A Fight to the Finish

Battle lines are being drawn in Quebec

Monday 1 December 2003, by Chad LUBELSKY

Jean Charest’s seven-month old Liberal government argues that its plan to "re-engineer" Quebec will modernize it and bring it into line with the rest of North America. Ordinary Quebecers, meanwhile, look west to Ontario, Alberta and B.C., and realize that they are quite pleased with their distinct state and have little interest in being brought into line.

I wasn’t planning on going to the anti-Charest march in Quebec City last Saturday. But then, I saw George Bush doling out turkey in Baghdad and as I thought about all the talk in activist circles of the link between militarization and corporate-led globalization, I felt I had no choice. I am glad I went.

At the end of the march, while trying to find my bus (#323) amidst the 500 that came from throughout the province, a representative from the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), Quebec’s second largest union and the march’s organizer, was telling me that 110 buses made the three-hour trip from Montreal. He repeated this in English since I guess, owing to my muted reaction, he thought I did not understand. He then told me that the previous record for number of buses from Montreal to Quebec City was 53 for the Summit of the Americas.

"You mean you more than doubled your record?"

"Not only that, but this march was organized in less than a month, whereas organizing for Quebec City 2001 took more than a year." I was even gladder that I went.

Organizers said more than 30,000 people marched from the Plains of Abraham to the National Assembly on the coldest day of the year. Police put the number closer to 20,000. No matter. I found in talking to people, the reason for attending was nearly unanimous: (Premier Jean) Charest has no mandate to dismantle the State. These were not activists, although there were some in the crowd; these were people worried about losing their jobs, their benefits and their way of life.

Charest is planning on introducing Bill 31 which would modify the labour code and make it easier for companies to sub-contract work. Unions fear that this will result in an increase of low-wage jobs, decreased job security and few benefits to employees. The seven-month old Liberal government argues that its plan to "re-engineer" Quebec will modernize it and bring it into line with the rest of North America. Ordinary Quebecers, meanwhile, look west to Ontario, Alberta and B.C., and realize that they are quite pleased with their distinct state and have little interest in being brought into line.

Already Quebec’s much vaunted $5-a-day day care has become Quebec’s - for now - $7-a-day day care. Health care, education and other public services are all being looked at. The legacy of the Quiet Revolution is under threat and Quebecois are increasingly alarmed. There is some talk that it could never happen here, but my friends in Toronto said the same thing 10 years ago.

Claudette Carbonneau, president of the CSN, said that Charest has "conservative, anti-social and anti-union policies" She added that "he is trying to impose an old American model where society is polarized between rich and poor." Just as Ontario saw Days of Action after the election of Mike Harris, it looks as if Quebec is digging in its heels from the get-go for a protracted fight.

This was the second large demonstration in Quebec City last week. According to the police, 7,000 people marched through Quebec City last Wednesday. That march was organized by the Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ) the largest provincial Union, representing over 500,000 members from various sectors from every region of the province. One CSN organizer told me that if the unions had managed to work together, there would easily have been 100,000 people marching through Quebec City. Nevertheless, two marches in the same week do reverberate, and there is more to come. A journée de perturbation is being called for December 11 and negotiations between the State and its 420,000 employees are already heating up. For this battle, the unions have already agreed to form a common front.

The real question is whether or not all of this will make a difference. On the raucous and snowy bus ride home I was chatting with my seatmate. Still aglow from the sense of possibility that can only come from participating in a large demonstration, I told my friend that we are going to make a difference, that we have learned from the mistakes made in Ontario and B.C., and are protesting before Charest really gets going. "Yeah, but there were 200,000 people in Toronto and what good did it do? We need to propose alternatives and not just say that we are happy with the way things are," she replied matter-of-factly. I looked out the window, thought about my Saturday spent on a bus, and said nothing.

The next couple of years will be difficult and defining ones in Quebec. After three decades of politics being dominated by la question nationale, Quebecois are now faced with a savagely right-wing government that wants to alter the future of Quebec in as dramatic a fashion as independence would. The battle lines around independence were drawn and entrenched before I was born; new battle lines, however, will be drawn over the next couple of months.

Just as last week’s demonstrations gave reason for hope, there is also cause for concern: the price of day care has already gone up, there is a party that is even more to the right than the Liberal Party - Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ) - and the Left, as evidenced by the organization of two different marches in the same week, is fractured. Only a fool would predict what will happen in Quebec over the next couple of years, but one can’t help but think about the progress made since those 53 buses left Montreal for Quebec City in April 2001.

Over the next couple of months Charest will decide whether he will choose the path of Jean Chrétien (who listened - at least in part - to the last large pre-emptive demonstration in Quebec: the 200,000 strong anti-war march last February) or Mike Harris (who chose to ignore the 200,000 strong who marched on Queen’s Park). One thing is clear: while Ontario and B.C. may not have taught Quebec how to stop destructive right-wing governments, Quebec has certainly learned that the State can be dismantled. The CSN says that this will be a fight to the finish. Once the dust settles, maybe, just maybe, B.C. and Ontario will be looking to Quebec to learn how to maintain values and a State, that is. . . well, traditionally Canadian.

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