Against the Right: Defending Public Services in Quebec

The 2008 financial and economic crisis gave the Liberal government, in power at the time, the perfect excuse for launching a direct attack on the founding principles upon which public services rest: equal access, universality and quality. In the course of the spring and fall of 2009, the Charest government warned the population: public finances were precarious, and an important turn had to be taken in order to redress them. This was followed by the announcement of the creation of an advisory committee of “experts” (right-wing economists), mandated by the government with the task of finding the means to exit the recession. This committee then published, in the fall of 2009, a series of pamphlets recommending the growing use, in all public services, of the user-pay principle, combined with cuts in government spending. In an unequivocal way, the government was setting the table for the legitimation and justification of the austerity budget that was predicted for March 2010.

Seeing this attack coming, community, student and feminist organizations called for the creation of a large coalition to counter the anticipated regressive measures. And so was born, in the fall of 2009, the Coalition Against User Fees and the Privatization of Public Services, around which struggles rapidly converged. Very quickly, over 120 organizations joined the Coalition, which began to actively prepare its response.

A very neoliberal budget

When the 2010 budget fell upon us, the omnipresence of regressive measures sent a shockwave through Quebec: an important hike in tuition and electricity fees, a $200 per person health tax,  health insurance co-payments (the government cancelled this measure a few weeks after introducing the budget), cuts in provincial spending, an increase to the Quebec sales tax and  the gas tax, and an increase in fees for a range of public services (including car registration, drivers’ licenses, ambulance service, and access to provincial parks).

The official discourse justifying this turn taken by the government completely hid the structural causes of the crisis, and the past political choices that had taken us there. These included tax cuts for individuals since the year 2000 (totalling almost $9 billion), tax cuts for businesses, the very meagre royalties demanded for the extraction of our natural resources, and  tax deductions that mainly benefit the rich — to name only a few.

All these measures, presented as simple enactments of budget austerity, without any political, economic or ideological shift in direction, in fact represented a new phase in the implementation of neoliberalism, Quebec-style. And so, in the past thirty years, we’ve shifted from a model of relative social solidarity to one of commodification of public services, where access to these services is not based on the needs or rights of individuals and groups but on their ability to pay. The 2010 budget only opened a new phase for this neoliberalism that has no limits.

Indeed, for over 30 years and despite the struggles that were undertaken, the capitalist model has been attacking and dismantling public services and social programs: the refusal to index welfare benefits or income thresholds for legal aid eligibility, the introduction of different categories of welfare recipients, the freezing of the minimum wage, a growing role for the private sector in education and health, increasing tuition fees, growing recourse to public-private partnerships, and decreasing access to unemployment insurance benefits.

In Quebec, this austerity shift has translated into the introduction of many measures: the user-pay principle in public services, an “efficiency” and competitive logic based on the neoliberal model in the education and health sectors, fees fixed on the basis of market prices (notably electricity rates), and the underfunding of public services which serves as justification for the spread of privatization. Though these principles, directly imported from free market theory, were already being applied in certain sectors, the past two budgets and a few particular government bills have pushed this logic of commodification of public services even further.

Organizing resistance

It is in this context that, as with almost all struggles waged over the past thirty years, we were to fight not for improvements to what now exists but against rollbacks. The day after the budget was presented, a demonstration organized by the Coalition brought together over 15 000 people in the streets of Montreal. Though this number might seem rather low in the wake of the recent student mobilizations, at the time it represented a huge demonstration. It was covered by all the media and had a resounding impact: the population opposed the austerity measures and the opposition was organizing!

Between the spring of 2010 and the winter of 2012, the Coalition multiplied its actions, which included demonstrations, occupations, press conferences, blockades of the Hydro-Quebec headquarters and the Montreal Stock Exchange tower, and the distribution of newspapers. Combined with a vast popular education campaign in various regions of Quebec, the actions organized by the Coalition helped to draw together organizations coming from various fields (anti-poverty, popular education, social housing, consumer protection, student and feminist organizations, certain unions, etc.) around a common struggle that moved beyond sectional battles. It was through action that these diverse organizations came together and mobilized.

We can accuse Jean Charest of many things, but we must recognize one strength: he is a clever politician. And so, while the 2010 budget announced an ensemble of regressive measures, they were planned to take effect at different times between 2010 and 2014 (for instance, the tuition fee and electricity rate hikes would take effect in 2012 and 2013 respectively). We can presume he hoped to avoid a scenario in which all civil society organizations would have a good reason to get angry and mobilize at the same time. But history proved him wrong.

The Maple Spring

Of course, as everyone knows, the 2012 “Maple Spring” was an unprecedented event in the history of social struggles in Quebec. But an aspect of this struggle which is at times insufficiently understood is the transformation of this student struggle into a popular one – and, above all, the reasons for this transformation.

Among the very active members of the Coalition was the most combative of student organizations, the Association for Student Union Solidarity (referred to in French as ASSE), which became, in the context of the student strike, the well-known CLASSE. In 2012, as the students were going into a historic struggle, the ties that feminist, community and certain union circles had built with ASSE were very strong, much stronger than they were at the time of the 2005 student strike. And so, very rapidly, the Coalition’s member organizations actively supported the student struggle.

We know the rest: the passing of a special law that swelled popular unrest, expressed through the noise of the “casseroles” and the calling of an election that brought a Parti Quebecois minority government to power. The PQ then repealed the special law as well as the tuition fee hike – at least until the holding of a summit on education. Promises were also made by this party to abolish the $200 health tax and not to raise electricity fees. Recently the PQ government has announced it will not abolish the health tax, but only make it “progressive.”

Though the struggle is far from over and its outcome is still uncertain, an initial assessment is possible. In our societies, controlled and governed as they are by economic and political elites, democracy and popular power are increasingly weak. In order to win gains, it is imperative for our struggles to unite. For organizations, this means developing an overall analysis of the economic system in which we live. We cannot talk about social housing without talking about poverty. We cannot talk about poverty without talking about discrimination, social exclusion, and the concentration of wealth. We cannot talk about wealth concentration without talking about the financial system, global economic institutions, bond rating agencies, banks’ private property, and so on. In short, in facing the neoliberal steamroller, it is important to understand that the struggle for free education does not concern only students, just as the struggle for a just and dignified retirement does not concern only the retired. These are class struggles that concern us all, and that require solidarity in struggle.

Marie-Eve Rancourt is a union activist and the former spokesperson for the Coalition Against User Fees and the Privatization of Public Services.

Translation by Gabrielle Gerin, with David Camfield.