The Occupy movement comes from all aspects of Canadian society, including those with close family ties to the wealthy elite. Jennifer Yang of the Toronto Star provides this backgrounder on Antonin Yvon Mongeau,
He chose the pseudonym “Smith,” the most common of English monikers. It is a name for regular folk and the plebian masses; it is a name for the 99 per cent.
In October, a burly, curly-haired activist calling himself Antonin Smith moved into St. James Park, the nexus of the Occupy Toronto movement.
Over the next two months, Smith – or “Agent Smith,” as he sometimes referred to himself – became one of the most controversial and outspoken citizens of Occupy Toronto, making himself a de facto spokesperson for a movement that did not want one.
Like many occupiers, he used a pseudonym. But to change one’s name is to obscure the past.
One of the more interesting parts of Mongeau’s past is that he is the adopted son of David Charles Mongeau, a University of Western Ontario law graduate who worked at Goodman’s until joining Four Seasons Hotels as an executive, and then vice chairman of CIBC World Markets. David Mongeau eventually moved to London, England and created an investment bank called Avington Financial, focusing on hospitality deals and luxury hotels.
There’s not much luxury in the parks and camps of Occupy Toronto. Antonin Mongeau was kicked out of his parent’s Richmond Hill house at the age of 17 and experienced homelessness, which helped foster his support for the Occupy movement,
Mongeau says his experience as a homeless youth “changed my whole world view.” Several years later at St. James Park, some occupiers would notice Mongeau’s particular affinity for the homeless.
“When you’ve seen both sides of the coin you realize two things: we can’t keep going like this and it’s going to be hard,” Mongeau says. “Those with power and money will not relinquish it kindly.”
The full interview, which was conducted exclusively by email, follows below:
Tell me about your parents. Where are they from, what are their backgrounds?
David is industrious and intelligent, all of his successes are his own. Rose I would characterize as a poet more than anything.
What kind of parents are David and Rose?
Parents are like electrons, they want the path of least resistance for their children. I’m sorry if I’ve disappointed them.
Did you have a privileged upbringing?
I have experienced radical swings in class, but I’ve never wanted for much. When I was 17 I lived on welfare, by the time I was 22 the Internet had made me a millionaire. Education will be a right, but it’s a privilege for now and I’m grateful. My father didn’t join 1%-world until after I left home. It’s a nice place to visit but i wouldn’t want to live there. I’m back to being poor now, but I’m not worried.
How would you describe your performance and engagement as a student?
When I was in grade 4 they wouldn’t let me into gifted because I disrupted class too much. That pretty much sums up my experience with institutionalized schooling.
What did you do in the years between graduating high school and attending university?
While on summer break from our first year at U of T a friend and I started an internet company. It was 1999 so our company got bought by a larger company and we operated as a subsidiary selling CMS to small and medium sized business in the US. We had 100,000 paying customers and I did that for about 4 years. These internet successes made me a 1% for a brief period in 2002, but I managed to escape with a condo in hand.
When did you enroll at U of T? What did you study?
I studied Semiotics, Anthro, and Womens Studies.
How did you get involved with the French Club?
One day in Intro to Equity Studies a girl got up and introduced herself as president of Les Étudiants Francophones de l’Université de Toronto (EFUT – French Club). I was losing my mother-tongue due to lack of practice so I joined up.
What did you do with the French Club?
I’ve been a member, executive, 4-term president, and Alumni Chair. During my terms we’ve grown EFUT into the largest and most active student association at U of T, largely on the strength of our marketing. With 3100 members we’re one of the largest francophone groups in Ontario. We also have sister clubs at York and Ryerson. I’m very proud of my work promoting francophone language and culture in and around the University of Toronto, but I didn’t do it alone.
Some students I‘ve spoken to at U of T tell me you were a difficult person to work with. Do you agree? How would you describe your leadership style?
I try to lead by example and with a simple credo: those who work the hardest make the rules. If you don’t work hard, you won’t like my style.
Some students say you were harassing to them. Do you agree with this statement?
I have never harassed anyone. In most incidences I called police to investigate and they found nothing. I book space at U of T weekly, and I interact with the provost and others with regularity. The persons you spoke to were not “students” but paid employees of the Canadian Federation of Students, a notoriously corrupt corporation which controls 95% of student “unions” in Canada. Campus publications have a tendency to reprint their hearsay, and all accusations against me are false and libellous.
How did you first hear about the Occupy movement?
Occupy Toronto didn’t galvanize people to a cause, we’d just been waiting for it a long time. Personally, I draw much more inspiration from the peoples struggle in Iran or Wukan than I do anything in America, but obviously Wall Street was a significant advert. “Occupy” for me exists more in those middle east revolutions and the work of Anonymous or Wikileaks than anything Adbusters has done. Half the reason I went to Occupy was just to camp. I love camping.
In October, you suspended your duties as president of the French Club to devote yourself fulltime to the Occupy Toronto movement. Why?
There’s only 24 hours in a day.
How long did you live at St. James Park? Were you there full-time or did you return home to shower/sleep on occasion?
40 days and 37 nights I think. A volunteer who lived near by let me take bubble baths at her place. She was very kind to Occupy. Tell me about your role at St. James Park and what is was like living/working there. The first ten days of Occupy Toronto were the most magical experiences of my life and restored my faith in humanity. The next thirty days tested me in ways I hadn’t experienced before. Day and night were very different in St. James Park. It really bothers me when people say Occupy Toronto doesn’t have any successes: we served 40,000 meals in a park and we did it with all of Toronto’s help. I never had to question whether Torontonians supported us, I saw them everyday bringing us food and care packages. As far as the food team: we did 40,000 meals from a park! No one can take that from us and it took a lot of dedication from some key people to make it work. Some say we were the only team to fulfill our obligation every day, but the marshals and medics weren’t far behind. In addition to food I also did police, union, and church liaison. Those were pretty significant responsibilities and I learned a lot. Police liaison was particularly challenging… It’s easy to write ‘zero-tolerance towards violence’ on a board and wiggle your fingers; enforcing it is a whole other ballgame. I wasn’t quite prepared for the volume of violent drunks and sexual aggressors we had, but I thought we handled it with a lot of maturity for such a nascent movement. Toronto’s infrastructure was likely the best of any Occupation, and even Occupy Wall Street praised our security mechanisms. I wish we’d left the park in a more organized manner and salvaged more of our materials though.
There was some controversy about your management style at St. James Park and a general meeting was held to exclude you from future Occupy-related organizing. What are your feelings about that?
I went to Occupy to do the most noble thing I could think of: feed everyone. When we were evicted from the park I tried to squat a building big enough for all of Occupy’s organizing. If anyone has a problem with that, then Occupy isn’t their movement. No one needs permission to act. The small number who criticize the food team’s inclusivity forget that we had the only person-of-colour with any significant responsibility in the entire camp, the most homeless and recovering addicts as bottom-liners, and the most women, likely because our space was one of the safest on campus. All those disparate groups operated as one, and we attracted people with our unity and focus. Breaking bread with people is spiritual; everyone from Anarchists to Zionists have to eat. The food team embodied that ethic. As far as being excluded from Occupy-related organizing… I find it funny that I didn’t have any of these problems until the Star put me on the cover. Literally the next day they were trying to vote me off the island at some private meeting. The day after that I was unanimously confirmed at a real GA, you can check the minutes. Occupy is an idea, there’s no membership card.
Why did you decide to keep your surname and background a secret?
I used a pseudonym with the agreement and consent of every reporter who approached me, as did most others in the Park. This isn’t a secret, and I’m disappointed the Star would go to such great lengths to expose a source. I do this interview under duress and I hope it’s the last. I DO NOT CONSENT TO THE DISCLOSURE OF MY LAST NAME, and I urge you to consider your ethics. Please, please, please observe my pseudonym because anything else exposes me to a lot of criticism, bullying, and physical threats. I DO NOT WISH TO BE IDENTIFIED IN ANY ARTICLE OR PUBLICATION.
Antonin, can you explain how the exposure of your last name would expose you to criticism, bullying and physical threats?
Please respect my pseudonym as it was a known and discussed pre-condition of all the interviews I did, especially those regarding the Queen Street Squat. It is extremely unethical for the Star to renege on that agreement. Revealing my name exposes me to significant and permanent threats to my personal safety, surveillance by police, discrimination in employment, and infringement of my privacy. Occupy is just one part of my life, and your story will severely impede the work I do in other spheres, be they commercial, volunteer, or private. In more detail:
PERSONAL SAFETY: My job as the park’s only reliable police liaison put me into direct and recurrent contact with some of Toronto’s most dangerous street people. I’ve personally handed over violent drunks, those with extreme mental illness, and sexual predators to police for arrest. My life was threatened numerous times in the process. One such crackhead already receives day-passes from the CAMH at U of T, despite sexually assaulting a woman at knife-point, and he quite clearly recognizes me. It’s one thing to have to deal with these guys when I encounter them at my school or in the street, it’s another for them to have one-click access to my entire life. You will be exposing me to very prescient and real threat of physical retribution from known and recidivist criminals if you reveal my name.
POLICE: 99% of the police I interacted with were good people whom I’d trust with my own children. 1% of police are beasts with a likely axe to grind if for no other reason that the tongue-lashings I gave them when they didn’t cooperate. Add CSIS, the RCMP, and private security to that list and you can understand how I’m concerned about future surveillance. I’ve caught five people following me on the street or subway since leaving the park, to say nothing of the dozens we encountered in the park. They might be police, they might be reporters, but they’re definitely not interested in identifying themselves when I confront them. You will be exposing me to continued surveillance by public and private security services if you reveal my name.
EMPLOYMENT: Regardless of our political beliefs the fact remains that the 99% are employed by the 1% and affiliation with organizations such as Occupy Toronto will be frowned upon by employers and have an impact on existing and future employment. I will lose the only way I can support myself if you reveal my name.
PRIVACY: My personal history and background mirrors the histories or backgrounds of many other members of Occupy Toronto, and many also used pseudonyms. I have NEVER identified as a spokesperson, I have never been elected to such a post, and I’ve never drawn material benefit from my affiliation with Occupy Toronto. The only group to identify me as such was the Star. Ergo, it is dishonest for the Star to profit from my testimony at the expense of my privacy.
Are you still involved with the Occupy movement?
It’s hard to even want to align with Occupy Toronto anymore. I came for a revolution and now I find myself encircled by a group of neo-hippie repeatniks who float somewhere between consternation and indifference. I prefer the international Occupy movement. Many of Toronto’s bottom-liners were bought off by Sid Ryan’s cronies (Joel Duff, former CFS) within the first week with paid trips to New York for them and their girlfriends, pre-paid iPhones, etc (Dave Vasey, Lana Brite, Kevin Connyu, Nele Michaels, and Mischa Saunders). This is while our own logistics team refuses to give out tents or blankets to homeless people because ‘they aren’t part of the movement’. Having witnessed such graft so early on, I knew there’d eventually be a break. I met a few real revolutionaries in Toronto. They call me and we work on things together. I like the work of our teach-ins and Occupy the Bridge was a great bit of organizing. I’m done with “speakers lists” and “points of process” though, I just want action.
Do you have a job?
I’m a copy writer by trade and I freelance quite a bit but it’s not enough to make ends meet. Since you’ll be destroying my professional name in the process of selling banner ads, I can’t imagine the situation will improve.
Where and when were you born?
Belgium, Scorpio, Year of the Snake.
You mentioned you’ve lived on your own since 17. Please elaborate.
My parents kicked me out of my house when I was 17 so I lived on welfare in a boarding house. Later my parents tried sending me to a boarding school but that didn’t work either. I finished public school at 20, and then someone in admissions fucked up and let me into U of T. I’ve run businesses, volunteered, and lived like a normal adult since. It’s all very banal. You mentioned you’ve been on welfare.
Please elaborate – at what points in your life were you on welfare assistance and why?
I was 17 and homeless. You mentioned that you’ve become estranged from your parents.
We live in different cities and different worlds.
What do your parents think about your involvement with the Occupy movement?
They don’t care about what I do.
Do you still receive financial assistance from your parents?
Do you feel any empathy towards people who work in the financial industry, especially given the fact that your father is one of them?
I’ve been careful to answer only for myself in this interview but I’ll make an exception here: Occupiers feel empathy towards all people. Consumer capitalism breeds a conspiracy of self-interest and our problem is that system, not any individual or person. Also, I love my dad.
Are you proud or ashamed of your background?
Neither, but I’d like to be proud of our future.
What are your goals for yourself in life? What do you hope to do for a career?
I’m a creative person and I work in advertising and design. I’m a copy writer working my way towards Art or Creative Director. Alternately, revolution. I’ve heard “get a job” like a bazillion times now so if anyone out there has one, call me!
When you say you’re “back to being poor now,” what do you mean exactly?
People have different definitions of what it means to be poor. I have 46 cents in my bank account.
You mention your web company that was briefly successful – I’m assuming you’re referring to bounce2this.com. What did this company do? What company bought it out and when?
bounce2this created and hosted template based web pages, e-stores, and directory listings for SME’s. It’s all old-hat now but we were one of the first to do vanity domains, online WYSIWYG design, and co-located hosting. I was president and at our peak we had 5 employees. We were bought in 1999 by a marketing company which did our sales and owned the hardware.
Some people were surprised that you left EFUT temporarily for Occupy Toronto because you’ve always displayed such passion for your duties as president. I’ll rephrase an earlier question; what was it about Occupy Toronto that so appealed to you that you decided to drop such a longtime commitment to EFUT?
EFUT’s had four presidents. I’ve taken breaks before. The French Club is a great organization, but it’s not my end goal. The Occupy movement comes with the tacit acknowledgement that the base of all our problems is class. That’s what I’d been waiting for.
You say the first 10 days at Occupy were “the most magical experiences of your life.” Why?
All the love you gave out you got back.
You also say “the next 30 days tested me in ways I hadn’t experienced before.” Can you elaborate?
When the bars closed, bad shit would happen. I wasn’t quite prepared for the volume of violent drunks and sexual aggressors we had, but I thought we handled it with a lot of maturity for such a nascent movement.
You touched on this question but I’m hoping for something a bit deeper; any insight into why some Occupiers had such a problem with you? Is it because they resented you making decisions on your own? Is it because of a specific incident? Is it just schoolyard politics? Jealousy? What?
A friend of mine who knows about Oka and real occupation told me that when they break up movements, they target the people of action first. I think on the one hand you have organized labour trying to claim the Occupy “brand” for themselves and on the other you have the attention of corporatist governments. The result is somewhat predictable: divide and conquer. It’s how they did the Panthers, it’s how they did Biggie and ‘Pac, and it’s how they’ll do us. I’m just surprised our people fall for it so easily. Won’t work though: we ain’t going nowhere, we can’t be stopped.
Why did you choose the name “Smith”?
After Winston in 1984. Orwell knew that newspapers were an instrument of the 1% and that rewriting and controlling them would be the order of the day. Doesn’t really matter what you say today when an editor will just change it tomorrow. Kathy English knows what I’m talking about. So do Iraqis.
What, in your estimation, was the greatest failing of Occupy Toronto?
I thought we’d be there for three days and we lasted 40, so I won’t say Occupy Toronto “failed” at anything. Organizing a political movement while living in a park is very hard but we succeeded. If I had to identify weaknesses I’d say finance and mediation. Those things caught us off guard and we’ll do better next time.
What was the greatest achievement?
We converted a lot of very poor people to our side. Everyone began to understand that Occupy was a movement where no one would mistake kindness for weakness. I also think we’ve claimed a word and a set of symbols that stand for anti-corporatism and the class struggle. In the English language, where the powerful so easily rewrite history, claiming a part of language was very important. We need to have a dialogue about class and the environment and Occupy is that dialogue. As far as tangible achievements, I’d say 40,000 free meals in a park is pretty significant.
If Occupy Toronto were to set up another encampment, would you join? Why?
May 1st? Ya, I’ll be there. I love camping.
What was it like living on your own at 17?
Awesome and terrifying at the same time. Everyone in the house lived on welfare. It was like Bone-Thugs “First of the month” when them cheques came in; take-out, two-fours, and toking. The next three weeks we’d eat Kraft Dinner with no milk. The freedom was nice and the experience changed my whole world-view.
How long were you on welfare?
I was on student welfare for about 18 months.
Have you spoken to your parents at all since Occupy Toronto?
Do you have any feelings of internal conflict about protesting the system that supports your father’s success and enterprises?
I’m not Luke, he’s not Vader, and it’s not quite that epic. I’m not trying to destroy capitalism or even wealth, just create a more sustainable distribution of resources. Besides, even the 1% agree that Goldman Sachs are crooks.
Has your family’s status as 1 per centers fueled your activism or hindered it?
My parents weren’t 1% until after I left home. I was one of my own accord thanks to the Internet. Please don’t mislead your readers. When you’ve seen both sides of the coin you realize two things: we can’t keep going like this, and it’s going to be hard. Those with power and money will not relinquish it kindly. Occupy is one of the last olive branches, so we should all nurture it.
No one is going to deny someone’s right to make a living and support themselves. But how legitimate – or effective – can a protest be if you are simultaneously and directly benefiting from the sector of society you’re protesting?
Occupy Toronto took food from the dumpsters of grocery chains and day-olds from Starbucks on the way to feeding thousands of poor people. I’d say that’s legitimate and effective.
You come from a one per cent family and have spent time as a one per center yourself. Given this context, what caused you to become so involved in Occupy Toronto?
As rich as any individual 1% may be, their wealth and power is dwarfed by that of corporations. That’s what being a 1% taught me. I came to Occupy Toronto for a variety of reasons, chief amongst them is that corporations aren’t people and they have no unalienable rights. Corporatism has created a system of markets where profit isn’t even enough, we must always have growth, growth, growth. So we create derivatives and start counting debts as profits and somewhere along the way we realize that money was never real, and that our wealth rests on the barrel of a gun, generally pointed at a non-white (read: poor) person. Iraq and oil are the contemporary example, but history books document a series of similar enterprises. This ‘praxis-of-evil’ (self-interest, racism, militarization, and indoctrination) has lead us to our current point where corporations are essentially expensing our human rights. Corporations aren’t people, they have no unalienable rights. If the international Occupy movement could rally to change that one simple thing economic and climate justice would quickly follow. Our human rights are being expensed under the rule of a “Letters Patent” or “shareholders”; a gluttonous pack of paper proxies. That has to change and that’s why I occupy.
n.b. Despite Antonin Yvon Mongeau’s reservations about revealing his complete name, we’ve decided to include the interview here in its entirety given that it is already available at several sites online.