Building a movement against budget cuts in Saskatchewan

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On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh speaks with JoAnn Jaffe and Peter Garden. They are fighting back against the massive wave of cuts to social programs and privatization initiated earlier this year by the provincial government in Saskwatchewan. They belong to Stop the Cuts, a group working to support the many individual fightbacks against individual cuts and to help them come together into a broader movement.

We've seen it all before: Budget cuts. User fees. Privatization. Deregulation. Tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. Austerity. Neoliberalism. Whatever language is used to describe a given instance of the overarching agenda captured by these terms, it boils down to a process of shifting resources and power from those who already have less to those who already have more. For the last few decades, this agenda and these goals have weighed heavily upon our political culture. Sometimes they are aggressively and boldly pursued, at other times sneakily and covertly enacted. But it is nearly impossible to find a mainstream political party anywhere in the industrialized world, even those bearing names that tie them historically to the left, which are committed to actively and resolutely working against these priorities.

Despite the ubiquitous and massive pressure, however, the speed and degree to which these policies are implemented in any given place and any given moment varies a great deal. For years it will be a slow drip-drip-drip, and then a particular constellation of circumstances will put its proponents into overdrive, and suddenly an all-out austerity assault will fill the headlines. On the one hand, it can be ominous and discouraging to always be living under the threat of the screws being tightened. On the other hand, this highly uneven character is also a source of hope: it works this way because those who are implementing this agenda can't do it any other way. So this unevenness is a reminder that they cannot just snap their fingers and do what they want. It is a reminder that every single measure to make our lives worse is something they have to enact, and therefore something we can fight against. It is a reminder that sometimes we win, that sometimes collective resistance works. It is a reminder that the entire austerity agenda is also fragile and contingent, and that however loudly its proponents try to fool us into thinking that (in the words of Margaret Thatcher) "there is no alternative." There is. And we can make it happen.

Saskatchewan has been governed by the right-wing Saskatchewan Party (also just called the Sask Party) for about a decade. For most of that time, in the province that began socialized medicine in this country and that once had an impressive array of co-operative and state institutions focused on creating social justice, austerity has been in drip-drip-drip mode. And, certainly, there has been some resistance to that. But about two months ago, the Sask Party government released a budget that opened the austerity floodgates. Even now, the breadth of cuts in the massive budget document are still being discovered by the media and by grassroots opponents, but they touch nearly everything. Education, environment, healthcare, housing, social assistance, transit, community organizations, cities -- all of those and more are being hit, and hit hard.

From the very first day, there was resistance on multiple fronts. One of the most high profile and successful campaigns, for instance, responded to proposed massive cuts to the province's public library system. Though it seems likely that the provincial government will try to impose similar cuts again next year, at least for the moment this resistance has already scored a significant victory by pushing the government to back down. Another prominent campaign been around the decision to privatize the province's publicly owned bus system, which many people in remote and northern communities depend on. This campaign has also been visible and vocal. But between the time of the interview and when you are listening to this, the Saskatchewan Transportation Company (or STC) closed its doors. And many other campaigns opposing specific cuts are active, vibrant, and ongoing.

JoAnn Jaffe lives in Saskatoon and is a sociologist at the University of Regina. Peter Garden runs a small radical bookstore in Saskatoon called Turning the Tide, and is involved in a community organizing centre called The Stand. Both are involved in specific struggles opposing this wave of austerity in Saskatchewan, and they are also both part of Stop the Cuts. This group is doing the work of supporting disparate anti-austerity efforts springing up in communities across the province by trying to be a hub for information and resources, building key infrastructure for grassroots activism and organizing in a province that has relatively little, and working to bring groups into a larger coalition that they hope will be able to effectively act together to oppose not just speicific cuts and policy changes but the entire austerity agenda.

Jaffe and Garden talk about the political context in Saskatchewan, about the resistance that has happened so far, and about the work by Stop the Cuts to help build a broader movement.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join their weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

The image modified for use in this post is used with permission of Stop the Cuts.

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