Wall of Shame

Perched on a cliff, where the great St. Lawrence River begins to scent the sea, steeped in history, rich in commanding views, romantic silhouettes, winding streets and dizzying staircases–these qualities, unique in North America, earned Quebec City a place on the United Nations register of International Heritage sites.

Chosen as the site for the Summit of the Americas–the meeting to establish the Western Hemisphere’s new trading bloc, the Free Trade Area of the Americas–the city now suffers a darker notoriety. Only the grossest disregard for the democratic right of assembly and expression of dissent could have inspired the erection of the abominable wire and concrete fence–what locals dubbed mur de la honte, Wall of Shame–that snaked through the city fabric. With one crude gesture, it turned the Colline parlementaire and the very urban elements associated with the city’s identity–the Assemble nationale, the boardwalk of the Terrasse Dufferin, the Chateau Frontenac, its cathedral and convents, the Quartier St-Jean Baptiste–into armed camps.

When the Wall came down in Berlin, we cheered; when the people filled the streets of Prague, Bucharest and most recently Belgrade, we were filled with admiration. So how could anyone not be dismayed by the images of this desperate measure that blocked off the Grande Alle, shut down the shops of rue St-Jean, put the Plains of Abraham out of bounds and made 20,000 inhabitants carry identity papers to get in and out of their own homes?

Canadians, and the world, were told that it was all for the best, that dark forces threatened violence and disorder. Three and a half kilometres of concrete and chain link three metres high “secured’ an area of 10 square kilometres. Soldiers–1,500 of them–lodged in the Citadel, and 6,000 police officers in Darth Vader drag were armed to the teeth with tear gas, plastic bullets and water cannons.

You didn’t see the thousands of peaceful demonstrators who gathered to march in the Lower Town, far from the perimeter fence; you weren’t supposed to. You saw what was intended, the tossing of rocks, the countermeasures of the forces of law and order. The organizers of the march agreed to a route that would take it well clear of the perimeter fence. Assembled in the sunshine, we would enjoy views of the Upper Town, the spires of the Grand sminaire, the ramparts, listen to reggae and watch the dancers and drummers, carry banners, and then slowly, haltingly, troop peacefully, 30,000 strong, along Boulevard Charest–a boulevard only in name–under the shadow of l’autoroute Dufferin and into the streets of the quartier St-Roch. Coming abreast of the Falaise and the Upper Town, eyes and throats began to smart from the choking tear gas carried down by the wind, just a whiff of what those confronting the wall and game civil rights observers were facing. It wasn’t pleasant; we gladly accepted the vinegar solution handed out by veterans of other demos. The procession took a 90 degree turn and was shepherded through the quiet of a public housing estate passing under the curious gaze of the locals to eventually wind up in the wastes of an industrial park. No triumphant climax, no rousing speeches, no unified roar of solidarit that might have reached the ears of the Summiteers.

Our thousands should have assembled on the Plains of Abraham, filled the Grande Alle, rallied in Place Georges V, Place de l’Assemble nationale, Place d’Youville–not shunted to a siding out of town. A generation of architects was reared on Bernard Rudofsky’s Streets for People. These people drove for hours, some for days, to be there, not as our Prime Minister phrased it–“you know, for a good time and some blah blah blah”–but to express something that a visit to the ballot box every four years doesn’t allow. That is, I believe, part of what public spaces are for.

Joseph Baker is a Montreal architect, former director of the School of Architecture at the Universit Laval and Past President of the Ordre des architectes du Qubec. Photographs by Jacques Nadeau.