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Montreal's Student Austerity Protests : Everything You Need To Know But Were Too Afraid To Ask

You and student strikes have a complicated relationship.
Montreal's Student Austerity Protests : Everything You Need To Know But Were Too Afraid To Ask

Photo cred - MOD

Montrealers, and the province of Quebec for that matter, are up in arms over austerity measures being taken by the Liberals, who were elected into power over the reigning PQ government in April of 2014. Since they tabled their budget in June, demonstrations and strikes have been cropping up to protest austerity in the province. With student walkouts, massive marches, union strikes, and police brutality on the rise, it’s starting to feel a lot like 2012’s Maple Spring, when thousands of students banded together to protest the $1,625 tuition hike proposed by the Liberals under Jean Charest’s leadership.

What’s austerity?

Austerity is a term to describe an enforced or extreme economy. It means living a simplistic lifestyle and reducing excess spending. When the government puts austerity measures into effect it means that they’re going to be cutting back on spending in order to, at least in the case of the Liberals, help balance the budget and lift the province out of debt. According to the government, Quebec is in the red by $200 billion, with an annual deficit between $2-4 billion. Their tabled budget, however, will eliminate deficit for 2015-2016 for the first time in years.

So why are people complaining?

The idea of Quebec finally being out of debt probably sounds like a good thing, right? So what’s all the fuss about?

Well it’s simple; money doesn't grown on trees. This means that the money the Liberals are using to balance the budget has to have come from somewhere. Although the term austerity would have you believe the money is going to come from a reduction in executive salaries, OQLF spending, and reducing tax cuts given to big businesses (you know, excessive and useless spending), that’s not the case with the Liberal budget. Instead, they've cut back on public spending for social services.

This means that things like education, healthcare, pensions for unionized employees, day care services, welfare and social services that people depend on are all going to take a serious hit over the course of the upcoming year.

Rather than raising taxes for large business, adding additional tax brackets so everyone pays their fair share, or cutting down the decadent salaries and severance packages government higher-ups receive, they’re taking funding away from the people who really need it.

Photo cred - scottmontreal

How does this affect you?

In every way imaginable.

When it comes to school, austerity measures mean that while tuition may not be going up $1,625 in one shot, fees will be increasing by 3.4% annually, which is the highest yearly fee increase in the country. Although Quebecers pay the least for university in the country, we pay one of the lowest minimum wages in the nation at $10.35, while alternatively charging residents some of the highest taxes at almost 15%. In addition to upping tuition fees this budget cut means that universities will be cutting down on student services, like library resources, lab times, and special needs educators, to make up for the lack of funding. If that wasn’t bad enough, the budget cut to education means teachers will face salary cuts and more students will be added to classrooms to cut down on the number of teachers required.

These austerity measures also seriously impact the healthcare of Quebecers negatively. Doctors are being forced to see a set number of patients a year, meaning that while you may get to see a doctor, you may not get to see him for months or at all if you need a follow up. It also means that people are going to be taxed a flat fee to make up for the lack of funding to healthcare, regardless of what you’re making at work. The rich and the poor are going to be taxed the same amount, and that doesn't make sense for anyone. Now add this new fee to the amount paid for prescriptions, bandages, and additional health services and medicare can become seriously unaffordable for the underprivileged or marginalized members of society.

You should also brace yourself for impact if you happen to be a woman, as these austerity measures are particularly harsh. Women already make less than men, which is frustrating to begin with, meaning that women are often the ones who depend on welfare services to survive. People who depend on the province’s $7-daycare, like single mothers for instance, can kiss that resource goodbye thanks to the Liberals’ budget. If that wasn't enough to upset you, then prepare to be infuriated as the Liberals’ austerity measures infringe on women’s reproductive rights. Because of healthcare cutbacks, women can expect reduced STI screenings, contraceptive counselling, and a cap on how many abortions doctors can perform each year. Meaning that if you’re looking to abort an unplanned pregnancy you better make sure you get to your doctor early, or prepare to pay out of pocket.

Essentially, the rich are getting richer while the middle class slips into poverty. Additionally, people who depend on these social services to help keep them above the poverty line are now going to be without.

Are there alternatives to austerity?

Absolutely. Some of the simplest ways to balance Quebec’s budget, without having to cut public funding, involve playing with the tax system for the province.

Once upon a time there used to be sixteen brackets, but today there’s only four. This means that people below the poverty line pay more than they can afford, while people on the top pay less than they should. By adding additional tax brackets, the middle class and impoverished households who depend on welfare can pay less in tax, while the rich would only suffer a tax hike of less than 2% to bring the province an added $1 billion annually.

Additionally, if Quebec restored the capital tax for big business (which is when the money companies have saved up to generate future profits is taxed) the province would be able to reel in an estimated $600+ million.

And, of course, there are the obvious cuts to the OQLF and executive salaries for government officials (rather than cutting the pensions of civil servants).

Photo cred - scottmontreal

So who’s protesting austerity in Quebec?

Lots of people. Teachers, students, health care workers, bus drivers, the police, and other people who care about the well-being of the province. Anyone who feels that the Liberal government is being shortsighted with their budget, and not taking into consideration the negative long term impact the reduction in social services will have on Quebec. People are banning together in the hopes of having the budget cuts reversed in order to continue providing welfare to those whose lives depend on it.

In addition, people are also protesting the excessive use of force that the police (who, ironically, are also on strike due to pension cuts) have been demonstrating at these peaceful protests. Recently an 18 year-old CEGEP student, Naomie Trudeau-Tremblay, was shot with a tear gas cartridge at point blank range. She was seriously injured during a non-violent protest and is now intending to sue for the injuries sustained by the SPVQ.

Then why are people upset with the strikes?

Protesting austerity measures in Quebec is important, but many people feel that the strikes and marches are damaging the very people the anti-austerity movement is hoping to help.

Although students should be angry about the cut to education, their strikes and picketing can often have a negative impact on their peers. While everyone has the right to go on strike, disturbing classes that others have paid for, or making picket lines to prevent students from going to class, don’t hurt the government; it hurts other students. University and CEGEP students who are already struggling to pay for tuition aren't benefited by the disruption of their courses. If anything, it’s detrimental to their education and may even force impoverished students to pay to retake classes they failed, or received a low grade in, due to the strikes.

Marches and public demonstrations can also be detrimental to small businesses and middle class workers. When protesters hold up traffic, or prevent access to streets in Montreal, mom and pop stores that depend on business suffer, and people who’re trying to get to work to make a living end up missing shifts (and pay) that they’re counting on. The very people that the anti-austerity movement is fighting for can be negatively impacted by the movement itself.

The strikes and protests this time around, unlike 2012’s Maple Spring, feel disjointed. Rallies against tuition hikes, women’s rights, the environmental impact of austerity, pensions, and healthcare have been taking place around Quebec but don’t feel connected. Rather than taking a united stance against austerity, they seem to be happening at random and without anyone the wiser for them. Additionally, no tangible demands have been made by the protesters. Although they've asked that the Liberals reverse their budget cuts, no official solutions or requests have been tabled by the opposing parties, meaning few results (if any) will be seen.

Photo cred - Denis Hebert

So what should I do now?

Whatever you feel like.

Although many people are opposed to austerity, and for good reason, it doesn't mean you have to get involved protesting it. Just because you’re against tuition hikes doesn't mean you have to cut class or picket outside your university. However if you feel so inclined, then by all means do so. If you want to get involved in fighting austerity, there are plenty of groups you can join to help with the cause. Each voice counts, so if fighting austerity is important to you then make yours heard. Alternatively, if you’d rather leave the protesting to other people, that’s your right too.

If you’re against picketing, be respectful of those who aren't. If you’re on strike at your school, be mindful of those still trying to learn. What’s important is remembering that everyone, no matter which side they’re on, has a right to respect, to their opinion, and a safe (not to mention non-violent) environment in which to express it.

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