I am sitting in a cafe in Calgary crying while I watch another joyous and beautiful video of the pots and pans marches in Quebec – “The Sound Your Life Makes.” I don’t know if it is the inspiring music of ordinary people coming into the streets to defy an unjust law; the awesome courage and determination of the Quebec students; or the shifiting sands of the global youth uprising, but for the first time in my lifetime there is a solidarity movement growing in Canada for the people of Quebec.
Tomorrow night, in more than 35 cities and towns across Canada as of this writing, people are going out into the streets with pots and pans to demonstrate their solidarity with the students of Quebec and their battle against austerity. In Montreal now, all you need to do is walk out your door and start banging on your pot. In the rest of Canada, it’s probably a good idea for now to check out where people are meeting in your town on the Casseroles Canada Facebook page.
I’ve been working to bridge the divide between Canada and Quebec pretty well my whole adult life. It started with the War Measures Act when a few of us, including the brave NDP under the leadership of Tommy Douglas, stood up against the War Measures Act. That was a turning point in my politics when I realized that the Canadian government was just as capable of repression and violence as the U.S. government. To see Montreal occupied by the Canadian army and people rounded up and jailed for their politics was a deeply radicalizing experience for me.
Then during the first Quebec referendum in 1980, I worked with a group of about 30 people in Toronto on the Committee to Defend the Right of Quebec to Self-determination. Most of us didn’t want to see Quebec leave Confederation but we deeply believed that it was their right to make that decision and that the English media and the federal government were distorting the issues and creating hysteria, which we sought to counter. We were isolated but we stood up for what we thought was right.
Just before I became President of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) in 1990, the FFQ (Quebec Federation of Women) left NAC mostly because most women’s groups in English Canada opposed the Meech Lake Accord and its distinct society clause. A few of us fought that position unsuccessfully at first, but when I became president we were successful in developing a different vision of Canada as a nation of nations containing Quebec, First Nations and the rest of Canada, each of which should have the right to self-determination. When we had a chance to talk to Canadians about this kind of solution during the Charlottetown Accord, there was a lot of support.
But once again the English media, and in this case all the powers in the rest of Canada, put the nix on our attempts. Then came the second referendum, and whatever progress we had made in building bridges with people in Quebec was once again torn apart by the federalist hysteria.
I used to go to the CAW camp in Port Elgin every year to explain the history of Quebec and the oppression they faced for speaking French; for example, in 1970 anglophone workers in Quebec made 30 per cent more money than francophone workers. You couldn’t get a good white collar job without speaking English. Even Canadian union meetings in Quebec in those days were held in English.
Almost everyone I knew in Quebec — unionists, feminists, radicals, social democrats — was a sovereigntist. They taught me about the history of Quebec, the oppression of the Quebecois by the Anglos and the Church, the heroic stuggle of union activists against Duplessis, the strongly held values of social justice and equality. They felt that the only way to build the society they wanted was to have their own country.
We don’t really learn that history outside of Quebec. The only news we hear from Quebec is about their conflicts with the federal government or their scandals.
The coverage of the student strike has been a new low for the English media outside of Quebec. It is one-sided and biased, reporting only from the perspective of the government and focussing on the isolated incidents of vandalism.
Only days after the scathing G20 report, still the media didn’t question Bill 78, just as serious a violation of civil rights, or even report on the thousands of arrests during the strike. Yesterday, there was an astonishing demonstration of 400 lawyers and 200 law students against Bill 78, and only the National Post reported it.
And in Quebec, they don’t really hear much about us. I’ll never forget during the ice storm when I visited Quebec and people were upset because no one from English Canada had helped. In fact, there was a huge amount of money raised, but the Quebec media didn’t report it.
Just a couple of months ago at a dinner party in Montreal a long-time friend and political activist told me that she had finally come to the conclusion that, with a few exceptions, the people of Quebec and English Canada had nothing in common. Her reason was the lack of interest in the student strike. The others at the table, all francophone Quebecers, disagreed with her but she was convinced. I hope tomorrow changes her mind.
There are two solitudes but it is mostly because the governments and the media don’t want the people of Canada and Quebec to really know what we have in common. Language is a barrier too and not enough of us are bilingual, especially in the rest of Canada. But now we have the language of video and pots and pans.
Tomorrow is a historic moment in Canada. People all across Canada will join hands across that divide and unite in the battle of all of our lives for democracy and against austerity. I am glad I’ll be in Alberta for it. If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.
Make history, grab a pot or a pan and join your neighbours as part of Casseroles Night in Canada.
Show your solidarity with the courageous, determined students of Quebec. Stand up against austerity and for the right to assemble and protest. Build bridges based on love and solidarity that no-one will be able to tear down.
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