“Next step, loving.”

“There you go.”

“Bless you for asking.”

“Watch your language.”




Canadian multiculturalism. 1

“D” has the memory cracked from his skull when they push him over on the street. D is Chinese-Canadian. From Vancouver, alone in Quebec, no French.

He is down on one knee taking photos for his student newspaper. Six riotcops surround him and he tries to move away. One lunges at him, shoving him over with his shield.

He sees sky, but doesn’t remember it.


He is in jail two days. Three days.

He is standing before the Justice of the Peace.

He is walking away from the jail, towards the blur of the highway. He doesn’t remember Patty and Kathryn running after him.

He does remember standing in front of the Justice of the Peace.

How much money do you have?

He counts.

He has eighty-four dollars and nineteen cents.

“Bail is set,” says the Justice of the Peace, “at eighty-four dollars and nineteen cents.”



Human megaphone 1. Repeat after me!

Somebody, I forget who now, calls to tell me that the police have used so much gas that it’s blowing back into the ventilation systems of the buildings where the Summit is being held.

Exultation has a name, its name is wind.

“Say that again!” I yell into the phone.

“They’ve used so much gas, the conference centre is shut down!”


I let out a warcry — of joy, at the corner of St Jean and Ste Genvieve.

A joycry.

Repeat after me! I yell

Repeat after me! 30 people yell

The conference centre!

The conference centre! 50 people yell

There’s so much gas!

There’s so much gas! 80 people yell

Has been shut down!

HAS BEEN SHUT DOWN! 100 people yell

The big sound of the beginning.


Turns out it was only the cafeteria or somesuch that had been affected by the gas but fuck it — we felt the oh so sweet ness of winning.

Every twenty minutes or so afterwards, the rumour would re-surface where I left it.  For hours after, people there shared in the rejuvenation as it made its way through its cycles.




The customer you are calling

Hey, David, it’s Leslie

Hey, how are you?

Good mun, we’re hanging out under the overpass, it’s ama


I know, I was just






Fucking phenomenal


You there?


Most amazing thing I’ve ever fucking seen

Oh totally, me too


The helicop




Kitchens, with awesome


‘re dancing like fiends






It’s all goo

It’s all good, that’s good



Yeah yeah







Welcome to the revolution: Notes from Maude Barlow’s talk in Quebec City, 21 April 2001

We are a movement that believes in nonviolence.

But I want to say something else.

I must have done 20 interviews yesterday in which the reporter said to me, “What are you gonna do with your youth? What are you going to do to bring order?”

And I’m sorry I don’t think that’s the appropriate question.

These are not my youth.

These are people who have been born of a society in which we have a toxic economy in which we are sorting winners from losers, in which we don’t care what happens to our young people.

These are all of our youth, and their anger is our societal responsibility and the result of years of economic and trade liberalization, poisonous policies that have created an entrenched underclass with no access to the halls of power except putting their bodies on the line.

The question isn’t what am I gonna do with them. The question is what the hell is Jean Chretien gonna do with them?

And let’s just say this, why should they not be angry?

Let’s talk about vandalism, there was some vandalism yesterday.

Where was the first vandalism? The first vandalism was in that goddamned hideous wall they put up in our beautiful city. That scar of a wall was the first vandalism.

Where’s the real violence? Well, I say the real violence lies behind that wall where the policies of 34 political leaders and their spin doctors and their corporate friends who bought their way in, who are sleeping in  five-star hotels and eating in their five-star restaurants, thinking they can run the world by themselves —

Well I have news for them:  there’s more of us than there are of them!



The mock bloc

The story of the padded clown brigade is yet to be written because it is yet to be lived.

Joyce has it all figured out, though:

  • oversized clown suits, extra room for her down jacket if it’s cold, or for padding
  • red noses
  • anti-capitalist tricks up her sleeves
  • balloons for the kids
  • balloons for everyone



:  Ba-bye

The cop who drove us out of town, all the way to Ste Foy with his brights on, tailgating us, all because I made a wrong turn at 3 am to get away from the gas, all because he was in some kind of moody mood, all because I argued, quite reasonably I thought, with him, about, no, I need to go that way, my friends live over that way, all because, me, I had to say, of all things, with all due respect:



Canadian multiculturalism. 2

“X” is five feet tall, dark-skinned, long-haired and pacifist.

He stands in front of the police line holding up his tape recorder.

A riotcop brings his baton down on X’s forehead.

He drags X behind a building, beating his head in a neat and steady rhythm.

“Sir, if you persist you may fracture my skull.”

The cop clips his baton to his belt.

He then grabs X’s throat.




Rubbing noses with Maude

Saturday, 6:30 pm. There’s about 80 of us in a circle debriefing at the Chapiteau.

I’m pacing, people are being gassed and beaten up on St Jean.

I need to get up there. I need to be there.

The debriefing circle continues, slowly.

A Council chapter activist from Peterborough is publicly thanking Maude for her work, for everything she’s done, and there’s a shift in my body. I return to the group because I have something to say.

I think it’s going to be easy.

Maude, I’m going to say, I want to thank you for the essential work you do in supporting the activists, the young people, on the front lines; for the work you do in bridging the generations; I’ve been doing this for years now, seeing this movement coming, and now it’s here; and it’s everything to me to have a voice like yours on our side, on my side —

And I’m standing there, and my friend Anna is getting gassed and beaten on St Jean, and I can barely speak. I can barely say what I’m thinking, I can barely say what I’m feeling, I can’t talk through my tears, it’s coming out all thick and simple, and someone holds me to steady my voice and before I’m done Maude is coming up to me, putting her arms around me, we’re so close we’re rubbing noses, and she says,

“I love you, David.”



Fear checklist

It is Wednesday, I’ve been in Quebec since Sunday. The protests begin in two days. This is when I realize I’m a fish, and I’m in water, and I’ve been breathing fear for days. I invent a checklist.

Dreams? Check.

I’m shot in the head, the police round the corner and, quite unreasonably, shoot me. The bullet slips past a gap in my new shiny yellow bike helmet. Aw, man! I say to myself, in the dream, before waking.

Breath? Check.

Shallow, surface-breathing. I need to tell myself to breathe deep and slow. I need to force myself to really breathe.

Anxious? Check.

Something’s not right somewheres. I can feel it. There’s a disturbance in the force, I tell myself, to cheer myself up. It doesn’t work.


I’ve been staying at a safe place, at Joyce’s place.

It’s midnight, and I’m peeing quiet. Joyce is asleep. I’m sitting on the toilet, let out a little sob. And another one. It’s just barely squeaking out. Squeeze the peepee muscles. Squeeze the fear muscles. One more little sob.

I get back into bed.

Crying yourself to sleep? Check.

The sobs come a bit easier now, but quietly, hush; hush; hush —

This is when I realize I’ve been scared for days. This is when I beat the fear.




In the “shrubbery” behind the Chapiteau, a month before bloom, me waving my arms to block sight of you, like that would help, like it made sense at the time



And then my mom calls, to see if I’m okay

Sunday, at the park at Boulevard Charest and Rue de la Couronne. We’re handing out garbage bags to help clean up from the night before.

Starhawk is leading a healing circle. I’m standing off to the side, unsettled, watching my stuff, looking out for friends who ground me. I’m feeling a little small. I’m looking out for police.

      “Breathe in slow.”

A beige minivan, the same kind they kidnapped Jaggi in, pulls up alongside the park.

      “Hold that breath.”

I walk up to the van:  the driver is indisputable cop. A digital video camera and a still camera around his neck. I can tell he is tall, broad, thick with strength. I stand three feet away, staring at him.

      “Breathe it out.”

The cop mocks incredulity at my gaze.

“J’suis pas un flic. Je suis comme vous autres.”

Yeah. Right.

I get Karl’s attention and nudge my head towards the van. Karl gets it. He walks over and stands beside me. The cop brings up his still camera but Karl and I are blocking his line of sight. My heart is speeding.

“Breathe in again.  Feel the weight of your legs upon the earth.”

The cop gets out of the van, walks along the edge of the park, adjusting his view. Karl peers into the van, trying to read the vehicle identification number on the dash. The cop turns around. Karl smiles.

We follow him around the periphery of the healing circle. We stand in front of him to obstruct his shots.

“Feel the gravity up your legs to your middle.  Breathe.”

My heart is agog. Yelling cop! would spoil the moment here, so we keep following him, standing in his way at every turn. He moves left, we follow, our backs swaying to block his cameras. He walks around the other way, we follow.

“Let your hands pull down your sides towards the earth.”

After five, ten minutes of this, the cop gets back in his van and drives off. Karl watches the van, says it’s pulling in behind a police car across the street.

I pull out another cigarette.

“Breathe in.”

I’m standing off to the side, shaking. And then my mom calls.

“Hi, dear. We’re just calling to see if you’re okay.”

“Yeah, hi, I’m fine — I, uh, sorry I, I thought to call — it’s been kind of busy, eh.  I’m fine, I’ve got good people looking out for me –”


“Okay, dear. We were worried, you know, watching the news on TV.”

“Yeah, well. Don’t believe everthing you see on TV.”

“Okay, dear. Here’s your dad.”

“Well, hello.”

“Hey, Dad.”

“So. How’s Quebec?”

Inhale again.

“It’s been amazing.”


“Truly amazing.”

I squat upon the earth.

“Bah. We should talk about Maude Barlow’s position on violence.”

“Dad. Dad, I’d love to. But this isn’t really a good time for that. Let’s do that when I come out.”

“When’s your flight?”

“The 27th. I’m staying with Jenn then taking the ferry over on the Saturday.”

“Well, give us a call when you hit Vancouver.”

“I will.”

“We’re looking forward to your visit.”

Me too, I’m thinking.

Maude Barlow’s position on violence, I’m thinking.

“Yeah,” says my Dad. “We love you.”

“Oh my, me too, Dad. Me too.”





Human Megaphone 2. Do not repeat after me:  we have the police strategy for the day

Hah-hah.  The documents were liberated, the wealth was shared.  And into the wrong hands did the documents fall — depending what side of the baton you’re on.

Thirty of us in a circle.  I start off with a little joke.

“The first rule about Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.”

No response.  Moving right along, I say,

“Do not repeat after me:  we have the police strategy for the day.

“Do not refer to this on your cellphones.

“Do not refer to this on your radios.

“The documents contain the total cop strategy for assaulting the CLAC march.  Wheresoever the CLAC veers from the main march, the cops have a plan — mapped out at each and every possible intersection they could veer from — to surround them, isolate them, move in, beat them, and arrest them.

“We’re pretty sure these documents are legit — they evidently also contain the total police and military arsenal in Quebec, as well as the cellphone contact list of the entire chain of command.

“We have someone talking to CLAC right now, explaining all this.”

That special someone arrives back at our circle.

“CLAC’s gonna veer.”



“Okay well.”


“Well, there you go.  Anything else we need to cover?”




“Oui allo?”

Bleah,” says Sarah.

“Hey there sister, what is up?”


“Gas getting to you, isn’t it?”


“It’s not the heat, it’s the stupidity.”




Canadian multiculturalism. 3

“G” is African-Canadian from Saint John, New Brunswick.  He is eighteen.  He takes the bus to Quebec City to protest the FTAA.

He marvels at the beauty of the place as the bus pulls to a stop.  He gets off the bus and is set upon by two police.  They push him over and kick him, and they are telling him:

      “You’re not Canadian.  Go back to where you come from.”

Before doing so he is jailed for three days.



You, who would give your body for the revolution

You, hero, all set to sleep with Soandso who knows half the marshals from the FTQ, such is your devotion to better understanding; you, with whom I was standing right where the student march was joined by the labour march and us feeling the river of history course through our veins; you, mysterious and wonderful Agent X, without whom my hurts would have been much, much worse,

You make revolution fun.




Out the butt end of the rumour mill:  two people had died.

It was entirely possible.  Dayna lists the injuries she alone had seen:  twisted ankles and sprained wrists, in the hundreds, three spinals, chemical burns, third-degree burns, lacerations to face, limbs and torsos, plastic bullet wounds, a severed finger.  Countless chemical reactions, massive asthma attacks, people overcome with gas.  The proud tally of a police riot by riot police.

Dayna safe at the B&B, curling up with Karen, letting the stories out of her little by little.  Leslie and I go shopping for food.  The whole of Dayna’s list:  grapefruit juice and cigarettes.  We oblige.  Two kinds of grapefruit juice, three packs of cigarettes.

“Dayna,” I say, dropping the groceries on the desk, “you are my hero, you know that, don’t you?”

She smiles.  She’s tired.  She settles into one of the armchairs.  I set her smokes on the desk beside her, place the ashtray just so, virgo.  I unwrap a pack and hand her a cigarette.

“Stop saying that.”

“Bah.  What kind of juice do you want?  White or pink?”

“White, please,” she says, pushing the smoke out.

“White it is.  Here you go.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank you.  Have I ever told you, you’re my hero?”

“Yes you did honey, now stop it.  You’re making me blush.”

“Poor thing.”

“Yeah, poor me.”

She is laughing now.

“You have to take care of yourself.  The movement needs you.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

“Yes, it does.  I need you, we all need to take care of ourselves and each other.  Okay?”




“All right then.  In exchange, I’m going to join you in a glass of juice.  And we can toast to the fact that I am now going to love my liver.”

Dayna laughs, the best sound anyone could ever make.





I have this problem

Chris and I are driving and I’m nattering on (animated non-repetitive talking) about connecting so many names and faces that the terrifying prospect of figuring out the so-called puzzle of life is squatting there, tapping its foot, right before my eyes.

I pull over.

“Chris,” I say, “I have this problem.”

“What’s that, David?”

“There are too many amazing people in my life.”

I say it like I’m feeling guilty, like I have woken up one day to realize if I have too much of something, others must not have enough.

“David.  That’s not a problem,” says Chris.

Chris smiles.

That’s a solution.”