On Quebec’s protest history
The following is extracted from Sean Mill’s The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Political Activism in Sixties Montreal.
On the evening of 28 November 1969, two hundred women – many wearing chains to symbolize their oppression – charged out of their meeting place on Saint-Laurent Boulevard into the middle of the street, where they sat down in a circle and waited to be arrested. The hundreds of riot police who were waiting outside arrested 165 of them and in less than an hour the street was open to the regular flow of traffic. The protest, although small in size and relatively short in duration, was loaded with meaning. That fall, a spirit of revolt had been spreading throughout various sectors of Montreal society and the city’s streets had become the primary space where dissident groups expressed their voices. The city’s administration, claiming to be acting in the interests of the “silent majority,” had passed Regulation 3926, effectively banning public protests. Although many groups and individuals were quick to denounce the law, the women gathered on Saint-Laurent Boulevard were the first to defy it.
This demonstration acted as a watershed in feminist mobilization. Women on Montreal’s English-speaking university campuses had already been reading feminist literature and meeting together, and had even formed the Montreal Women’s Liberation Movement (MWLM). But in the lead-up to the protest, and during the protest itself, many anglophone women close to the MWLM joined with francophone women from leftist groups, unions, and citizens’ committees, to create the Front commun des Québécoises, a loose organization that had no leader, spokesperson, or official ties to any feminist organization. And in the aftermath of the protest, English- and French-speaking women came together to form the Front de liberation des femmes du Québec (FLF), a group that would become the public voice of women’s liberation in Montreal. Many of the ideas and arguments that the FLF would later popularize were first articulated in relation to the 28 November protest. In response to the municipal administration’s claim to be acting on behalf of the “silent majority,” the women argued that they represented “the point of view of the largest silent majority which exists in the world, that of women.” They were taking to the streets to contest the convention of female passivity. By “relying on an old prejudice which dictates that men, embodied by the police, are the protectors of women,” they hoped to disarm the established system of power. And by claiming the right to protest, the women were asserting their right to think and act as citizens, and therefore challenging the traditional hold that men claimed over political participation.
The women saw their action as having a significance far beyond the interests of one social group. By defending their right to think, to disagree, and to protest, they saw themselves as fighting on behalf of “all of Quebec society.”