Tucked away in an old Montreal school that has been repurposed as a home for a wide array of NGOs and social enterprises, L’Institut de recherché et d’informations socio-economiques (roughly translated as the institute for socioeconomic research) has produced important progressive research for over 15 years. Little known outside Quebec, IRIS has explored issues from widening inequality to resource extraction to the damage done by austerity to Quebec’s historically more robust welfare state.

“We’re celebrating our 15th anniversary this year,” says Eve-Lyne Couturier, a researcher with IRIS, and contributor to Ricochet’s French edition. “In general, we do research on public policy and at the same time try to create a discourse on the economy that is accessible. We believe that everyone should be able to understand the economy and participate in a discussion about the economy.”

“Too often, the people at the top will not explain but tell us ‘how it works,’ and we’re not supposed to understand but simply accept what they say.”

Ricochet sat down with Couturier and her colleague, Julia Posca, to talk about the austerity agenda in Quebec and the response from the province’s social movements. Quebec has its particularities, but is also coming to terms with many of the same issues facing the rest of Canada.

Ricochet: Why don’t we start with this little white book, L’austerité au temps de l’abondance, which was recently published in Quebec. The title translates roughly as “austerity in a time of prosperity.” Julia, you wrote the title essay. What do you mean by this phrase?

Julia Posca: With the austerity agenda, citizens are asked to play their part and accept, for example, that we will all have to spend more to get public services and to have a more efficient state to get prosperity.

But for the past 30 years, this prosperity has only been for a small part of the population. We only see the incomes of the 1% that are rising. We see growth but we don’t see the whole population benefitting from it.

Another way I’ve heard this put is “our austerity is their prosperity.” Who has benefitted in Quebec? What has happened to inequality?

Posca: There is this perception that Quebec is a poor province and that there are no rich people. What we’ve seen, however — and we’ve done our own research at IRIS on inequality — is the same trend as in the U.S. and the rest of Canada: the same rise in the concentration of wealth. It’s been slower but it’s still there.

What struck me most is that the incomes of the majority of the population have tended to stagnate. Wage earners have been abandoned.

I think Quebec is typically seen in the rest of Canada as having a more generous welfare state. How big have the changes been? Is it still fair to say that there remains a sizeable difference between Quebec and the rest of Canada? What’s happened to erode that?

Eve-Lyne Couturier: The difference between Quebec and Canada is getting smaller but it’s still there. For example, you still have this wonderful parental leave, the $7/day childcare — we still have it and we’re still attached to it.

However, the fact that Quebec had this strong social welfare structure makes it even more incredible to see how austerity is trying to break it. There are things to break, and they’re being broken part by part.

If nothing is done to stop this, at some point there will be no difference between Alberta and Quebec, especially given the NDP win in Alberta right now.

In fact, maybe because we’ve had this social welfare structure for so long, it’s easier to make it seem like something from the past, something to break free from, whereas in other provinces that don’t have the same social services it’s seen as the future.

It seems that there is still some strong sense that the welfare state is nevertheless something to be protected. How widespread is this feeling, and how effectively has it been undermined?

Couturier: One of the ways the government has managed to impose austerity is by targeting particular groups. This makes it difficult to have broad solidarity across the board. For example, if you’re not a parent and you see subsidized childcare, you might think this is not the right way to do it.

Something similar is happening in health care right now, where the health minister had proposed that family doctors have quotas of patients. This provoked a large uproar among doctors. The same law also contained lots of other bad changes. However, just today, we learned that the government is backing away from quotas. What will happen next? Will the doctors say “we won this fight and we don’t have to talk about austerity anymore”?

“We protected our piece of the puzzle.”

Yes. I’m not saying this is an unimportant piece, but the way the government is working sector by sector makes it very hard for people to coalesce. It’s harder to have the same vibrant energy we had during the student strike [in 2012], where there was a broader attack on democracy that brought people together.

Are the upcoming negotiations across the public sector and the union mobilization around them an opportunity to find something broader? Or is it another opportunity to pit people against each other?

Posca: The population is certainly divided. For a lot of people it’s still important to have a strong public sector and accessible services. But, yes, the idea of unions being too strong is very present in public opinion. This will be an opportunity for the government to be uncompromising. We’ve seen this with how municipalities negotiated around pensions, where they just imposed a law.

Couturier: What we’re seeing in the public sector negotiations is the government arguing that we need more precarity in the workplace. Of course, they’re not using those words, but nevertheless they want to lower conditions in the public sector. This is a new standard in the labour market — a downward shift.

We’ve seen a tension between private and public sector workers, where I think you’re right to say that the private sector has been transformed to a greater extent. This makes it easier to create an ideological tack to the right, but it’s also to some extent based in reality in the sense that a sizeable proportion of the public sector still has these good jobs. How does this play out in Quebec, especially given the somewhat higher rate of unionization and somewhat bigger public sector?

Posca: You really see that we’re heading in another direction here in Quebec with the austerity agenda. Of course, it’s not new; it’s been here for 20 years. Today, it’s more difficult to get health care, you have to pay more for education, and so on.

So you have people saying, “I’m not getting the services I should be getting. If I have to pay more, we should look at making the public sector smaller so that taxpayers don’t pay so much tax.” Certainly, public opinion is shifting.

To get back to the public sector workers, their image is not as good as it might have been in the past.

This taxpayer rhetoric — talking in terms of taxpayers rather than citizens — is making inroads as well.

Couturier: There are taxpayers, but we’re also consumers: “I’m not a parent, I’m not a student, I’m not an old person, so why should I pay for all these things?”

There’s a conception that people are really enjoying public services as freeloaders and then disappearing. As if the students who are paying low tuition fees will not become citizens, get jobs and be able to pay back society.

What are some of the other plans of the current Quebec government for the economy going forward, especially to do with resource extraction?

Posca: Apparently we’re onto Plan Nord 2.0, but this is not a real policy. It just means the government is willing to make everything possible for firms that want natural resources. The government will build roads, sell cheap electricity — this hasn’t changed over the past years.

The Liberals also promised to create 250,000 jobs over their term but the economy is not doing so well. It’s not in recession, but constantly below expectations. What’s more, the Parti Québécois has a new leader, Pierre-Karl Peladeau, a businessman who is supposed to counter the idea that the Liberals are the party of the economy.

The only thing I see is that the Liberals still have this confidence that helping the private sector will be enough to make the economy grow.

Has the fall in global commodity prices tempered the appetite for resource extraction?

Posca: It really hasn’t seemed to stop them. There are companies that are eager to go on with this agenda, so it doesn’t seem like they’re changing plans.

Couturier: What I see from this government is decision-making as if they were only looking at spreadsheets rather than reality.

If you want to have growth, you need to find high-growth industries. If you’re going to get some oil and gas or go mining, then you get a small boom with a lot of money but quickly. So you manage to have some really good statistics.

You’re destroying the environment. It’s dangerous, crazy jobs. It’s not sustainable for a long period of time. But you get good statistics for now.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.