Berri-UQÁM – Where protests and history happen

Berri-UQÀM, Green, Orange and Yellow lines, opened 1967.

You will have perhaps heard about the student protests which have been dominating Montreal this spring and summer. Each night since February students have been demonstrating against the provincial government’s proposed increase in tuition fees. You may have seen pictures of violence and confrontations with the police downtown and heard that at one point a smoke bomb was let off in Berri Metro station. The busiest station in the network, connecting three of the system’s four lines, the bomb brought it all to a stand still for a couple of hours.

Smokebombs aside, the images of the violence misrepresent Montreal. A better image is that of the casseroles, a far larger and more diverse community protesting the restrictions the government placed on the original student protest and all future protest until 2013. Now, each evening groups of Montrealers of all ages walk through their neighbourhoods banging on pots and pans, presumably just washed after their evening meal. This is the Montreal I live in, one which values solidarity, civil liberties and a walk on a summer evening. You can get a sense of it from this video from Jeremie Battaglia.

Berri-UQÀM is the site of the original protest, Berri being a long street running north-south and UQÀM being the Université de Québec à Montreal. Above the station is Place Émilie Gamelin, a rather scratty square scheduled for redevelopment, and it is there that the students gather to begin their marches. The square is also the home Montréal’s Grande Bibliothéque and the Collection Nationale du Québec, so it’s where much of the work for this project takes place.

Working here in the evening I hear the chanting, and I and others wander over to see what’s going on. I have never seen any violence and even when tensions were at their height in May the protests were certainly not pulling Montreal’s large French expat contingent away from the presidential debates. When ten o’clock comes round we walk out into the festive atmosphere of a busy street.

The English language media has come in for some flack lately for its coverage of the protests, leading to this site, Translating the printemps érable, which translates the French language reports. I can understand this flack as there’s something quite disorientating about turning on the news to be told that my pleasant walk home through downtown also took in a riot.

I haven’t got to Berri yet in this history, but recently the Gazette ran a piece on Émilie Gamelin, who gives her name to the square atop the station. The article tells of another strong-willed Montreal woman. Widowed young, she bought the land on around the square and established a soup kitchen for the poor of nineteenth-century Montreal. Her work continues today and in 2001 she was made a saint. Surely here, there is a case for a renaming and putting a woman on the metro system?

You can read the full Gazette article here.

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