Fighting austerity in Manitoba in the middle of a pandemic

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Image: Dave Cournoyer/Flickr

Brendan Devlin and Shaden Abusaleh are university students and organizers with Communities Not Cuts Manitoba. Scott Neigh interviews them about the political situation in their province, and about what it looks like to fight austerity during the limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic -- something that everyone across the country may well have to deal with soon.

As a result of the massive, urgent needs created by COVID-19, many governments are spending huge amounts of money in new ways. On the one hand, this has made it clear that governments could always have been doing much more to justly and equitably address people's needs. That offers at least a whiff of hope to movements that, with struggle, much more substantial measures along those lines can be made permanent as part of our recovery from the pandemic.

At the same time, grassroots movements are under no illusions that the wealthy and corporations will be willing to pay for this crisis without a fight. Inevitably, they will try to make ordinary people pay by working to impose a massive wave of austerity -- meaning cuts, privatization, user fees, deregulation, and more cuts that will be devastating to so many programs and services that ordinary people depend on. Activists and organizers are doing what they can to prepare for this, though in most parts of Canada the exact landscape is still taking shape.

Things are a little different in Manitoba. There, austerity attacks have been ongoing since 2016, when the Conservatives under Brian Pallister were elected to a majority government. According to one analyst's overview, Pallister's first three years saw "a barrage of major right-wing changes -- service closures, funding cuts, privatizations, union-busting." The most significant cuts and changes so far have been made in health care, but austerity has also touched transportation, education, the environment, housing and more. And anti-worker measures have included a public sector wage freeze, changes that make unionizing more difficult, and lots of other things.

When the cuts started, a collection of community organizations and individuals came together in opposition under the banner of Communities Not Cuts Manitoba. They did not stop the attacks, but they mobilized significant opposition, at least for awhile, though the group became less active as time went by. When Pallister called an early election for September 2019, he won but his majority was reduced.

As COVID-19 hit in the spring of 2020, it became clear that in Manitoba, the government had no intention of waiting before doubling down on its commitment to austerity. Not only has the Pallister government done less than many others to meet the emergency needs created by the pandemic, it has also announced an intention even in mid-crisis to make major cuts, ostensibly to cover some of the pandemic-related costs. Critics have argued that this is an example of what author Naomi Klein has named the "shock doctrine," in which neoliberal governments use a crisis as a way to push forward a radical agenda that would otherwise be difficult for them to implement.

In response, some of the original participants in Communities Not Cuts put out a call to hold an online meeting to revive the group. There was a large and enthusiastic response, including from lots of young activists and organizers based in sectors ranging from climate justice, to labour, to immigration and settlement, to a whole lot more.

The obvious question was what exactly could they do, given the public health restrictions. Though the continent-wide uprising against anti-Black racism and police brutality that has erupted since this interview was recorded has considerably broadened this discussion, the revived Communities Not Cuts group initially decided that their first action would what they describe as a "honkathon and staked sign protest" at the Manitoba legislature. They invited opponents of Pallister's cuts to come to the legislative assembly in cars and signal their opposition through raucous honking. They also invited people to plant staked signs on the legislature grounds. And they held an online teach-in at the same time.

Since that first action was held on May 1, they have been busy. They held a second, similar action a couple of weeks later. They've launched a series of open online workshops as a way to both learn more about community needs and to support people in finding ways to get involved. They are working to connect with more groups, organizations and communities. And of course they are continuing to figure out new, creative ways to protest during the pandemic.

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 their 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, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Dave Cournoyer/Flickr

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

Editor's note, June 9, 2020: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of a Communities Not Cuts Manitoba organizer. She is Shaden Abusaleh, not Abousaleh.

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