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Interview: inside Quebec’s struggle against austerity


December 11, 2015

You wouldn’t know it from the corporate media in English Canada, but Quebec is in the midst of a massive struggle against austerity—including teachers and parents making human chains to protect schools, and the biggest general strike since 1972. Socialist.ca spoke with Nora Loreto, an activist in Quebec and author of From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement.

1. In Quebec, there seems to be a growing public sentiment against austerity, from the Maple Spring of 2012 to the public sector general strike by the Common Front in 2015. Living in Quebec, do you see a real sense of community identification with the legal strike in the public sector, even though one of the key issues is salary?

The Maple Spring was an important moment where consciousness that usually formed only among student activists expanded to the broader population. After the disastrous 18-month government of Pauline Marois, the Liberals were re-elected. Driven first by unions, it was clear that a confrontation was brewing that would target austerity. In fact, the students started to talk about austerity when it was clear they had won the fight against the Liberals' proposed tuition fee hike.

The rise of community actions to protect public schools is a good example of this: parents are supporting teachers not because of their specific contractual demands, but because we all see the impact that increasing privatization has on us. At the very least, everyone I talk to knows about what's going on and are mostly opposed to the Couillard government's cuts

2. One of the other key issues in the strike is cuts to public education, and the way that is reflected in the government's bargaining demands for larger class sizes and reductions in the teaching ratio for special needs students. Some parents have been forming "human chains" around schools each month: is this an indication of wider parent and community support that could be activated?

The “Je protege mon école publique” movement is really important. It has created a space for parents and community members to get involved in the fight to protect public schools, regardless of where contract negotiations might be. While these issues are at the core of negotiations, it's important to move people towards demonstrating their support more broadly so that once the negotiations are over, there's still a community of activists fighting to defend the public education system.

3. Does the word "austerity" and resistance to it have wide resonance among ordinary people in Quebec, including those not in unions?  

I think it does, though I'm not convinced that that's why the movement has been so strong. The nature of public sector negotiations in Quebec, where multiple sectors are negotiating at the same time, means that there has to be a catch-all concept for people to mobilize around. Couillard has been very open about his austerity agenda and has made substantial and significant cuts in all sectors. There's little else that can better describe massive cuts in the public sector and “Refusons austérité” has been a very good campaign in its simplicity.

4. In your book about unions, written for young people who don't know much about them and what they know is mostly negative, you start by talking about the importance of "community" in building a sense of collective interest and collective struggle. Do you see this developing in Quebec right now, and if so, how?

Community is at the heart of many of the actions that have happened these past few months. From the human chains to the protests and rallies, bringing people together has been really important to build solidarity and consciousness around these issues. But communities remain polarized.

The key to success will be to find ways to penetrate parts of Quebec (here, the suburbs) to raise support there, too. Community is easy to foster in an urban environment, cities were built for that. But it gets harder in the suburbs of any city. Unions are important because it's their members who live in one area but work in another. They hold the keys to both worlds.

5. While the English Canadian media has been silent about the Commun Front, coverage blaming Quebec for being more racist than everyone else has been overwhelming. Media gave huge play to the recent federal election debate on the niqab, yet ignored the Maple Spring for months in 2012, and now has been silent on the biggest strike in more than 40 years. Is this about two solitudes, or do you think the Canadian state and media is trying to divide people in Quebec from those in English Canada? 

The English press is allergic to covering workers' stories. In Quebec, negotiations and rallies remain part of the routine business of journalists. Coverage in Quebec hasn't been very good either, but at least it's mentioned. Outside of the province it's been nearly nothing. Part of this is due to the fact that Montreal isn't a media centre any more (as a place like Calgary has grown in importance) and, of course, the language plays a role. With fewer resources in the mainstream media, these kinds are stories are easier to ignore. During 2012, the only stories that were reported in English Canada related to vandalism, trying to whip up anti-Quebec sentiment. I suspect it's the same thing that's happening here, except there's been very little property damaged, so even less news.

6. What can progressives in English Canada do to break the media silence, to stop Quebec bashing, and to adapt the lessons of resistance that could be used outside Quebec in a productive way?

There are stories being written about Quebec. Share them. Be vocal in your support for Quebec workers while always imagining how workers in your own province or region could exert similar kinds of pressure. Don't but into the narratives that argue there's a special character in Quebec that means it's impossible for workers in other parts of Canada to take radical action.

And, be critical. Even during the federal election, where many NDP supporters were praising Mulcair's position on the niqab “despite what it did to his popularity in Quebec,” a narrative premised on the notion that Quebecers are more racist than people anywhere else circulated. Don't buy into these false narratives and challenge them when you can.

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