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500,000 march in Montreal: Quebec and Climate Justice

Chantal Sundaram

October 2, 2019

Last March, Montréal had the largest turnout in the world on the international day of protest that became the precursor to the week of strike and action this September. So, Greta Thunberg chose to be in Montréal on September 27.

The turnout was again one of the largest: half a million, in a city with a population of less than 2 million – and large numbers in thirty other locations across Quebec.

Even before the movement launched by Greta Thunberg, the group “La Planète s’invite au Parlement” was mobilizing a climate voice around the Quebec election in the summer of 2018. It became “La Planète s’invite à l’Universite” to bring out students and their supporters last March, and now has formed “La Planete s’invite au travail” for unions and workplaces.

Researchers at the Universite de Montreal estimate that Quebecois rank above the Canadian average in believing the Earth is getting warmer and that this is happening due to human activity. The biggest gap in the survey was whether people thought climate change would harm them personally: 60% in Quebec but only 47% in English Canada

So why is Quebec so much in advance of English Canada on climate? And how is this compatible with its “secularism” law – actually legalized Islamophobia - which makes it look like politics are moving to the right? It seems to put Quebec in step with the racism that is being used by the anti-climate, pro-oil yellow-vesters in Canada’s West who use anti-immigrant racism as a means to boost a pro-pipeline stance. The yellow vests in France almost went in this racist direction but rejected it. 

Why is the climate crisis so clear in Quebec, but the politics of division are not? 

A history of independence from Canada’s bad decisions 

Quebec had the largest opposition to Canada’s participation in both world wars, including riots against conscription of poor and working class people, and the largest opposition to the Iraq war in 2003 (it was Quebec’s massive resistance in the streets that kept Canada out).

Opposing any pipeline through the territory of Quebec is not out of step from that history of opting out of bad Canadian decisions.

Quebec also has a history of energy independence. A symbol of the Quiet Revolution is Hydro-Quebec: its formation caused capital flight and outcry at the thought of an energy resource not only publicly nationalized but by a “province” seeking to separate from Canada.

Since then, Hydro-Quebec has not lived up to being “power for the people”: it was a force used against the Algonguin of the Baie St James, and it has not prevented devastating hikes to hydro rates for ordinary people.   

Even worse, in 2012 the Parti Quebecois resurrected the Quiet Revolution slogan “Maitres chez nous” (“Masters in our own home”) to make a case for why Quebec should exploit and refine its own oil – including on pristine Anticosti Island. But the Quebecois did not fall for it: the PQ lasted only half a mandate, after coming to power to oust the hated Liberal government that had hiked tuition fees and triggered the Maple Spring, and their argument that Quebec should profit from its own oil crumbled with them. Unfortunately, what did not crumble was their attempt to refashion Quebec identity in a narrow, racist way with their Charter of Values.

The state should nationalize energy in the public interest – not just hydro, but wind and solar – but the question of who controls the state and in whose real interest, determines the impact.

The fight against austerity 

Another legacy of the Quiet Revolution still within recent memory is that people had to fight for education in their own language, not as an automatic right but through struggle. The result was new universities targeting first-generation attendees and a 20-year tuition freeze.

This passed down to generations of Quebec students the power of striking, like workers in unions. It was put to the test and succeeded in a spectacular way in 2012. That same tradition of popular power has been carried by students into the climate struggle. During the high point of the Quebec student strike, in April 2012, 300,000 took to Montreal’s streets on Earth Day.

Since 2012 many grassroots mobilizations have led to local climate victories across Quebec, from opposition to exploitation of Anticosti to sustained opposition to shale gas fracking, to the huge victory in stopping the Energy East pipeline. 

But like everywhere, there is an elite in Quebec that is pretending to be a friend to the environment. They are the inheritors of a top-down approach that looks to the Quebec state and not to students and working people. And they are also the ones who have stoked the fires of Islamophobia.

Making connections

It began with the Liberals’ Bouchard-Taylor Commission on reasonable accommodation, it got worse with the PQ Charter of Values, and it reached the worst with the CAQ’s Law 21 on secularism, targeting Muslim women who wear the hijab. A climate of racism has been deliberately stoked by those who need diversions from their politics of austerity.

Quebec’s youth who don’t vote but do mobilize in the streets need to see the connection between this and the climate movement. In the same way the Maple Spring mobilized thousands to defy the restrictions on protest imposed by Law 78, and in the same way those tactics are shaping the climate struggle, they need to be used to defeat a law that could ultimately weaken that struggle.

“La Planète s’invite” provides an effective ongoing structure to the climate movement across Quebec, uniting universities, colleges, schools and workplaces into a network that can pull huge numbers into the streets. But it is strictly non-partisan, which has the effect of disconnecting the climate struggle from the other justice issues that are in fact linked to its success.

Quebec solidaire is the only party that both opposes Law 21, and any restriction on religious symbols, and supports a just transition to a decarbonized economy by 2050. It has pledged to disrupt the business of the National Assembly if the CAQ does not at the very least stop all oil exploitation on Quebec territory and take action to reduce emissions to IPCC levels by October 1, 2020. 

But ultimately there is an argument that needs to be won: the only way to stop climate change is to stop the politics of divide and conquer that only serve those who are trapped in its fatal logic.




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