That’s how many people, according to a firm hired by Radio-Canada, were at Place du Canada at 2:35pm on Wednesday during the monthly protest against tuition hikes and Bill 78.
As I predicted, the number prompted outrage among protesters and their supporters. Reactions from “no way” to “fraude“. Some presented evidence to back up their cases, but in all cases they involved subjective comparisons. Many judged based on a single aerial photo (whose source I couldn’t find easily). Others based their numbers on known capacities of large stadiums. But many just pulled numbers out of nowhere. CLASSE’s official estimate was 100,000. Numbers as high as 250,000 were being thrown about.
My estimate was 24,000, and I provided my methodology. I stood at the corner of Berri St. and René-Lévesque Blvd., estimated that people were crossing a line on the pavement at about 10 per second on average, and multiplied that by how long it took the whole protest to pass by – about 40 minutes. (I had to leave early to go to work, so I estimated that based on the tail end being at St. Laurent and de Maisonneuve 25 minutes after the first people crossed at Berri and René-Lévesque. I figured it would take the tail end about 15 minutes to reach where I was originally counting from.)
Comparing apples and pineapples
Measured in time, the protest was about half as large as the one I saw on May 22, whose size I also tried to estimate. That estimate was 50,000, but with the understanding that I was only counting the people who passed my location.
The closest thing to an official estimate we’ve had of one of these protests before now is QMI Agency’s call of about 150,000 for that May 22 protest. They did not reveal their methodology, but it was the only time a news agency offered its own number.
So the media have been relying on protesters’ own estimates of the protest size. And obviously, there’s clear motivation for them to inflate those numbers.
It’s not just the student protests. Remember that big march against the Iraq war in 2003, that drew 200,000 or 300,000 people? Radio-Canada did an official crowd estimate there too, and the actual number was much lower (see the video at the bottom).
In first-day stories, the media have been careful about their estimates. They refer vaguely to “thousands” or “tens of thousands”. When they use the protsters’ numbers, they’re clearly attributed. But as time passes, the care starts to slip, and without any competing numbers to refute them, those estimates of 100,000 or 200,000 people slowly become fact.
So now, as media outlets start to realize they can’t abdicate their responsibilities and really need to do their own crowd estimation, more accurate numbers show a dramatic drop. People start to make comparisons in their heads: If the May 22 protest drew 200,000 people and the Aug. 22 one drew only 12,000, the student movement is clearly dying out.
The biggest problem with amateur estimates of crowd sizes is that people don’t know what a crowd of 10,000 people or 100,000 people looks like. So they try to compare with the Bell Centre (21,000), the Olympic Stadium (60,000), or the Place des festivals (which they say is 100,000 based on estimates of Jazz fest mega show sizes, but those estimates include crowds watching secondary screens on de Maisonneuve Blvd., at Place des Arts, on Ste. Catherine St. or even on Clark St.)
But these can be deceiving. The Bell Centre and Olympic Stadium look a lot smaller than they are, because of all the empty space in the middle. And crowds there are packed in very tightly, unlike a moving protest march.
Rather than subjective comparisons of size, let’s compare the crowds using another method: transit.
- 20,000: A packed show or hockey game at the Bell Centre causes a strain on the metro system as it clears out. The STM routinely adds extra trains at the Lucien L’Allier station to handle the thousands of people who hop on at the same time. There’s a noticeably large crowd at transfer stations like Berri-UQAM, consistent with what you’d find during a busy rush hour.
- 50,000: The biggest events at the Olympic Stadium have been in the 50,000 range. When they end, the metro system is severely strained. Extra trains are parked near the Pie-IX station, and for a good hour they fill up and depart westbound toward Berri-UQAM. Even then, extra trains are added to the other lines as well, and security officers herd crowds towards the ends of the platforms to get as many people as possible onto the trains.
- 80,000: Remember that U2 show at the Hippodrome? Officials pleaded with people to take public transit because parking would have been a nightmare. Though the shows let out before midnight, the metro was kept running past 2am because that’s how long it took to get everyone on the trains. It was so bad that not only were people directed to walk to two metro stations, but a fleet of dozens of buses was brought into service to shuttle people to the Jean-Talon station via a special reserved lane marked with pylons for the whole route.
Which of these do you think is the best comparison to Wednesday’s protest?
When 10,000 isn’t enough
What’s most disconcerting about all this is that the bar has been set unreasonably high for large protests in this city. Tens of thousands of people taking to the streets isn’t enough anymore. It has to be hundreds of thousands before anyone starts noticing.
That’s unfortunate. Whether you agree with the student movement or not, they amassed enough people that it took them more than half an hour to walk by in a march as wide as five traffic lanes. No matter their actual number, a descriptive word that’s synonymous with “enormous” is called for here.
But so long as we continue to measure protests like we do penises, this obsessive war over numbers will only distract from any real issues we might be trying to debate.
UPDATE: OpenFile, in a story about how difficult crowd estimates are, comes up with 80,000 based on a march 3 km long and 18.5 metres wide with 0.7 square meters per person. That seems a bit too dense to me. But at least it’s a scientific effort.