This past Saturday was the Festival des Solidarités, organized by Quebec-based NGO Alternatives. Organizers couldn't have hoped for better weather for a festival in the park, and a crowd of several hundred overflowed the large tent set up for the day's main panel discussion, crowding around its edges to hear five remarkable speakers.
First up was Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, co-spokesperson for student group CLASSE, and the leading public face of the current student-strike-cum-social-movement in Quebec.
Speaking of the "fatigue" of the students, he called for a common front between labour, student and other activist groups in the fall, to give a "second wave" of energy to the current movement. He said he isn't asking the labour unions to initiate a general strike, but it would be nice if it happened.
This turned out to be a popular theme on the day, as each speaker in turn spoke of the need to connect our disparate struggles, and understand that we face a common problem.
Patrick Bonin, the Climate and Energy Director for the Quebec Association Against Air Pollution (l'Association Québécoise de Lutte contre la Pollution Atmosphérique), emphasized the importance of tying environmental issues into the broader social struggle. He argued that it is the same broken system the current social movement opposes, of run away greed and capitalism, which is destroying the environment.
He railed against our current electoral system in particular, arguing forcefully for an immediate change to a system of proportional representation, which would prevent a government elected with 39% of the votes from using its "false majority" to get its way.
He spoke at length of the omnibus budget, bill C-38, which the Conservatives are ramming through the House as we speak. It will have a disastrous impact on our ability to protect the environment, and gut regulations designed to safeguard our air, water and land.
If solidarity across movements, and the need for a united front against a broken system which serves the rich and powerful at the expense of our democracy, our social programs and our environment was the theme of the day, the secondary theme was opposition to this outrageous budget.
Speakers were unanimous in their outrage, both at the contents of the budget, and its sheer size, as it rolls dozens of separate bills together, preventing even cursory debate or discussion of each individually.
Next was Brigette DePape, who you may remember as the "rogue page" who held up a "Stop Harper" sign during last year's throne speech. Far from a one hit wonder, she's become a prominent organizer within the climate justice movement and something of a media darling, equally comfortable articulating her opposition to the Harper agenda in front of a protest or a television audience. She was billed on the program as having become a "symbol of the engagement of youth", and was there representing PowerShift, a youth and grassroots driven climate justice organization.
Although the conference was in French, I expected DePape, who hails from Ontario, to speak in English. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when she proceeded from a hesitant "bonjour" to give her entire speech in French. While her accent is certainly Ontarian, and her French was at times halting, she impressed with her ability to express herself in la langue de Molière.
She began by expressing her admiration for the casseroles protests, which brought a cheer, and the clanging of some pots and pans, from the crowd. The recurring theme of her speech was that our solidarity is stronger than our fear, which received loud applause each time she repeated it.
The government, she said, can ony survive so long as we are obedient. That is why civil disobedience is so critical to this movement. The common enemy of the student movement and the environmental one is austerity. It is governments which put the interests of big corporations ahead of those of their citizens that must be opposed, and this opposition must unite our different movements.
She spoke of the fear she felt before unveiling her Stop Harper sign on the Senate floor, fear of the not insignificant consequences she could face, of the impact it would have on her life. But standing up and taking a stand was important to her, and she overcame her fear.
We always have a choice, she said, stay neutral in this broken system, or disobey. She closed by saying that she did not trust politicians to make the change we need. Instead she trusts us all, together, and our solidarity overcoming our fear.
Anarchopanda, the unofficial mascot of the student movement, was also in attendence. his oversized panda head nodding often in agreement with the speakers from a seat near the back. He and DePape even shared a smooch at the end of the event!
Raul Burbano, the Executive Director of Common Frontiers, an NGO dedicated to Latin American solidarity and opposition to free trade zones, spoke next. He apologized that he did not speak French, and gave his talk in English.
"Thank you for giving us a chance to believe that another world is possible again," he said to loud applause. "For the first time in a long time, I can look outside of Latin America for inspiration. I can now look to Quebec for that inspiration!"
His message echoed that of the other speakers, that we must understand austerity is the problem around the world, and bring together the movements opposing different aspects of the austerity agenda. For him this means bringing indigenous movements and those in Latin America into our movement, and working across borders to build solidarity.
"Privatizing losses, socializing profits, that's austerity" he said, to loud applause. The goal of this movement is to transform our societies, from a preoccupation with individualism, greed and profit, to societies based on communitiarianism, on solidarity and on equality.
He closed with a quote from Desmond Tutu "To stay neutral in a situation of injustice, is to take the side of the oppressor."
Next up was Louis Roy, the President of the CSN, Quebec's second largest trade union federation. He spoke of the challenges he faces within his own membership, getting them to understand that the unions must support the students, because their struggle is the same one facing the unions.
Unions do not exist just to fight for working conditions. They are part of a larger social struggle. He emphasized the need to bring opposition to the Budget into the mix, and oppose Harper and Charest together.
He spoke of the need for a new common front, one which can unite students, workers, environmentalists and members of other movements in a broad based struggle against a broken system.
When he mentioned casseroles in passing, a chorus of pots and pans once again rang out in the crowd.
He brought up the idea of a general strike, and reminded the audience there have only ever been two in the history of the province, and one of those was spontaneous. There are huge challenges to organizing a general strike, and huge risks if it fails to succeed. He described himself as a "realistic optimist", and said that he wasn't sure if a general strike was possible, but that if there was an opening, he would call for one.
Perhaps most interestingly, he was unflinching in his critique of Pauline Marois' Parti Quebecois. "This struggle is not just against the political party of Jean Charest, if we change governments it will change absolutely nothing." He went on to say that Quebec Solidaire was the only political party which represented our movement, and he would continue to dream of a QS government, but in the meantime we cannot rely on the ballot box to effect real change.
So, while the unions have traditionally been big backers of the PQ, it appears they'll be entering our next election without the support of the CSN.
He argued that the issue was not sovereignty, but governments across the country which are dismantling our democracy. A very small, but vocal, minority took issue with that statement and it came up again during the question period, when one man argued the common front must be sovereigntist. Although some applauded, the vast majority loudly disagreed.
Another questioner took issue with the silence, and seeming complacency of the FTQ (Quebec's largest trade union federation), and its president Michel Arsenault. Judging from the crowd reaction, there wasn't a lot of love for the FTQ, which has been much less involved in the current social movement than the CSN.
Another thanked the students for waking the left, for waking Quebec. An emotional thank you which drew loud applause.
In response to a question, Burbano argued that "what we see today is what we need. Proposing solutions. We can't always be against things, we need to be for things". He went on to say that the "question is, are we willing to struggle, as students are here. We cannot create a revolution sitting in Starbucks"
After only a few questions, organizers moved to closing remarks, before quickly herding the speakers off to a private reception. Nadeau-Dubois took advantage of his turn at the mic to remind the audience, as if we needed reminding, that the 22nd of June would be the next mass mobilization and we needed to work hard to deliver the half million people in the streets student groups are hoping for.
The theme of the day was clear: we need to build solidarity across movements and unite our disparate struggles if we are to provide an effective opposition to the neo-liberal austerity agenda. From Charest to Harper and beyond, one global movement against one global problem.
It was a message well received by those in attendance, and one which will hopefully resonate across our communities and movements in the months ahead.
This Wednesday offers two wonderful opportunities to stand up for our embattled democracy, and begin the work of building a broad movement.
On Wednesday at 5:30 PM LeadNow.ca will be hosting simultaneous actions across the country at Conservative MP offices and support locations, calling on 13 heros from the Conservative caucus to vote against their own party's omnibus budget bill, which will likely come to a vote on Thursday. To find your local action, and for more information on the #13heros campaign, please visit LeadNow's 13 heros website.
Wednesday will also mark the third installment of Casseroles Night in Canada at 8PM. Last Wednesday saw solidarity casseroles in over 125 locations around the world, and this movement is growing fast. These casseroles are being held in solidarity with Quebec students, opposition to Bill 78 and rejection of the Conservative budget. Please visit the Facebook event page to find a local casseroles, or create one for your community!
Hopefully people will bring their casseroles to the 13 heros events, and those events will in turn feed into the Casseroles Night in Canada actions. Together we are strong!
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