As the large, heavy doors of Old Montreal’s beautiful Notre Dame Basilica slowly swung open, I could hardly believe what I was seeing.
Dozens of helmeted and visored riot police clutching truncheons were roaming the street in front of the church. Behind them, several hundred protestors kept back by metal barricades, were throwing various objects – glass-filled condoms, vegetables, firecrackers, bottles, eggs and sticks, among other things – at the police and those of us leaving the church.
It was the conclusion of the opening Mass of the Human Life International conference and a candlelight procession was about to begin.
As I descended the steps of the basilica along with other HLI delegates – priests, the elderly and young mothers cradling their children among them – I could hear the sounds of metal hitting metal around me as coins thrown by the protestors were striking the steel barriers on either side. It wouldn’t have taken much for one of us to lose an eye under these circumstances.
Above the street, clouds of smoke wafted in the air as smoke bombs and other incendiary objects were thrown by the protestors, who were becoming increasingly rabid and shouting with almost demonic intensity.
As I got closer to them, I could more clearly see the individuals who made up this mob – some had rings in their noses, others had dyed their hair, some were dressed in priestly and papal garb and many wore T-shirts extolling the virtues of free sex.
“Hate is not a family value,” one of their signs told us. But right beside this placard was a large, appropriately red banner which read: “If HLI comes to your church, lock the people inside and burn it down.”
And if there were any doubts that this was a spiritual, as much as an ideological confrontation, the representation from Pagans For Choice dispelled the notion.
At one point, a group of protestors led by a woman dressed as the Pope tried to break through the barricades to get at us, but the individuals were beaten back by four or five riot police.
As we walked along the streets of Old Montreal toward the hotel where the HLI conference was to be held, I was surprised by the air of calm which surrounded the other delegates. As the protestors fell farther back into the distance, many of my fellow walkers began to joyously pray and sing hymns.
When we reached the hotel, we found that the protestors had followed us there as well. Hundreds of them gathered on the street waving their placards and chanting, and when we went to the hotel’s lounge for some refreshments, we found that the mob had pursued us – several individuals had scaled the walls outside and were pounding on the lounge’s windows before they were dispersed by the hotel’s security.
I later learned that somehow, none of the HLI delegates had been injured despite the large number and variety of objects which had been thrown. Unfortunately, the police were not as lucky – one of their vans was demolished and an officer suffered minor injuries in arresting some of the five protestors who carried out the destruction.
Later in the evening, I was able to see who truly made up the alleged broad coalition of protestors the media had been trumpeting up all week: several buses pulled up to transport the young crowds back to the cities where they came from – many in Ontario and Upper New York State.
Apparently, the protest had had such little support among Montrealers that organizers at the Universite de Quebec a Montreal had to bus hooligans in from other cities to come up with a respectable number of people. Still, however, news media continued to refer to the protestors as “Montreal residents.”
Meanwhile, even after the evening’s events, news media went on calling HLI an “extremist” and “ultra-right” organization, while not a word was said about the hate-filled extremism of the protestors and those who urged them on. You would almost think that we were the ones who started a near riot!
Indeed, the Montreal Gazette in an editorial two days later suggested that HLI could only expect such a hostile reception because of its “intolerance” and the fact that its discourse is “immoral and painful.” “Tolerance is a two-way street,” the editorial’s headline intoned.
If anything, these events should serve as a stark reminder to all Christians, pro-lifers and people of conscience that the era for passivity on moral issues has long since passed. It is now time for everyone to get involved. As one HLI delegate remarked to me, “If we let them get us off the streets, they’ll be after us in our churches next.”
Indeed, to shirk our responsibilities at this point would mean turning Canada over to the kinds of people who made up the mob which poured into the streets of Old Montreal on the evening of April 19.