Tag Archives: Québec

Scoring political points with Québec’s secularism charter

10 Sep

Contrary to what the mainstream English press will have you believe, Québec is not the most racist place in Canada. Racism is sewn into the fabric of Canadian society Québec is just one piece of that fabric.

English politicians have been quick to score political points by capitalizing on easy and age-old divisions: when they condemn Québec, the Parti Québecois or Pauline Marois for being racist they’re saying: “Look at them!” Or, in other words, “Don’t look at us!”

Indeed, the Parti Québecois’ Charte de la laïcité is a gift to Canadian politicians. The Ontario government has jumped at this opportunity and condemned the charter before it was even released.

This condemnation is pretty vacant when you consider that just last Friday, the Ontario government challenged its own responsibility to give OHIP coverage to two migrant workers who were injured on the job. Ontario believes that foreign workers (who are mostly racialized), once injured and unable to work, should be kicked off the provincial health plan.

The Ontario government also hasn’t declared its support for Ian Campeau’s Human Rights challenge to change the racist name of the Nepean amateur football team from The Redskins to something that isn’t racist. Nor have they condemned the National amateur football association for refusing to comment, or for resisting the change in the past.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi jumped into the ring, too. He received wide media coverage last week for having opposed Marois’ planned legislation. Though, rather than acknowledging how far his own community has to go in combating racism, he focused only on Québec. Calgary is one of the most active cities in Canada for white supremacist organizing, one of the few places where white nationalists still try to march annually on Hitler’s birthday.

There are blind spots in English Canada to institutionalized racism and it’s not good enough for politicians to only condemn the most outward expressions of white supremacy. The quick political points scored will only amplify anti-Québec sentiment and Québecers who see this will be rightfully outraged

Canada was built on white supremacy and white nationalism. The supremacy of the Catholic and Protestant churches, tied into the genocide upon which the country was built, is woven into every single Canadian structure. But Québec’s origins, as they relate to its society today, are different from the rest of Canada.

Québec’s history of conquest by England, the push to control all aspects of Québec society by the Catholic Church and the repressive nature of that control has no parallel experience in the rest of Canada. The forced subjugation of French-speaking Québecers at the hands of English capitalists created an unequal society where Québecers were less educated, more poor and more marginalized than most of the English minority in this province.

Québecers’ institutional relationship with religion is also different than in any other region of Canada. They spectacularly and swiftly rejected the influence of the church over their lives through the quiet revolution. But the break wasn’t entirely clean and the role once played by the Catholic Church still influences how many Québecers understand religion and its relationship with the state.

The PQ’s charter advances a secularism that is born from this experience. It’s a kind of secularism, a White, post-Catholic secularism, where public schools still have crosses attached to them and where a crucifix is an image of culture, not of religion. It’s paradoxical, but it’s deeply Québécois.

This political context means that any attempt at creating a secularism charter made by a governing political party is going to be completely bungled, racist and offensive.

While many people had hoped that the charter would have at least stopped public grants to private religious schools, the charter is silent on this. It also exempts, of all people, the politicians themselves from being forced to hide their religious symbols if elected. The PQ: protecting those in power, while oppressing and marginalizing workers.

I have progressive friends who argue with me that public institutions should have no outward expression of religion. This blanket assertion gets messy when you consider how deep Catholicism still runs throughout, and how burning every last vestige of the Catholic Church from Québec is impossible. This is especially true considering the widespread sale of churches in the province: sometimes it makes more sense for a city to buy a church and turn it into a library than simply burn it down. The stained glass is probably old and beautiful and so it’s restored. It also probably has a depiction of Jesus’s beard being plucked off, or Jesus in agony upon the cross.

Just like the quick political points that Wynne and Nenshi hoped to score, this Charter is more about polls than it is about proselytization. If it were about freedom from the annoying folks who try to convince me that Scientology is the way to find salvation, the PQ would just ban proselytism from public spaces. But surely, no one ever converted to Islam solely because they learned Grade 6 math from a woman wearing hijab.

This debate has little to do with religious freedom. The Parti Québécois knows that this rhetoric is popular among enough people that it might deliver them a provincial majority. And besides, demonizing a turban is way easier than balancing the province’s desire to exploit its natural resources and satisfy foreign industry with peoples’ outrage in the aftermath of Lac-Mégantic, for example.

Secularism, when wielded as a blunt object, will marginalize people who are already marginalized. For religious observers, wearing religious symbols is not a choice and they will either be systematically excluded from the public sector, or oppressed into turning away from some elements of how they express their religion.

The legislation is rooted in white supremacy, where the religion, norms, cultures and practices of the white dominant are fine, but the religion, norms, cultures and practices of the mostly racialized other are offensive. In fact, according to Bernard Drainville, the MNA who presented the charter, they’re so offensive that they need to be stopped in particular to protect children in schools.

But the analysis of this has to be thoughtful and careful. It’s not enough to just call Québec racist as if every other province doesn’t struggle with its own racist structures. Canadian critics, especially mainstream journalists, need to avoid applying their own province’s history and current context to analyses of Québec.

Ken Coran: The ultimate betrayal

4 Jul

Coran at Queen's ParkWhen Léo Bureau-Blouin announced that he would run for the Parti Québecois, right after year of student protests where he was the leader of one of the three coordinating groups, he was rightfully called out. As the president of the FECQ, his target during the protests was the Liberal government of Jean Charest, a tuition fee increase of up to 71 per cent and the attack on civil liberties, Law 78.

LBB was elected. His party did stop the Liberal’s hike, but brought in their own at 3 per cent annually. They repealed Law 78, though he was silent when his party passed another special law to interfere with the strike of construction workers. He was held up as a new voice of youth during the election. Marois has ensured that he’s remained obedient and silent.

While he was the weakest and least progressive of the three student leaders during the strike, LBB was still a symbol for the power that exists when people take to the streets. When that power is transferred into government, clearly, it evaporates. The ruling party got itself a pet; a star candidate; a symbol for how great they must be for students, and then have screwed students ever since.

Total win for Marois. Probably a win for LBB too, if he doesn’t care much about respect. Loss for the students that he once represented who will pay 3 per cent more in tuition fees in the fall, at institutions who had their budgets cut by 5 per cent.

The Ontario Liberals have just announced their own star candidate.

Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, announced that he will run for the Liberal Party in the riding of London West.

Yes, right off the heels of the most outrageous interference into collective bargaining by the Ontario government possibly ever, one of the presidents of the unions who were stomped on, is running for his political enemies.

Making this even more hilarious is that he’ll be replacing Chris Bentley: the scandal-ridden MPP who resigned while facing a motion of censure for concealing the documents that explained how much the gas plant scandals cost (about $600 million). Chris was also the Minister who ushered in Ontario’s tuition fee policy that saw fees rise by up to 8 per cent, annually, for seven years.

Coran is a nice guy. He probably thinks he can do some positive things in this role, especially with a the new leader who has tried to distance herself from McGuinty’s policies and strategies. But for the members of OSSTF who had their right to collectively bargain eliminated and were forced to take a concessions contract, this is a slap in the face. Like the PQ’s poaching of LBB: good for them, bad for the students, or teachers.

Coran’s entry into provincial politics is only possible thanks to the complete moral bankruptcy that exists at Queen’s Park: no ideology, no politics, just populism and vacant slogans that mean less than the paper they’re printed on.

If Coran was an ambitious politician-in-waiting, should he have run for the NDP? While his decision to support the party that killed teachers’ rights to collectively bargain is objectively offensive, in this politically-vacant-populist-do-what-it-takes-to-get-elected world, it makes perfect sense that he’d choose the Liberals: they’re a stronger party, with more credibility than the NDP. He can argue that he can do more from the inside than the outside, that he can support teachers from Toronto.

And he’ll try, and he’ll fail.

The hypocrisy demonstrated by Coran is deeply frustrating, especially for union activists, but the reality of democracy in Canada is that it’s a complete joke. The NDP can develop a slogan like “Run to Win” (the NDP’s 1 Corinthians 9:24-inspired slogan that no party ever thought of using…ever) and not be dismissed outright as a bunch populist hacks.  The PCs are the only party with an ideological yardstick, yet Hudak remains to be seen as Satan’s spawn (or at the very least, the handmaiden of Satan, Mike Harris). Is it any wonder that voters are deeply disenfranchised?

For union members and progressive people, Coran’s appointment is a reminder that our victories will not be won at Queen’s Park, no matter what the outcome is of this election. If 15 per cent off car insurance, in two years, maybe, is the best the NDP can win when it holds the balance of power, and if the Liberals are just mini Harrisites who take longer to wreak the same havoc, policies that will make peoples’ lives better from Queen’s Park are a long way off.

There is power in collective bargaining and there is power in the streets. In an era where the power wielded by legislatures across Canada resembles more a Medieval fiefdom than a modern democracy, Canadians must rely on extra-parliamentary channels like never before.

And when movement leaders sell out their movements on a dime, we have to take back our movements, challenge our leadership and be clear that if they betray us, we won’t forget.

Who can save the Ontario political left?

6 May

Picture 22This past weekend, Québec Solidaire’s econmic platform, the Plan Vert was officially launched. The campaign is a response to Liberal (and now PQ) Plan Nord, premised on resource extraction and exploitation of Québec’s north. It focuses on investing in the following initiatives:

  • transitioning Québec toward green energies
  • the mass development of public transportation (especially outside of the large cities)
  • the mass transition toward energy efficiency and social housing
  • developing cooperatives and collectively-run businesses
  • taking back control over natural resources.

There is also a focus on food sovereignty and finding local food solutions for Québecers, especially in regions under-serviced by local food production.

The campaign was launched in the middle of Québec Solidaire’s national congress, a congress that was criticized by many members (including me) for having too much of a focus on electoral gains, absent of the necessary political analysis that anchors QS firmly on the left.

But when the Plan Vert was presented, my fears about an electoralist, populist shift to the right were somewhat calmed. Yes, while the campaign is set to start in the fall, work should commence immediately. Yes, the Plan Vert should have included the role that tax evasion and corruption play in slowing or stopping progressive environmental policies from being implemented (as one member mentioned to me).

And, most importantly, yes, activists within the party have to remain diligent in defending its progressive core, especially as the party grows and external pressures will force it towards the centre.

But regardless, the Plan Vert is a solid platform upon which activists can organize. It’s an example of what a political party with any ideology should do: present its own agenda based on the internal policy work undertaken by its members. For a party like QS, policy work isn’t confined to members alone, as the party takes its cues from the experts: social movements.

During the campaign launch, and as I have yet to shed all aspects of my Ontarioness, I couldn’t help but feel really, really sorry for my friends and family back home for whom there is no similar political party.

Instead, the Ontario NDP is, again, engaging the public in an online survey. On their website, they announce that they have a new toll-free number and website that will help them help Ontarians, “…have their say on:

  • How to make the budget more accountable to Ontarians and how to make government more transparent
  • Cost saving measures that will balance the budget without jeopardizing services
  • Fair and affordable ways to fund transportation and transit
  • Firm guarantees to deliver on government commitments
  • Reflecting the needs of every region across the province”

OK, ignoring the syntax problems that exist with the final two bullet points (have their say on reflecting? Really?) this is an example of what happens when a party with a progressive mission and core loses its political compass.

The slow, decades-long slide towards electoralism has left Ontarians with no realistic, progressive options at the ballot box. What’s worse is that the Plan Nord is modeled on Ontario’s Ring of Fire, a plan that will be equally or more destructive to Northern Ontario and the ONDP is nowhere on demanding the destructive elements of the Ring of Fire be stopped.

Short of a miracle dropping the scales from the collective eyes of the ONDP, social movements are the only hope that Ontarians have. Social movements will either have to take the ONDP (back) by force or start something new: the situation is too desperate to allow for the space on the left to be occupied by this.

The Plan Vert offers Québecers a real alternative: liberation from neo-liberal policies, as one delegate said this weekend. After the liberation from the Liberals landed more austerity in the form of PQ broken election policies, the direction that Québec must take if we are to free ourselves from the influences of profit and the destruction of resource extraction, should be more clear than ever before.

But Canadians, especially people involved in the NDP and its provincial branches, can take from the strategies presented within the Plan Vert too. We cannot defeat austerity if we don’t offer alternatives. We cannot build confidence among citizens if we refuse to show them that there exist alternatives.

And we certainly cannot ignore these alternatives while hiding behind a toll-free number or tweeting a website. If the ONDP hasn’t found the answers to the questions they posed, how do they expect the average Ontarian to be able to solve transit funding on their own, for example? This isn’t democracy, it a democratic mirage that actually undermines the confidence people might have in the ONDP. It’s deeply disenfranchising and it’s an insult to everyone who suffers as a result of austere policies.

Am I being too harsh? Maybe. But once you see what Québec Solidaire has made possible, especially in spite of our deeply broken political system and with just two representatives elected, it’s hard to look at the strategies of the ONDP in any other way.

Drawing blood from stones: the relentless tuition fee hike

28 Mar

ABasQPsmallOntario announced a new tuition fee framework today. It’s the first time that the Liberal government has changed it in seven years

In 2006, Dalton McGuinty punched students in the face with a five per cent, on average, fee increase. It was supposed to last four years, but was extended, painfully, until 2012.

During the 2011 Ontario election, the Liberals introduced a grant to help offset the burden of these fees for some students. To those of us who spent days analyzing the Liberal proposal and strategy, it was clear that they had hoped to divert some of the negative attention on their tuition policy by offering a confusing, runner-up prize.

In the same vein, the kinder, gentler Liberal party, now lead by a grandmother rather than a seemingly ageless dad, is trying to help students out.

Today, they announced that the fee increases: 5% for most programs, 8% for the programs where university administrators want to screw students the hardest, has been replaced with 3% and 5% respectively.

McGuinty’s (and now Wynne’s) fee increases were historic: they pushed Ontario’s fees to be the most expensive and they allowed for different fees to be charged to different programs. Today’s increase puts tuition on track to double under the Liberal reign alone.

Now, students sitting in a second-year elective are paying a combination of a bunch of different fees for the same class. I say “a bunch” because I stopped counting at 10 different combinations, depending on the year they started, the actual year of the class, their program of study or their citizenship. Yes, added bureaucracy is necessary to keep track of these divisions. Yes, students will pay more and receive the same instruction as other students.

This was a clever idea: charge incoming students the most (because high school students don’t protest), charge engineering students the most (because they’re way too busy to protest), charge graduate students the most (because they’re too busy rocking back and forth under their desks to protest) and charge international students the most (because Jason Kenney will deport them if they protest).

For some, it has meant an increase of more than 71%.

High tuition fees are the best example of the insanity of austerity. Despite the fact that people who are better educated will earn more and pay more taxes (thereby paying for the cost of their education), Kathleen Wynne and her Neoliberal crew don’t care about the facts. They care about privatization. They care about eliminating the public system by stealth so that they don’t have to pay for it.

Indeed, Liberal, Tory… you know the rest.

Some “student groups” call it a step in the right direction. Of course, it isn’t. It’s a smaller step in the same direction. And, when walking towards a cliff, any steps in the direction of the cliff will lead to the same result. Wynne has smaller legs than McGuinty, this is just a difference in stride.

Actual students know that any tuition fee increase is simply going to exacerbate an already crisis situation. The Liberals hope that the pressures that are created by high tuition fees will be enough to continue to keep Ontario students quiet. And, it may. The crushing combination of high fees, high rents, youth unemployment and needing to, you know, live, depoliticizes and disenfranchises.

But, there is a breaking point. The question will just be how it manifests among Ontarians.

Today’s announcement does not come in a vacuum. The sustained political pressure that students have placed on the Liberals has helped to “win” this policy. The highly unpopular 30% off grant exposed a floundering, rudderless Liberal party that realized that they were losing the war over the message. Ontario students should take some comfort in that.

But the other political context, the waves made by the student protests last year in Québec must also be considered. The impact their protests had on Ontarians, to teach that another system is possible, cannot be understated. The Maple Spring created spaces in Ontario where student activists could actually talk about free tuition fees and be taken seriously by their peers.

That’s the power of a peoples’ movement: raising consciousness and building capacity. Ontario was lucky to benefit from some side effects. Québec students will be reaping the harvest of their work for years to come, and the story isn’t anywhere near finished yet.

But the 3% fee increase is a necessary reminder: Wynne, bowing to pressure and trying to distance herself publicly from McGuinty settled on a tuition fee increase lower than the past seven years. In Québec, Pauline Marois picked the same percentage to increase students’ fees, despite the fact that she rolled in on a wave that was absolutely opposing a hike. What’s the lesson here?

The line between demands made by social movements and minor policy changes is sometimes direct, sometimes crooked and most times non-existent. Marois tricked Québecers into voting PQ and turned around and went all Charest on them. Wynne was elected as the moderately progressive alternative and has turned around and gone all McGuinty on Ontarians.

Meanwhile, students in both provinces will be paying 3% more next fall.

Political ideology is the domain of the Conservatives. Today, the remaining Neoliberal parties are populist, gauging where public interest is and governing accordingly. Under these conditions neither Ontarians nor Québecers have any chance of witnessing fundamental change. Austerity and populism has too great a control over the brains of our politicians. Instead, we’ll have to force it.

What the student movement in Québec does is reminds us that these battles, if fought and won in the streets, will be won by the people. The campaign will last longer than a semester. It’s origins will be theorizable but it’s effects can only be told in retrospect. Its existence gives hope and a path to follow.

So Ontarians, how will you play your hand?

MUHC, ORNGE and the banality of corruption

1 Mar
Porter

Arthur Porter and Stephen Harper celebrate Montreal’s newest hospital. This is a photo of a photo that appeared in the Globe and Mail, late 2012.

Whenever the snow starts to melt, I notice smells re-emerge that I had forgotten about, like of the wood of my hallways or of the White Birch paper plant.

Normally, the stench of corruption isn’t hidden by the whims of catastrophic climate chaos. But in the case of the SNC Lavalin saga, have been relatively quiet throughout winter’s freeze. Until the snow started to melt.

Based in Montreal, SNC Lavalin is an engineering firm that has projects around the world. When Wikileaks released its diplomatic cables, one of the few Canadian mentions in the documents was SNC Lavalin’s contract to build prisons in Libya. But, good news: they also build stadiums and hospitals in Canada.

Ex-CEO of SNC Lavalin Pierre Duhaime has been twice charged for corruption, most recently this week. The charges apparently stem from SNC Lavalin having been awarded a contract for the construction of a hospital in Montreal in 2010. SNC Lavalin’s former head of construction, Riadh Ben Aissa, is also facing charges and is in custody in Switzerland.

At issue is $56 million in missing funds. After an internal investigation found this, Duhaime resigned from the CEO position in early 2012.

The recent charges against Duhaime were also brought against others involved in the hospital’s construction. Arthur Porter, former CEO of the McGill University Health Centre, was charged for actions that related to the construction of the new hospital in Montreal. Yanai Elbaz, the MUHC’s director of redevelopment, was charged too. The charges include accepting bribes, conspiracy and committing fraud against the government.

Porter is a friend of Stephen Harper’s and was recruited by the MUHC board to move the project along.

He was twice-appointed to the Security Intelligence Review Committee, including as its head, an organization that Tom Mulcair called yesterday “…what is essentially Canada’s CIA.” Now wanted for fraud, he used to chair the committee that oversees CSIS.

Porter is currently in the Bahamas and, apparently, is too sick to travel to face these charges.

With Québec’s Charbonneau Commission taking most of corruption-related headlines, these new charges are a helpful reminder that corruption in our system is rampant. Taken together, these examples are evidence that corruption touches all levels of government, including the leaders’ offices of the City of Montreal, the Province of Québec and the Government of Canada.

Makes you feel really great about doing your best to be honest when handling money, doesn’t it?

The most important part of these stories of corruption, and the McGill University Health Centre in particular, is that its wrapped up in two of the Ministries where the largest sums of money are doled out: education and health care.

Somehow, these folks found a way to skim off tens of millions of dollars for themselves in the construction of a university hospital: a place where babies are born and children and adults die. A place fundamental to the health, well-being or end of all of our lives. A place where students will learn how to care for others, find ways to extend humans’ lives and practice the art of medicine.

Indeed, nothing is sacred.

Québec isn’t the only province with corruption problems.

When you consider that E-Health cost $1 billion in Ontario yet produced nothing, and that the Air Ambulance (ORNGE) scandal also bled millions from Ontarians’ health ministry, corruption starts to look like part of the system rather than an anomaly.

Throughout the ORNGE developments, Chris Mazza has been the fall guy. Mazza has been painted as the scheming mastermind behind the scandal; an isolated incident that implicated a single, greedy man.

Surely, Mazza didn’t act alone but the scandal hasn’t taken down too many outside of the ORNGE inner circle until this week. ORNGE’s latest victim is actually Mount Sinai hospital’s top doctor. On Feb. 28, the Star reported that Tom Stewart, the physician-in-chief and the director of the medical/surgical intensive care unit at Mount Sinai resigned after the completion of a damming report.

The hospital’s report showed that Stewart and Mazza were friends and helped each other out. ORNGE paid Stewart $436,000 to advise Mazza and Mount Sinai paid Mazza $256,000 without evidence that he completed the work required for such a sum.  This is on top of their salaries, which the Star reports were $1.9 million at ORNGE for Mazza and $607,000 for Stewart in 2011.

But don’t worry. Stewart’s resignation does not mean he loses his job as a doctor at the hospital. He gets to keep that.

Writing this has made me both sick and totally angry. Corruption will occur if people aren’t paying attention and Canadians suffer from wide-spread disenfranchisement. But what do you do when the politicians who are elected to pay attention either aid or ignore corruption when it surfaces?

Aside from having anti-corruption task forces in every government ministry and creating a standing committee on corruption to catch corruption after the fact, I’m not sure there’s much the system can do to stop it. That’s partly because I’m convinced corruption is possible not because someone isn’t paying enough attention to it, but because our political and economic system depend on it.

When money disappears, the argument that “we can’t afford” something becomes true: missing money is money that cannot be spent elsewhere. Corruption not only aides austerity, but it makes austerity necessary, just like low corporate taxes and an increase in paying for private contracts to administer public services.

Fortunately, corruption is still a bad word to most Canadians. If the NDP or the Ontario NDP were looking for a quick way to boost their support, they should promise to immediately instate anti-corruption taskforces. After all, federally, they have 146 of years of government to examine and their hands will stay clean.

But to truly stop this kind of corruption, we need to connect the dots between who is scratching who’s back and realize that citizens all small players in a larger scheme that makes corruption not only possible, but normal. It’s just how capitalism goes.

If the system is rotten from the inside out, painting its exterior is not going to fix anything.

 

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Notes from the Canada-Québec-First Nations social forum

28 Jan

Progressive activists may not agree on much, but there is a broad consensus that capitalism and its attack on the earth and its people has to be stopped. To do this, we have to organize differently. Somehow.

In the wake of global social uprisings that have emerged over the past three years, old models relied upon by progressives are being re-imagined by new and old activists alike.

Occasionally, opportunities emerge for activists to get together: individuals mix with union presidents; sectors interact; regions break apart.

This was the backdrop for the Canada-Québec-First Nations social forum, hosted by Alternatives from January 26-27.

In a lecture hall at the University of Ottawa, more than 120 people, many representing more than 80 organizations, gathered to discuss the utility of social forums as tools for social change.

The forum began with presentations from Jeremie Bédard-Wien from ASSE and Russell Diabo. Diabo talked about the role of Indigenous activism in progressive struggles. Bédard-Wien linked the lessons of the Québec student movement to broader organizing against neoliberalism, in Québec and across Canada.

Jessica Gordon and Sheelah McLean, two of the four Saskatoon-based activists who co-founded Idle No More discussed the challenges and successes that have emerged from the Idle No More movement.

Each of these presentations offered inspiring stories of social movements, politicization, enfranchisement and empowerment.

The most impressive aspect of the social forum was the high participation of Indigenous activists from nations across Turtle Island. Many people remarked that it had been the best participation of Indigenous people in a non-Indigenous-organized event they had ever seen.

Alternatives hosted the forum to solicit the involvement of the diverse group in planning a future, larger social forum. Participants were presented with three visions of possible organizing models, each that extended beyond a social forum alone.

Alternatives staff argued that the social forum model, with a parallel forum of social movement organizations, was the next step necessary to continue this process. While there was some disagreement about whether or not a social forum needed to have a parallel structure, activists generally welcomed the opportunity for discussion that comes with a social forum structure.

Anil Naidoo and Gary Neil presented about Common Causes, an initiative lead by the Council of Canadians and several national unions. Through this network of progressive organizations, they plan to organize online and on the ground to defeat Harper in 2015. Again, activists generally agreed that this group could create an important organizing space for progressive organizing.

The third model emerged from another convergence of progressive groups hosted by the Canadian Autoworkers in November. Called the Port Elgin meeting, organizers brought together activists from social movements and labour to identify new ways of working together. With an emphasis on grassroots organizing, one of the working groups established in Port Elgin proposed that a broad coalition structure should both centralize and decentralize organizing across Canada.

While the Port Elgin process was somewhat vague and confusing, activists also generally agreed that such a network could be an important space for progressive organizing.

Unfortunately, the forum did not provide mechanisms for voting or to discuss these options in smaller workshops, so much of the response to the proposals were aired in plenary-style interventions from the floor, or informal and caucus discussions.

Despite the lack of an inclusive debate structure, poor facilitation, an obtuse, consistent refusal to properly ensure gender parity and the last-minute meetings that many people could not attend, the social forum brought people together so that ideas and approaches can collide, mix and hopefully evolve a political project into an effective strategy.

The emergence of the three models as non-competitive, complimentary progressive strategies was the final result of the weekend. Rather than raging debates about which model is more useful, activists tried to better understand how these models should be interpreted.

Perhaps backwards, activists who are interested in these initiatives will have to identify the common goals if any of these are going to be a success. As identification of common goals was not embedded into the program of the weekend, this work will have to continue online, over Skype and at blogs, like Rabble.ca.

What activists who were present at either the Port Elgin meeting or this weekend’s social forum will have to figure out will be how to actualize the discussions that have been had.

It wasn’t clear how to engage with these processes now that the social forum has ended. But, as always, the work continues.

Idle No More Québec and national myths

17 Jan

Screen shot 2013-01-17 at 11.08.52 AMLast week, I attended a presentation on Idle No More in Québec City. It was the first time I heard about Indigenous solidarity in a Québec context.

For the most part, it was very similar to other events I’ve attended. The crowd had a lot of questions and the two presenters did their best to explain the complex and difficult relationship between First Nations people and the Crown.

There was one intervention made, though, that I would have never expected to hear in Toronto, not because I don’t think this opinion exists, but because I don’t think anyone that has this opinion would be interested in attending an event about Idle No More. His words reminded me that with Québec comes a different kind of relationship and sometimes, a particular mentality toward Indigenous people.

The older man insisted that the history of colonialism in Québec is not the same as the rest of Canada. Where genocidal policies may have decimated language and culture, in Québec the relationship between Indigenous people and the Québécois was congenial, even mutually beneficial. As such, Idle No More’s demands are more of a “Canada” thing, rather than a “Québec” thing.

The intervention caused people to express their disagreement. I wondered though, how widespread is this belief?

On Wednesday, Lysiane Gagnon wrote a piece for the Globe and Mail about Idle No More that sounded like the intervention that I had witnessed a week earlier. Gagnon argued that Québec has had a “more serene relationships with its aboriginal population than many other provinces.” She says this despite referencing Oka in the same sentence as “one of the worst standoffs between aboriginal militants and the authorities in Canada’s recent history.”

This analysis directly clashed with everything I’ve seen posted by Idle No More Québec on Facebook. It contradicted everything I witnessed at the round-dance at Place Laurier in Ste-Foy and the January 11 rally where a few hundred people marched to Québec’s National Assembly.

Of course, Gagnon is not necessarily representative. One person on Facebook likened her to Margaret Wente. But, just like Wente, she needs to be challenged for the content of her columns.

It’s true that Québecers, through their descendants’ first points of contact, have had a longer relationship with First Nations people in this region of Turtle Island than, say, in British Columbia.

It’s also true that, like with Indigenous people, the British colonization of New France imposed assimilation policies on Québecers who resisted these colonial pressures so impressively that the province remains remarkably French today.

There are some similarities between the colonial experience of Québecers and Indigenous peoples. But to suggest that the relationship was harmonious, or as Gagnon argues, that Indigenous people in Québec were co-founders of the province, not victims (words that are all-around loaded) is misleading.

In fact, it hides the truth.

Québec was not immune to the genocidal policies inflicted against Indigenous peoples. Residential schools operated here. Pretending that First Nations in Québec are treated differently completely ignores the fact that the Indian Act is still present and still controls the lives of First Nations people in this province just like in the rest of Canada.

Yes, Québec and Indigenous people have a common enemy in the federal government. But Québecers, as citizens of Canada, also have a responsibility to demand that the federal government change its approach to First Nations relations. They should fight together as allies, and this means using the power mechanisms available to them. Québec commentators like Gagnon should not gloss over the history of this territory and argue that somehow the colonization of Indigenous people stopped at New Brunswick and restarted at Ontario.

Gagnon’s approach further colonizes Indigenous people, a dangerous approach for a province with a strong independence movement. While the colonized-turned-colonizer paradigm exists in nations around the world, Québecers must be careful to not take that path as the province evolves. Discussions about independence, for example, cannot be premised on the notion that the Jesuits brought education and order to a wild territory (one of the comments that I heard here, for example) because policies that flow from this belief will re-colonize Indigenous people.

Her column is also an attempt to silence the impressive work that activists have undertaken in this province. Blockades, round-dances and rallies have happened here just as they have happened in other provinces. She ignores this fact and instead highlights a few dissenting Indigenous voices, including a seemingly random letter to the editor.

The civil rights movement that has crystallized under the banner of Idle No More has created a space for White commentators from all regions of Canada to dredge up myths and lies about Canada’s history. Just like Tom Flanagan’s revisionist histories, Gagnon’s article (written for an anglo, Globe and Mail-reading crowd) tries to undermine the movement by claiming that the problems that have identified don’t really exist.

Luckily, their versions of the truth wont change the facts: Idle No More allows Québecers (and Canadians) to be better allies to Indigenous people; to build the bridges necessary between nations and to collectively fight for self-determination and independence.

That’s its strength, regardless of what the settler punditry says.

Allegations of allegations of racism and debate obscuring at the CFS general meeting

5 Dec

Racism, accusations of racism and white people.

This trio has stymied many an activist, especially when he or she believes the stakes to be high enough to warrant pulling out this special collision of criticism. When the three collide, accidents are bound to be made.

At the last meeting of the Canadian Federation of Students, this collision played out on Twitter. Representatives from the Dawson Students’ Union claimed either the entire CFS, the national executive or about 100 delegates said that Québec’s student movement is racist (the variations on a theme are from DSU representative Morgan Crockett’s Twitter feed). Crockett neglected to be less ambiguous, instead fanning the rumour mill online and repeating the claim rather than identifying the source or providing context, leaving questions about whether or not anyone actually said anything close to this.

Technically unrelated, though perhaps related to this tactic, the motions that her students’ union served were rejected by other students there. Two DSU reps were unsuccessful in their electoral bids for National Executive positions.

She argued that saying that the students’ union general assembly model privileges the involvement of people with privilege was tantamount to declaring an entire province’s student population as racist.

With 300 delegates at a General Meeting, characterizing anything other than a motion being passed as something that “the CFS” supports is a lie. Thanks to the system of motions passing and failing, determining what it is that the CFS supports or opposes is really easy to figure out.

Last May, for example, the CFS lauded the Québec student movement, encouraged civil disobedience against Law 78, organized two casseroles protests to join with local Gatineau students during the five-day meeting and made a donation of $30,000 to defend students who were targeted during the protests.

So, if Crockett is to be believed, all of the work in May was done to support what many of the same people now think is a racist movement?

I can’t do the necessary mental gymnastics to get myself to believe that.

Crockett didn’t explain the source of the comments, so we’re left to either ignore her, challenge her or believe her. Unfortunately, folks at ASSÉ chose to believe her.

In response to Crockett’s Tweets, Jérémie Bédard-Wien from ASSÉ wrote “Racism and perceptions of the Quebec student movement.” It assumes that Crockett’s Twitter ranting characterized some actual position or discussion. He finishes his article with this: “However, to discount general assemblies or, more generally, structural change on that basis is not only mistaken: it is a political smokescreen used to draw attention away from awkward, yet necessary debates about direct democracy. Because the Quebec example is not one of racism.”

I have yet been able to find proof of anyone discounting general assemblies or structural changes within the Canadian student movement as being necessary to build something similar to what transpired in Québec this year. There were no motions calling for the use of or reorientation towards a general assembly model at the meeting.

Crockett is a vocal critic of the other student federations in Québec, and I suspect ASSÉ has identified DSU as a potential member. However, as membership in ASSÉ and CFS would be possible, I see no reason for the approach taken by Bédard-Wien in his article.

The other question is the one that is at the heart of the debate: the role of anti-oppressive structures in decision making versus the open, general assembly model that will undoubtedly reproduce society’s oppression when in action if oppression is unaddressed. Our societies (here, I refer to Canada, the society I have the most experience with, and Québec, my new home) were built to maintain white privilege and white supremacy. Structures that we create are naturally going to reproduce this inequality.

But identifying this as a fact doesn’t say that the people who participate in these structures are all racist. Claiming so could be seen as an annoying distortion, perhaps leveled by someone frustrated with another aspect of a general meeting in which she (or he) was participating.

Gender speaking lists and identity caucuses try to mitigate the influence of oppression reproducing itself. Where CFS has work to do in other areas, it remains a leader in its approach to ensuring that decisions are discussed and motions are amended in spaces where people of various shared identities are able to meet, organize and be heard.

Rather than being dismissive or even defensive when claims of racism or exclusion are leveled against us or organizations in which we are involved, progressive people should step back and take the time to reflect. This is not a criticism of Bédard-Wien.

For him and ASSÉ, my criticism is this: I don’t think his article reflected the solidarity needed between the two organizations. Allegations like this deserve a phone call to the CFS Chairperson and a demand for clarification, not a response to a fabricated or exaggerated story.

But the more than 300 student representatives present at this general meeting have a responsibility too. They must ensure that the characterization of their meeting was how they experienced it.

The stories about the good, the bad, the inspiring and the frustrating add to the collective history of the student movement on this territory. Don’t leave it up to a few people with Twitter accounts to erase your story and alter how you experienced your meeting.

After all, if someone claims you’ve said people are racists and you don’t respond, the vacuum of voices will respond for you.

General Assemblies, student movements and Québec’s cégeps

6 Nov

Half of the members’ meeting at Ryerson Students’ Union, Nov, 2010 (courtesy: The Eyeopener)

Having watched most of the Québec student protests from Ontario, I’ve obviously spent hours thinking about the differences between the Québec student movement and the Ontario student movement. And I’ve come up with a few theories that I hope to write into something…someday.

Luckily, others have similar questions as I do. Doug Nesbitt, PhD student at Queen’s and the local PSAC president, has done some thinking on this. And so, because I’ve spent most of my day dealing with the bureaucracy of the state in French and my brain is fried, I’m sharing with you what he’s posted at his blog. Nothing I write next will be as good as his analysis…

Doug focuses on the role of General Assemblies and how they have helped to build Québec’s movement into what it is today. I agree that GAs have been critical to politicizing generations of students. They have helped to circumvent conservative student leadership and maintain the necessary accountability of those students who “float to the top” of a formal students’ union’s executive.

But I can’t believe that it’s *just* General Assemblies. While GAs politicize students who attend them, what is the factor getting students in the door in the first place?

At Ryerson, our General Meetings would normally reach 150 students while more contentious meetings may have topped out at 400. At McMaster University last year, thanks to a heavy advertising campaign and the promise of the MOST AMAZING FROSH WEEK EVAAARRRR more than 600 students attended the MSU GA to vote in favour of an ancillary fee hike. It’s hard to explain how this is possible if we look only at the GA model and how it has fueled generations of activists in Québec. These Ontario examples don’t make sense.

I think that the most significant reason for the differences in the student movements in Ontario and Québec isn’t just the decision-making structure, it’s the role of cégeps.

During my time in the student movement, I always found graduate/second degree/college transfer students easier to organize. They came to their new educational tier with baggage: debt from a previous degree/diploma/certificate, experience (sometimes negative) from another degree (and even school) and maturity that grew out of their first round of post-secondary education. They spent more time in the system and were more ready to challenge what they had witnessed in their first educational experiences as being unjust, but not necessarily having the time, opportunity or willingness to act. I found my work to explain the effects of debt, tuition fees, large classes etc. was always easier with these students as they had an experience that we could link the facts to.

Imagine if Ontario’s colleges were full of students who had already done a few years at college? Imagine every student walked into a university already having experienced the soul-crushing bureaucracy of higher education? The context for organizing would be entirely different.

There’s a reason why cégep students lead the strikes in Québec. The dangerous combination of free higher education, a radicalizing movement and participatory democracy blew up into an amazing student strike. And every university student involved in the strike had been introduced to the student movement either directly or indirectly through their time at cégep.

This has to be said: identifying this difference isn’t to say that it is impossible for Ontario students to organize provincially in the way Québec students have. I think it’s critical that if Ontario students are going to figure out how best to carve out their own movement, the right analyses of the differences (and similarities) are necessary to lead to appropriate organizing techniques.

I have a lot more to say about this…and it’s later than I had intended to be up (and I wrote more than I intended to write) but I will flesh this out. I’m interested in feedback too, as always, but especially on this. The history of the student movement (or movements) hasn’t been told well enough…and who better to tell it than those of us who’ve been there.

Ontario students: it’s time to step up

10 Sep

In 2005 during the last college professor strike, CSA organized students to protest their professors by wearing pawn hats and making signs like these.

I’m writing this listening to April 26 1992 by Sublime. If you’ve never heard it, you must. It was in Québec City where I first heard this song many years ago and, having had the FTAA protests, it’s a pretty appropriate place to be introduced to such a song.

So, while writing this, I’m inspired by songs of rioting. I just thought it was useful for you to know that.

This week, Statistics Canada should release its tuition fee data. If it’s like the past two years it will come out late next week. Or, if it’s like the 2 years before that, late October.

Québec students just had a massive victory. After the longest student strike in Canadian history, a high profile campaign that embarrassed the hell out of the establishment and sticking to principles of direct democracy, they managed to block the hike like they said they would. They also embarrassed the hell out of Jean Charest who’s next political step will have to be behind the veil of patronage that is given to all failed politicians who, despite having received a veritable shit kicking, still slide their selves into high paying consultant positions or new, high profile law firms.

Actually, if Charest receives anything less than a Senate appointment, my guess is that we can assume he was snubbed. Or maybe he’ll take over for Dalton McGuinty.

Now, for activists who believe that higher education should be free, this isn’t a total victory. The PQ will continue to increase tuition fees by the rate of inflation, but it’s much better than what Charest was promising.

Indeed, the students have won enough hearts and minds of Québecers to truly influence government.

Québec’s fees will remain relatively stable next week in StatsCan’s data. So will Newfoundland and Labrador’s, where students, united, have been successful at rolling back tuition fees at a rate unseen in any other Canadian province.

For Ontario, the data will demonstrate, again, that students will be paying more. With the seventh consecutive tuition fee increase of up to 8%, Ontario’s tuition fee gap as the most expensive province in which to study will continue to widen. On average, undergrad tuition fees will likely rise from $6,640 per year to $6,972. That’s nearly $7K *on average*.  For graduate students, their average fees will likely be around $8,184 (this number is misleading: StatsCan has admitted to excluding MBA tuition fees from this calculation because, as they told us at the CFS at the start of this practice, it skews the average…. wtf).

None of what I’ve written here, though, will be a surprise to any student who has just received their tuition fee bill.

This is the fault of neo-liberal wolves wearing some sheepskin trying to pretend that they’re of the enlightened humanist class (just read the Glen Murray, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities says online…) Ontario students cannot afford to keep accepting these tuition fee hikes.

And yet, “student” organizations like the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and the College Student Alliance strangle any hope of activism on their campus through their confusing use of doublespeak, faulty logic and outright lies. OUSA’s last major submission boasted that they had the plan to increase quality without any additional cost. This, coming from an organization that supports higher tuition fees, is outrageous and certainly not reflecting the opinions of anyone on their campuses who aren’t members of the Young Liberals or babysitting the houses of their university administrators. The College Student Alliance was too busy playing a public relations game to support college management during OPSEU’s recent round of negotiations to even discuss quality or tuition fees any time recently on their website, though their last coherent position on tuition fees was that they should rise by (wait for it………) five per cent.

Ontario students have to take back the student organizing on their campuses. They have to approach their students’ unions, use their resources and organize through the structures that they can access. If, like at McMaster University, their General Assemblies have been taken over by Liberal/Conservative students who are only interested in raising student fees to give the administration more money for student activities, the students have to rise up and take back their students’ union.

It’s absurd that Ontario students, studying right beside Québec, pay three times more for the same education. The only difference is that students in Ontario have been betrayed by all three political parties and the popular movements that support lower fees are more organized in Québec.  So, some lessons:

College students: take back your students’ unions. College students in Québec have *free* education and you can too. You need to get organized, take control back from student union staff who have built fiefdoms around them and kick them out. It’s your money, it’s your campus and it’s your right.

University students: everything I said for college students goes for you too, other than the free education part. Get organized. Reject the rhetoric of “pragmatic lobbying” that so many Liberal-controlled students’ unions hide behind and democratize your students’ unions.

If you go to a school where your students’ union is a member of the Canadian Federation of Students, your task will be easier. Show up one day and volunteer, call a general assembly or organize an action. If you find it isn’t that simple, leave a message below and I’ll hook you up.

Québec (and Newfoundland and Labrador) show Ontario students that it is possible. It’s totally possible. All it takes is strategy, solidarity, some risk-taking, creativity and a relentless drive for fairness and justice for you and your classmates.

Welcome back to school. I too have three classes this semester and will be feeling your pain..though as a student through the University of Saskatchewan, my tuition fees this year were lower than they were at Ryerson when I started in 2003.