September 25, 2012

Victories in Quebec, but struggle must continue warn social movements

J. Boyden

In one day, the newly elected Parti Québécois (PQ) minority government led by Pauline Marois swept away most of the keystone austerity policies of the previous Charest Liberals. The new Quebec government, brought to power on winds of change generated by historic mass mobilizations, also realized victories for the environmental movement.

The PQ government cancelled the proposed massive tuition fee hikes; repealed the repressive Bill 78 drafted against the student protests which put severe restriction on civil, labour democratic rights; and announced the cancellation and reimbursement of the new $200 health tax. The action satisfied three out of four of the main demands of the student-labour "Red Hand" Coalition that was at the core of the extended student strike mobilizations last spring. "The abandonment of these measures, criticized by large sections of society, demonstrates that popular mobilization bears fruit," said social housing activist Véronique Laflamme who is also a spokesperson for the Coalition.

An announcement by the PQ on the Coalitions fourth major demand, stopping the increase in Hydro fees, is expected soon. However, as a statement by the Coalition said, "in the context of a minority government, the fate of some [PQ] measures depend on the support received by the Liberal Party or the [ultra-right] Coalition Avenir  Québec (CAQ), two parties that openly advocate user-fees and the privatization of public services, and austerity measures [...] the business community and think tanks use the right-wing media platforms they have to decry tax measures that require greater contributions from big business and the wealthy."

"Mobilization remains necessary now, not only to avoid setbacks but to go further in the implementation of a better redistribution of wealth in order to address growing social inequalities," said Régine Laurent, President of the FIQ Nurses Union and a spokesperson for the Red Hand Coalition.  The PQ is proposing the idea of retro-active taxation on high-income earners, making more than $130,000 and more than $250,000. The tax readjustment will also apply to businesses, and has engendered opposition from pro-corporate forces.

Student organizations have cheered the announcements, while noting that the PQ is planning a mass-consultation with the people of Quebec in the coming months, and that it will likely advocate for a tuition increase at a slower rate. The ASSÉ and its broader CLASSE alliance are heading to convention to determine strategy and if the CLASSE formation should continue. One proposal is to embark on a cross-Canada campaign against the Harper Conservative policy on education and youth issues.

Marois' new cabinet members also made announcements realizing victories for the environmental movement, stating that they will scrap a loan to revive Quebec's last asbestos mine, raise royalties on mining, re-draw the Plan Nord, close the widely criticized Gentilly-2 nuclear power station, and continue the moratorium on shale gas and the procedure of Hydraulic fracturing, widely condemned by scientists and greens alike.

"I don't foresee a day when there will be technology that will allow safe exploitation [of shale gas]," Natural Resources Minister Martine Ouellet told CTV news before her first cabinet meeting, adding: "Our position is very clear: we want a complete moratorium, not only on exploitation but also on exploration of shale gas." Although public outcry and widespread mobilizations forced the former Liberal government to halt shale-gas exploration last year (to conduct more studies on the ecological risks) the PQ leader distanced herself from Ouellet's remarks but said she would close down the Gentilly-2 nuclear plant.

In the 1960s the Gentilly stations, located in Becancour close to Trois-Rivières, were to be the flagship of over thirty nuclear plants in  Québec. Public pressure helped block those plans and today Gentilly-2 is the only nuclear power station in  Québec and generates less than 4% of provincial electric power.

Environmentalist point to studies showing higher rates of cancer, not just five kilometers from the center, but up to 70 km away. While a potential shut-down will be very costly and will be strongly opposed by the Liberal and CAQ parties, it is made much easier by the fact the power station remains under the control of the public corporation Hydro-Québec.

"We support this closure fully but the people can not again fall into the trap of healthy environment or jobs," said Marianne Breton Fontaine, leader of the Young Communist League of  Québec. "Labour, environmentalists and youth must stand together and demand the workers at Gentilly-2 maintain their jobs at Hydro-Québec with no loss in pay or benefits, through Green Jobs that preferably allow them to remain in their current community. Hydro-Québec is hardly in a financial crisis and Québec in general needs to pursue new, environmentally sustainable power sources like wind energy," she said.

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