“Tens of thousands” – the battle over protest turnout numbers

A small sliver of the protest that marched down René Lévesque Blvd. on Tuesday, May 22

It’s the most important question to answer when covering a large protest, and yet it seems nobody can answer it: How many people were there?

It happened again on Tuesday as what was billed as a huge manifestation of the public against the Quebec Liberal government turned out to be exactly that. Protesters filled the streets of downtown Montreal, blocking traffic for hours. The police, which has been pretty good at reporting where protests are via its Twitter account, stopped doing it because the protesters were everywhere.

But how many protesters were there, exactly? Could someone just provide an estimate?

Once upon a time, the police did just that. Journalists would ask them for their guess of the crowd size, and report that as if it was gospel. It didn’t matter how the police came to that figure. The story would simply say that police estimated the size.

But estimating the size of a protest is like estimating the size of a guy’s penis. Even if you’re right, you’re immediately and angrily accused of lowballing it.

So Montreal police now don’t release crowd estimates. Other police forces elsewhere in the world have done the same, for similar reasons.

Seeking a source – any source – to provide something to put in headlines, many journalists have little choice but to turn to the organizers themselves, who have very obvious motives for inflating their figures. Without any police estimates, there is nothing to challenge organizers’ figures until they reach the point of insanity (like, where the number of protesters exceeds the entire population).

It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of this number. The entire point of this protest is to get as many people in the streets as possible. A protest of 50,000 is impressive, but a protest of 500,000 is much more so. Even though there’s an order of magnitude between these numbers, crowd estimates crossed that entire range. Organizers and supporters, obviously, went on the higher end. Others, perhaps with other agendas, went lower.

Bigger than before

Based on my Twitter discussions, it seems estimates on the high end were based on a mixture of gut feeling and a comparison to earlier protests. If the March 22 march had 100,000 people in it, and the April 22 Earth Day protest had 200,000 people in it, then this one must have had 400,000 people in it, because it seemed twice as big.

I wasn’t at the first two, so I can’t really compare, but this one did seem huge. It just went on forever, and when you thought it was done, another wave would come. When the head of the march reached Lafontaine Park, the tail was still at Peel St.

But estimates of those earlier protests are just as flawed. The March 22 protest organizers estimated 200,000 people, and Le Devoir used that number in its front-page headline. La Presse had police sources estimating 100,000, and said it was probably between the two (La Presse later went back and asked for a more scientific estimate, coming up with 108,000, with a large margin for error – thanks Judith). The Earth Day protest organizers had estimated 250,000 (or 350,000, depending on who you ask). Le Devoir said 250,000, but La Presse said it was 150,000, based on police sources.

Even anonymously, police sources are only as good as their methods, and anonymous sources are probably not going to get into detail about them.

For this latest protest, most of the mainstream media threw out the idea of having actual numbers and just went with the vague “tens of thousands”. Theoretically that could mean 30,000 or 300,000 (at which point you’d have to say “hundreds of thousands”), with most people visualizing it around the lower end of that scale. That infuriates supporters of the student movement, who don’t hesitate to claim the media is biased against them, and hint at some conspiracy to hide the truth, when in fact the problem is that the journalists simply don’t know what the truth is.

Montreal isn’t the only place with this problem. Here’s a post about the wildly varying estimates of the size of a Glenn Beck rally a couple of years ago.

The scientific method

Crowd estimates are very difficult to do, as OpenFile’s Justin Giovannetti pointed out after the March 22 protest. Once it gets to the tens-of-thousands mark, it can’t be counted individually. Any scientific method requires getting a sample of a certain defined area and multiplying it by the entire area. But that’s easier said than done.

For this protest, since I had the day off and I wasn’t covering it, I decided I’d try to use some scientific method to analyze its size.

As the head of the march reached René-Lévesque Blvd. and Metcalfe St., I spotted some slightly higher ground at Mary Queen of the World Cathedral. I stood there and started counting.

I decided I would use, as my sample, the block from Metcalfe to Mansfield St. Google Maps tells me this is a distance of 110 metres, which I’ll round to 100 since I’m counting from the edges, not the middle, of the intersections. I tried, through various methods, to count how many people fill this area at one time. I tried counting in my head, using an electronic counter, and taking an even smaller sample. Each of these methods gave me a figure that put the crowd a bit less than 500. That’s 500 people, covering three lanes of traffic (for the most part, the march contained itself to the north half of the street) for 100 metres. That comes out to about 500 people per 1200 square metres, or 0.4 people per square metre, or 2.4 square metres per person. This is about the estimate used for dense crowds, and the crowd was quite dense (though still fluid), so I was confident here that I was on the right track.

Having a good estimate for the size of a block, the next step was to count the number of blocks. From 3:27pm to 5:03pm, I stood there as the march went by. I picked some recognizable marcher (usually one with a distinctive sign) at Metcalfe St., waited until that person reached Mansfield, and then repeated the process.

To compensate for varying crowd density, I counted one and a half blocks when the march spilled into the other half of the street, and two blocks when it filled all six lanes. I also stopped counting when there was a gap.

In the hour and a half I was there, I saw the main protest pass by. I saw a second march, seemingly filled with more radical elements who wore masks and carried black flags, cross it in the other direction (doubling my workload momentarily), then after it appeared to have died, a second wave of the first march appeared and filled the streets once again. Just as it ended, a fourth march descended Mansfield St. I quickly moved a block east so I could add them to my count.

When it was all over, I counted 97 blocks, give or take a few. That’s a long protest. About 10 kilometres. To give you an idea of perspective, 10km is the entire length of St. Laurent Blvd. So this protest could have taken up three densely-packed lanes of St. Laurent from Gouin to de la Commune. That’s crazy when you think about it that way.

But if you do the math, 500 people times 97 blocks is 48,500. How could this protest be only 50,000 people if it took up so much space? I posted the estimate on Twitter and asked people if there was a flaw in my methodology.

The flaws

The biggest issue seemed to be location. There was, apparently, a march that took the original planned route going east along Sherbrooke St. toward Lafontaine Park. If that march didn’t pass my location, then it wouldn’t have been included in my count.

But that was it. Nobody questioned the 500 people per block estimate, or the 97-block length (a measure partly of its width, so not its actual length).

Let’s say that second march had the same amount of people in it, even though I’m inclined to think it was less than that. We’ll double the number to 100,000. Even that was insultingly low to some organizers and supporters, who said it must have easily been hundreds of thousands. I asked some what method they used to come up with their estimates. One responded “my eyes“. Many pointed to aerial shots.

The best aerial shots I’ve seen were from the Journal de Montréal, one of the few media to boldly make its own estimation (150,000). The photos, taken by Maxime Landry in the TVA helicopter, show the Place des Festivals filled with people, to the point where they spill over into adjacent streets.

I’ve seen this kind of crowd before. This is what it looks like during big Jazz Festival events. And because those events have controlled entrances (in some cases people counting participants with counters), we know that that kind of crowd (including spillover on nearby streets) is about 100,000.

That’s not to say that’s a definitive number. People were still arriving after the march began. Others may have joined in later. But it’s a good indication in terms of order of magnitude.

As much as people will criticize QMI for being biased against the students, I’m inclined to believe their estimate, or even consider it on the high scale. Based on my method of counting, and the fact that there was at least one large march I didn’t see (I believe), a figure of 100,000 seems about right.

Pictures are worth a hundred thousand protesters

That’s still a huge number. Even just counting those who passed by me on René-Lévesque, the protest took up more than 100,000 square metres and would fill the Olympic Stadium.

It’s large enough that it made the front page of every newspaper, and led every newscast (even The National led with two stories about it), and got noticed around the world. A hundred thousand is about 1/20th of the population of the island of Montreal. It’s about a fifth of the population of 15-to-35-year-olds on the island. It’s enough people that the government needs to take notice.

But it’s not 500,000 people. Not even close.

And the problem with pretending that it’s 500,000 people is that the next protest will have to be even larger than that. And at some point that ever-inflating number will be mathematically impossible and the numbers will lose all meaning, if they haven’t already.

UPDATE (Aug. 23): Radio-Canada has hired an outside company to measure the latest protest’s size. See more about that here.

See also: This story from Urbania, about a similar issue for a 2019 protest.

25 thoughts on ““Tens of thousands” – the battle over protest turnout numbers

  1. wkh

    There really needs to be a better way to count because when these inflated numbers become benchmarks, they’re hard to beat, as you say. However, I really have a problem believing it was only 100K. I’d feel more comfortable around 150-200. Just because I know how many people fit in a stadium (being a life long pro sports fan does that) and how that kind of traffic moves, and I just can’t quite see there being anything under 100K yesterday.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      I know how many people fit in a stadium

      But stadiums can be deceiving. The Olympic Stadium is more than 200 metres across, but doesn’t seem that large because there’s nothing in the middle. It also packs people in pretty tightly, horizontally as well as vertically.

      Plus, any event that fills the Olympic Stadium tends to just about paralyze the metro system before and afterward. That might be a more interesting way to compare the two. Was there really three times as much people there? Was there really twice as many as were at each of the U2 concerts last year, which overloaded the transit system so much that the metro had to stay open past 2am?

      1. Josh

        That seems a poor comparison to me, as well. The protest dispersed gradually, and over a wide area covered by many metro stations. When people come out of the stadium, they’re generally all leaving at the same time, and all heading to the same one or two or three metro stations.

  2. Karel Boissinot

    Awesome job, trying to approach it as scientifically as possible! I like the explanation about ever-inflating numbers and the implications of that!

  3. Kevin

    Irony: trusting state-owned media providing a police department figure for an anti-government protest.

  4. Peter Wheeland

    Here’s my count (and I’m not saying this as a journalist but as an observer). I stood on the corner of Parc and Sherbrooke, two blocks from the start, for the entire march. It started at 2:48 and the last groups went past me at 4:21. That’s 93 minutes. Conservatively (I checked several times), there were 20 people passing me every second. That works out to 1200 per minute, times 93, gives you 111,600. That’s a minimum and is unlikely to contain duplicates since it was at the beginning of the march. For 500,000 people, they would have to march past at around 90 people per second,. i.e. they would have to be running.

  5. ant6n

    I was at all three rallies, and I felt that Earth day was actually the smallest. The March demo felt bigger than the May one, but the May one was kinda stretched and all over the place.

  6. Michael Black

    But you’re just reinforcing the mistake the students have made, that numbers count.

    They got a large number of people out back in February, and they whine that they are ignored. And they keep at it every night, as if that says something.

    What they are doing, what they have always done, is to be disruptive. Not just at the beginning this time when they’d block streets and bridges, but all the previous anti tuition hike protests, where’d they’d take their mob into the stock exchange, make noise, then move onto another target. They think protest is leverage, it’s coercion. “Give us what we want, or else we’ll keep being disruptive”.

    Let’s imagine that a protest is to change people’s minds. I did back in 1976, and unlike the masses I have given it a lot of thought then and ever since. You want to talk to them, to change their minds, not hit them on the head with signs (figuratively). Which is stronger “Don’t eat meat” or “I don’t eat meat” or even “I haven’t eaten meat since 1979”? Get out there with placards and figuratively hit men over the heads saying “you should do your share of childcare!” or skip hearing Desmond Tutu speak and go off and play with a five year old, where anyone who sees you sees something different?

    So perhaps a large number of people might say something, but the larger the crowd, the easier it is to get people out. All of these people didn’t get out back in 1976 when the provincial government passed a law preventing the teachers from striking, even from quitting. The mass doesn’t even remember.

    But when something is “hot” it’s really easy to join up, but that doesn’t mean it is all that deep. I’ve come to realize that the students can pull numbers every night because they are the age where the mass matters. They all want those iPods and Canada Goose jackets because the world they live in is the mass, they need to be a part of it. So it’s really easy to pull numbers every night,. (It’s important to remember the same thing happened in the sixties, a large mass that would go out to demonstrations). But if you judge by numbers you’d think this was the worst possible thing to happen. Just like that “occupation” for CKUT and McPirg funding months back, you’d think McGill had banished the groups, for all the fuss.

    So we get this faceless mass, which is surely behind the nonsense of people wanting to wear face masks, as if yet another faceless individual is all that matters.

    Nobody declaring that need to wear masks is thinking it through. They don’t think about all the single people who have stood up to power, by not wearing a mask, who have either changed things, or influenced others. Miep Gies resisted the nazis when she helped hide Anne Frank and her family, she risked her freedom and her life to do that. It wouldn’t be the same if she was faceless, and her power comes from doing the right thing, rather than joining the mob. Fred Shuttlesworth, who died the same day as Steve Jobs but wsa invisible, stood up to racism and segregation, his home was bombed 2 or 3 times, he has far more power than some anonymous guy who wears a mask. Yes, for a handful of people, they risk a lot to be visible, but that risk is what makes them powerful.

    But most protest is about speaking up, not getting something. When we were walking to New York City 30 years ago, there were only four of us from Montreal, and five from elsewhere who walked the distance. We didn’t need more people, it didn’t matter if we changed people’s minds (though we hoped, all those people we passed on the way, who might wonder why we were walking for two months), we did it because nuclear weapons are wrong. It came as a major shock to be in Cambridge, MA and hear the estimate of people coming down from Montreal, because those numbers weren’t there when we left Montreal. But it was a time when the notion flowed through society, so the masses appeared Thirty years later, I’m shocked by the violence of the students, as if what happened thirty years ago didn’t mean a thing. It was great on June 12th to have 500,00 or whatever, but it was an orgasmic thing, not necessarily more powerful.

    The Tibetans go to Ottawa every March, they do it because they have to. All kinds of demonstrations happen, and they aren’t about coercion, which of course is likely why most demonstrations are not violent. People picket the White House endlessly. There was a period when there was a “peace camp” on Parliament Hill, an every day vigil that sadly lacked clarity of protest to realize being there every day mattered, camping didn’t, so when the camp was banished as an eyesore, there went the presence. When the cruise missile was tested in Canada starting about 1984, there was always some demonstration at the same time, for the simple reason that the test shouldn’t go on without anyone saying “no”.

    I pretty much stopped going to demonstrations about 1984 when the large disarmament rally in the fall had us go through a chute on St. Denis so we could be counted. Organizers should not be treating participants like cattle, and it’s ridiculous to put much into the number of participants. Because then you blame the weather or lack of notice if the numbers don’t come out. And you just have to keep pushing the number each time because however many come out now, you’ll have to be louder and bigger next time. If someone thinks the only power they have is to be part of a mass, then that’s part of the problem.

    The students are a mob, They have show that in the last few months, but they also show it every time they think numbers count. Because instead of speaking to power, they see their only outlet is to be part of a mass.

    In 2010 Carmen Ruiz danced at the MAI and said in “Hour” before the show:
    “If we denounce and scream and hit people’s heads [the message] won’t come across. What we are trying to do is connect in a personal way and touch the soul.”

    She came to Montreal from Columbia, where violence is real, where repression is real, so she doesn’t have the fantasies that too many in North America take up. I still say the bit about hitting people on their heads comes from something I wrote about political art a few years before, but she understands change like most of the students don’t.

    I’m tired of being a pariah because I’m not part of the mass.


    1. Fagstein Post author

      But you’re just reinforcing the mistake the students have made, that numbers count.

      When the point of a protest is to attract as many people as possible, then yes, numbers count.

    2. Kate M.

      Michael, some kinds of injustice call for independent resistance and some call for mass resistance. How would an individual nobly resist tuition increases?

  7. News Guy

    Whatever the numbers, there are way too many people in this city who seem to have way too much free time on their hands. Just imagine if all this wasted energy was actually being used to help the community. You would really think that some terrible crime was being commited against these people by the way they carry on. The worst part of all this is how Montrealers have actually adjusted to this already. If you hadn’t noticed it before, it is clear now that this province is seriously F-ed up.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Just imagine if all this wasted energy was actually being used to help the community.

      I suppose you could make that argument for anyone doing just about anything. You may not agree with the cause they’re protesting for, but it’s hard to argue it’s not important.

      You would really think that some terrible crime was being commited against these people by the way they carry on.

      Some would argue that’s exactly what’s happening when police hit them with batons or arrest them even though they’ve done nothing wrong.

      1. News Guy

        Their tuitioncause has completely become overshadowed with ridiculous comparisons to places like Egypt and the American South in the 1960s. I am not saying they are all making such idiotic comparisons, but a sizable segment of them are. It doesn’t help when you have people who refer to themselves as journalists, like the people at Concordia TV making even more ridiculous comparisons with talk of Marshall Law and political prisoners. come on, if these guys really think they can compare themselves to people in say, Egypt, then they have learned nothing at school in the first place.

        As for the police, they are being egged on on a daily and nightly basis by a small group of people who are trying their best to get them to react so that they can then cry police brutality. No doubt there are some bad elements among the police force, but the vast majority have been doing a great job. They have been thrown into an unprecedented situation over the past 3 months and as a whole, have shown remarkable restraint if you look at things objectively. If you don’t want trouble, then don’t go to these gatherings looking for it. If the protests would never have gotten violent in the first place or attempted to disrupt the lives of other citizens, there would be no need for a huge police presence.

  8. David Pinto

    You say:
    I decided I would use, as my sample, the block from Metcalfe to Mansfield St.
    Yes, but that is a very short block.
    Here is a better example to point out the difficulties in using “blocks” to count people.
    Consider a demonstration which begins at the corner of de la Gauchetière and Peel and heads east on de la Gauchetière.
    The first block is Cathedral, the next block is Mansfield, the next one is University.
    Simple, right?
    Ah, but there is a major problem — the block of de la Gauchetière between Mansfield and University is an extremely long block; in fact, I would estimate that that one block is the length of three normal
    city blocks.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      You say:
      I decided I would use, as my sample, the block from Metcalfe to Mansfield St.
      Yes, but that is a very short block.

      That was the point. I used a short block so I could better estimate its size.

      Consider a demonstration which begins at the corner of de la Gauchetière and Peel and heads east on de la Gauchetière. … the block of de la Gauchetière between Mansfield and University is an extremely long block

      That’s irrelevant to my method, since I only use one block: the 110 metres from Metcalfe/de la Cathédrale to Mansfield. Its length doesn’t change.

  9. grogro

    I’ve seen this kind of crowd before. This is what it looks like during big Jazz Festival events. And because those events have controlled entrances (in some cases people counting participants with counters), we know that that kind of crowd (including spillover on nearby streets) is about 100,000.

    The methodology failed when the resulting number was considered inadequate and a feeling was used to support the revised number. The crowd walking on the streets did not look like the jazz festival crowd, it did not inhabit the same space as the jazz festival crowd, it did not move or behave like the festival crowd so this speculation and interpretation is a bit thin.

      1. Grogro

        Without stages, beer tents, other jazz fest infrastructure plus free shows that create a different landscape and circulation pattern. The number is pulled out of the air from an impression.

  10. Greg

    I remember the estimate for Arcade Fire’s outdoor concert being a little over 100,000, and the aerial photo showed all of Quartier des spectacles filled up plus a little on the side streets. Going by photos of this protest, it seemed about 2.5 times larger than that. Pop Montreal’s numbers for Arcade Fire might have been optimistic, but even if they were, there’s also the factor of people joining the marches as they progress though the city. So I would go with 250,000. That’s my best guess.

    1. Greg

      I would just add that I think we can use Quartier des spectacles as a somewhat reliable unit of measurement, since the city must have determined a reasonably specific capacity for the area when they built it.

    2. Fagstein Post author

      Going by photos of this protest, it seemed about 2.5 times larger than that.

      Where were all these people? Remember that the big Jazz Fest concerts have secondary screens on Ontario, at Place des Arts, on Ste. Catherine, etc. The figure of 100,000 includes adjoining areas being filled as well. I can understand that there were plenty of people who arrived late (I was one of them, and I saw quite a few people on the metro with red squares and signs prepared for a protest), but I’m skeptical that 60% of the eventual crowd wasn’t there when that photo was taken, and that the 100-block march that passed by me on Ste. Catherine represents only a fifth of the total protest.

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