For many English-speaking Canadians, the Montreal protests have been lost in translation.
When street actions kicked off in February, the news filtered through to the rest of Canada in brief hits and with little context: Perhaps you heard something about pepper spray and riot police, a stock exchange surrounded, a vital bridge shut down in the middle of rush hour. For most of us, the bulletins were easy to dismiss, since we were told at every turn that protesters were fighting tuition increases which, if successful, would still leave Quebec students with the lowest tuition in the country.
In time, the reports grew longer but they still focused overwhelmingly on the protesters’ violence and sense of entitlement.
Which is why so many students and their supporters were gratified when the English-language press began to explore the situation more comprehensively. But then on May 19, on the morning after Premier Jean Charest’s government passed its controversial anti-protest Bill 78, a Montreal anglophone named Anna woke up to coverage in English-language media that struck her as being totally out of tune with the reality in the province.
“Le Devoir had this editorial in which the entire editorial staff of the newspaper expressed their formal condemnation of the law,” she said this week. “Then we looked at the English media and found a bunch of defences of a law we think is repugnant.”
The moment crystallized a difference she’d noted all the way along, in outlets that included the Montreal Gazette, the CBC and The Globe and Mail: Here were the two solitudes, manifest in divergent coverage of the same event. “A lot of us had personally been witnessing the police violence against protesters, and we were reading the English media that was always reporting that students were attacking the cops, and the cops were just responding the way they had to,” said Anna. (She didn’t want to give her last name, in part because she fears the reach of Bill 78.)
So she and her partner signed up to the blogging platform Tumblr and created Translating the printemps érable, referring to the name being used for the protest movement (in English it means “maple spring,” but in French it’s a play on Printemps arabe). With the help of about a dozen friends – students, professors, regular working folk – they committed to translating as much French-language coverage as they could to help the rest of Canada understand what was going on in their province. In time, a few professional translators joined the cause.
The effort was a little chaotic at first, but lately they’re organizing the process using a Google Docs master list of all the articles they would like to have translated.
The Tumblr blog is now a rich resource for any anglophone who recognizes the value in a variety of perspectives: There are dozens of articles from La Presse, Le Devoir, TVA, Radio-Canada, Le Journal de Montréal, L’Actualité and other mainstream outlets. There are also translations of statements made by student leaders, first-hand accounts of arrests and videos of demonstrations. And a few editorials penned by Anna herself, including an “open letter” to the mainstream media suggesting that, while their coverage was getting better, they were still failing to capture the rapturous feelings of those on the streets.
“All we were seeing reflected was still this idea that the protests are a nuisance, that they’re dangerous, that they’re a small marginalized group of people,” she explained. “What we’re feeling in Quebec right now is an overwhelming sense of positivity and neighbourliness and solidarity with each other.”
The site now claims to have racked up more than 60,000 page views from over 35,000 unique visitors, many of whom first heard about it after Anna’s impassioned open letter whipped around the Internet. The essay was paired with a slick, inspiring, four-minute black-and-white video on Vimeo.com of regular Montrealers marching through the streets with their pots and pans, one of many such videos now surfacing online that give the movement a family-friendly face.
The video echoed some of the more uplifting PR efforts that came out of Occupy Wall Street last summer, and this week the official Occupy Wall Street feed on Twitter has taken to banging virtual pots and pans, telling the world about the Montreal actions and calling for similar protests in other major cities. While Occupy was criticized for its sometimes amorphous aims, the Translating project is proving what can be accomplished through a collectivist approach.
“People have asked us if we have an editorial slant, and what we say is, we’re curating the media. The blog is a result of what people think is important. So it’s sort of a collection of what dozens of people who are really invested in this movement really think they want the English world to know. And that process of selecting, I think, is really powerful.”
The collectivist approach takes many forms: A few days ago, a Montreal web designer noticed that the domain name QuebecProtest.com was still available. He bought it and donated it to the Translating project, giving the Tumblr effort a catchy new brand name.
Whatever you think of the protests, it’s hard to argue with the project’s collectivist approach and its desire for anglophone Canadians to be better educated about the issue. That may become especially urgent as sovereigntists such as Jacques Parizeau suggest hopefully that the protests could lead to a renewed separatist movement. If the rest of Canada wants to avoid a repeat of the great battles of the mid-1990s, listening to the party next door is the least we can do. Especially now that they’ve kindly provided subtitles to their songs.