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Red Square Roots

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Issue: 84 Section: Accounts Geography: Quebec Montreal Topics: strike, student movement

August 6, 2012

Red Square Roots

How austerity underpins social crisis and repression in Quebec and beyond

by Stefan Christoff

Photo: École de la Montagne Rouge

MONTREAL—Across Montreal little red squares, sprayed on sidewalk corners, drawn into bus stop walls, or pinned to shirts, speak to the historic nature of Quebec's ongoing political crisis sparked by a massive student strike.

Every evening in Montreal red flags continue to fly, as people armed with a carré rouge, the red felt square symbolizing Quebec's student uprising, join nightly protest starting at place Émilie-Gamelin.

From the cold of winter to the heat of summer, Montreal's streets have been alive with protest in 2012, a battle ground between contrasting social visions. 

As a vibrant social movement calls for the government to retreat on moves to hike university tuition fees, people on the streets are also fundamentally questioning the logic of austerity economics.

Protests are riding a political high that is sparking growing international attention, while the Parti Libéral du Québec is mobilizing for a serious push back in mid-August via Law 78.

 Police and Sûreté du Québec forces plan to open college and university campuses on strike across Quebec by force, if students, professors and supporters move to protest the controversial legislation on site. This move would threaten to unleash legislated police wrath on the strike, clearly undercutting student assemblies and associations who continue to sustain the strike movement.

Activists are now collectively organizing, through popular assemblies and meetings across Quebec, ways to challenge Law 78 and the legislated attempt to crush the strike movement.

“La grève est étudiante, la lutte est populaire!”, a slogan roughly translating to, “a student strike, a people's struggle,” illustrates placard signs and banners around the city. It is also a chant often heard in the streets.

Popular opposition toward Law 78 is steadfast, a law that inspired a thousand protests, turning a student strike into the largest social movement in a generation.

 Emergency legislation, drafted May 2012 by the Quebec Liberal government, includes restrictions on protest, banning public gatherings inside and around university campuses, while obliging organizers of street demonstrations across Quebec to seek police approval at least eight hours in advance.

In Quebec and globally, Law 78 has been met by widespread condemnation. Amnesty International states that the bill violates freedoms of speech, assembly and movement. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights openly criticized the bill in a June 2012 speech, saying that it restricts “rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly.”

“At times when governments face a crisis of legitimacy, the state will often resort to repression,” said Aziz Choudry, a professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University.

“It's important to have historical perspective, in Canada the RCMP spied on and harassed union activists, indigenous people,” said Choudry in an interview with The Dominion. “Today in Quebec there is a movement that has been able to sustain itself for a long period of time and now that movement is facing repression and criminalization. It's really important for us to challenge this but also see it as part of a historic reality.”

On the streets across Quebec, thousands are joining nightly popular protests against the law, banging pots and pans in casseroles protests, inspired by the cacerolazo grassroots protest tradition, that took root in Chile during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, and was used more recently during the 2001 financial crisis in Argentina.

Nightly casseroles protests illustrate how Law 78 pushed more and more people to take to the streets, not only in protest and support for the student strike, but also as a form of voicing wider opposition toward a political and economic system that is increasingly seen as predatory and unjust.

“In Quebec there is popular support for the student movement, so now the government is trying to break the movement with repression,” said Rushdia Mehreen, a graduate student at Concordia University and members of the social struggles committee of CLASSE. “Since the strike began there was always physical repression by police at protests, with pepper spray, rubber bullets and physical police assaults, but the students continued, so now the state is utilizing legislation to repress the movement with Law 78.

“The Quebec government chose repression because there isn't democratic, popular support for their policy to hike tuition fees,” said Mehreen, in an interview with The Dominion. “More broadly in Quebec, people do not support the framework of austerity economics, so repression is now the response to create fear and to try to force these unpopular policies on the population."

In Quebec the move to hike tuition fees by $1,778 over seven years, representing an 82 per cent increase per student, has been billed by government officials as part of a “cultural revolution” that is now rewriting social policy in Quebec. It's not just students who are feeling the crunch.

In the healthcare sector, the Liberal Government moved to impose a $200-per-year healthcare flat tax, or “user fee”, for all in Quebec. At the same time, the government has moved to gut corporate tax rates, making them among the lowest in the western world.

Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand describes the policies as an effort to control public finances. But these changes occur in the context of a global drift toward austerity measures, a reality defined by a shift away from collective solutions toward societal problems, via public institutions—policies that place the burden of the ongoing financial crisis on the public sector, rather than the corporate sector, universally recognized to have sparked the current crisis.

While working to re-engineer Quebec's public institutions, the Quebec Liberals are also pushing Plan Nord, a controversial development plan for the Northern regions of Quebec, inspired in ways by Alberta's tar sands industry, linking economic growth largely on resource extraction and drafted largely without meaningful consultation of the First Nations communities who live in the regions that the northern plan will impact.

Popular opposition toward Plan Nord on the streets has been serious, with students joining forces with environmental group for Earth Day on April 22, a mass protest with hundreds of thousands on the streets, a key moment in the trajectory of the ongoing protest movement in Quebec. Outside the Salon Plan Nord in April, hundreds of environmental justice activists clashed with riot police. These tense protests marked a political turning point in the student strike mobilization, shifting the focus of street protests from tuition hikes toward a broader systemic critique of Liberal government policies. 

Some ask if the Quebec Liberal government's effort to control or force public institutions toward austerity has been a factor in pushing the party towards losing control.

“Today in Quebec the government is failing to impose a neo-liberal 'cultural revolution' without force,” explains Guillaume Hébert, researcher at the Institut de recherche et d'informations socio-économiques (IRIS) in Montreal. “And when facing a growing student movement, a historic movement, the imposition of Law 78 is all about imposing an austerity agenda by force, an agenda aiming to commercialize education but also to privatize other public institutions in Quebec.

“Many, many people in Quebec agree on the universal right to university education, so there is a discord between the neo-liberal model and Quebec's political culture,” Hébert told The Dominion.

“So we are seeing, as in Victoriaville and on many nights in Montreal that austerity policies are being backed and pushed by state force.”

In Victoriaville, the Sûreté du Québec provincial police force fired large amounts of tear gas and multiple rounds of rubber bullets on demonstrators supporting the student strike movement, severely injuring multiple students who traveled in hundreds on buses to protest outside a Liberal Party meeting. One student, Maxence Valade, lost an eye during the police attack. 

Questions are being raised on the streets of Quebec about the limits of democracy today in the context of a historic student strike. On top of the injuries in Victoriaville, journalists at Concordia University TV have also been repeatedly pepper-sprayed and hit by police batons while filming on the front-lines at nightly protests in Montreal.

As political commentators shift their focus to the election campaign in Quebec, discussions inside the strike movement are now turning toward the limits for activists and social movements to express themselves in an era of austerity.

“Democratic expression has always been limited and restrained in Quebec and Canada,” said Eric Shragge, professor at the School of Community and Public Affairs at Concordia University. “Liberal democracies are liberal to a certain point, once popular movements cross a threshold and move toward mass mobilization, repression is administered.

“There is always a contingency plan of state violence and repression when people collective refuse the neo-liberal economic model that has been pushed for decades now,” said Shragge. “People are pushed to believe they need to find individual solutions to collective problems and that the market will bring solutions. Clearly this isn't the case and when people refuse this logic collectively on the streets, like we are seeing in Quebec, the state will eventually come in to bash heads.”

The austerity agenda the Conservative Government is pursuing in the rest of Canada amplifies the current crisis in Quebec in different ways. 

Although Quebec politicians question specifics of Canada's Conservative policies—namely the expansion of federal prisons—fundamentals of both governments' policies in relation to sustaining adequate funding for public institutions, like universities and hospitals, are similar.

Beyond boosting policing and military budgets, the Conservative Government has cut funding in the name of 'balancing books', mirroring economic language of Quebec politicians and trends of austerity policies globally. For example, a watchdog organization responsible for monitoring Canada's spy agency CSIS was eliminated in the 2012 budget. This means less oversight for an agency with a long history of spying on and tracking the organizing efforts of social movements.

At the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), people are drawing a parallel between repression against the student movement in Quebec via Law 78 and the back-to-work legislation imposed on CUPW this past fall.

“In Canada, repressive legislation is targeting the right to strike, imposing heavy, heavy fines on unions for fighting back and undercutting collective bargaining,” said Aalya Ahmad, a writer and activist in Ottawa who works at CUPW.

“Imposing working conditions and wages on workers through back-to-work legislation, first with the postal workers, then with Air Canada workers, is an attack on civil liberties,” said Ahmad, in an interview with The Dominion. “In Quebec Law 78 is part of this broader political environment, illustrating an incredible attack on students and professors, it's essential for unions and people in Canada to support the struggle in Quebec against Law 78 because our struggles are connected.”

At the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) in Toronto, activist John Clark argues that both the conflict on the streets and scale of the protests in Quebec only signal the beginning of a larger conflict in society. 

“What is now happening is that post 2008 crisis and with the system hovering on the edge of a toilet bowl, the pace of austerity is being massively accelerated,” said Clark in an interview with The Dominion. “In the end there are only two ways to regulate a population, you can either meet their needs within limits, or get out the billy clubs.”

“In Canada, the cutting edge of the resistance to the austerity agenda has come-up in Quebec. Even observing from the outside we see how shocking and unprecedented the repression of the state has become,” said Clark. “But I think Quebec is only the starting point, for both the resistance and repression, this will spread from coast to coast.”

“The scale of this economic crisis is only beginning to assert itself and the austerity agenda is only getting started,” said Clark. “There is going to be a profound conflict in society in the near future and we need to be ready.”

Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based writer, musician and community activist who contributes to the Media Co-op, follow him on Twitter at Spirodon.

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