By Tooker Gomberg, Ste.-Claire-de-Bellechasse, PQ.
Shot by police at the Quebec City protest in April 2001, Eric Laferriere’s voice was crushed. Will you use yours to speak out? (Originally published in NOW Magazine.)
I’m sitting in Eric Laferriere’s basement apartment, and his cellphone is ringing. He looks at it to see who’s calling. He doesn’t answer. He cannot speak.
Democracy is about the right to speak out, but our country is now responding to peaceful protestors with unprecedented clouds of toxic tear gas and a new form of repression: plastic bullets.
The cop who fired at Laferriere was no more than 20 feet away from him, near the wall surrounding the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. The bullet hammered into his throat, crushing his larynx, which contains the vocal chords, as well as the trachea, the thumb-thick wind pipe that brings air to the lungs.
He now has a steel plate in his throat and breathes through a small metal hole. He speaks in a faint whisper and with difficulty, wincing at the pain from the 6-inch stainless steel pipe stuck in his throat. Every breath burns.
“It’s like someone is grabbing me by the throat and trying to choke me. How could a cop do this to me?” he asks angrily, holding up a white 4-inch piece of plastic — the very bullet that hit him.
“Here, take it, knock it against your head lightly,” he tells me. It’s hard, like a rock. “That’s what hit me squarely in the throat. It was travelling at 300 feet per second. And somehow I had the reflex to reach down and grab it and put it in my pocket.”
In the corner of his living room sits a table stacked with hospital supplies, packages of plastic tubing and a machine to suck out the liquids that build up in his lungs. “I am going through two boxes of Kleenex per day. It’s not every day that you can find it on sale.
“I can’t go swimming or take a bath. I have a hole in my throat. I can’t even make love — I can’t get excited. I have to remain calm.”
As the Summit of the Americas story moves from front page to invisible, one story sticks in my mind. A man was shot in the throat by a plastic bullet. What happened to him?
NDP MP Svend Robinson’s office sends me an article about Laferriere, and I search the Quebec City daily newspaper Le Soleil for info. I call one of the journalists who has been writing about the use of plastic bullets, and from him I get the number of Eric’s hospital room. I call repeatedly over many days, but there’s no answer. Eventually, I learn that he has left the hospital.
One of the articles mentions the town he lives in: Ste.-Claire-de-Bellechasse. I scan the 600-plus Laferrieres in the province listed at Canada411.ca, but none matches the town. No leads.
I then search the town name and have just one hit: a company that makes tractor bodies. The person who answers tells me that Eric used to work at the foundry in town, and gives me that number.
The receptionist is friendly, but company policy dictates that she cannot give me his number. She’s happy to deliver my messages to Eric, though, who agrees to what turns out to be a three-hour interview.
I walk through the still graffitied streets of Quebec City, and then hop a boat across the wide mouth of the St. Lawrence River to Levis. A local bus and a taxi carry me 45 kilometres, first through the globalized landscape of Tim Hortons and 99-cent Jr. Whoppers, and then past rolling fields of corn and hay. I’m left on a quiet street in front of a four-plex.
Down the stairs, I’m welcomed into Eric’s home, where he lives alone, the sunlit walls decorated with small paintings he did as a child. He’s proud of his youthful talent and shows me a 20-year-old clipping from a La Tuque newspaper that recognized his childhood skill.
Later, we leaf through the piles of more recent clippings. This time he’s front page, with a bullet.
The Summit was barely a month ago, but so much has changed for Laferriere since he heard on the news that 25,000 people were expected for a march in Quebec City. “It was a beautiful day, and I wanted to be part of something large like that — a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he says.
“My mother saw me leave home that morning, and all I had was swimming goggles, a spare bandana and a bottle of water. I am not a Hell’s Angel! I am not violent. I have no dossier. I’m clean.”
On Saturday afternoon he stood alongside other protestors on Boulevard René Lévesque some 20 feet from a double or triple row of fully decked-out riot police. Nothing much was happening. It was calm.
Then, all of a sudden, clack, clack, clack, the cops started firing tear gas canisters at the protestors. “There was absolutely no reason for the cops to start firing that tear gas.”
The gas was so thick, he couldn’t see the person next to him. Some people ran, others got angry. He mimed his outrage. “I went like this,” he explains. First the middle finger, then a finger pointed at his head. Fuck you, what you’re doing is crazy, he was saying, but without words.
Suddenly, he was doubled over in pain, on the ground. “My hand no longer worked. What did they do to me? I didn’t know what hit me.”
Without thinking, he grabbed an empty tear gas canister that was lying nearby and was about to pitch it at the cops. It never left his hand.
“I tried to speak, but nothing came out.”
There was blood streaming out of his mouth. Gobs of blood. People around him were panicking. Others shouted for a medic. The Red Cross called for an ambulance. Laferriere could barely breathe.
Before the ambulance arrived, police fired more tear gas in their vicinity. They had to evacuate him. The ambulance was directed to a different location, and from there Laferriere was rushed to the hospital. Since then, he’s been bawling. Bawling like a baby.
Who fired the shot? And will he face the music? “For attempted murder a person should get 15 years,” Laferriere tells me.
After caring for him for two weeks, one of Laferriere’s nurses, Sylvie, confessed to him that her husband is a cop and that he was on duty during the Summit. After a couple of minutes of silence, Laferriere asked: “Did I deserve that bullet?”
Lawyers have been hovering, offering to help him pro bono. “They know I will win and that they will make money,” he says.
But he’s not rushing into a legal battle just yet. “I am not just going to charge the Quebec Police or the RCMP. I’m going after the cop who shot me. I want to see the cop who shot me in front of me.”
For now, he drives. In the last few days he’s travelled 1,200 kilometres. Next month he’ll go under the knife again. Then, if all goes well, he’ll go travelling. “There are so many things to see across Canada,” he says. “The CN Tower is in Toronto, right? Where is Niagara Falls?”
They succeeded in crushing Eric Laferriere’s voice. Will you use yours to speak out against the chemical and military attack against peaceful protestors?