GUEST BLOG: Notes from the Largest Earth Day Rally of 2012

By Pierre Lussier, Jour de la Terre Québec

Talking about what happened in Montréal at 2 o'clock on Sunday, the 22nd of April, 2012, feels like describing a perfect storm touching the ground. 

Photograph by Peter McCabe, Montreal Gazette.

12:30pm, Place des festivals

Basically, nothing out of the ordinary seems to be going on. I've organized the rally at COP 11 and sixteen Earth Days. I should be used to this by now. The difference now is that you just know you’re never ever going to be ready. Do I feel confident? Yes, I can deal with this, make it right. How many people will it be? How many people really fit into this place anyway? 100 K, yes; 150 K, I'm not sure; 250 K, never. I have to get this TV cart out of the way. It's the third time they’ve come and parked it in the middle of the place, and so it goes “you cannot park here” “yes but I'm live in 5,” “well, we're live 24-7, so for now please move on.” This is the center of what is soon to be a sea of people. No car please. NOW. How did I get here? Must have been that girl at the rave in 1995; she looked at me and then handed something to me. Or is it when the celebrated director, Dominic Champagne (LOVE, the story of the Beatles by Cirque du Soleil, Cabaret Neiges Noirs, etc.), came into Jour de la Terre offices.

23rd of January

Dominic was very disappointed that the 2011 rally protesting Canada's withdrawal from the Kyoto protocol did not attract more participants. He was now on a mission. He professed that one day he would mobilize 100,000 people, and that day was going to be Earth Day 2012. Already on the night of the failed rally against the failing Canadian government Dominic was drafting a manifesto for the common good. What he wanted was to go further than the anti-fracking movement that he was fightingfor; and me, I was in for the number. 100,000 people, all right, let’s do it. Soon after, Dominic got all his artist friends to attend a meeting at our offices. Along came all the key environmental organizations. We did not want to do anything ordinary, we did not want to do just another rally. Dominic came up with the idea of a human tree; he could ask his friends, a choreographer from Le Cirque and André Lavallée (the chief of staff of the Montreal mayor). I proposed the place to do it. We thought that the Mount Royal mountain would be the place. Where else could be more symbolic of Montreal and of the common good? The ideas were good but not without obstacles. First, we had to figure out who's doing it and then who was paying for it. Five environmental organizations: Greenpeace, Equiterre, David Suzuki Foundation, l'AQLPA and Jour de la Terre Québec, NGOs and the three biggest unions, CSN, CSQ and FTQ formed a committee of Jour de la Terre Québec.This committee would be autonomous and responsible for everything, including finances. It would communicate as 22 April

19th of March

We are running behind schedule. We did meet with the city, and everything looks good, but no money, no itinerary, no official response from the city and, of course, no official meeting yet with the security departments (police and paramedics).Still, it's amazing what you can do when you work from 7 a.m. till midnight, seven days a week. And it's amazing to see the power of the 22nd of April in bringing people together. Of course, we had our differences all the way through the process; the key touchy issues were the cult of stardom and the communication strategy. You see, I still remember the post-Rio era (the original one in 1992) and all the criticism we faced for being a movement better at promoting stars than delivering cleaner water. And then there was the Facebook issue and the spin on “printemps érable” (“maple spring,” a local word play on the Arab Spring from a year ago). The communication specialist wanted to do a Facebook only campaign. I vigorously opposed it. In our own events, Facebook had not been a defining tool for mobilization. Besides, it just felt weird to mobilize in the name of the common good exclusively on Facebook. Now, I'm glad we stuck to our point. Contacts through our newsletter were as numerous as our Facebook following, and they got us the crucial 850 volunteers. Our bones of contention aside, the communication crew did a great job, including the creation of the Logo, a symbol reminiscent of Expo 1967 in Montreal. They also insisted on creating a button with the same logo design. I was against it too, seeing it as yet another waste-producing advertising gimmick. This time, I was wrong. This button was seen everywhere, and if you have a chance to get one, you won't throw it in the garbage; you'll put it on eBay...

So this two-headed dragon was starting to take shape. The back and forth on the declaration was coming to an end; we had more than 200 personalities signing the declaration: Le Quartier des spectacles gave us authorization to use “La Place de festivals” as the point of departure for the march. The churches agreed to ring the bells at two o'clock on April 22nd. All media were present at the press conference on the 19th of March.

13th of April

Now, the real stuff is about to start: we meet with the security departments. Our plan is to *keep it simple*: we start from La Place de festivals; we go up north on Park Ave.; and once in front of Mount Royal, we form a giant human mosaic of a tree. This route IS simple but problematic. Our itinerary blocks the access to two main city hospitals. By then, on the 23rd of March, student protests had already gathered 200,000 people, making it the biggest gathering ever in Montreal. Paramedics, as well as the police services, had already been working way too many hours. They don't like our plan, but we aregetting a sense that the city authorities really want this to happen, and they agree that Mount Royal is THE iconic place we need and maybe the only place to gather the number of people we are expecting. The city’s collaboration was essential if ours was not to be a simple demonstration. A demonstration does not require a permit, but it remains a demonstration and nothing more. You get a permit, the area becomes your territory. You buy insurance, you can have the stage and the sound. You inform the residents that the streets will be closed and parking prohibited. You tow all the cars before the event, pay for unused parking meters and hire competent people to close and seal the huge space to be occupied. All this comes at a high price, but this is when we get lucky. Two of the best event organizers in Montreal, Stéphane Mongeau (Cirque du Soleil) and André Ducas (Jazz Festival), join in to make sure the event is top notch, and the three unions take charge of security. We had the best of both worlds.

For me, as an event organizer, the 22nd of April was a challenging but unique experience. It deployed as typical mobilization, similarly to the student protests, but required the permits exceptional to events like the Jazz Festival. We had access to the expertise of international event managers, and we could rely on the most effective security team for mobilization possible, the unions. There was still no real way of knowing how many people would attend. What we did know was that if we had more than the professed 100,000, there could be trouble. We had our hired engineers estimate that the expected pace of the crowd was 40,000 people an hour. Ours was about a one-mile walk, so with the anticipated crowd it would take more time than we had. On our hands we had a problem in scheduling, not to mention in capacity.

1pm, Place des festivals

The place is filling up, but will we really get to the magic 100,000? Security is in place. People start gathering. Masked actors on ladders are throwing speeches all over the place. Samajam, the samba group leading the walk, has arrived as planned. A second later, I lose them in the crowds flooding in. One thing I learned is that the environmentalists in Quebec are right on time. At 1:30 p.m., my wife texts me “will be late, the subway is packed.” In fact, it was not packed; it was sold out. People could not get onto the subway in a radius of ten miles from downtown. Everybody decided to walk. We got lucky, again. First, the weather was cold and gray. Second, people could not fit onto the subway, and instead of a continuous rush we got steady trickling in of enthusiastic marchers. The overflowing subway gave way to one of the most exhilarating moments. Tens of thousands of people walking toward downtown from every neighbourhood of Montréal on Jour de la Terre 2012. People from the South Shore walked for more than an hour and over the Jacques Cartier bridge.

Meanwhile, things are heating up at the head of the march. We cannot, like typical events on La Place des festivals do, control the flow of people from different points of access. We decide on a simple strategy of moving the head up Park Ave. (Samajam dancers back in place).

We're moving up, but thousands of people are still arriving from everywhere around us. Church bells are ringing, Dominic is being lifted into the sky (in a scissor-lift, to be clear) as he pronounces the words of the declaration. No time for thoughtful musing. We take no chances; we get the march started before the end of the speech. At the same time, at the corner of Pine and Park, an Oscar winner, Frederick Back (The Man Who Planted Trees) isplantingan acorn.

The last participants left La Place des festivals at 4:30 p.m.

250,000 people attended, making this event the largest rally ever in Québec and probably in Canada too. On this Earth Day 2012, it became the biggest gathering in the world.

But more than that, I felt that, inadvertently, we recreated the spirit of 1970. And this is so important to me – to go back to the values that drive the people who founded Earth Day and bring those values into the 21st century. People of all ages, all backgrounds coming together. Sending a message to their government, maybe, but undeniably sending their LOVE to Mother Earth.