This Halloween, costumed children will be overshadowed by another creative crowd. Over 80,000 students in Quebec have voted to go on strike this Oct. 31 in what is expected to be one of the largest demonstrations since 2012’s Maple Spring.
This time, tuition fees play a small part in a broader movement against Premier Philippe Couillard’s austerity agenda. In steps reminiscent of the Charest government’s 2003 shock strategy, Couillard has laid out broad reforms in every sector of the Quebec state.
No one is left unaffected by broad-ranging cuts of almost $4 billion. Health minister Gaétan Barrette has announced one of the deepest reforms our public health system has ever known. Universities have seen their budgets slashed by over $170 million, and public-sector pension funds are being gutted, angering firefighters, blue-collar workers and police.
Yet this austerity is selective. Charest’s much-maligned Plan Nord is back on track, backed by tremendous state investment. Destructive pipeline and port projects are on the menu too. Couillard still refuses to recognize that corporations and wealthy individuals should pay their fair share in taxes. His end goal is nothing short of the complete re-engineering of the Quebec welfare state, a task begun under Lucien Bouchard almost 20 years ago. Today’s protesters are seeking to set a different direction for the future of Quebec.
The Coalition Main Rouge, a coalition opposing the privatization of public services and consisting of over a hundred groups — including community groups, unions, and the student movement’s militant wing, ASSÉ — led previous protests against tuition increases, Hydro-Quebec hikes, a health tax and other regressive measures. Today, these groups are again united in dissent. They are headed to the streets because they oppose austerity, but also because they have been denied meaningful dialogue. Opening an online forum is not consultation. It’s an insult.
The last two years have seen hundreds arrested under municipal bylaw P-6, implemented at the height of the Maple Spring. The bylaw forbids demonstrations without prior approval from the SPVM, the city’s police service. Will we see a repeat of the unconstitutional mass arrests Montreal has become known for? Yves Francoeur, the president of the SPVM’s union, surprised many when he declared, in a radio interview, that “we cannot blame people who do not follow the rules when we see the current government tear up agreements. In [this] context it’s hard to ask people to respect current rules and laws.”
We live in a strange world when Montreal’s infamous police force cannot bring itself to muster its usual venom against the right to protest.
Given it’s Halloween, costumes are a must. The Coalition Main Rouge has called for creativity, and I, for one, expect to see a lot of wolves on the streets. The animal is the chosen emblem of the Printemps 2015 (Spring 2015), one of the collectives mobilizing against austerity.
Printemps 2015 is part of a concerted effort to bring about large-scale mobilization this spring, during a period of public-sector bargaining. It has called for a general strike on May 1. Unions do not share the same enthusiasm, but Printemps 2015’s umbrella group is organizing two successive protests at the end of November, one in Quebec City, one in Montreal. Today’s Halloween demonstration is the first real test of the viability of another spring of protest. To be frank, the wolves on the street could be crying wolf.
Social upheavals are rarely spontaneous. The great movements marking Quebec society since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s have been born of careful planning, slow escalation and coordinated mobilization. Neoliberal attacks alone cannot lead to organized resistance. The schedule set forth by Printemps 2015 leaves anti-austerity activists precious little time to avoid failure, which would be disastrous to future mobilization.
Yet something’s in the air. Perhaps it’s the number of student strikers, showing that the case against austerity has resonance outside of the radical left. Perhaps it’s the considerable investment and increasingly militant language of union centrals. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of urgency. More than ever, we cannot afford to lose this fight. Time is not on the side of those affected by austerity.
As Canada prepares for another struggle — booting the Conservatives out in 2015 — we should watch carefully for a different potion brewing in Quebec.
Follow Ricochet’s live French coverage of the protest here: Tweets by @ricochet_fr