Tag Archives: Québec student strikes

Québec’s fragile democracy: the canaries that have died

27 Aug

I’m always on the look out for signs that our democracy is suffering. Luckily, such a hobby means that I’m constantly busy and frustrated with what I see. I wrote this about the threat to our rights to protest that have been obvious both during the student protests of this past year and in Toronto during the G20. Our civil liberties have been under attack since Sept. 11 2001 and those organizations that track this attack are doing really important work.

Democracy is premised on a couple of things: citizens being educated enough to know what’s going on, citizens being allowed to have and demonstrate their own opinions, and citizens having access to run, vote or spoil their ballot during general or special elections. There’s also a bunch of shit that the press is responsible to do, and that it’s mostly failing at, but that’s the subject for another post.

Québec’s election has been fascinating for a lot of reasons, but the persistent assault on democracy is one of the most interesting.

The biggest culprit of playing fast and loose with democracy is the Parti Québecois. Last week, they announced that they would prohibit some Qubécers from running in provincial and municipal elections based on whether or not you can pass a French test, details to be worked out later.

Some facts: in a democracy, all citizens should be allowed to seek office. No political party should be able to declare who can/not run for office. In a free and fair election, people have the right to elect whoever they want regardless of if the person is an old white dude who doesn’t represent people who aren’t old white dudes, someone lacking style, someone with too much style, someone who speaks a language that is not one of Canada’s official languages, and so on. That’s the beauty of democracy. The winner was supported by the largest group of people who voted.

There was an instant backlash. There are some ridings in Québec where English or Cree are the dominant languages and where someone could easily be elected whose French may not pass a language test.

One argument I heard was that it just makes “sense” to ensure that people could speak French. But, I was left wondering: how many sitting MPs would have failed a French test? How many MPs would fail an English test, outside of Québec? Who’s in charge of this new, highly political French test? How hard will it be? (would I pass?)

In response to the backlash, the PQ announced that it would only apply to immigrants (who would only be voting if they were citizens, so, it’s unclear how they’re level of “Anglo/Franco/Allophone-ness” would be measured). It’d be an easy way for the PQ to get rid of a Liberal candidate who could threaten the local PQ candidate.

The PQ is in that grey area that separates majority governments from minority ones, so it’s not surprising that schemes such as these would be pulled out as a way to bolster their support.

Nipping at their heels is Québec Solidaire. They’re the progressive alternative to the PQ and a political party that is also destined for something big, in relative terms. They’ll be fighting for a few more seats, but the places where those seats will be won will likely come from support where the PQ has a chance at winning.

Enter assault on democracy 2: the spectre of “strategic voting.” Similar to every election in Ontario where the NDP has threatened the Liberal votes, the PQ has managed to spin the message in the media that a vote for QS is a vote for Charest. (Although, a vote for the CAQ is a vote for the PQ, says the Liberals. You see how this works?)

Strategic voting attempts to convince people to suspend their critical faculties, hold their nose and vote for someone they wouldn’t vote for normally. They do this because the option of having Charest in for another four years is a worse outcome than voting for the PQ even though your heart belongs to the Khadir-David dream team.

No one should vote under duress but that’s exactly what this argument does. Scare people.

It’s total bullshit.

Luckily, it probably wont work. Especially not with QS. They’re building a movement. If they have 10 people elected or two people elected, the power of QS is the daily work of building a political movement that isn’t just seeking power (like some social democratic parties out there), but that seeks to overhaul the entire system. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t vote for QS either. Vote for that candidate who makes your heart jump. Then hound your MNA as much as you can later on.

Third sign: The Director General of the Québec election has deemed that the red square is a political sign.

Yup, a patch of red felt is a political sign.

Here’s some things that aren’t political signs: Nike shirts, NHL team ball caps, hemp pants, expensive jewelry…

Clothing can make all sorts of political statements. Buttons can too. Short of partisan political material at the polling booth, however, this limit to freedom of expression is another example of how fragile democracy is. The carré rouge is a political symbol but it doesn’t belong to or signify the support of any political party. Just like many people who wear shirts that say Québec Libre with a Québec flag on them may vote PQ (or ON, or QS or CAQ…whoever), people wearing a carré rouge may be more likely to vote for a particular party (or, more accurately, most unlikely to vote Liberal). But demographically speaking, certain kinds of people may also vote for someone based on their age, their language, their sex.

Why signal out young people, the folks who are wearing the carré rouge the most?

People’s electoral convictions must be strong for a democracy to work. The DGE’s attempt to argue that the carré rouge is a partisan symbol is targeting youth who have been politicized through the Printemps Érables and who are exercising their democratic right (many for the first time). What’s worse is that poll clerks are vested with this authority and, on today’s first day of advanced polls, have been reported as barring electors from entering the voting area if they’re wearing a carré rouge.

Yes, democracy is fragile. It’s fragile everywhere but obviously so in Québec.

I didn’t get to write about things like this during the Ontario election, but it’s not because it was a great election. In some ways, Québec is a reminder of what an election looks like when the parties actually stand for something different. HST off [fill in the blank] seems like a ridiculous common chorus from where I sit today.

But with the province on fire politically, it’s the citizens’ responsibility to ensure that democracy is protected.

Even if we’d fail the French test.

DISCLAIMER: Like with many of the other things I’ve written, me focusing on this issue does not mean that I don’t think that other provinces are bastions of democracy or that Québec is the closest it’s been to a fascist state since the 1930s. Just saying that so that it’s clear.

UPDATE 1: Ethan Cox has told me on Twitter that the DGE has said that voters will be allowed to wear the red square. Poll clerks cannot. Too bad that this had to be tested on day one of voting. Great news, though.

Why students in the Rest of Canada aren’t a homogenous mass

8 Aug

Have you read this yet? It’s the subject of this post.

I think it’s necessary for the student movement in the ROC (rest of Canada for you ROC’ers) to examine the difference in student organizing outside Québec. I’m glad Brian Platt took a shot at it (actually, a good shot at it), although I think he missed some important aspects of the student movement outside of Québec.

I spent the last year of my job with the Canadian Federation of Students asking this question: what makes Québec’s model of organizing so effective? How have they succeeded in mass mobilization? While I think Platt makes some reasonable arguments, his main thesis, “anglophone student unions aren’t built for protesting” is untrue. Differences do exist between Québec students’ unions and the ROC but it’s not this simple.

Sandy Hudson and I came up with four reasons for why the Québec student movement has been so successful and what Ontario can learn from it, but that’s a topic for another bottle of wine.

On Platt’s piece. First off, there’s a huge difference between students’ unions that are structurally apolitical and politically apolitical (or politically oriented such that they support the government of the day). There are many students’ unions in Canada that are political apolitical, but not that many that are structurally apolitical. Universities like Queen’s, Western, McMaster and others in Ontario, for example, have vast resources, but fail to venture past a Liberal politic in their campaigns. This isn’t to say they couldn’t become politicized. Most college students’ unions in Ontario have also been depoliticized, but it has been more through the co-optation of student leaders, not necessarily thanks to the structures of their students’ unions.

From what I’ve seen, the students’ unions in Ontario that get away with being the least political (or most Conservative/Liberal) are the ones where their executive members are not elected at large. Or, where their representatives are selected structurally by the fewest people. In most cases, the president is elected at large, then he/she either appoints their vice-presidents or they are selected by board members who received fewer votes relative to what someone running for a VP position would receive. This is highly undemocratic and is a structure that keeps a dissenting politic out of the students’ union. The examples of this that I am aware of are at a few Ontario university students’ unions that are members of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, with two or three exceptions, and part-time students’ unions with a delegated class representative structure. Some college students’ unions are also organized this way.

Platt argues that the time spent on services is what really stops ROC students’ unions from mobilizing the way Québec students have. This is only the case where there aren’t enough activists involved in a students’ union. Of course, if your one activist is busy signing health opt out cheques and not mobilizing for a General Assembly, it’s a struggle between the two. But services are inherently political. The service centres that are strong in many Ontario students’ unions are what drive students to their students’ unions. Racialized student collectives, women’s centres, disability centres and others help to outreach to students and enable them to access the mainstream student political sphere. Where these services don’t exist, the student union is obviously and persistently less diverse. This is the case in many students’ unions in Québec and the movement is noticeably less diverse than it should be.

University and college services are political and should be organized and coordinated by students. The existence of profiteering health and dental brokers (one of which I’ve had the peripheral pleasure of being sued by, being locked into a contract by, settling with and then being locked in a contract again…some of the signatories to that agreement did get jobs, so at least they sold out for something, I guess), is one of the obvious examples of why students should control their services. A glance at Ontario’s UHIP system can show anyone how damaging for students’ interests and their pockets it can be when administrators control student services. And yes, coordinating these services takes a lot of time. This is why it is critical for active, service-heavy students’ unions to ensure that they are placing as much importance and as many resources into the campaigns work that they have.

I think it is also critical for ROC students’ unions to examine how students have organized in Québec and adopt the tactics needed to bolster similar efforts outside of Québec. Provincial solidarity is a major part and will make organizing in provinces like Manitoba or Newfoundland and Labrador easier (they also happen to be the other two provinces with the lowest tuition fees in Canada). In a province like Ontario, provincial solidarity is not remotely possible in the current state of affairs. This is a threat to the capacity of the Ontario student movement.

But the general assembly model is an important one that students’ unions should work to adopt. Organizing at the grassroots means going into each classroom, asking for them to select a representative and having open GAs at the departmental level where attendance is mandatory for class representatives, and encouraged for everyone else. Starting at this point would not only be constitutionally possible for local students’ unions, but would reach students in the classroom while they’re on campus. Minimizing students’ efforts to get them involved is critical, especially when tuition fees mean that you also have to work two jobs to stay afloat. Professors also become critical at this level, as access to their classes requires a level of support for the movement.

The most important critique of Platt’s piece, though, is that the ROC is not a homogenous mass.  The differences that exist among the students’ unions in Halifax alone cannot be ignored. Writing solely about one’s experience with the AMS at UBC (arguably one of Canada’s most bureaucratic and least political forces out there) and CUSA at Carleton (a service-heavy students’ union where campaigns this year have been eliminated by the current regime) doesn’t effectively capture the reality of the Canadian scene.

I was elected to the Ryerson Students’ Union where I think we did the best we could to balance our services (two businesses, taking back control of our student centre, the pub and the cafe, grade appeals help, health plan and five equity service groups, events etc.), but I know we could have done more. And, these things are always evolving. The current executive is probably doing more than we were able to achieve. While there are students’ unions I would consider to be comparable to RSU in size, scope and campaigns work, I’m under no illusion that RSU represented anything more than itself.

That’s the danger of these generalizations. Both applied to the ROC and to the Québec student movement, they are somewhat helpful, but not really.

Although, at the very least, I’ve just leaked 1156 words on this. Brian Platt gets all the credit for that.