What is austerity? Very simply put, it is when governments decide to ‘tighten the belt’ in order to resolve ‘debt crises.’ A government starts running a deficit, and thus has to review its budget. While that sounds like a very basic accounting job, it is inherently extremely political. Why? Because you have to decide on which expenditures to cut, or which sources of income to raise.

Two large scale anti-austerity protests have taken place in the past couple of months. All around Montreal, you can still see ambulances, firetrucks, and police cars covered with “On n’a rien volé” stickers. Clearly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Parti Libéral du Quebec’s (PLQ) cuts are real, but they are in no way new, or unexpected.

The Maple Spring of 2012 brought hundreds of thousands of students to the streets. Why did the students take to the streets? Back in 2012, PLQ announced that it was planning on raising tuition fees by $1625 over five years. That was an unacceptable policy, mainly because education is supposed to be a basic right, and not a privilege.

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From the November 29 Anti-Austerity March

Of course, the PLQ’s decision to raise tuition fees was not out of the blue. Quebec was (and curiously, still is) facing a rising debt crisis. What happens when you find out that your balance is in the negative? You try to break even. This sounds all logical and rational. Yet, breaking even can turn out to be problematic, if you have your priorities set wrong.

In 2012, PLQ assumed incorrectly that students could be made to bear the burden of the provincial government’s debt crisis. The Maple Spring was the students’ response to this misjudgment, and it was without a doubt very polarizing. While there were hundreds of thousands of students taking to the street almost every week, there were others who wanted none of this.

The problem with the pacifist mind frame is that not everyone can afford to be apathetic. To some, an increase of a thousand dollars over the course of five years might not be too much; but for others it effectively means that higher education is barred to them.

At any rate, after the Maple Spring, the PLQ was replaced by the Parti Québecois (PQ), which declared that the tuition hikes would not take place. However, the PQ decided to cut university budgets by $123 million. So instead of directly barring education to some students, the provincial government succeeded in reducing the quality of education for everyone.

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From the May 22 student protests in 2012.

Similar to Bill 10 which would overhaul Quebec’s health bureaucracy, and Bill 3 that will overhaul municipal pensions, the cuts to university budgets are part of the same austerity regime based on all the wrong priorities. The provincial government finds itself in a debt of about $3.9 billion and figures that the solution is cutting social services.

The Maple Spring showed that students were more than willing to fight a government that encroached on its basic rights. And more recently, the past two months have shown that mobilization against austerity is not just a possibility, but a reality. It is a little disappointing that people start caring about the consequences of austerity only after they themselves are affected, but that does not matter anymore.

Enter the Spring 2015 Committee. Take a look at what they say on their website:

“While they reach for the last pennies in our pockets, federal and provincial governments increase military spending, invest in prisons, police, and security measures, and roll out the red carpet for the extraction industries. People with friends in high places, the rich, large companies, multinationals, banks and lobbying firms are running the show. A small minority is strangling the community. If the interests of the majority do not orient the actions and priorities of the government, it is illusory to continue to speak of this as a democracy. In a just and equitable society, wealth should not be accumulated at the expense of our environment and should be fairly redistributed among all.”

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“Like wolves, humans act collectively and form groups in order to survive and defend our common interests.”

There is nothing innocent about austerity. It is not simply an apolitical economic decision to break even; mainly because there can be no such thing as an apolitical economic decision. Governments have priorities, and this government has shown us that their priorities are not social justice, social equality, or even simply social services.

It seems, however, that there is enough money in the provincial coffers to fund the $1.2 billion required for the infrastructure projects for the infamous Plan Nord.

It is clear that the governments of this province, both PLQ and PQ, have got their priorities wrong. It then falls on us to collectively fight against austerity and stand in solidarity with one another.

Of course, none of the political choices available might be pleasing. In fact, you might be completely against the system to begin with. But the realistic choice is fighting one battle at a time; while keeping the dream of social justice and social equality alive. It is realistic, because at least we know we can fight the good fight.

This is not just the students’ fight anymore; although I daresay students have led the charge, and are still leading the charge. But it is time to realize that austerity affects us all. As such, it is our collective responsibility to stand in solidarity, and say no to austerity.

 

There are steps in the fallen snow somewhere in Gatineau, Quebec. Student politicians traveled from across the country to protest other student politicians who came to meet from across the country on a frigid Saturday in late November.

The Canadian Federation of Students, the CFS, a national student advocacy and service provider meets among the huddled bureaucratic buildings in a capital region Best Western for an Annual General Meeting. The future looks as stark as the day’s grey sky. Battling protesting heretics who want to see it dismantled and destroyed and a political landscape where its desperate voice resonates only so far into obscurity, CFS delegates must see the season’s first snow as poetic. It is going to be a long winter.

The cracks came years ago. In the 90s, sparse universities and colleges marked their detestation with referendums to disaffiliate. The CFS resorted to lawfare. The strategy must have seemed straight forward. Admit no loss; the façade must not be fractured. Local student politicians lead their flocks against what they conceived as an evil corrupt empire.

Whether the incompetence or carelessness, of staffers or the ploys of right wing insurgents, the CFS has become embroiled in trouble. Referendum after referendum, the CFS became smaller and smaller. Now it fights with all its legal and organizational capacity to hold onto to its last provincial forts on an increasingly hostile frontier. In 2009, 13 campuses wanted to leave. In 2013, it is at least 15. The CFS is cornered.

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(image studentunion.ca)

There are only two options. It can continue to defend its lingering and lost legitimacy or rise and reinvent itself.

The CFS needs immediate innovation. The status quo simply can no longer do; most students either perceive it with anger or apathy. If the CFS choses to rise, it can do a couple things. Unifor, Canada’s largest industrial union, has the promising potential to change the Canadian landscape. They are looking to branch out. CFS could join them, save tens of thousands by combining administrative infrastructure, streamline services and give itself a new mandate when dealing with its members. Unifor could champion free education and the CFS could appeal to its working students, unionize their work places and create stronger lines of solidarity across society.

If that isn’t appealing, the CFS could rethink how it operates. This could be done with three Ls: Localize, Limit and Link-up. Create local legitimacy with binding general assemblies, limit the power of staffers and build institutional links with grassroots organizations and PIRGs.

Some thinking, a little elbow grease, and a lot of inspiration can make the great services the CFS provides greater. Instead of its flurry of press releases going straight into the trash cans of journalists and its organizing efforts bringing fewer and fewer people with every gathering, it can reorganize and galvanize.

The pessimism must be refused and rebuked. Those on the left should make no alliances with the conservatives who would like nothing more than to see every progressive institution, or institution capable of being progressive, destroyed. The CFS’ leadership should take note and act quickly.

It is bleak. Their belligerence and negligence must be ended soon, either by their own desire for positive, progressive change or the slow and painful result of their own stagnancy, stupidity and hard-headedness, the inevitable destruction and complete irrelevance of the CFS.