The main players include familiar names from the 2012 student movement, like student association ASSÉ and the Red Hand Coalition, as well as the new Printemps 2015 (Spring 2015) coalition and a much wider array of community groups. Actions are ongoing, ramping for the arrival of spring, and, while Montreal is again a buzzing hive of activity, people all over La Belle Province are getting involved.
Austerity in Quebec, the cutting of public services across the board while protecting corporate interests, is thoroughly in mainstream discourse. The ideological-political concept was the butt-end of several jokes on Bye Bye 2014, the New Year’s Eve TV special on Radio-Canada (French-language CBC) watched by nearly four million Quebecers. The show’s introduction was a parody of Premier Philipe Couillard (Parti Liberal du Québec) selling austerity to the middle class, followed by a song with “austerité” as the upbeat refrain. The faux-Couillard enacted scenes of government corruption, public sector cutbacks, and exorbitant generosity to the petroleum industry and other large corporations.
It is tempting to think that through some magic forces in Quebec civil society the anti-austerity movement will by default be a success. But a critical public does not a social movement make. It takes time and organization. And people in organizations, organizations willing to fight fights, have been working steadily for years, intent on making the anti-austerity push impossible to ignore.
Setting the scene
ASSÉ (Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante), heavily involved in mobilizations that led to an unlimited student strike in 2012, launched an anti-austerity campaign in October 2013. While students were busy delivering those popular education messages through their networks, media attention in Quebec was focused on the Parti Quebecois’ embarrassingly racist Charter of Values and an early election. The election over and the Liberals back in power, ASSÉ co-organized a strike of over 82 000 students for Halloween 2014 and an accompanying demonstration in downtown Montreal, “L’austerité est une histoire d´horreur!” (Austerity: a horror story!) which also brought out workers and community groups. ASSÉ has been federating student associations and, through its growing networks, delivering its popular education messages since well before the loud 2011-2012 movement that ended Jean Charest’s political career. (Edit Feb 24: according to Printemps2015.org 16 887 students have voted to have renewable strike mandates and votes for another 37 313 students are upcoming.)
The Red Hand Coalition, comprised of over 80 community groups, has been working since 2009 to oppose cuts and organize popular resistance. Officially named the Coalition opposée à la tarification et à la privatization des services publiques (Coalition against user fees and privatization of public services, or, more commonly, Coalition against cuts and fees), the group this month published a document to be used for popular education, $10 Billion of Solutions, similar to ASSÉ's policy paper Who Benefits from Austerity?, to show that there are other options, that austerity is not an inevitability.
An open and amorphous group of people, some affiliated with ASSÉ and the Red Hand Coalition, have come together to form the various committees of the Printemps 2015, including regional groupings. This is somewhat like the students' CLASSE (Large Coalition of ASSÉ) formed in 2011-2012 for the campaign against tuition fees, which allowed associations in and outside of ASSÉ to collaborate temporarily. The groups and people affiliated with Printemps 2015 do not need to be formal members of an institution to be part of the coalition and contribute to the campaign, adding flexibility as well as uncertainty.
Quebec's public-sector unions, with their wide reach and large numbers, are a big question mark. They are all in the midst of their collective bargaining processes. This could make for interesting developments, but those unions have a difficult history plugging into Quebec's popular social movements. In 2012 they were ready to get involved only by September, after the summer and an election had drained the energy from the movement, energy which was inexhaustible from March to June. At this time, a small number of unions groups have strike mandates for May 1 or are soon to vote on whether to participate and how. Striking, while powerful, is not the only way to be heard.
Plan for the spring
The schedule is busy from now until May 1. Some highlights include:
- The Red Hand Coalition has facilitated the organization of a week of disruptive actions all over Quebec from February 22 – 27. These include assemblies, marches, art installations, banner drops and other direct actions to spread the message and grow the anti-austerity conversation. (Edit, Feb 23: a group of students occupied offices of the Minister of Education on Monday February 23, click to see video)
- March 8 is International Women’s Day, celebrated with a number of marches. Publicity for the day this year comes with strong anti-austerity messages and education on how austerity affects women. Alexa Conradi, President of the Quebec Womens' Federation, was on hand to show support at the Red Hand Coalition's press conference for the week of disruptive actions.
- A popular protest against austerity is being promoted by the Printemps 2015 Committee for March 21 and every Saturday thereafter.
- ASSÉ has called for a “manifestation nationale” (national demonstration) on April 2.
- The climate movement will be trying to get their message across at a march on April 11 in anticipation of the Canadian Premiers gathering in Quebec City on April 14.
- Much of this activity is to gather momentum for a “grève sociale”, a social strike, on May 1 across Quebec.
"Grève sociale", a social strike
The social strike on May 1 is an attempt at “a mass mobilization across sectors,” says Joel Pednault, a spokesperson for MÉPACQ, Quebec Movement for Popular Education and Community Action, an umbrella organization for over 300 independent community groups. Austerity affects a wider swath of society than did the tuition increases of 2012, making the reaction to these changes broader and requiring collaboration between unfamiliar groups.
Because this is a different, broader issue than what sparked the 2012 uprising, the terminology used is more all-encompassing. It is bigger than students, though students are the easiest and fastest group to mobilize (in Quebec). It also goes beyond unionized workers. The social strike is meant to include anyone and everyone. The aim to is to make a society-wide statement, and to take time to deliberate on how to proceed together.
How big can it get?
Austerity is getting widespread attention in Quebec. It is being discussed by doctors in their offices with patients, on popular TV shows, at daycares, amongst union members, in student associations, by womens organizations, and by those involved in the environmental movement. Organizers will be busy until May trying to turn this energy into something tangible and with staying power.
After the social strike on May 1 the organizing is oddly unclear. There aren't many plans, and it is hard to know how things will look. But, as Joel Pednault says, “if you can do it once, you can do it again.” Once the forming of networks and putting together of a wide-ranging social strike to oppose the government’s direction has happened, the movement may be emboldened to think bigger and do more. The Red Hand, for example, put together the constructive $10 Billion of Solutions document, and tax specialist Brigitte Alepin explained how Quebec's defecit could be more than eliminated by cracking down on tax avoidance. Countries like Greece and Spain are currently host to strong political countermovements to austerity, Syriza and Podemos respectively, opening up the collective imagination to different ideas and actions.
If the Printemps 2015 mobilization is somewhat successful in Quebec, which is still uncertain, the Québecois concept of “le projet de société”, seeing society as a project, may become more seriously discussed and considered with an eye to avoiding much of what austerity has to offer.
David Gray-Donald is a Toronto and Montreal based journalist and community organizer. His focuses include climate, wealth inequality, gender politics and social movements.