Austerity-driven cuts ignite protests in Montreal

Photo: Stefan Christoff

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Last night on the streets of Montréal thousands joined a spirited protest against austerity, targeting the violent cuts to the public sector currently taking place under the Liberal government of Philippe Couillard, occurring within the wider context of the Conservative austerity hammer coming down across Canada.

"On avance, on avance, on ne recule pas!" chanted thousands together while departing from place Émilie-Gamelin, the now iconic gathering point for night protests in the city. In real terms, a collective move forward is taking place, tens-of-thousands of students are now striking, as community groups and activists work vigorously toward creating a social strike in May.

As thousands took the streets for hours across downtown, the riot police moved consistently to block and attack the protest, utilizing flash bang grenades that include a charge chemical gas, striking people with batons and shields, all while a police helicopter occupied a bright spot of the sky above.

On this point, its really important to note that clear street tactic lessons have been learned since 2012, as collectively on multiple occasions people joining the protest successfully broke through police lines attempting to block the protest. Certainly this has been done before, but last night it took place with focus and determination by many people at the protest, illustrating the ongoing breaking down of fear barriers on the streets. At moments throughout the protest the streets really did feel like a collective space for expression in the city, not roadways dominated by toxic cars and governed by the laws of the powerful.

Music also was present at the action, saxophones and drums sounding out rhythms on the street as people called back, backing up the beats with chants and claps, magical moments without a doubt.

Currently politicians holding the halls of power in Québec City are attempting to scare students away from joining this building strike, Education Minister François Blais threatened students today with cancelling the entire semester if the strike votes continue.

"We know very well in our present financial context, which is extremely difficult and demanding, we can't imagine that there will be funding for a resumption of classes, next summer or spring," claimed Blais. Comments pointing to the neo-liberal ideology of the Québec government, that generally views directing public funds toward education as a burden, as opposed to the fulfillment of collective responsibility.

This points to the larger context of the austerity-driven, neo-liberal agenda in Québec, outlined clearly in the opening address by Couillard to Québec's national assembly last May.

In pushing an austerity agenda, Couillard painted clear intentions, stressing on the 'emergency' of unbalanced government budgets, Couillard sustained the alarmist rhetoric of déficit zéro also fully embraced by the previous PQ government. Clearly laying out the ideological framework of neoliberal austerity without saying it by name, Couillard talked about acting "firmly and with decisiveness" toward an economic equation that would equal "more work" and "effort" for the struggling majority.

Couillard's sharp focus on austerity is most certainly not about the ballooning corporate salaries or massive tax subsidies that Québec's major corporations have grown accustomed to over the past decades, the target is poor and working people, marginalized communities already struggling to survive on a daily basis during this era of growing economic inequality.

Not acknowledged in this dishonest and manipulative austerity rhetoric is the massive amounts of lost public revenue due to corporate tax cuts that have been compounding over the past decade.

According to documentation from the Institut de recherche et d'informations socio-économiques (IRIS), from 2000-2008 both PQ and Liberal governments together took economic policy decisions that denied as estimated $9.8 billion in public revenues, funds denied through tax cuts and deductions largely favouring the wealthy and corporations.

Specifically PQ tax cuts in 2002 saw those in Quebec earning $75,000+ receiving an additional $1,700 a year, estimated at over six times the amount gained by low income earners, people earning less than $25,000 a year. Under Jean Charest, Liberal tax cuts in 2007-2009 provided nothing to households with an $25,000 income, while delivering over $1,800 annually to households with $150,000 in income.

Beyond these manipulative adjustments to tax regulations, clearly benefiting the wealthy minority, cuts to corporate taxes also instituted under the previously Liberal government in 2010 sees an estimated $1.9 billion in public revenues flying out the window, according to research by IRIS.

Last nights's protest was clearly taking aim at this violent austerity agenda, utilizing the streets to build collective power and push back against the corporate-driven policies that in real terms are a full on attack against the majority. Despite police repression last night, the chemical gases deployed against us and the violent charges, the police are ironically are facing their own battle against austerity cuts to their pensions and have incredibly adopted a carré rouge inspired symbol as a pressure tactic.

Although this reality of austerity-driven cuts to police pensions holds as part of the increasingly tense political climate in Québec, the police did move violently to repress the anti-austerity action last night. Although on multiple occasions last night these police tactics of repression were subverted by thousands who took the streets, an illustration of an increasing and incredible grassroots force that will work seriously challenge the austerity agenda on the streets over the coming days, weeks and months.

Key questions that are ringing out now, alive in the conservations on the streets last night, often revolving around the many important links between our battle against austerity in Québec and the consistent attacks on the environment that the Liberal government is orchestrating. Right now the Québec government is moving to "modernize" the administrative process for granting operating licenses to mining, forestry and generally 'resource' based industries, "a reduction of the administrative burden and delays for obtaining authorizations" according to a report in The Financial Post.

In real terms, similarly to the Conservatives in Ottawa, this change will mean less opportunities for people to voice their concerns and opposition to environmentally destructive 'development' projects. This takes place as the Liberals move to rekindle Plan Nord, by opening new mines and more broadly northern Québec to a 'development' process that very much mirrors the Albertan tar sands model. At the heart of this attack stands the environment, the living traditional lands of indigenous peoples who are largely removed from the mainstream media conversations about 'development.'

Fighting back against this neoliberal attack on the environment is certainly a key element to the current movement against austerity. At the heart of this movement is an open call for a radical revisioning of the financial, social and economic order that currently governs these lands that continue to be shaped by violent colonialism today, a process extending over hundreds of years that today is illustrated clearly by the neo-liberal austerity agenda.

 

Stefan Christoff is a community organizer, musician and media maker living in Montreal, you can find Stefan @spirodon

This piece originally appeared on The Media Co-op and is reprinted with permission from the author.

Photo: Stefan Christoff

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