When the City of Montreal
was Red Squared
Author Norman Nawrocki discusses his new book in an enlightening way
By Irwin Rapoport
March 15, 2023
Montreal playwright, author, and musician Norman Nawrocki not only watched the events of the 2012 Quebec student strike unfold but actively participated in them as an advocate for the forces opposed to the tuition fee hikes that the Quebec Liberal government of Premier Jean Charest put forward. The initiative led to a large number of university and CEGEP students launching a campaign in opposition to the increases via rallies, a student strike, protests, and marches in the streets.
In addition to the banging of pots and pans, the protests broadened as supporters of the students – young and old – pinned red squares on their clothes to illustrate their opposition. This brought people together from across Quebec and, in a very literal sense, created two camps – pro and con.
Red Squared Montreal, Nawrocki’s 15th novel, is “a fictional chronicle” about the student strike, set in and focused on Montreal, where most of the action takes place.
Westmount Magazine readers may be familiar with Nawrocki. Last June, I wrote an article on Run Nawrocki Run! Escape from Banff Prison, a play written and performed by Nawrocki, with music composed by Norman and his sister, Vivian Nawrocki.
The official launch of Red Squared Montreal, published by Black Rose Books, will take place on March 23 at the Bar Milton-Parc Coop, 3417 Parc Avenue, between 5 and 7 pm, where Nawrocki will delve into the book, play the violin, show videos, and sign copies.
Here is an excerpt from the book:
“Meanwhile, under the night sky and across the city and suburbs, crammed into cheap apartments, basements and chaotic student union offices, groups of totally independent, self-motivated student strikers bow heads, planning tomorrow’s diverse actions. This one paints banners. This one writes flyers. This one cuts out stencils. This one updates websites. This one prepares the street medic kits for strikers yet to be injured and maimed. A butter-croissant moon smiles on red Montreal and clicks its tongue. Party on, kids, but watch your backs.”
I had an opportunity to speak with Nawrocki for this article and, via our discussion, recalled my memories of the strike and the cause. I completed my BA in History at Concordia University between 2009-2010, when I took 17 courses over four semesters. At the time, a course cost just above $300 and I appreciated how affordable they were. Just recently, I was speaking with a friend in Connecticut who has three children. His youngest will be entering university in about 18 months. My friend expects to pay nearly $65,000 (U.S.) per year for his son at a college in Pennsylvania. He also told me that NYU has some of the highest tuition fees in the U.S. One of his daughters has already graduated from university, and another will soon finish.
Rumblings about the tuition fee increases were being heard in 2010, and I was on the opposition side for many reasons. We need an affordable post-secondary system in Quebec, the rest of Canada, and the United States to ensure we have a well-educated society by providing all people with an opportunity to earn a degree and contribute to society. A university education should not solely be the realm of the well-off. We all benefit from an educated public and so many bright students want to learn and determine their future careers.
I am not suggesting that a university education is the only route. Far from it, many intelligent people enter various trades and are very successful in life.
A university education should not solely be the realm of the well-off. We all benefit from an educated public and so many bright students want to learn and determine their future careers.
My time at Concordia was wonderful, and I had some excellent professors and met some great friends. I followed the protests and while I didn’t march, I most certainly promoted their cause when speaking with friends and having discussions on Facebook, some of which became very tense. I held my ground and put forward solid arguments. I was surprised by how several people I know had absolutely zero sympathies for the students, even though they attended McGill and Concordia via low tuition fees years before.
One discussion became very nasty. An individual I knew personally, who was nearing graduation during the protest, supported the tuition increases. He was entitled to his views, but because one of his parents taught at Concordia, he was able to take courses for free or at an extremely low rate. When I raised that point online, the person became very upset, and the responses on his part degenerated into personal attacks. Fortunately, the situation calmed down rapidly. I bring this incident up because it reflected the divide that tested many friendships.
I also recall how many student leaders supporting the tuition increases were scions of wealthy families and tended to be politically aligned with right-wing parties.
In this Q&A, author Norman Nawrocki discusses the theme of the book and how he wrote it.
WM: What inspired you to write the book, and what type of research did you do for it, aside from your recollections?
Nawrocki: The striking students inspired me to write this. They dared to dream. In their eyes and their voices, I saw and heard hope for change. And courage in the face of unrelenting attacks by the government, the media and the police. Their endless creativity and imagination impressed me. It was how they used theatre, music, dance, and visual art in the street to promote their messages. I was touched by their determination and commitment to their ideals and their cause despite all the obstacles confronting them. Their vision for not just affordable higher education for all but even a better world. Their sense of compassion and of caring for others including justice for all. It was also their solidarity with each other and how they engaged and won over the public with their joyful, spirited approach.
It was also the questions, values, issues and ideas they raised during those seven long months, so many of them universal truths and considerations about our human condition. This also inspired me. The right to equal access to higher education. The importance of standing up and fighting for what you believe in. The necessity to come together, to link arms, minds and spirits and figure out face-to-face what has to be done if we’re ever to make this world a better place for all. The vision for a city that belongs to all of us and not just a handful of bureaucrats, politicians, police and developers.
The sense of purpose, of dedicating one’s time to doing something for the common good and not just for ourselves. The need to keep services and institutions as a public good and not see them as something to turn into businesses for someone to profit from. Do we treat each other with respect as full humans sharing this planet together or as disposable goods, clients, employees, consumers, numbers, a faceless mass to be exploited, abused and controlled? And who can forget how they stood up to corrupt, lying, thieving politicians? We were all incensed by these crooks, but only the students dared to take them on publicly. And they used humour, too, to needle and ridicule them.
These issues and ideas raised in the streets in 2012 are taken up again by the characters in my book. Students who thankfully question authority. Who put forward ideas of their own. Who meet in groups to discuss their future and ours for a common good. Who believe that one’s dreams can be realized here and now. And who challenge us to join them in this thinking. How could I or anyone else not be inspired by what they stood for, what they said, and how they translated this into action?
My fictional chronicle came together so that anyone who was not living here in Quebec at that time could learn about what actually happened. It also includes those living here who maybe didn’t know the full story behind the movement because they believed what they read or heard through the not-very-sympathetic mass media. There were stories never reported, stories never told. This is the material of my book. The striking students and their supporters were fighting for all of us. Not just to stop a tuition fee hike.
During 2012, I kept notes of significant events during the strike, wrote poems about it, saved flyers and posters about it and cut out articles from local newspapers reporting it to archive for future use. I knew I would one day write something more about it. For this book, I also interviewed students, colleagues who taught, and off-campus supporters involved in the strike. I had them read my manuscript as I wrote it and give me feedback. I also dug into various archives online and off to corroborate factual information that I sometimes forgot about to help with the back story of the narrative.
‘The striking students and their supporters were fighting for all of us. Not just to stop a tuition fee hike.’
WM: Ten years later, the strike and social protest still have ramifications in Quebec. The City of Montreal has to pay out $6 million in a class action suit for illegal arrests and questionable policing tactics. Why do you think that is, and what do you hope readers will learn or discover from reading your book?
Nawrocki: How the police, the government and the mass media treated the students in 2012 was unfair, wrong, and even criminal. The police especially terrorized students and supporters. I saw them physically beat teenagers and the elderly. A friend who is a grandmother and was recovering from two knee operations walked with a cane. She asked an officer if she could pass by a police line to shop at her local store, and he shoved her to the ground. For nothing. There was no need for anyone to treat the strikers and others as if they had committed horrendous crimes. They didn’t. They marched and demonstrated peacefully. It was the police who rioted. They unleashed incredible violence against the students for no reason other than they were ordered to by those above. I was there in the street and nearby to witness the tear gassings and terrible beatings of people who had done absolutely nothing to provoke that kind of violence.
And so I wrote a fictional story about it. About the thousands of arrests and the many more thousands who were injured, many seriously. Unfortunately, the class action suit that was settled has not changed the way police are trained to respond to crowd situations nor how they continue to interact with members of the public for whatever reason. Too often, they still respond in a totally unnecessary violent manner. This has to stop.
As a person who’s lived in Montreal for four decades now, I hope my book will help readers reflect on and ask questions about what kind of a city we want to live in and who decides this. We need to think about who has the right to walk these streets – any streets – in peace and security, free from harassment by anyone in uniform. Even if they are exercising their democratic right to protest.
This isn’t Russia. But who decides this? And now that eleven years have passed, maybe readers can put the events from 2012 in perspective and reflect on what actually happened. I’m hoping the characters in my book and their stories will help people do this. And maybe inspire others with their creativity, ideas and principles and the vision they shared back then. It’s all still relevant for today and our collective future.
‘As a person who’s lived in Montreal for four decades now, I hope my book will help readers reflect on and ask questions about what kind of a city we want to live in and who decides this.’
WM: How were you involved in the 2012 student strike and social protest movement, and what do you make of people who opposed the student protests about the proposed increase in tuition fees but conveniently forgot about the low fees they paid as students?
Nawrocki: I wrote this book while actively supporting the strike and teaching part-time at Concordia University. At the time, I was a member of a city and province-wide network of professors called Professors Against the Hike, that is, against the tuition fee hike proposed by the then-Charest government. I occasionally facilitated workshops for strikers and supporters about “creative resistance.” As a poet, I participated in public readings indoors and in the street to support the students. I wrote an earlier book (RED: Quebec Student Strike and Social Revolt Poems, Les Pages Noires, 2013), which included original artwork by a dozen local artists.
As a playwright, director and actor, I worked with a group of writers that presented a short play (Subversions II – Cabaret anarchist(e) cabaret) at the Sala Rossa about the strike at the 2012 annual Montreal International Anarchist Theatre Festival. As a musician, I led sing-alongs in public to support the students and wrote and recorded a song with a friend (Nos casseroles chantent – Our Pots Sing), which we uploaded to YouTube under the name 2 Bonnes Patates.
One Québecois blogger cited it as their favourite 2012 protest song. I’m from a generation that had access to affordable higher education. Almost all my tuition for college and university was paid for by the government in BC, where I grew up, in the form of bursaries and scholarships. Back then, the State invested heavily in post-secondary education, realizing it was an investment for all of society. That an educated population was a desirable end goal and that it should be accessible.
Back then, tuition fees were also much lower than today. As was the cost of living. Those who benefited from that have no right to criticize students today who want to keep higher education affordable for all. Like access to clean drinking water, affordable housing, and basic civil liberties, access to higher education should be considered a basic right for all.
WM: Could you speak about the cost of education for many students today who often have to work to cover their tuition costs?
Nawrocki: Many students work not only to cover tuition costs but also the cost of textbooks, their rent, food and utilities if they live away from home, the cost of public transportation to and from classes, laptops, internet, and all the myriad other expenses that most of us have to contend with, but we may have full-time jobs to pay for it. Mature students with families must also support their children while they study, and for some single parents, this can be a real challenge. Students must work and study at the same time, meaning they are often deprived of enough sleep and thus become ill more often. I notice this in some of my classes. There are even some students who work two part-time jobs and take classes. They’re forced to do this because of the high cost of housing and now, the increased costs of food. This puts a lot of pressure on them and forces them sometimes to drop out of school or not even consider enrolling in the first place. It’s not fair to penalize them further with higher tuition fees.
‘Like access to clean drinking water, affordable housing, and basic civil liberties, access to higher education should be considered a basic right for all.’
WM: The strikes and social protests brought the two solitudes together, whether they opposed or supported the increase in fees. Is that an element that many people forget?
Nawrocki: Most certainly. But it’s becoming more and more common to hear not just one or two languages spoken in the streets of Montréal at the same time by different groups of people but also sometimes three, four or more. This is the multi-cultural beauty of this city. The student strike brought many of these students together in the street, marching, dancing, singing, defending themselves from police brutality, and doing it all side-by-side as they spoke English, French, Arabic, and Spanish, sometimes in one conversation. My book includes a smattering of French to help reflect this reality.
WM: You have written plays and novels. Obviously, there are differences in styles and methods in putting them together but there are also similarities in that a novel can be seen as a larger version of a play in prose. What is your take?
Nawrocki: Red Squared Montreal is not a novel but more a fictional chronicle, even though I and the book each had aspirations to make it a novel. This changed direction in mid-course. It’s one of the challenges for writers like myself who also write plays, songs, poetry, short stories and novels. Will this book become a novel or resist that direction? Because sometimes, it’s not me who’s writing the book but the characters and the story take over and lead me in different directions. Directions I had never intended to take.
Other times, I push and insist on my way, but the book and the characters can still resist and pull me elsewhere. In the end, it’s the reader who decides. And so far, the response has varied from, “but this is a novel,” to “hmm, feels like a novel but not quite,” to “it’s not a novel but something else.” Hence, the fictional chronicle compromise. I had a similar response, for example, when I first started writing poetry. People questioned whether it really was poetry. At the time, I didn’t realize I was writing spoken word poems. Early rap sometimes pre-rap. All I know is that I have stories to share, and they decide what form they’ll take if they want to be shared. Not me.
‘Most definitely, there is a play and a movie inside Red Squared Montreal. The story is just too great not to be treated on the stage and on film. And some francophone artists have done this, but no Anglo artists yet.’
Yes, there are similarities between writing a play and writing a book. One can work with more or less a classic narrative arc with the build-up or prologue introducing the story, the conflict, the rising then falling action and an ending. A play is the condensed version. The book allows more time for character development, plot intricacies, descriptive prose, etc. The good thing about writing a play first is that one can then use that text as the skeleton for a novel. It makes the longer writing process easier in that sense. However, as I said earlier, sometimes book writing surprises one and takes on a life of its own.
Most definitely, there is a play and a movie inside Red Squared Montreal. The story is just too great not to be treated on the stage and on film. And some francophone artists have done this, but no Anglo artists yet. I put together a short play in 2012, in the heat of the action working with a small group of like-minded writers, and it was performed and well received by a capacity audience at the annual anarchist theatre festival at La Sala Rossa. But my book has characters, plot, challenges and action scenes that certainly lend themselves to more fictionalized treatment in the future on stage or in film.
WM: How do you create characters – is it something that you have to put a lot of thought into, or do they just present themselves, or is it a combination of both?
Nawrocki: Some introduce themselves on the spot, no formal introduction, nothing. Others I need to assemble from scratch. A bit from this friend or acquaintance, a bit from this person I saw sitting on the bus, a bit from someone I once met. Usually, I base them on real people I know who sometimes fit the bill and respond to the needs of the book, of the story. Huberto, the protagonist of my book, is based on a real person – a friend who also happened to be a student involved in the strike. His girlfriend in the book is based on another friend, who I thought would be compatible with him. In fiction, not real life.
I tweaked both of them, and they, in turn, developed their own traits and ideas and personal quirks as they came to life on the page. It’s this strange thing I notice where “the book” can occasionally take over and actually write itself. The characters can also take this route, independent of what I am thinking.
WM: You teach a class at Concordia University’s School of Community & Public Affairs about the arts and community organizing. What is it all about, and how is it linked to your new book?
Nawrocki: I teach part-time in sometimes two faculties: The School of Community & Public Affairs and Theatre & Dance. In SCPA, I teach an annual grad-level class in the Community Economic Development program called The Arts for Community Organizing & Social Justice, about how to use all of “the arts” (theatre, visual art, poetry, song, music, dance, etc.) to raise public awareness about important issues and mobilize diverse communities to address the questions that concern them (e.g., poverty, racism, climate justice, etc.). In Theatre & Dance, I occasionally teach a class called Community Arts: The Art of Engagement, about how actors can use the unique power of theatre as a tool to work with community groups on similar issues for social change.
My overall research focus is on how grassroots movements for social justice can incorporate the arts in their work and produce community-based projects. I’ve already been citing the 2012 student strike in my SCPA 543-2 Syllabus as a major example of one of the best local practices for the course: “The 2012 Quebec student strike movement re-claimed public space across Montreal and introduced a “red square” aesthetic to popular discourse that evolved into an inspirational “Pots and Pans” musical and community phenomenon.” And every year since 2012, I assign reading material to give students some insight into this historic event and its relevance to our coursework.
Red Squared Montreal tells many stories but a major thread that runs through the book is how students and their supporters specifically used “the arts” in the Red Square movement to raise public awareness and stimulate discussion about the key issues behind the strike. My fictional characters document how, for example, the City of Montreal was decorated with red cloth squares, red objects, paper and paint throughout the strike and how students of dance, theatre and literature actually practiced their art in the street for all to see, hear and appreciate with interventions ranging from agitprop theatre to radical street performances, and pop up street art galleries or poetry readings.
‘Red Squared Montreal tells many stories but a major thread that runs through the book is how students and their supporters specifically used “the arts” in the Red Square movement to raise public awareness and stimulate discussion about the key issues behind the strike.’
My book also explores how various sectors of the public sometimes reacted to these installations, performances and displays of visual and performance art and how this, in turn, affected those responsible for it and helped contribute to establishing an even broader sense of community, empowering and inspiring people.
In short, even though it is a work of fiction, my book can be considered a testimony to the incredible creative collective collaborations that produced this explosion of the imagination in the streets of Montreal, a phenomenon never seen before or since the Red Square movement.
It was a movement where I can honestly say that the theories and practices covered in both my courses were actually articulated and demonstrated for all to see and hear during those seven tumultuous months.
Throughout my book, readers will find contextualized examples of some of that theory about community-based activist art realized in the streets of Montreal. The strike and social protest movement that resulted provided a goldmine of this material – exactly what I would want my future students to have access to for their readings and classroom preparation.
Again, from my SCPA 543 Syllabus: “Community-based art is creative expression that emerges from communities of people working together to improve their individual and collective circumstances. Community-based art involves a wide range of social contexts and definitions, and includes an understanding of ‘communities’ that includes not only geographical places, but also groups of people identified with historical or ethnic traditions, or dedicated to a particular belief or spirit.”
I believe that Red Squared Montreal will help contribute to an even better understanding of this process and practice. It is my sincere wish, too, that the book will stimulate more interest in researching the legacy of creative social engagement bequeathed to us by this particular movement so rich in imagination and hope.
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Irwin Rapoport is a freelance journalist with Bachelor degrees in History and Political Science from Concordia University.