Otherwise Occupied / Cleaning Up the Mess

Montreal is already occupied, say some activists, so why not call it 'Decolonize Montreal'?

MONTREAL - At the beginning of October, maybe a bit before, a message appeared in the e-mail inbox of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec Labrador, with a question: What is the nation that lived in Montreal, what is the nation that resided at Victoria Square, long before this square got lost among the city's financial center's tall buildings.

The question came from the "Occupy Montreal" people who were planning to set up tents on the square beginning October 15, and were about to change the colonial name of the square to "People's Plaza."

Montreal protest - Amira Hass - 07112011
Amira Hass

I heard about this question from Ghislain Picard, the elected chair (chief ) of the assembly in the Province of Quebec, an independent body representing 43 communities of 10 First Nations.

I didn't see the original formulation of the question, so I can't say how its formulators expressed both their recognition of the indigenous inhabitants of the place (and hence the fact of their expulsion and dispossession ) and how they paid respects to the fact that the continent's indigenous inhabitants did not associate the concept "land" to the concept "ownership." The land is in the possession of those who live on it and use it; it is a deposit for the well-being of future generations. It is not private and salable property (though they did fight among themselves over territory ).

"We have answered to them that these were the Mohawks," related Picard. And quite by chance, shortly before then, someone told me that when the Montreal police wanted to evacuate the tents from the square, they were told they did not have the authority to do so because the land belongs to the Mohawks and it is they who are allowing the new tent-dwellers to stay there.

"Is that what happened?" I asked a number of tent activists on a cold, sunny day at the end of October.

"Not exactly," they answered. Most city council members approved of the tent camp and therefore the police were not asked to evacuate it. But yes, there was a connection with the Mohawks, who gave their blessing to the activity and to the tent camp pitched on land where their forefathers had lived.

The tent camp at the People's Plaza reminded me of the one on Rothschild Boulevard, only the tents are not identical, are crowded more closely together and their alignment in the public space is not as disciplined and orderly as it was in Tel Aviv. The atmosphere is also similar: The excited busyness of people who discovered an island of safety and have started self-government there.

The "People's Kitchen" is active all the time. Young people on duty stir large pots, people mill around and fill their bowls. Free for the taking. All the food products are donations. Somebody is playing a musical instrument, while another rocks in a hammock. Among the tents no one is a stranger so they answer questions and inquiries without checking out the identity of the interlocutor.

"Ask Izreel," someone directed me to the media table. Izreel did not bat an eyelid when I told him I am from "Palestine/Izreel," and therefore I suppressed my curiosity and did not ask him about the origin of his name, but rather confined myself to the general questions. But Izreel replied: "Ask him," pointing in the direction of a tall young man with a white ribbon emblazoned "Info" about his forehead and a black and white keffiyeh wrapped around his neck. When I told him where I come from, his eyes lit up: Marhaba, I am from Bethlehem, or more precisely my family is from Bethlehem," he related.

"We have to get ready for the winter," he said. That is, for the months of snow and 10 to 17 degrees Celsius below zero. A few dozen brave souls are planning to stay in the tent camp then too, but it is necessary to see to heating, warm clothing and cold-and-damp-proof tents that will not collapse under heaps of snow. Also needed is a solution to the problem of the portable toilets that have been set up on the sidewalk. The company that operates them charges $50 dollars for emptying each of these booths. The company loses money on that price, it says, but it is expensive for the Montreal occupiers.

"Every evening there's a general meeting," he continued. "Do you know how it is conducted? After each person speaks everyone repeats what he or she says."

This started as solidarity with Wall Street, where the police prohibited the "occupiers" from using loudspeakers. As a substitute, all those present repeat each sentence of the speakers, which comes back like an echo - no wonder some of the people I heard making proposals at the general assembly of "Occupy Montreal" sounded theatrical. From time to time everyone jumped up and down - to get warm.

At the general assembly I attended they decided to hold economics lessons for everyone every day, and to hold the meetings in the warm Metro station. But the meeting, I learned from the Internet site, returned to its place in the square so that passersby could see it and participate.

Amid the tents in Montreal huddles a tent of a group that calls itself Decolonize Montreal. It sees itself as part of the social movement that has inundated America / Turtle Island (a name used by many indigenous groups for the North American continent ), but also wants to remind people that "the cities on this continent, like Montreal, are already occupied territory. We stand against colonialism and in support of indigenous people across Turtle Island struggling for land, autonomy and dignity."

Members of first nations, one learns from surfing some websites, find the choice of the term "occupy" very disturbing. For them it represents a very real history of the dictatorship of the material profit mentality, to the degree of genocides. Are we part of the 99 percent or outside it, they ask themselves.

On the NDN Media website one can find a poem with a hallucinatory vision, but which shows how 500 years have not erased the memory and the rage. Here are some of its lines: "If we expected the white middle class to struggle on our behalf, / and turn their organizational ship 180 degrees toward decolonization, / we might as well just ask them to turn that ship right back to Europe but hey, at this point, / that's like asking someone who shit all over your living room to just leave, instead of telling them to clean up the mess that's left."