We are in the midst of a global pandemic due to the Corona virus aka COVID-19. Montreal is not only the epicenter of the outbreak in Quebec, but in all of Canada.

In a move that Montrealers have been begging for since Quebec Premier François Legault announced his harebrained idea of reopening the province on May 11, he has agreed to delay reopening schools and businesses in Montreal until May 25, 2020, and only if the situation here has improved. The decision was made in consultation with Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec’s National Director of Public Health.

Parents in Montreal can finally breathe a sigh of relief, as reopening too early would only lead to a resurgence of the disease that would overwhelm hospitals already overworked and rapidly reaching capacity. David McLeod told this reporter that if elementary schools did reopen in Montreal on May 19 as planned he and his wife would not be sending their son:

“If we did it would be a prison we would be sending him to, not a school. It is a place for people to park their kids.”

Wendy, a mother with diabetes, had also decided to keep her son at home, declaring that he is not a guinea pig for the government. She worries that her son would pass the virus on to her with fatal results.

Parents were not the only ones worried. Educators in Montreal, who agreed to speak to me on condition of anonymity, were deeply concerned about the health, sanitation, and logistical nightmare of reopening the schools and daycares.

“It takes the whole summer for administration to organize class kits and teacher schedules. It’s not as simple as putting a teacher in a room with 8-15 kids,” said an elementary school teacher. “The school buses usually have 60-80 kids and now they’ll be only 12 kids on one bus…will there be enough busses for everyone?”

She expressed concern that keeping a two meter distance from students would make it harder for teachers to help them, adding that the problem would be worse for kids with ADHD.

A Montreal high school teacher expressed concern that Legault’s plan lacked clarity. She countered the Premier’s claim of reopening the schools for students’ mental health by pointing out that kids have more freedom of movement if they stay home. She also says it’s still not clear whether teaching high school has to be face-to-face or if content can just be posted for students to look at at their own speed.

“Lucy” a daycare educator, told me her loved ones were terrified of her going back to work. The stress of staying clean and safe scares her too, comparing a return to work to “going to war with no gun”.

“Mary”, another daycare educator thinks even reopening Montreal on May 25th is ridiculous.

“You know there’s been an outbreak in a daycare, right?” she said, referring to the recent COVID-19 outbreak at a daycare in Montreal North. “We will be wearing visors at my daycare. Can you imagine a child coming in after months and meeting a monster with a blue face and visors? I don’t see how this will not be damaging to the child,” she said.

As a member of the immune-compromised in one of the hardest hit boroughs in Montreal I have my own worries about what reopening schools will mean for my personal safety. I live within walking distance of two elementary schools, one high school, and one school for students with special needs.

My chronic medical conditions put me on the “Most Likely to Die from COVID-19” list, thus making leaving my home incredibly unsafe until the virus is contained. Reopening the schools would make it more likely that I could fall victim to the pandemic, and with hospitals overcrowded, there’s no guarantee I’d get the help I need.

Even former Montreal Canadien Georges Laraque sees the absurdity of the Quebec government’s initial decision, and though he himself has COVID-19, he was live streaming about his experience in our health care system from his hospital room.

Some parents are calling the change of heart a lot more sensible. Others think Legault’s initial plan of reopening Montreal was a business-oriented decision that showed the lack common sense people have come to expect from his government.

Whatever the reason, Montreal can at least be thankful that common sense has prevailed and that active resistance works. We just have to be loud enough.

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.