Red squares, green cash: For a few merchants, Quebec protests are good business

MONTREAL – In Montreal there are shortages of red felt and Maalox. Demand is high for security guards and frying-pan repair. Downtown convenience stores will suddenly swell with lines of thirsty protesters.

Much of the city’s business community blames the ongoing student unrest for a steep drop in sales. With Grand Prix events getting underway Thursday, many are anxious about the daily protests will disrupt the lucrative festival season.

But for some lucky merchants, the protests have actually been great for the bottom line.

The potential for protest-related business was made evident last month when stores selling fabric reported running out of red felt.

People have been using any available bit of red cloth to reproduce the iconic square that has come to represent the protest movement, one seen dangling from myriad balconies, windows and jacket lapels. That red square — which is now being worn by protesters in other cities — is a play on the French phrase for being “squarely in the red,” or broke, thanks to rising fees.

Then there’s the run on a certain heartburn remedy.

When Montreal police began using pepper spray to disperse the growing demonstrations, pharmacies reported shortages of the remedy Maalox. The pinkish substance is used as an eye rub by activists looking for quick relief from the burning effects of pepper spray.

There is also a rising demand for private security. The head of a leading security company described the situation in Montreal as a “positive” for his company.

“Naturally, when there’s unrest somewhere — the Egyptian election or some disruption here in Quebec or a labour disruption somewhere — unfortunately it’s usually good for business,” said Stephan Cretier, the chief executive of Garda World Security Corp.

There hasn’t been so much window-smashing lately at downtown commercial buildings, which had been a frequent feature of unruly nightly protests in Montreal.

Some of the recent credit for a more festive, less aggressive, atmosphere is being given to a novel idea by a college professor.

He encouraged Quebecers to adopt an old Latin American protest tactic, and bang on pots and pans to express their displeasure with the government.

Every night, thousands of Montrealers fill the streets with off-tempo clanging.

By day, they have been wandering into kitchenware stores wondering if it’s possible to smooth out the dents caused by the percussion.

“That’s the one thing we can’t fix,” said Cynthia Couture, who runs the Clinique de la Casserole Delmar, a store that specializes in selling and repairing kitchenware.

“So I tell people to bring me your old pots. I’ll recycle and offer you a discount on a new one.”

Many local businesses are less enthusiastic.

The Montreal Chamber of Commerce recently estimated that business overall is down 15 per cent at retailers and restaurant owners in the downtown core and that protests have cost several million dollars in economic damage to the city.

To some businesspeople, it’s not so much about immediate sales. For them, it’s been a chance to show their political colours.

At least two micro-breweries in the province have bottled specialty beers that pay tribute to the student movement.

Rene Huard, the master brewer at Brasseurs Illimites, decided to call his version La Matraque — a reference to a policeman’s billy club. The label features a club and a red square.

In an unplanned marketing coup, the beer was released on the same day the Quebec government passed its controversial Bill 78, which sets limits on protests in the province. Students immediately dubbed it “la loi matraque” — or the “billy-club law.”

“The timing was incredible,” said Huard, who added that the batch was too small for the brewery to actually profit from La Matraque.

The 500 cases of the beer did, however, sell out within a week.

“We wanted to respond to the events of the spring, to engage in the debate,” he said. “We make beer. That’s how we express ourselves.”

Every case of La Matraque also comes with one bottle that sports a green square on the label, acknowledging that some people support the tuition hikes.

“It shows that we’re more on one side than the other,” Huard said. “But it also shows that our position is, ultimately, the conflict has to end with a reconciliation.”

Along with La Matraque, beer-loving supporters of the student movement can also buy “Le Printemps erable” — the Maple Spring — which donates $2 from every bottle sold to a student association in the Eastern Townships.