June 2, 2012

Letter to Rebel Youth: is the Quebec Student's struggle against corruption?

Headlines like these chauvinistically
confuse the problem of corruption with the
identify and people of Quebec (ie. Bon Homme) 
A reader writes:  I was wondering if you'd be able to offer some insight into the recent movement in Quebec.  Out here in Ontario the image the media portrays, and from what I've gathered from online forums, is that it was originally tuition hikes that were the issue, but now it has transitioned to bill 78 and protesting corruption in the province altogether. If the protest is now about overall corruption, a lot of people outside of Quebec are either going to dismiss it as being a cop out, or at least wonder why that wasn't the message from the beginning.  If the issue really was about corruption in Quebec (which I no doubt believe is true, and I believe should be the primary concern), why didn't the movement state that was the issue from the beginning? Did the student organizations say they were protesting the fees not only because they believe in free education, but because there is a bigger issue here? The media didn't show any sign of that being the case, nor did any french protesters that I have spoken to through text or online, so I have to admit I'm a little skeptical. However, I do want to understand this issue as much as possible, so any insight would be appreciated! 

Dear reader,

Thank you for your question. In our view, there is something of a political communication disconnect between Quebec and the Rest Of Canada which has to do with the National Question in Canada and the unequal historic status of Quebec in confederation. A positive sign of the student demonstrations is that, as your letter shows, more and more forces are reaching out in solidarity and trying to overcome this barrier, find the truth beyond what the corporate media says, and draw inspiration from the protests.

It is true number of streams of opposition to the current government have run together with the student protests, but we think you maybe mistaken in your initial conclusions.

The Charest Liberal government has been in power for almost a decade now, as they were first elected in 2003. They have run into a series of popular mobilizations since 2004-2005 from labour, students, and many other community and environmental organizations.

For example, another fight the government has been engaged is in support of schist gas or shale gas which is universally condemned by the environmental movement. Shortly before the 2012 student struggle began, the government gave into public pressure on this issue -- which emboldened the students and made the government deiced to take a harder line on this conflict.

The biggest danger for Charest is the labour movement, which a year ago formed a common-front (in Quebec there is a higher rate of union organization as well as three main trade union centrals, like having three Ontario Federations of Labour, and when they unite they have power) and in 2005 they were engaged in a very big social battle.

However, in 2005 the Charest Liberals passed legislation that divided the unions and got them to fight against each other for several years while last year they settled with labour in a compromise deal which was very poor for the unions, but they settled.

More people are realizing it was a poor deal now.

This has meant that for the labour movement to fight back and really join the students it would have to engage in an illegal general strike which would have severe repercussions.

The picture we want to paint for you, therefore, is that many social objections to the government are in full flow and into this situation the corruption scandal has not made things better for the government.

The organized crime factor

In addition, there has been a increasing exposure of the Liberal party and that party's alleged connections with organized crime, as well as alleged connections with the construction industry and even some of the construction worker`s unions. This also touches the Parti Quebecois as well, but as they have been out of power and out of the patronage circuit for a decade the smell, so to speak is less strong.

Some level of corruption is, more ore less, inherent in a profit-driven system of capitalism. This is not unique to Quebec, although it does have particular features associated with the ruling class here. But it is not something that the Quebec nation has as, say a character trait. We can not say, like Mcleans does -- well that`s those Quebekers for you!

Also, while the corruption scandal has been brewing for some time, for at least a year and a half there has been increasing news coverage -- in fact a new development comes out almost every month.

Under this pressure, Charest announced a public commission which is called the Charbonneau commission, headed by a well-known Mafia-fighting judge of that name. It is just about the start its public hearings (although the RCMP have been helping the government by refusing to give the commission its files on the Mafia).

Everyone knows that when the Corruption commission reports it will be a bomb shell for the government and may also hurt the PQ.

Social struggle against the budget

Lastly we have to remember that the main instrument of social policy is the provincial budget right now. So for the last several years a series of neo-liberal cut back budgets have attacked the so-called Quebec model of welfare state which has been somewhat more advanced in Quebec than the rest of Canada in some areas. Most of Charest`s term in office has been to accelerate the attack that has been going on against this model for some time.

In particular, in 2007 and then again three budgets ago, the government said that it will increase student fees but did not say how much. Then last year it did, and this year it has passed a budget which stays the course. Last year`s budget also attacks health care, taxation and imposes many user fees such as a $200 a year health care fee.

At this point, the ASSÉ student union central brought together the Red Hand coalition with community groups and labour as well as the political party Quebec Solidaire, which confronted the budget as an attack, proposed a totally different progressive direction like progressive taxation, and it also disputed the neo-liberal vision of the budget.

Corruption was not a focus.

Then, in November of last year the student struggle began in earnest with the different student union centrals announcing an agreement of unity to do a strike and to bring that question to their membership. They held the first big demo of about 50-70 thousand students and everyone shut down the campuses for a day.

Mobilization, escalation

Each year the Quebec students hold, on a department-wide basis usually, a general assembly of all students. So in January-February the votes began and the strike started by mid-February building up to March 22, the first official day.

This was quite a rapid period of time from November February. Then from February to March time moved even faster, so to speak. As things accelerated the student`s conciseness developed as well about how they really were not alone in this struggle. It became clearer that many people were actually in struggle on many issues.

Also after March the government was expected to come to the negotiating table because a quarter million people were in the streets on March 22. Previously this was enough to force a compromise. Instead Charest said -- well, we are not going to negotiate we are just going to keep on with this tuition increase.

This is important to note because the real factor to blame is the government intransigence.

By April 22 on Earth Day another 300 000 people were in the streets. Again the government did not come to the bargaining table. Instead, the brutality of the police increased at the demonstrations -- two students were blinded by rubber bullets and another put in a coma not long afterwards...

Student strike, social struggle

The Earth Day demo showed that the movement has grown broader than just the students. The students had won a very wide public support from unions, community groups, the environmentalists, and these people were more and more at the student demos, joining them. Parents, people who were not necessarily with any group started to come out too.

The corruption issue was still not a main issue here, but it was another reason people were upset at the government. But now they were protesting more the question of the whole budget and neo-liberal approach of the government.

You can not say so much about the corruption issue as it is not proven yet. But when the TV shows a big business man in a suit on hidden video tape, and he is saying to journalists (pretending to be bureaucrats) that if they support Plan Nord -- a major northern development plan that the government has launched -- then the company will put them on a board that does not meet, will give them a salary, etc. Understandably this scandalizes people and makes them more angry.

So on the one hand the students had always linked the attack on tuition fees to the neo-liberal budget and cuts. On the other hand, the struggle has become so big that it grew to become not just a fight for access to education but also a fight against neo-liberal cuts and the budget...

Then Law 73 was passed.

Law 73 is very repressive because it means that all campus workers and any one in solidarity with them can face huge fines for spontaneous protest and for speaking out in support of such action, limiting free speech.

It is not an understatement to say that this law contains the seeds of fascism.

Even students calling FOR the tuition increase said they oppose the law!

Jurists are now marching in the streets and the law has been condemned by the UN and the Bar of Quebec (not an advocacy group but the group that grants approval to lawyers in Quebec). Another huge demo was held of a quarter million people that violated the law. The CLASSE said it will break the law and all its executive were charged.

Now people are going, every night at 8pm, into the streets banging pots and pans to protest the law. Hundreds of community protests sprung up last week at this time, banging pots and pans.

Struggle for democracy

So the struggle has taken another development. It is no longer a struggle for accessible education alone. It is no longer a struggle for social programmes and the Quebec welfare state. It is now a struggle for democracy.

We hope this puts things in context and helps you understand this really great battle that has been going on here, and how corruption is just one important question but is mainly in the background. Nevertheless, we are confident that the corruption issue will explode in a few months when the commission files its report after the summer.
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