People Counting: 72,000+ protesters at Montréal Demonstration Against Tuition Hikes

On March 22, students, teachers, union representatives, politicians, parents and other concerned citizens converged onto the streets of Montréal to demonstrate their opposition to the current Québec government’s tuition increases and in support of accessible education. Students from universities CÉGEP’s throughout Québec (and elsewhere) made their way to Montréal to show that the strength of a social movement is in its numbers. But exactly how many people marched in the streets, who decides and how are they counted?

Official route for the March 22 demonstration.

It was a beautiful day with temperatures hovering above 22°C with a 10-minute shower toward the end of the afternoon that was unseasonably refreshing.

The main gathering place was Dorchester Square/Place du Canada at the corner of Peel street  and René-Lévesque boulevard (A on map) with a final destination, 5.5 kms later, at the Old Port of Montréal (G on map).

The official route went north on Peel, east along Sherbrooke street then south along Berri street. The size of the crowd and the funnel effect leaving Dorchester Square led protesters to add a secondary route out of the Square on Metcalfe, a street parallel to Peel. Like all flowing masses, the march branched out again along paths of least resistance off the main route, to head eastward along Ste-Catherine street, creating two parallel streams of social discontent. The levees of predisposition could no longer contain the flood of dissent.

Students and faculty from Communication Studies at Concordia University gather at Jean Belliveau sculpture before heading as a group to the protest. 2012 @ Krista Geneviève Lynes.

When our group of 35 students and faculty from Communication Studies at Concordia reached Peel street — after meeting at the Jean Belliveau sculpture on avenue des Canadiens-de-Montréal — we could feel the mass of people from the successive ebb and flow of cheers that sent waves through the crowd. No one was immune to the gathering’s effervescence. But how many people were there and how many more were on their way?

Demonstrators (including a fiusha-haired member of Concordia's Media Studies MA program) march on in what has been called "possibly the largest mass protest in Québec history." 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor.

The Gazette claims in its headline that, “Thousands of students protest tuition increases in Montreal” before upping the quantity estimate tenfold in the first sentence of the article which begins: “Tens of thousands of activists filled Montreal’s downtown core Thursday to protest tuition increases”. CBC states that the protest was “massive”, stretching “more than 50 city blocks at its peak” with “tens of thousands” on the streets. Radio-Canada‘s coverage of the protest provides much of the same, defining it as a “forte mobilization” with “des dizaines de milliers de personnes” at the march. CBC was more sensationalistic in its headline that focussed on how the “march paralyzes Montreal,” while Radio-Canada’s headline focusses on the calm and good humour of the demonstration. Le Devoir  ups the numbers of voices substantially to 200,000, claiming that it may be the largest demonstration that Montréal has ever seen. La Presse also reports at the beginning of a video that the protest had 200,000 people in attendance, using figures provided to them by protest organizers and the police. Longtime activist, Judy Rebick, writes in a blog post that the protest had “massive numbers” and was” the biggest demonstration [she’d] ever been on, maybe the biggest in Canadian history.” Rebick offers the most ambitious claim at “between 200,000 and 300,000 marchers.” Maybe somewhat over-ambitious. So the attendance was between tens of thousands and three hundred thousand.

The crowd awaits to leave Dorchester Square as the march is funneled onto Peel and Metcalfe streets. 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor.

Farouk El-Baz, then-director of Boston University’s Center for Remote Sensing and expert crowd counter, claims:

When crowds gather to make political statements, it matters how many people turn out. Crowd size matters to organizers, who invariably say they made their point. It matters to police departments, who insist they fielded the right number of officers. It matters to the media, who often claim they’ve reported the facts. And it matters to elected officials, who often like to act as if the whole thing never happened.

El-Baz was hired by ABC News to estimate the numbers of people who attended the 1995′s Million-Man March. Organizers, The Nation of Islam claimed the attendance was about 1.5 million. The National Park Service (NPS), which is responsible for the Mall area of Washington DC, reported 400,000 people at its highest moment. His method of counting crowds gave him an estimate of 870,000 with a margin of error of 25%, which means that the crowd would have ranged from 652,500 to 1,087,500. Both organizers and the NPS were happy with this amount.

Demonstrators march toward the Notre-Dame overpass and the tunnel that leads to the Old Port of Montréal. 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor.

From the Notre-Dame street overpass that spanned Berri street and under which the entire march had to pass to reach its destination, a man took a photograph every three seconds for the duration of the march from its head to its tail. I know this because a friend of mine spent about an hour beside him in conversation and taking his own photos.

The marching demonstrators reach the Notre-Dame overpass and prepare to enter the tunnel and tough the ceremonial red banner that reads, "Education is not for sale. Yes to the general strike." Photo by David Widgington.

The overpass tunnel is about 15 metres wide. If each person has about 1.25 metres of personal space through the tunnel then about 12 people would have passed through in a row on average (although the above photos seem to show higher numbers of people). Based on the speed I passed under it, one row every 1.5 seconds or 480 people per minute entered the Old Port through the Notre-Dame tunnel. I left Dorchester Square at about 14h15 and passed under the Notre-Dame overpass at about 17h00 taking a total of about 165 minutes. If the head of the march arrived at the tunnel about 1.5 hours before me and it took about one hour for the tail of the march to pass under it after me, then people were passing through the Notre-Dame for about 2.5 hours or 150 minutes.

My estimate:

480 people per minute passing under Notre-Dame overpass X 150 minutes = 72,000 people.

My methodology is obviously flawed by too many assumptions to claim any sense of accuracy so I will continue to claim that public participation in the march was “up to 200,000.” With all the people waving red t-shirts, bed sheets or tablecloths out their windows and along the sidewalks as we marched past, solidarity against tuition hikes and in support of accessible education extends to a whole sector of the population beyond yesterday’s protest march.

The size of the papier maché head of Prime Minister Jean Charest may reflect his arrogant lack of interest for any dialogue on the issue of tuition increases. 2012 © Eduardo Fuenmayor.

I would have preferred to get my hands on the three-photos-per-second to do a more precise count. It doesn’t really matter, though, how many people attended because the general consensus is that it was an important and massive demonstration of historical importance that the Charest government cannot discredit as being insignificant. As he did with the 2006 Mont-Orford case and the 2004 Sûroit case, he didn’t budge his position even after growing citizen dissent, to finally give in under growing pressure. Charest seems to be taking the same stance with tuition increases and will certainly back down if the pressure is maintained. Will Charest ever learn that pushing through laws against the wishes of masses of people does not seem to work in Québec. Maybe he’ll finally catch on after the results in the next provincial election, probably this fall.

Let’s keep the pressure on!


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