Tag Archives: Québec

Fear not a discussion on sovereignty.

4 Sep

“If you look at Québec solidaire, they’re a hard left political party that believes in the separation of our country” –unhelpful rhetoric from Ian Capstick, former NDP staffer, this morning on The Current.

Tonight, eyes across Canada will be on Québec. It’s nice to have everyone pay attention. I didn’t feel like during the last Ontario election the outcome mattered all that much and so no one was watching. It was clear that the PCs had fumbled and the NDP would pick up a few protest votes cast to spite the Liberals more than support the NDP. In retrospect, there probably would have been no difference between a McGuinty ultra majority, or a Conservative majority, so Québec’s election is a good reminder that sometimes, yes, elections matter.

There’s been a lot of scary writing by people about how we’re all doomed if (when) the PQ wins.

In the Kitchener-Waterloo by-election, the best insult Liberals could hurl at Mulcair is that he’s a separatist (which, to argue this must ignore nearly all of his political past).

Inspired by what I’ve seen online this past week, I’m writing to assure you, dear Canadian, that there’s no reason to be worried about the future of Canada as it may or may not hinge on tonight’s results. No, you should worry about the future of Canada for other reasons.

Some people use Québec to scare non-Québec Canadians to whip up nationalistic feelings of patriotism so that we simply fall in line. Just like Marois has done to avoid talking about real policies, commentators in the ROC are doing the same thing. It’s easy to scare people with the belief that Canada is about to collapse because of Québec than to allow Canadians to see which public policies are possible, like 7$/day daycare. If Canadians knew about Québec’s approach to social programs they might just start demanding them in Nova Scotia or Ontario. They might start taking to the streets in the hundreds of thousands.

Instead: fear separation. Fear the separatists who hate Canada like terrorists hate freedom.

I can’t bring myself to the level of nationalistic, Canadian fervor to become concerned with the protection and maintenance of Canada’s borders. Despite being an Anglophone living in Québec, studying in Saskatchewan and with all my family in Ontario, I don’t understand the fear that it seems folks have with having this discussion.

Our borders are invented. They run through national lines that had evolved through war, cooperation, familial lines and trade. We had no part in shaping them. They were imposed upon this land by a few people in England and a few people in Canada. Like the myths that surround Pierre Trudeau, our borders have taken on a place in our consciousness that builds them up to be something that they aren’t really.

Québecers have a history of being hyper aware of their place, or non-place, in the Canadian confederation, so it’s no surprise to me that the conversation has traditionally been of sovereignty or federalism. But this dichotomy isn’t good enough. It’s clear to me that we have to evolve this discussion beyond “will I need a passport to visit Québec?”

Québec isn’t going to change the make-up of this Canada. New models of self-governance emerging from First Nations communities are the biggest “threat” to Canadian federalism, and I support these struggles. If First Nations communities can succeed in winning their autonomy from local authorities, and if they can enter into new kinds of relationships with existing provinces or municipalities, well then, we will have a new model on our hands. And it may work for the rest of us too. It would change the face of the Canadian federation for the better.

When I hear about sovereignty, I hear people who are legitimately frustrated and angry with a federal government that they, by in large, did not elect. I hear people outraged that their money is being spent on war rather than education or pharmacare. I hear people who are scared that the relentless drive toward English that exists around the world through the movement of global capital will also wash out the French from this province.

I hear similar frustrations in Ontario and Saskatchewan too. The difference is that the answer isn’t to have a full-scale reexamination of our borders. Instead, there is no answer. It’s normally just sighing, disenfranchisement and anger washed down by a beer.

Our people make up Canada: WE are Canada and people are hurting, bad. When can we talk about the hurt that our borders and our political system have inflicted upon us? And, for the ROC, when can we/you ask the question, what must change to make it better for our communities?

I’ve avoided dissecting the problems with the PQ version of sovereignty so far, of which there are many, just because it’s another post altogether. But the PQ’s wants the easiest path to a free Québec: have a vote, win, declare independence. This isn’t sufficient. It takes on the same nationalistic xenophobia that exists in the rest of Canada, translates it, and uses it to create a mini, French version of what Québec just ceded from. Parizeau’s “money and the ethnic vote” comment in 1995 was a good indication of the problems with how the last push for sovereignty was formulated. I wrote an essay on it in Grade 10 history.

But the current rhetoric from Marois is just real politik. She’s trying to get elected. Her polls are saying that this rhetoric will work in target ridings and she’s going for it. That’s how our democracy works. She’s playing by the same rulebook as all the other mainstream parties. Taking issue with Marois’ approach is to take issue with the manifestation of Canadian democracy itself.

This is why new discussions emerging from Québec solidaire, for example, are so important. Their’s is a new way to approach this issue. It’s inclusive. It offers the rest of Canada a potential model for the reenfranchisement of people everywhere.

Why are partisan political commentators so concerned when we talk about changing those borders?

These debates are dangerous because they threaten the only thing that gives our federal government its legitimacy. Partisans know that if Québec has this discussion, confederation is threatened. Alberta will go next. Then Newfoundland. Then Northwestern Ontario. Political parties could no longer fight each other for total control of the world’s second-largest land mass, the home to 20% of the world’s fresh water.

As you’ve probably heard from an ex…this isn’t about you. It’s about them.

Handwringing over sovereignty is a game of political elites. Don’t get caught up in this debate on their terms. Redefine the terms of the debate and ask yourself critical questions: is there a better way to organize ourselves? How does it look? What would it take to move us there?

As a progressive person, I have to believe that the local decision-making of engaged and involved communities is the most important node of power. I have to believe that community empowerment is the first line of defense in the struggle to take back our democracy and I have to believe that this may result in a rejection of the borders that were imposed on all of us by people we didn’t elect.

I also have to believe that people are near-universally awesome and solidarity means that we create experiences for us to travel, live among communities that we’re unfamiliar with, explore landscapes where we’ve never been and honour the traditions that have come from these lands regardless of the political structure that exists around us.

Controlling borders, granting access to some to enter and imprisoning others is all about power. I don’t want to be part of a system that treats people this way and I’m prepared for the challenge and the work it will take to change this.

To end, I want to acknowledge how painful a process of going through a discussion like this is. I imagine that for many Québecers, the thought of enduring a referendum process is worse than the possible outcomes and the anticipation of this pain (and the memory of it from 1995 and 1980) is enough to not want to touch this question ever again. The question of sovereignty divided people here: neighbours, families and communities. It wasn’t the process that I advocate above. Québecers who endured these campaigns are right to be nervous, frustrated and angry with the PQ’s rhetoric.

But all ye in the rest of Canada do not have a similar right. It’s like feeling like you earned a gold medal when you’re watching someone on the TV flip back and forth on a trampoline. You didn’t earn it. You can’t even flip once on a trampoline.

Don’t fear conversations about sovereignty. Instead, use this discussion to open a space in your community have your own discussions: does the political system we have, accompanied by the borders created to control our movement, our identities and commerce, serve us or oppress us?

And what about for people who aren’t “us”?

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.

Students VS Asbestos THE ULTIMATE SMACK DOWN

3 Jul

Back in April, Québec Premier Jean Charest announced $21 million for college/university grants and loans. After several months of a student strike, that was apparently the most Charest could find.

All in, CLASSE argues that of the $85 million dedicated to grants and loans, just $26.6 million in new money will reach students to offset the proposed tuition fee hike.

Students who argue for craaaazzzyyyyy ideas like lower or free tuition fees are often confronted with the question “where’s the money coming from.” While the answer to this question is usually pretty straightforward (um, from anything that’s stupid and wasteful like….corporate bailouts/Pan AM Games/G20/some account related to the celebration of the Queen/her son/his sons etc), in Québec, the argument just became really easy.

On Friday, Charest announced a boost to the asbestos industry. A large boost. A boost to the ratio of 2:1 for asbestos over students.

$58 million to be exact.

First off, anyone who passed Grade 7 and saw this shot of the winning asbestos mine, who doesn’t invest the millions into a modern version of the Globe theatre is a down-right plebe.

Secondly, if all it takes for the millions to roll out is for a town to be named after an industry, Université Laval should immediately name itself it Institute of Higher Learning Laval. But anyway.

Maybe Charest is on to something. Sure, the residents of Asbestos Québec are drooling, but does it really make economic sense to pour $58 million into 435 jobs and some local honour? Why not spend it on students?

Well.

$58M could give free university education to 23,025 students. Instead it’s paying for 435 jobs, hoping for 1000 spin off jobs and maybe enough votes for Asbestosers to vote Liberal in the next election.

Let’s look at this more logically.

After the $58 million investment…

ASBESTOS–1 year: 435 happy miners are working away like crazy. They’re thrilled to be employed. Their kids are thrilled to be in a middle class family.
UNIVERSITY–1 year: Thanks to a full scholarship, 23,025 happy students are studying full time. No economic benefit to their communities as they’ve saved enough money to avoid jobs during the school year. Instead, probably being loud on Friday nights in the streets.

ASBESTOS–4 years: ~370 happy miners are working even harder. Some have quit, some have died in unfortunate accidents, some are injured. But, the mine is pumping away. The town voted Liberal.
UNIVERSITY–4 years: just 1000 students found employment right out of graduation. 10,000 are working part-time or contract work not earning enough to contribute to the economy. 10,000 have gone on to a higher tier of education to better their job prospects, 3,025 have left Québec for Europe or similarly exciting life escapes. Each cohort has spent too much time listening to Democracy Now! and reading Marx. Those remaining in Québec are split between supporting Québec Solidaire and anarcho-syndacalism. A third of those fully employed support the Parti Libéral du Québec.

ASBESTOS–10 years: ~200 happy miners. Their kids are nearly grown up. Some can afford CEGEP! Jobs are starting to dry up as countries are slowing their demand for asbestos due to lawsuits. 30 or so are experiencing respiratory illnesses. Global asbestos deaths have surpassed 1,070,000 people.
UNIVERSITY–10 years: nearly all 23,025 students are or have been married. Most of their loveless marriages have fallen apart, with a few heart-warming exceptions. Not enough have children to buoy Québec’s birthrate. Some have created new industries but who the hell cares, they’re socialists.

ASBESTOS–30 years: all originally employed workers have died. The industry has contributed to nearly 50 million deaths world wide due to a surge in asbestos-related deaths, predicted in 2011.
UNIVERSITY– 30 years: ~20,000 of the original students are still living and working. None are voting Liberal because of how they treated youth when they were young. Charest spins in his grave.
I’ve talked myself into understanding the logic behind this decision. I hope you see it too.

You can’t fault Charest for doing what Conservatives and Liberals do best: self-preservation, sucking up to industry, not giving two shits about the future, spending accordingly.

26 Jun

Hey.

I anticipate this will become less contrived as I contribute to it. My goal is to only write after hours, while drunk.

I moved here last week, on Wednesday I think. I’m not entirely sure. Without employment, focusing on the days has become less important. I booked my flight today to Saskatoon and nearly had an aneurism over ensuring the date was correct. But anyway.

While I’m sure you all are interested in the minutia of my life here, I’ll stick to writing something quick about my first protest in Québec.

I was lucky to be relatively unpacked when June 22 rolled around because I could justify leaving for a few hours. As close to 100,000 people rallied in Montreal, we in Québec had a more modest showing. And, by modest, I mean one of the largest rallies I’ve been in, probably since the G20 march on that fateful Saturday in 2010 (the anniversary of which we’re approaching).

I walked out my door and literally bumped into a soon-to-be CEGEP student on his way to the march. Despite our terrible French, he stuck with us the entire time. He starts in the Fall and hopes to make it to Laval for Engineering post-CEGEP.

We walked down Réne-Lévesque to the rally, ran into some people I know from the Student Federation at the University of Ottawa back in the day, waited around. We all heard that the route had been leaked in advance of the march and it would be about five kilometres. I imagined our rallies in Toronto where we struggled to keep people for such a long trek. I’d find out that people here were enthusiastic enough to make the whole march. I noticed the following:

  1. passers-by, including people standing at windows and balconies are overwhelmingly supportive. I can’t over state this. After years and years of rallies in Toronto and other cities, the support I witnessed for the protest is only rivaled by the support I saw from passers-by in Gatineau during other tuition fee protests. Québecers’ support was so obvious that, when we walked up to the old city, you could tell that everyone watching suddenly became tourists, who were a mix of people supportive, not supportive and plain curious.
  2. when the rally tried to change directions, the police formed a veritable barrier making it nearly impossible to pass. While a few hundred did initially, Québeccers tried to re-route the crowd before protesters came face to face with a loud police speaker.
  3. the speakers, with the exception of the speaker from the Parti Québecois, all appeared to be under 30.
  4. the speakers, with maybe one exception, were extremely talented. Their speeches were steady, powerful and all spoke to the need for a solidarity to fight for the social well-being of all Québecers. All were short enough for me to not once think, maaan when will this end??
  5. every time I looked forward or back on one of the massive hills we took on, there were thousands of people ahead and behind. I was shocked at how many people were there.
  6. 6. after the rally, we reconvened on the lawn between the foot of the Assembly Nationale and the wall. Music blared and protesters had a chance to sit. Speeches followed once we were all sitting on the lawn. This was really, really awesome. Ontario: take note.
  7. the crowd was massive and diverse. It was not just students. There were lots of people wearing great costumes and the juggler had red squares on his juggling pins.
  8. that night, we happened upon a rally marching around the fountain on the colline parliamentaire. We sat for about 20 minutes and watched their numbers pick up from a few dozen to a few hundred. A driver in a BMW tried to plow through the crowd (unlike the dozens of cars who put up with the delay and, rather than hitting anyone, simply waited the five minute wait), and a protester broke the car’s window with a casserole. LIKE VULTURES the press ran toward the scuffle faster than the police. Eventually, the car drove away and the protesters went back to their march. This is how radio-canada saw the event. I maintain that it was about as much news as a school-yard yelling match where someone’s ball gets roofed.

I hit my word limit. So, I’ll finish with this:

I live across the street from where I can purchase beer.

I’m spending most my days on a front porch and my laptop.

I’ve already had two requests for people to stay here. Feel free to keep these coming.

I don’t miss Toronto, yet. I’ll keep you posted.