The media missed Quebec’s big story this week

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While 4,000 community activists circled the national assembly Wednesday, police remained non-violent. Photo by Véronique Laflamme on Facebook.

Did you know that the Quebec National Assembly was “kettled” Wednesday by more than 4,000 protesters who formed a human chain around the parliament?

No, of course not. While several dozen far-right protesters captured the attention of media for weeks both before and after their little march in Quebec City, this peaceful mass mobilization was all but ignored by most mainstream media outlets. (I would normally link to an English news story about the protest at this point, but I was unable to find any.)

“If it bleeds, it leads,” says the old journalism maxim.

There was no blood Wednesday. Even Quebec’s city’s notoriously aggressive police force was on stand-down mode, calm and collected despite the fact their officers inside the protest cordon were massively outnumbered by protesters, who had come from all over the province in hundreds of chartered buses.

Organized by Engagez-vous pour le communautaire, a coalition of some 4,000 Quebec community groups, the protest was aimed at getting Quebec to reverse years of funding reductions to many of these organizations: Groups that support Quebecers from all walks of life in dealing with discrimination, violence, poverty, housing, illiteracy, the environment and education, and which promote the human rights of women, immigrants and minorities, the mentally ill, intellectually or physically challenged citizens, LGBTQQ communities … and the list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, Quebec’s financing hasn’t gone on and on. While fiscal restraint policies in the first three years of the Philippe Couillard government have helped boost the demand for many of these services, those same fiscal policies have suffocated many of the groups that deliver them.

Now that the Couillard government has discovered that the state’s finances might not be so precarious after all — three years of budget surpluses, the last one totalling $2.5-billion — the groups are asking the government to put aside a small chunk of those surpluses ($475-million) to restore the health and vitality of this essential core of the province’s social safety net.

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The Engagez-vous campaign has been going on for more than a year now. While awareness of and support for the campaign is high among community activists and the Quebecers they serve — as evidenced by Wednesday’s huge turnout — it has been virtually ignored by the province’s major media. Aside from one substantial story in Quebec City’s Le Soleil daily newspaper Wednesday, the demonstration received scant attention from media preoccupied with first-world stories about the weather, Uber and Bombardier’s business woes.

Community newspapers have been much more supportive, no doubt because they realize the important role these groups play in their neighbourhoods and have documented the struggles of both their disadvantaged clienteles and the underpaid and unpaid staff that keep group services alive.

The mass media, on the other hand, tend to ignore peaceful protests, even ones that attract 4,000 people from across the province, a huge turnout even for a manif magnet like Quebec City. So while the media are quick to denounce violent protest — or to act as echo chambers for politicians who exploit such violence to discredit organizers — they reward it with extensive coverage.

Meanwhile, grassroots campaigns with widespread support are ignored … until and unless isolated acts of vandalism or violence attract the attention of sleepy city editors awaiting the next big headline.

If you need evidence of this, there’s no clearer example than the 2012 student protests known as the Maple Spring. Although the students held hundreds of nightly protests and hundreds more political actions marked by calm civility and peaceful restraint, even in the face of violent police repression and mass arrests, most media coverage emphasized isolated acts of violence by rogue protesters. Many even attributed the violence to the victims of police tactics such as pepper-sprayed protesters or people rounded up by the hundreds using “kettling” techniques that trapped protesters and bystanders alike in a virtual dragnet formed by armoured riot police.

The media focus on violence has ironically bolstered support for its use as an organizing tactic. When out-of-town anarchists decided to trash and rob a St-Henri specialty food shop while terrorizing its staff last summer — ostensibly as a protest against gentrification — most leftists I know denounced the violence, privately or in public. Others, however, crowed about the action’s success, saying that the gentrification problem had finally caught the public’s attention through sensationalized media coverage.

Never mind that the attention was mostly negative, at least the media was paying attention for once, the argument goes.

I wonder if there isn’t a better solution. If the media are truly intent on exposing violence and oppression in society, maybe they should take a closer look at the way our elites — including the press — treat and ignore the poor and disadvantaged. This is a more insidious violence than a punch or a smashed window, and it’s the type that leaves wounds that last — and shorten — a lifetime.

The role of media, the old saying goes, is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” By that standard, most are failing badly. Wednesday’s oversight wasn’t the exception; it was, unfortunately, the rule. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.

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