On the weekend of June 10, the city of Montreal found itself under the heady effects of a new sort of cocktail.
The mix of Montreal student protesters with the Grand Prix crowds was a fascinating one — an almost cinematic juxtaposition of the disenchanted with the charmed life-livers. The combination got Quebec Premier Jean Charest so wound up that he didn’t attend the race at all. And the police? Well, it’s no secret how police addressed the mix. They tried to separate it into its disparate parts. They kicked 40 people out of the Grand Prix site and detained 34 more. And all that presumption — all that profiling of people wearing red squares (the sign of the student protest) — was shrugged off as a necessary, “preventative measure.” Nothing fascinating there. Alarming, but not surprising.
What’s fascinating is that anyone attended the Grand Prix at all. That’s not a comment on the quality of Formula One racing as a form of entertainment. Nor is it a comment on the violence that some protesters have perpetrated. Yes, one 40-year-old man made a (phony) bomb threat to the subway line that services the Grand Prix site. Yes, there were slightly more ingenious plans afoot to cram the subways full of anti-capitalists in order to slow fans’ progress towards the race. But these were diversions, incidents that news outlets used to add colour to their coverage of the tense weekend.
The student protest is not characterized by window-breaking or bricks on subway tracks. It is still, at its heart, about people taking to the streets and marching, looping ’round and ’round the city. It is a persistent spectacle.
It is not so different from the repetitious, albeit faster, nature of a car race. So why attend the race?
Like Formula One drivers, protesters take a risk every time they take to the road. They understand that, in a moment, they might be suddenly stopped — not by a blown-out tire, but by a policeman citing Bill 78 as his reason for detaining them. The greatest difference between the racers and the protesters isn’t even the competitive nature of racing versus the co-operative nature of a protest. You still see teams at work during pit stops at races. No, the difference is that, while corporations are more than willing to sponsor Formula One racing, they are reluctant to help pay for education, and governments are reluctant to ask.
David Suzuki recently wrote in the Huffington Post that “[g]overnments all across Canada have no qualms about investing vast amounts of money to exploit ‘natural resources,’ yet they all but ignore the most precious, our children.” The oil companies whose product powered the cars at the Grand Prix aren’t being asked to pay higher taxes in lieu of tuition hikes. The banks from which 100 000 people withdrew money in order to attend the race have remained silent in the face of one proposal by Quebec student groups: that a bank tax be implemented instead of tuition hikes. The federal, provincial and municipal governments provide $15 million annually to bring the Grand Prix to the Montreal, and none — particularly the provincial government — seem able to spare any more money for post-secondary education. Why? Because the Grand Prix crowd can bring in as much as $100 million for the local economy. Students’ contributions aren’t as readily quantifiable.
But there may be an alternative. The Vancouver Sun reports that many tourists in Montreal for the Grand Prix were transfixed by the protests. “It’s like a movie,” one tourist is reported to have said as he watched a line of riot police block off a street in Old Montreal.
Maybe the protesters should be charging for the spectacle. A Grand Prix ticket can cost over $1 600. Perhaps a ticket to ogle the protests should cost as much. When the moneyed folks start complaining that’s prohibitively expensive, perhaps the government will finally step in. Maybe this mix will pay off.