Quebec Students, Workers Gear Up for Anti-Austerity Battle

By Loreto, Nora | Canadian Dimension, May-June 2015 | Go to article overview

Quebec Students, Workers Gear Up for Anti-Austerity Battle


Loreto, Nora, Canadian Dimension


A MUNICIPAL WORKER stood at the mic at the end of a full and electrifying day. In a room on the bottom floor of the Centre de congres in Quebec City, his comments echoed those of the previous speaker: the time for dialogue and speaking with government is over.

At this mass assembly on a Thursday in February, more than 1,000 workers, social movement activists and students sat convention-style through presentations and discussions, considering next steps for the movement called Refusons austerite (we refuse austerity).

In a rousing speech to close the assembly, the president of the Confederation des syndicats nationaux labour federation, Jacques Letourneau, ended with this: "Sortirles neoliberaux de pouvoir." An interesting demand, considering that to force the Liberals from power will require action from the ground. The majority government of Philippe Couillard is not up for re-election until 2018.

This assembly was not the focal point of the campaign. Rather, it was another in a long series of events that have been coordinated by members of the coalition driving the movement. With the spirited atmosphere, it was easy to miss the disconnect between the leadership of the labour movement and the demands of people at the mics. There is no unity on the question of what should be done and the discordance between the labour movement and social movement organizations has the potential to undo the solidarity shown at this assembly.

Since April 2014, when the Liberals took power, anti-austerity activists--from students to unionists to feminists to people who rely on social assistance --have consistently staged protests and events. After more than 200,000 people in Montreal and 10,000 people in Quebec City marched on Nov. 29, the winter's brutal freeze and the holiday schedule of government somewhat slowed the movement. When politicians returned to the National Assembly in 2015, activists were there to greet them and promised that these tactics would escalate if their austerity plans were to continue.

The Feb. 12 assembly was quickly organized and poorly advertised, but it offered activists the chance to take the pulse of the movement as events and actions were accelerating. The movement's pulse is clearly throbbing and accelerating, but to what end?

Welcome to Printemps 2015

Austerity can be a difficult notion to organize a campaign around, but the Liberals have made it easy for unions and social movement organizations to draw connections across struggles. Since they took power in May 2014, the Quebec Liberals have set off on a course that aims to totally dismantle, restructure, privatize or hive off elements of the public sector.

It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment when austerity policies became the norm in Quebec. The current government has been the most aggressive in its desire to slash and burn public services and government spending, but most activists point to Parti Quebecois premier Lucien Bouchard and his desire to achieve a zero deficit as the moment where neoliberalism became Quebec's status quo.

Outside of Quebec, Bouchard is best known as the PQ leader who led the mainstream movement for Quebec independence during the mid-1990s. Bouchard's desire to reach a zero deficit was driven by his desire to demonstrate that a sovereign Quebec could manage its own economy responsibly. To do this, Bouchard held two socioeconomic summits in 1996 to generate a consensus on the need to eliminate Quebec's deficit. He promised that he could achieve it in three years.

This happened to coincide with massive federal cuts to the Canada Health and Social Transfer. Ottawa's compressions removed billions from provincial operating budgets. The combination of these events meant that Bouchard's deficit zero would start the ball rolling for massive divestment in the public system, including within municipalities where deferred maintenance costs and "pension holidays" created the context for the first cuts ushered in late 2014. …

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