Friday, March 23, 2012

Quebec students show the way forward with massive Montréal protest

Yesterday’s demonstration in Montréal against the Quebec government’s hike in tuition fees may have been the largest in Quebec and Canadian history, rivalled in size only by the 2003 protests against the Iraq war. It was held just two days after Quebec finance minister Raymond Bachand tabled a budget that completely ignored student demands to drop the fees increase. The following article, which I have translated from today’s Le Devoir, gives a flavour of the demonstration and its political message. I follow it with an interesting article by Pierre Dubuc, editor of the publication L’aut’journal, which describes the broad economic and social context of the current political upsurge that is developing in Quebec, even though I differ sharply with his ultimate conclusion. – Richard Fidler

* * *


Le Devoir

200,000 voices: “Listen to us!”

By Lisa-Marie Gervais, with assistance from Mélissa Guillemette and Louis Chaput-Richard

Support from profs, parents and high school students, and a day of near-miraculous heat in an exceptional spring. The students could not have hoped for better for their huge national demonstration, one of the largest Montréal has seen, which proceeded in exemplary fashion yesterday afternoon. In this immense appeal to be heard, there were 200,000 shouting No to the increase in education fees. “The government’s stubbornness explains why the debate is taking place in the street,” proclaimed a representative of Profs contre la hausse,[1] to the high-charged crowd at the post-march speeches.

When the movement has reached 300,000 students on strike, disrupted traffic, blocked the port, and carried out a multitude of imaginative actions, above all a monster demonstration that will go down in history, what more is there to do? Yet the movement is apparently refusing to run out of steam.

“Ce-n’est-qu’un-début, conti-nuons-le-com-bat!”[2] Chanted by the pumped up students, the slogan resonated at length from the stone and concrete walls of the Vieux-Port, at the conclusion of the protest. “The strike begins today,” read a huge banner.

The lack of new thinking in the Bachand budget seems to have rekindled the anger of many. “I think this is a beginning, especially after the release of the budget, which completely ignored the students. It is worse than an insult,” said Marie-Frédérique Gagnon, a student in philosophy from Laval University. “But we certainly have the sense that things are polarizing.”

“We don’t know what lies ahead, but it doesn’t seem at this point to be declining,” added her friend Isabeau Legendre. He noted that a number of student associations have already extended their strike vote to April 3. Some associations, such as UQAM’s,[3] have also adopted a resolution not to hold another vote on the strike unless the Minister of Education tables a satisfactory offer.

“Some people have stayed home since the outset and are finding it tiresome. Of course we would like to return to class,” Perrine Leblan, a student in literary and film creation, acknowledged. “But we will probably propose to renew the strike until the government agrees to listen to us.”

Everyone was indeed against the increase. But the message was much greater in scope, a sort of generalized discontent. “We’re here in solidarity against the Liberal government and the Harper government. It’s been months, years, that we’ve been waiting for this demonstration!” exclaimed Michel Lopez, saying he was expressing an exasperation that went beyond the student demands.

According to the Québec solidaire spokesman Amir Khadir, the Charest government cannot hold firm for much longer. “They seem worried to me. They won’t show it… but they’re in a fix. Politically, I don’t see how they can look into the cameras and say everything is going well. There are 200,000 people in the street, with support coming in from everywhere,” he noted.

An exemplary demonstration

Around noon, some high school students began to pour into Philips Square. One by one, the delegations were greeted triumphantly by applause and shouts of jubilation. Some had even defied their principals and risked detention in order to be at the protest. “We were stopped. It was forbidden to come,” said Arnaud Valade, a pupil in the Jean XXIII school. “We’ll go on detention with the others, out of solidarity,” he promised. Marie-Hélène Vallière was “excited” to be in attendance. “In my family there are five children and four of us will be going to University. That’s a really big expense for my parents,” said this 16-year-old girl, who attends the Pierre-Laporte school.

Shortly afterward, by 1 o’clock, the Place du Canada was black — rather, red[4] — with people, filled by passengers from 90 buses from the regions and thousands of university and college students and other demonstrators who had come in support. It was some time before the crowd got going. When the demonstrators at the head of the march were walking along Berri street, some were still waiting at the Place du Canada.

The NDP member of parliament from Rosemont-Petite-Patrie, Alexandre Boulerice, encountered at the beginning of the march, was impressed. “It’s like the huge demos I have seen in the past,” he noted, mentioning the one in 2003 against the war in Iraq. It’s the people of the left who are rising up.”

Full of enthusiasm, this human wave swept along for more than four hours, coming to an end in Vieux-Montréal. The demonstrators dispersed peacefully, without the least jot of violence. It had been feared that the demonstration would split in two, but apart from small groups that momentarily tried to stray from the main route, nothing happened. The only disruption yesterday was the blocking of the port of Montréal, in the morning.

However, despite appearances, there was a feeling that the three major student groups — the Fédération étudiante collégiale (FECQ), the Fédération étudiante universitaire (FEUQ) and the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE), were not pulling in exactly the same direction. “Let’s not get hijacked. The FECQ and the FEUQ do not represent us,” read a huge banner noticed at a bend in the road. Behind the scenes, some sharp discussions broke out between members of the two federations and those of the CLASSE, who wanted to be the only ones to speak at the end. For how much time will the unity hold?

For now, the students are saying this is the time for action. They are promising some economic disruptions, and in Liberal ridings. “Students, trade unions and Opposition parties are going to be working in close collaboration during the coming weeks, to put the necessary pressure on the Charest government in order to find a solution to this strike,” promised Léo Bureau-Blouin, president of the FECQ. And, for as long as possible, to make the spring last.

Le Devoir, March 23

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Ottawa and Québec: a joint anti-union offensive

By Pierre Dubuc

After the adoption of special legislation at Canada Post and Air Canada, the Harper government is endorsing the shutdown of Aveos and the dismissal of at least 2,400 workers. The message is clear: Employees whose jobs are governed by the Canada Labour Code — one tenth of Quebec’s labour force — no longer have the right to strike and the federal government will support the dismantling of their unions.

The Charest government is not to be left behind. Clément Gignac [Minister of Natural Resources] has publicly sided with Rio Tinto Alcan, which wants to shift all “non-strategic” jobs — that is, not pertaining to the “core business” — to sub-contracting, as it is allowed to do by the amendments made to section 45 of the Quebec Labour Code in 2003.

Moreover, with the recent changes in the construction union hiring hall, the Liberal government is in a strong position to exclude the unions from the major infrastructure work in the Plan Nord [the Charest government’s northern development project].

The public sector is not immune. The coming budget of [Finance Minister] Flaherty in Ottawa is hanging like a sword of Damocles over the federal public service. In Québec, the approach of elections has temporarily cooled the government’s fervour, but it should be noted that article number 1 of the Coalition Avenir Québec of Charles Sirois and François Legault advocates the reopening of collective agreements in education to introduce merit pay.

This planned and highly orchestrated anti-union offensive is part of an economic restructuring, with the relocation in North America of a number of firms that had moved their operations to Asia. These decisions reflect the higher transportation costs due to increased fuel prices and the ongoing increase in the wages of Chinese workers (13% a year). This movement could be welcome were it not that the firms are coming back with the wage and anti-union practices they experimented with in Asia in their baggage.

However, this redeployment does not mean that these companies will be setting up in Canada or Quebec. On the contrary, the strength of the Canadian dollar, boosted by oil exports from Western Canada, is scaring manufacturing firms toward the United States, as we have seen in the case of Electrolux, Mabe and now Aveos.

Recently, at the conference of Canadian first ministers, Jean Charest complained that there were two economies in Canada: that of the West, based on oil, gas and potassium, and that of the rest of the country.

He could have added that the Western economy is increasingly turned toward Asia, and that the Harper government’s priority is Canada’s participation in the Trans-Pacific free trade area. If this develops, it will not be inconsequential for Quebec, for Australia, New Zealand but also the United States make Canada’s membership conditional on abandonment of supply management of dairy and poultry products, a pillar of Quebec agriculture.

Although the question is ignored in the Francophone media, the Fraser Institute and the Anglophone media are currently campaigning for Canada to yield to the demands of its future partners in the Pacific area. In a recent article, John Ibbitson, a featured reporter in The Globe and Mail who is generally well informed, wrote that cows and chickens would not weigh heavily in Stephen Harper’s decision.

After noting the existence of two economies, what solution does Jean Charest propose for Quebec? We know he has made himself the promoter of a free-trade treaty with Europe, but the positive spin-offs for Quebec are far from obvious, especially since the abandonment of supply management in agriculture would likewise be subject to negotiation.

The Charest model looks like a copy and paste of the Western Canada model, with the eventual mining of shale gas and oil from the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Gaspésie, Anticosti and Old Harry) and of mining resources in the Plan Nord. But, in contrast to Western Canada, without any support from the federal government.

After witnessing without a trace of reaction the abandonment by Ottawa of the Quebec forest products industry, the “overlooking” of the Lévis shipyard in the allocation of the fantastic $35 billion ship construction contract, and now the beginning of the dismantlement of Montréal’s aerospace industry, the Charest government is proving that Quebec now lacks any power relationship with the federal government.

With its majority obtained without Quebec support — and the addition of about 30 new ridings in English Canada — the members of the Harper government can even allow themselves not to return calls from Charest government ministers, as Le Devoir recently revealed.

The Bachand budget confirms the Charest government’s neoliberal orientation, even if some editorial writers were ecstatic over the limited state involvement in the Plan Nord. This “turn” in no way amounts to a challenge to neoliberalism. It was, in some ways, announced in the January 21 issue of The Economist, the world bible of neoliberalism, the title page of which featured a montage of Lenin holding a cigar, with the title: “The Rise of State Capitalism; the Emerging World New Model.”

The neoliberal approach of the Bachand budget is splendidly illustrated by his policies at the two extremities of life, education and retirement. The hike in education fees is justified by the presentation of education as an extremely profitable “personal investment” although the average income of most university graduates barely surpasses that of the middle class.

The new Régime volontaire d’épargne retraite [Voluntary retirement savings plan] is similar in nature. To meet the needs of 50% of the workers who have no private pension plan and the 75% who are too poor to contribute to an RRSP, the government should have demanded repatriation to Québec of the federal Old Age Security program, improved it and integrated it with the Quebec Pension Plan, to provide a collective remedy instead of a new individual solution.

So, nothing for the youth and the retired, but programs made to measure for the bankers, who will be called on to manage them.

Nevertheless, one feels, one hears and one sees emerging in the active circles of society a quite different social agenda, centered on a robust intervention of the state, with a comprehensive and coherent industrial policy, such as one favouring electrified public transportation. (The Charest government instead plans to build an 800 km. railway from Sept-Îles to the Labrador Trough for the mining companies.)

If this agenda is to be transformed into a political program that can attract enthusiastic popular support, activists and progressives will have to dispel the neoliberal fog that for decades has blanketed Quebec’s ideological and political landscape.

The more this agenda takes form — and this is needed to ensure the economic foundation for the renewal of social democracy — the clearer the blockages and obstacles of the federal regime, and the greater the need for national independence.

However, to overcome these blockages and obstacles we need a force of great political strength. Its platform can only be the trade union movement, the principal organized force in our society, provided however that its emerges onto the political scene. It is to prevent this that the Harper and Charest governments are trying to muzzle, bind and paralyze the unions.

The Quebec student movement is now giving us some lessons in determination, imagination and political courage. In terms of engagement on the political terrain, the example to follow comes to us from the unions in Wisconsin and their fight for the recall of anti-union laws with the deposition of the Republican governor Scott Walker and his replacement by a Democratic governor favourable to the world of labour. We will come back to this.

L’aut’journal, March 23

[In my view Dubuc, a leader of SPQ Libre [Syndicalistes et progressistes pour un Québec Libre[5]], makes some valuable observations about the current actions and aims of the Harper and Charest governments, which are of course shared by other provincial governments in Canada. In his concluding paragraph, he aptly notes the exemplary role of the Quebec student movement in showing the way forward for the victims of neoliberal restructuring. But he then totally contradicts this point by suggesting that unions in Wisconsin displayed similar astuteness in their effort to replace Republican Scott Walker with “a Democratic governor favourable to the world of labour.” This endorsement of futile subordination to the machinations of capitalist politicians is sad evidence that Dubuc, normally one of the most perceptive analysts on the Quebec left, remains trapped in his group’s hopeless perspective of politically supporting the capitalist Parti québécois — even though the latter has provided ample proof over the years that it cannot lead the struggle for independence, let alone one for fundamental social change, and drove that point home by expelling SPQ Libre some two years ago. – Richard.]

[1] Some 2,100 professors have now signed an appeal in support of the students and in opposition to the fee hike.

[2] “It’s only a beginning, let’s continue the fight!”

[3] UQAM – Université du Québec, Montréal campus.

[4] The symbol of the student protest is a red square flash, worn on the lapel, and many students and their supporters wear red to the demonstrations.

[5] The name translates as Trade unionists and progressives for a Free Quebec.

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