Montrealers march to support Parkland teens

A month after Florida tragedy, hundreds of protesters demand gun control reform

“A year ago, I was sitting in the classrooms of Stoneman Douglas,” said Cyril Yared as he waited for the rally to begin. “I still have two sisters who are there.”

While millions have heard the horrific story of the Feb. 14 school shooting that took 17 lives in Parkland, Fla., for Yared, the tragedy is personal. Now a first-year McGill student, Yared graduated last year from Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD), the high school where 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz opened fire on teachers and classmates. While Yared’s sisters, who were both at school on the day of the shooting, were unharmed, Yared did know Carmen Schentrup, a 16-year-old girl who was killed by Cruz.

“I knew that one day the world would know her name—perhaps because she found the cure for cancer or some other extraordinary reason,” Yared said about Schentrup, whom he says remembers as a bright, ambitious student who took classes several grades ahead of her level. “She was left as evidence of another community shattered by the sound of gunshots.”

Yared was one of three Parkland residents who spoke at the rally in Cabot Square in downtown Montreal on March 24. Debbie Desmettre, a 1997 MSD graduate, and Ellen Malka, a mother of two MSD students, also gave stirring speeches.

“Our community, our peaceful little Parkland, was attacked,” Malka said. “These kids experienced things that nobody should ever have to.” She added that, while her children were not physically harmed in the shooting, one of them was traumatized by the sight of the victims’ bodies during the evacuation.

“Although this is an American issue, we feel it is our duty to stand in solidarity with our neighbours,” said Sophie Saidmehr, a McGill student and one of the two primary organizers of the local protest. “This is no longer a partisan issue; it is simply a question of our humanity.”

After the speeches, protesters marched along Ste-Catherine Street West and René-Lévesque Boulevard. Many protesters brandished signs with politically charged messages, including “Protect Children, Not Guns,” “Never Again” and  “We Call B.S.”—a reference to MSD student Emma Gonzalez’s now-famous speech given at a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale on Feb. 17. Throughout the march, chants among the crowd included “Take no pay from the N.R.A.” and “Vote them out.”

The event, which gathered hundreds, was a sister march to the one held in Washington, D.C., which organizers estimate was attended by about 800,000 people, reported NBC News—300,000 more than originally predicted.

The protest, officially called March For Our Lives, was created in response to high rates of gun violence in the United States. According to Time, there have been 239 school shootings in the United States since 2014, resulting in 138 deaths. Many statisticians, activists and mass shooting survivors believe the astonishing rate of violence is connected to the country’s lax gun laws. In some states, weapons such as AR-15 style rifles can be purchased without a background check or waiting period.

For a long time, the cycle has seemed never-ending: another highly publicized, deadly mass shooting would occur, from Columbine to Las Vegas, and little political action would be taken after the news cycle ended. However, following the Parkland shooting, a number of teenage survivors voiced their outrage on social media and in the press, adopting the role of gun control advocates. In collaboration with the non-profit organization Everytown For Gun Safety, a number of MSD students, including Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg and Sarah Chadwick, organized the original demonstration in the capital.

Since the protest was announced in the days following the Parkland shooting, more than 800 sibling marches were planned across the globe. Other Canadian cities, like Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and St-John’s, also participated.

Despite the topic of gun control often being labeled an “American issue,” some Montreal protesters handed out flyers opposing the fact that AR-15s, the weapon used in the Parkland and other high-profile shootings, are also legal in Canada. There are, however, tighter restrictions on these weapons here than in the United States, such as mandatory background checks and a cap on the number of ammunition rounds that can be owned at one time, set at five.

After just a few weeks, the Parkland shooting survivors have already made significant progress in passing Florida gun control legislation by pushing Senator Marco Rubio to endorse certain gun control measures. However, Yared said there is still work to be done, and it’s important that Canadian and American citizens who are concerned about this issue register to vote and speak with their government representatives.

“This march is just one step,” Yared said. “We just have to keep going forward […] We’ll have to fight at the polls to get the change that we want.”

Photos by Mackenzie Lad


A first step in the march for change

Most people are familiar with the phrase: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” On March 24, that change manifested itself in the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C., and hundreds of other cities across the United States. Although the march was organized by American students to protest against weak American gun laws following a lengthy streak of shootings in American schools, thousands of Canadians marched in solidarity on Saturday. The ability of a group of Florida teenagers to spark a transnational demonstration is courageous, inspiring and a major step toward effecting real change.

We live in an age where mass shootings are normalized in the United States—or at least they were until about six weeks ago. So far this year, there has been an average of more than one school shooting every week in the United States, or a total of 17 shootings in 12 weeks, according to CNN. While Canadians should be proud to support our neighbours to the south in their fight to improve gun control, it’s important to remember we are not immune to the problem in our own country.

There were 13 shootings—two of which were fatal—in Ottawa alone in January 2018, reported CBC News. This equals to 40 per cent of the shootings recorded in the city in all of 2013. Of the 34 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries, Canada has the fourth highest rate of death by firearm, according to The Globe and Mail. The rate in Canada is more than twice that of Australia and 10 times the rate in Britain.

Effective gun control has been terminated at the federal level, and gun circulation in Canada has amplified. According to The Globe and Mail, the Harper government overruled the RCMP’s ban on military assault weapons, and eliminated the legal requirement that the sale of shotguns and rifles be tracked. Today, people with gun licenses in Canada can buy an unlimited number of unrestricted guns (i.e. shotguns and rifles, among others), and there is no record kept about any of these purchases. Gun owners in Canada can also avoid background checks because of automatic six-month license extensions that kick in if they fail to renew their license on time. Additionally, from 2012 to 2016, the importation of guns to Canada almost doubled compared to the previous four years—increasing from more than one million to just under two million, according to The Globe and Mail.

So while most of the news media turns its attention to the overwhelming number of massacres in the United States, it is undeniable that gun violence and a lack of gun control are problems in Canada as well.

As Canadians, we should be proud to stand against the people who deem corporate greed and political gain more valuable than the innocent lives of children. We should be proud to support anyone who tries to effect positive, peaceful change in a world that seems increasingly polarized and violent. Canadians should take inspiration from the brave voices and powerful words of young Americans, and make sure our own government understands that weak gun control will no longer be tolerated here either. We should all be determined to end gun violence and school shootings.

A school should be a safe space for everyone. It’s where we go to learn, to flourish and to create a future for ourselves. It is outrageous that shooting drills have become as commonplace in schools as fire drills. Parents should not drop their children off at school fearing they’ll never see them again.

Change comes slowly, but we at The Concordian believe it will come. Children are the future, and Saturday’s march was just a taste of the future these courageous young people will build for themselves. The people in charge can not be relied on to protect that future, nor should it be solely their responsibility. As the students of Parkland high school continue to show us, we must become the change we wish to see in our world.

Graphic Alexa Hawksworth

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