They were a small cluster of masked adults, waiting in a dark corner of the park. Gradually more and more arrived, till there were about 100, some in full Halloween costume. Finally someone unfurled a long banner covered with anti-gentrification slogans, and with a few loud whoops the crowd headed toward the heart of Montreal's Hochelaga district for an illegal demonstration. "Don't tell the cops," said the flyer I had been handed weeks earlier, "and don't post on social media."
The crowd funnelled down a silent street lined with the kind of century-old, three-storey rental buildings you see all over Montreal. Not the ideal place, perhaps, to raise a chant against new condos; but the group was just warming up. They turned along a short stretch of bustling Ontario Street East, stopping traffic, then down a road of more varied construction, including condo buildings.
The chanting got louder, mixed with the clack-clack-clack of aerosol cans being primed. A few ghosts and hobgoblins flitted from the crowd to spray slogans on any available surface: "Pas de gentrification dans nos quartiers," and "Feu au condos," which one audacious graffitist sprayed on a building's well-lit glass door. A woman leading her daughter home from trick-or-treating explained the scene to her child in one pithy phrase: "Ils sont fous!" (They're crazy.)
You don't have to be crazy to worry about gentrification in Montreal's East End. In the past decade, 9,000 new condos have gone up in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve (HoMa); the average price of a duplex has more than tripled. The number of households earning more than $80,000 has doubled since 2010, to 20 per cent of the population.
The borough of which HoMa is a part has the third-highest rate of social housing among Montreal's boroughs, in a town where, according to the 2011 census, 40 per cent of renting households paid more than 30 per cent of total income for housing. Groups like BAILS and the Front d'action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU) constantly lobby for a better deal for the district's poorer citizens.
City-approved demos on the issue, like one I attended in Saint-Henri last week, happen all the time. Montreal loves to air its social and political inquiétudes in the street. In no other city in Canada can you find more power on the pavement. A relentless series of student demos over tuition increases in 2012 billowed into a crisis for the provincial government.
The protesters I tailed on Halloween were expressing frustration more than power, perhaps, but they were also really into the performance of dissent. Spray-painting a wall is normally a furtive activity; imagine the thrill of doing it when your friends nearby are going all-out to draw attention. Everyone knew the police would be along to crash the party, as they did less than half an hour after we left the park. A cruiser began trailing at a tolerant distance.
From then on, the most frequent chant was "Tout le monde déteste la police!" Condos and the Invisible Hand were suddenly less interesting than the tangible adversaries shining their headlights on the crowd. Someone loudly banged on a parked vehicle; the cruiser rushed forward and braked sharply behind them. The protesters veered off through Hochelaga Park; the police zoomed around to meet them on the other side.
I continued on alone back up to Ontario Street, reaching the corner in front of Bar des Patriotes just as the cruiser charged the crowd, in short veering rushes that hurt no one and that sent the crowd fleeing down the street past me. It was the nearest thing I've seen in Montreal to the running of the bulls at Pamplona.
Some protesters may have regrouped a few blocks further on; the night was still young. Making a point had definitely given way to looking for trouble, but there was no trouble this time as bad as the Molotov cocktail lobbed at a police car during a similar demo last spring. Other hands will no doubt continue with more constructive efforts to keep Hochelaga diverse and affordable.