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The Québec Student Strike: From ‘Maple Spring’ to Summer Rebellion?
Tuition Hikes, Student Strikes, Police Batons, and Teargas Bombs
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
The following is Part 6 of the series, “Class War and the College Crisis.”
The “red square” symbol of the Québec student movement
In Montréal, where I live, and across the Canadian province of Québec, there is a growing and expanding student movement which emerged as a strike in February against the provincial government’s plan to increase the cost of university tuition by $325 per year for the next five years, for a total of $1,625. The students have been seeking and demanding a halt to the tuition hike in order to keep higher education accessible, a concept that the province of Québec alone has held onto with greater strength than any other province in Canada. The government continues to dismiss and deride the students, meeting their protests with batons, teargas bombs, and mass arrests. The universities in Québec are complicit with the government in their repression of students and the struggle for basic democratic rights, bringing in private security firms to patrol and harass students in the schools. While the university administrations claim they are ‘neutral’ on the issue of tuition hikes, privately, the boards of governors are made up of bankers and business executives who lobby the government to increase tuition. After all, in April of 2007 – five years ago – Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD Bank Group), one of Canada’s ‘big five’ banks which dominate the economy, released a “plan for prosperity” for the province of Quebec, which recommended, among other things, raising the cost of tuition: “by raising tuition fees but focusing on increased financial assistance for those in need, post secondary education (PSE) institutions will be better-positioned to prosper and provide world-class education and research.”
The movement is becoming more radicalized, more activated, and is consistently met with more state repression. Almost daily, it seems, there are protests all over the city, drawing in other social organizers and activists in solidarity. The little red square patch – the symbol of the Québec student strike – is adorned across the province of Québec and the city of Montréal and on the jackets and bags of a large percentage of its residents. The city and the province, it seems, are at the forefront of a youth-driven social struggle, a growing and rumbling resistance movement. As the issues spread from tuition hikes to a more broad conception of social justice, the movement has the potential to grow both within and far beyond Québec. If the situation continues as it has until present, already the longest student strike in Québec’s history, with increased activism and accelerated state repression, it is not inconceivable to imagine a growing student-led social rebellion by the end of the summer. As the economic situation in Canada – and indeed, the world – continues to get worse for the people of the world (as opposed to the corporations and banks, who are doing very well!), the momentum behind the current student movement has the potential to spill across Québec’s borders into the rest of Canada, with some people referring to this as the beginnings of the ‘Québec Spring,’ or the ‘Maple Spring.’
Protest in Montréal
Emotions are running high in Québec, and increasingly, the government and the Canadian media are presenting the protesters as violent and destructive, and framing the debate in a misleading context, presenting the students as whining about “entitlements.” The rest of Canada is especially fed a line of intellectual excrement, repeating the same invalid and misleading arguments ad nauseum. This article seeks to present the issues of the strike, and the actions of protesters and the government into a wider context, so that other young Canadians (and youth around the world) may understand what is truly taking place, what is truly being struggled for, what the government and media are doing to stop it, the absurdity of the arguments against the students, and the need for this movement to spread beyond this province, to let this truly be the dawn of the ‘Maple Spring.’
Entitlements and Social Justice: Putting the Protests in Context
The most commonly spewed argument against the student protests – and for the tuition increases – emanating from the ‘stenographers of power’ (the media) and others, is that the students are complaining about their supposed ‘right’ to entitlements for cheap education. Québec has the cheapest university tuition in Canada (for residents of the province), and even with the tuition increases, it will still remain among the cheapest nation-wide. Thus, claims the media, there is no rational basis for the complaints and strike. The argument is, however, based upon the fallacious argument that, “the rest of Canada does it, so why not Québec?” In Québec’s history, however, the claim that “the rest of Canada does it” has never been an argument that has won the sympathy of residents of Canada’s French-speaking province. This argument, however, goes beyond a cultural difference between Québec and English-speaking Canada. The most basic problem with this line of thinking is that what is taking place in the rest of Canada is something to aspire to, that because the rest of Canada has higher tuition costs, this is not something to struggle against. When placed in context, we are left with the conclusion that the rest of Canada should be following the example of the students in Québec, not the other way around. So let’s break down the numbers.
Currently, the average yearly cost of tuition for Québec residents is $2,519. With the projected increases of $325 over five years (for a total of $1,625), the annual cost would reach roughly $4,000. The province of Ontario has the highest tuition costs in the country, which has also increased over the past four years from $5,388 to $6,640, an increase of 23% between 2008 and 2012. Québec’s proposed 75% increase over the next five years would mean that Newfoundland would have the lowest tuition in Canada, at $2,649 per year. Québec, while currently the cheapest in Canada, has already undergone a number of tuition hikes in recent years. While maintaining a tuition freeze between 1994 and 2007, while the rest of Canada had consistent hikes, Québec premier Jean Charest introduced a five-year tuition hike of $100 per year between 2007 and 2012. So the reality is that Jean Charest has undertaken and is attempting to undertake a 10-year tuition hike for a total of $2,125 in additional costs, more than doubling what tuition cost in 2007, prior to the onset of the global economic crisis.
So, what does this have to do with the rest of Canada? Let’s pretend, for a moment, that the argument that “the rest of Canada does it” is a valid one. So let’s look at what the rest of Canada actually does, and therefore, if this is something which should be accepted and promoted, instead of struggled against. An article in the Kamloops Daily News pointed out that the average tuition cost in Canadian schools is $5,000, while Québec currently has roughly half that cost. Thus, stated the author, “despite all the whining and crying coming from post-secondary students in Quebec, it’s hard — really hard — to feel sorry for them.” Describing the students like children throwing a tantrum for lack of getting what they want – “kicking up a fuss” – the author contends that since we’re not in a “perfect world,” tuition has to be increased. This line of thinking is, of course, beyond ignorant. Its premise is that because we don’t live in a “perfect world,” there is no basis for trying to struggle for a “better world.” I suppose that black Americans in a liberation struggle in the 1950s, 60s and 70s should have just listened to those who claimed that, “hey, it’s not a perfect world, accept your place in it!” Or perhaps gays and lesbians should just accept that it’s “not a perfect world,” so, why bother attempting to attain rights? Or, for that matter, just tell women to get back in the kitchen. After all, it’s not a “perfect world,” so there’s really no point in trying to make it better, in trying to achieve even small victories along the way. With this absurd argument out of the way, it is true that Québec has roughly half the tuition costs as the rest of Canada. As well as this, Québec students have less student debt than the rest of Canada, at roughly $13,000, also nearly half as what the rest of Canada has. The author of the absurd article contends, therefore, that the real reason for the strike is that, “like a lot of things in Quebec, the sense of entitlement seems to have become a normal part of the culture.”
Now, think about this for a moment. Let’s put this in its proper context. The average tuition for students in Québec is $2,500, and the average debt for Québec students is $13,000. On the other hand, the average tuition costs for Canadian students is $5,000, with the average debt for Canadian students at $27,000. Is this really something to aspire to? Is this really the type of “equality” that we should want, that we should accept, or adhere to? Is it really a valid argument in stating that since the rest of Canadian students pay excessive tuition costs and graduate with absurd debts, that we should too? Especially important in this equation is the current condition for students and youth in Canada today, where upon graduating with an average of $27,000 (a national average, which, by the way, is kept lower due to Quebec’s lower fees), and “once they complete their degrees, there are fewer jobs around that pay the kind of money that allows grads to seriously whittle away at their debt.” This massive debt for students in Canada “is bankrupting a generation of students,” explained the Globe and Mail. It’s not simply the money which is being borrowed, but the interest rates being paid, varying from province to province at between 5 and 9 percent. Interest rates, more over, are expected to increase, and thus, the cost of the debt will increase, and with that, so too will youth poverty increase.
With tuition hikes to add to that, the debt burden will become greater. So not only will the average interest payments on student debt increase with more student debt required to pay for tuition, but the interest rates themselves will increase. What this translates into is class warfare. Thus, the argument that “the rest of Canada does it, so stop complaining,” is akin to saying, “Everyone else is screwed, doomed to be a ‘lost generation’, so stop complaining that we’re throwing you to the wolves too!” Since debt essentially amounts to a form of slavery, let’s use the example of slavery itself to look at this argument. Let’s build a premise of ten slave plantations, one of which is made of indentured slaves (meaning that they will be freed after a set amount of time), and the other nine consist of absolute slavery (from birth to death). Indentured slavery, while not desirable, is better than absolute slavery from birth to death. So, if the plantation owners begin to change the system of slavery of the unique plantation from indentured to life-time slavery, and the indentured slaves revolt, the plantation owners would then argue, “All nine other plantations operate under that system, stop complaining.” Is this a legitimate argument? So when Québec’s student-slave plantation owners tell us that, “the rest of Canada does it,” what they’re really saying is that they want to enslave us in debt and plunge us into a poverty of future opportunities to the same degree that exists in the rest of Canada. And when we fight against this, they say we are “whining and crying” about “entitlements.”
Québec students, themselves, are not living the easy life, as the picture is often painted. A study from November of 2010 put to shame these notions, based upon surveys of students in 2009, and thus, before the $500 tuition increase that ended in 2012, meaning that the numbers are likely much worse today. Half of all full-time students in Québec live on less than $12,200 per year, significantly below the national poverty line. To add to that, 25% of full-time students live on less than $7,400 per year. This data includes the amounts that students get in government loans, leading the president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (University Student Federation of Quebec), Louis-Philippe Savoie, to comment, “Imagine the disastrous effect that raising tuition fees by the Charest government” would then have on the students. The largest source of finances for students does not come from government loans, but from working: part-time students work more, and have less debt, with their work accounting for 83% of their financing; full-time students have more debt, but still 55% of their financing comes from working, and over 80% of full-time students work an average of 18.8 hours per week. Thus, Savoie noted, “The portrait of the lazy student is totally false.” The second largest source of financial support for students is from parents, accounting for 22%, with 60% of full-time students getting support from their parents and families, while 23% of part-time students get financial support from their parents, accounting for a total of 7% of their total financing. Roughly 60% of full-time students in Québec will go into debt, averaging at around $14,000, with student loans making up the majority of that debt, as 44.5% of full-time students have government loans, 23.4% take out bank loans or credit lines, and 22.1% take on credit card debt. The study further showed that 46.6% of part-time students will even end up in debt, averaging at $11,500. The report concluded that the government should freeze tuition and increase financial assistance. Over one year later, the government announced a 75% increase in tuition costs.
To Strike and Strike Down!
By April 26, 2012, the student strike – the longest in Québec’s history – had lasted 72 days and had a running total of 160 different protests, hundreds of people arrested, multiple injuries, and still the government stands stubborn in its refusal to even enter a negotiation with the students in good faith. As a result of the government’s intransigence to democratic appeals, some have taken to acts of violence and destruction. Bricks have been tossed off a downtown overpass, and onto the tracks of the Montréal metro system, leading to road and metro closures. Cars and businesses in downtown are left with broken windows and shattered debris, the remnants of protests in which police invariably turn to oppression and brutality. As the government and police become more repressive, the issue becomes less and less about tuition, and develops a wider social position. Thus, the nomenclature has begun to change from “student strike” to “Québec Spring” – or “Maple Spring” emblematic of “a broader, international Occupy-style fight for a new economic order.” In French, ‘Maple Spring’ is translated as “Printemps Érable,” with érable being very close to the French word for ‘Arab,’ thus drawing an even closer dialectical connection with the ‘Arab Spring.’ One student commented, “A lot of people have stopped calling it a student movement; now it’s a social movement, and I think that it affects people in a much deeper way than just tuition fees.” Another student added, “the whole protest is against the neoconservative and neoliberal point of view of doing politics… People in Quebec are using this movement as a means of venting against the current government.”
In March of 2011, Québec’s Finance Minister under the Liberal Jean Charest government announced the tuition hikes of $325 per year, over five years. In August of 2011, students began campaigning against the tuition hikes, with a large peaceful rally held in Montréal in November, establishing a “common front” of student groups attempting to apply democratic pressure against the government. On February 13, 2012, the strike officially began, with several student groups voting in favour of a walk out. The decisions in the student group are, after all, made democratically, unlike the decisions of the government.
On February 23, students occupied a downtown bridge, and were subsequently pepper-sprayed by police. During a protest on March 7, one student, Francis Grenier, almost lost an eye due to a police stun grenade. On March 21, student tactics changed – as the government refused to even consider negotiations – and were now seeking to disrupt the economy in order to be heard. One group of students occupied the busy city Champlain Bridge in Montréal during rush hour, leading to each student involved being fined $494. On March 22, a massive rally of students from around the province took place in Montréal, drawing hundreds of thousands of students and supporters. The government again refused to negotiate or even consider changing its position. Line Beauchamp, the Quebec [Mis]Education Minister, had the outside of her Montréal office painted red – the symbolic colour of the protests – as she continued to deride the protests and refuse to negotiate with the students. On April 16, the city’s subway (metro) system was shut down in a number of places as some individuals (who remain unidentified) tossed bags of rocks onto the metro tracks at a number of different stations. On April 18 and 19, over 300 people were arrested in the city of Gatineau, Québec, in a confrontation with police at a local university campus. On April 20 and 21, as Jean Charest was attending a job fair, speaking to an audience of business leaders in promoting his ‘Plan Nord’ (Plan North) which seeks to provide government funds to subsidize multi-million and multi-billion dollar mining corporations to exploit the mineral resources of northern Québec, had his speech interrupted by protests. Outside the convention centre, protesters clashed with police, leading to the arrests of over 100 people.
Francis Grenier, who almost lost his eye
In what was described by the Globe and Mail as Jean Charest’s “Marie Antoinette moment,” as tear gas filled the streets with students fleeing the riot police protecting the comfortable lap-dog-to-the-rich premier inside the convention centre, Charest, speaking at a business lunch with his real constituency (the wealthy elite), joked, “we could offer them a job … in the North, as far as possible.”
Jean Charest, when he paused from making jokes about giving jobs to students “as far as possible” in the North, commented that, “[t]his is 2012, this is Quebec. We have had ministers find tanks of gas on their verandas… Molotov cocktails in front of their offices. There are ministers who have had death threats.” He added, “I find it unacceptable that one student association refuses to condemn violence,” referring to C.L.A.S.S.E (the largest and most militant of the student groups). Meanwhile, as Charest joked and complained, students were being brutalized by police just outside his conference meeting, with tear gas and concussion grenades being tossed at Québec’s youth by riot police. Charest declared social disruption to be “unacceptable,” but apparently state repression and violence is therefore, totally acceptable.
With Jean Charest’s ‘Marie Antoinette moment’ during his conference of congratulating Quebec’s business elite on their new government subsidization from his administration (the latest Québec budget allocated massive funds for mining companies), protests continued outside, with students setting up barricades “made from construction site materials and restaurant patio furniture to impede the circulation of police,” and so of course, the police “responded with stun grenades, pepper spray and batons.” As the violence erupted, Charest was inside making more jokes to his real constituents, stating, “[t]he (event) that we’re holding today is very popular. People are running all over the place to get in.” The crowd of businessmen erupted in laughter and applause. Charest added, “It’s an opportunity for job hunters.” The spokesperson for the student group, CLASSE, replied to the premier’s contemptuous comments, stating, “all my calls for calm won’t do anything… He’s laughing at us. I don’t know if he realizes were in a crisis right now.”
The Schools Side Against the Students
The schools themselves have been participating in the repression of student strikes. Injunctions were issued to protesters, demanding that they permit other students to attend their classes and exams. The legal injunctions declared that those who were not attending classes were not considered to be participating in a legitimate strike. After the injunctions were issued, and two days after the school’s director demanded classes resume, student protesters blocked the entrance to College de Valleyfield, with hundreds blocking the main doors to the school. The school director threatened students that if they did not return to class they would fail the semester. The director, however, canceled the classes in order to avoid a physical confrontation with protesters. Education minister Line Beauchamp then reminded schools that, “they are legally obliged to provide courses.” Premier Charest, who was in Brazil at the time, again serving corporate interests on a trade mission, suggested the possibility of “forcing the schools to open.” He added, “We leave to each institution the task of taking the decisions they must make based on several criteria that include safety as well as the management of their establishments.”
At Concordia University, protesters also blocked the entrance doors, preventing other students and teachers from entering the building during exams. The school responded by calling in the riot police to ‘remove’ the protesters, with fights breaking out between various students, and police then began “intervening” with pepper spray. The University of Montreal won a court injunction which banned protests from assembling on the school campus. The school informed students that, “all individuals must refrain from blocking access to campus buildings, individual classrooms, and even parking lots. Protesters are also banned from taking any action that interferes with classes, campus services or meetings.”
Protest at Concordia University
Striking students at McGill University delivered a letter to University President Heather Munroe-Blum, signed by many students, professors, staff and student groups, asking the school to accommodate striking students with finding alternatives to exams or issuing ‘Incompletes’ for classes. Munroe-Blum was not present to accept the letter, with her chief of staff accepting the letter on her behalf, stating that Munroe-Blum had “University business off campus.” Perhaps she was running errands for the Royal Bank of Canada, whose board of directors she also sits on. Concordia University has also shown significant opposition to the strike. The chancellor of Concordia, incidentally, is also on the board of directors of the Bank of Montreal. Concordia, facing demands from striking students to accommodate the strike, replied: “The university’s position has been the same from the beginning, and it’s not going to change.” Students who are involved in the strike, stated a Concordia spokesperson, are “accepting the risks.” She added, “[t]hose who choose not to attend exams when exams are being held, they know the consequences… There’s just nothing more we can add.” A CLASSE representative referred to the situation of the striking students at Concordia, numbering in the thousands, “Unfortunately, since the start of the conflict [they] have faced an intransigent and undemocratic attitude in their talks with their administration.” Some of the French-speaking schools had been making accommodations for striking students, but none were to be found at the English-speaking schools, where there are fewer strikers and more elitist administrators. The CLASSE representative, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, commented that, “[o]ur coalition and our militants will be there on the campus to help the students, to help the strikers, in order to make their democratic-mandated strike respected.”
Concordia University has also responded to the strike by hiring a private security firm to patrol the school. On March 26, there was a clash between striking students and security guards as the school took a harsh stance against picketing students. Some students were taking part in a sit-in on the 7th floor of the school, while others were being harassed by seven security guards on the 4th floor. Geography students were blocking the entrance to their classroom when security guards showed up, purportedly to ensure “there would be no incident,” while intimidating the students and filming them. One student who was present commented, “What happened at the classrooms so far was very calm and very peaceful. The presence of security guards is creating a really uncomfortable environment on campus. It’s really unnecessary and it feels like students are being prosecuted.” The previous week, the school had sent emails out to all of its students, “warning about consequences for students who choose to continue blocking access to classes, which could include formal charges.” The geography teacher who was supposed to teach the class then cancelled it, telling the security guards that there weren’t enough students to continue the class. The professor commented, “I just think that I’m in a really difficult position because I respect what the students have democratically chosen to do… But the picket wouldn’t permit me to pass through anyway and there weren’t enough students that were in the classroom to hold the class.” Earlier that same day, a student who was filming an argument between security guards and students “was struck in the face by one of the security guards, throwing the camera out of her hands and onto the ground.” The incident was filmed, and after the camera was thrown to the ground, the student asked the security guard for his name “for hitting a student,” after which he walked away.
As it turned out, the security official that hit the student in the face “was discovered not to be in possession of a valid security permit, according to a letter sent by the Concordia security department.” The student who had been assaulted had filed a request for information from the director of Concordia University Security, to which she received a letter response informing her that the assaulting guard – hired by the school from the private firm of Maximum Security Inc. – did not possess a security license, adding, “Given the fact that he is not a licensed security agent [...] we are not legally permitted to release his name.” Concordia Student Union (CSU) VP Chad Walcott commented, “It would be very concerning if we are being blocked access to any information about the assault of a student… Having unlicensed security staff on campus is completely unacceptable.” The student who was hit told the school newspaper that, “[t]hese kind of accidents are likely to happen again… That’s what happens when you start hiring a large number of security guards for political purposes on campus when they’re not trained to do it.”
CSU VP Chad Walcott later commented: “The university told us on [March 30] that this person was under review… Then we found out that he wasn’t even licensed at all, which leads me to believe that the university lied to us, or they themselves were lied to… Every security agent that is on the university premises is supposed to be a licensed individual. These individuals are also all supposed to be providing students with licenses when requested, and to fail to do so is a violation of the Private Security Act.” As section four of Quebec’s Private Security Act stipulates, “Any person operating an enterprise that carries on a private security activity must hold an agency license of the appropriate class.”
Meanwhile, in late April, the Canadian Parliament – with the Conservative Party in power – are attempting to pass a bill entitled, “Bill C-26: The Citizen’s Arrest and Self Defence Act,” which “clarifies” laws around citizen’s arrests, and according to the Canadian Bar Association, “will grant greater powers to private security agencies” which “will give poorly trained ‘rent-a-cops’ greater latitude to arrest Canadians.” An official at the Canadian Bar Association warned that, “Such personnel often lack the necessary range of equipment or adequate training to safely and lawfully make arrests in a manner proportionate to the circumstances.” The only MP in Parliament to oppose the bill was Elizabeth May of the Green Party, who stated that it would be a “very big gift to the private security companies… The constitution of this country is governed by the concept of peace, order and good government… This stuff goes off in a wacky new direction, and it worries me.”
The Concordia University email sent to students declared that it was “no longer possible to tolerate further disruption of university activities by a minority of protesters who refuse to respect the rights of others,” though apparently it is okay to tolerate harassment by private security guards. The university informed students that those who choose to picket will be asked for their IDs by the private security goons, “and will be reported to a panel to face the appropriate charges,” while those who refuse to provide ID “will have their pictures taken in order to be identified.” The school declared that, “[t]he charges will depend on the severity of the case but it could go from a written reprimand to expulsion.” A Concordia spokesperson stated, “[t]he university will only target students who are physically blocking access to classrooms and offices. We received complaints and we need to make sure our community has the liberty of movement. Blocking the Guy Metro building [the previous week] for example was unacceptable.” The Concordia Student Union and Graduate Student’s Association replied to the school’s email, stating, “Students will not be intimidated.” Both organizations referred to the school’s email as “dangerous” and “irresponsible,” presenting picketers as aggressive, when “in reality [their actions] have been consistently characterized by a lighthearted, peaceful, and creative nature, with very few incidents.” A student union official stated, “[t]heir message is calling for a profiling of students and a general discrimination against protesters and picketers. We think that it is highly unacceptable.” The same official added that, “We actually sat with the university administration to tell them that this email would only create conflictual relations between students and the university… We were basically told that the university did not care if things went out of hand.”
Negotiations in Good Faith…? Not With Beauchamp!
In late April, the [Mis]Education Minister, Line Beauchamp, suggested that the government would agree to discussions with the students. She ensured, however, that the talks would be cancelled before they began, by demanding that the more radical, and most active student organization – C.L.A.S.S.E. – be refused the opportunity to engage in the discussions. Why? CLASSE was branded as “radical” (assuming ‘radical’ is a bad term to begin with) because it refused to come outright in denouncing violence at the protests, though there has never been any condemnation of police brutality and repression from the government, so it’s apparently a contradictory position. Moreover, Beauchamp, accustomed to operating in an authoritarian manner, empty of any notion of democratic governance, demanded that CLASSE do as she said before they could be invited to discussions with a government that had, until late April, refused to discuss the issue with hundreds of thousands of students demanding it. Beauchamp delivered an undemocratic ultimatum, stating that she would only speak with two of the three student associations involved, which together represent 53% of striking students. The student organization, CLASSE, which represents 47% of the 175,000 striking students, held a press conference in response, saying “Beauchamp’s decision was unacceptable and that there can’t be a solution to the dispute without CLASSE’s involvement.” A spokesperson for CLASSE commented, “She can’t marginalize half of the people on strike,” and accused Beauchamp of attempting to “divide and conquer” the student movement. CLASSE was not even involved in the violence that took place, and as the organization acts and makes decisions in a democratic manner, it cannot respond to authoritarian ultimatums from a woman who has no consideration for democratic methods.
Education Minister Line Beauchamp
Despite Beauchamp’s authoritarian ultimatum, the other student groups remained in solidarity with CLASSE and refused to meet with the [Dis]Honourable Beauchamp unless CLASSE was present. CLASSE announced that they could only denounce the violence if the members voted on it, since the leaders of the organization (unlike those of the government) must make decisions based upon the democratic wishes of their constituents, not their personal pandering to the financial elite. Of course, the refusal by CLASSE to follow the immediate demands of Beauchamp incurred the continued denunciation of the organization by the government and its media lap-dogs like the Montreal Gazette, responsible for possibly the most deriding, rag-like, yellow-journalism-inspired newspaper coverage of the protests to date. However, on April 22, CLASSE addressed its constituents (unlike the government) and they took a vote in which they unanimously condemned the violence, stating: “The position we took to last night was to clearly denounce and condemn any act of deliberate physical violence towards individuals… As a progressive and democratic organization, we cannot subscribe to those actions.” The spokesperson for CLASSE added, however, that civil disobedience will continue: “We think that the principle of civil disobedience has made Quebec civil society a little bit more just and little bit more free than other societies.” Beauchamp replied to the announcement, clearly confused about the difference between civil disobedience (the likes of which was praised and practiced by peaceful non-violent leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King) and acts of violence. Beauchamp addressed her own lack of education in stating, “We all need to act in good faith. If social and economic disruptions continue, the students who endorse them will be excluding themselves from talks.” So where previously it was the refusal to denounce violence that would result in exclusion of talks, and since that requirement was met, the demand changed to refusal to denounce “social and economic disruptions,” which is the entire basis of civil disobedience, strikes, and protests. So, essentially, Beauchamp is demanding that the student organizations denounce their cause before they meet… to discuss their cause.
The last strikes that took place in Quebec in 2005 were successfully divided using the same strategy as Beauchamp attempted. However, as her tactical failure was evident, the divide and conquer effort clearly was not working on Québec students anymore, who remained in solidarity with one another. The government then agreed to sit down to negotiations with the student groups in late April. The talks came to a quick end on April 25, as Line Beauchamp admonished CLASSE for sponsoring a protest the previous night which ended in violence, vandalism, and injuries. Beauchamp commented that, “We cannot pretend today that they have dissociated themselves. I consider, therefore, that the CLASSE has excluded itself from the negotiation table.” A CLASSE spokesperson replied, “Madame Beauchamp does not want to talk about the tuition hike… This decision by Madame Beauchamp is obviously another strategy to sabotage the discussions… Madame Beauchamp will not resolve the crisis without the CLASSE.”
On the night Beauchamp threw her hissy-fit and again ended the chances of negotiations, Montréal had a large protest, drawing thousands of students into the streets. When the students reached a police barricade at a major downtown intersection, tempers flared: garbage cans were overturned, windows of banks were smashed, and some rocks were hurled at police cars. It is notable that violence tends to erupt in protests when confronted with a heavy police presence. A protest earlier on that same afternoon was entirely peaceful, as the police did not have a major presence, instead tailing behind the protesters in vans. It is when the protest is cordoned off, and the right to march – the right to freedom of speech, association, and movement – is being curtailed by riot police, blocking off entire intersections like some reinforced line of Storm Troopers, with police tactics aimed at attempting to separate the protesters into smaller groups, that the police presence creates an antagonizing factor. So, as the protest on the 25th of April was confronted by the line of riot police storm troopers, the protest was declared to be “illegal” by the police: as a few acts of vandalism took place, the police waited, and then began firing tear gas into the crowd of students. The crowd began to disperse and students ran, as the police threw concussion grenades and used their batons.
Protest following Beauchamp’s cancellation of negotiations
The following day, all the blame was placed upon the students. In fact, this remains consistent. All the blame for all the events that have taken place is placed squarely upon the students and protesters. When, earlier in April, three out of four of Montréal’s metro lines were shut down due to bags of bricks being thrown on the tracks and emergency stop levers being pulled on the trains, the blame was also put on students, “but the police have not connected this incident to students.” One individual even released a smoke bomb in a metro station on April 18. While the sources of these incidents remain unknown, the sources of the vast majority of violence at protests is quite evident: the police. It should also be noted that Québec has a bad track record of dealing with protesters and inciting violence, often through agent provocateurs. Back in 2007, at the Montebello protests against North American integration, the Québec provincial police had to later admit that they planted three undercover cops among the protesters, dressed in all black, with their faces covered and brandishing large rocks in their hands as they neared a lineup of riot police. The three men were called out by protesters as being undercover cops attempting to start a riot and justify police repression, and once their cover was blown, they made their way past the police line where they were then “arrested.” Photos of the men show that they were wearing the same police-issued shoes as the riot cops, and the government had to later admit that they were indeed police. Though, the government claimed at the time, their men were undercover “to keep order and security.” No doubt with large rocks.
Emergence of the ‘Maple Spring’
Following the large protests in late April, the Liberal Quebec government – bypassing negotiations – came up with its own brand new “solution” to the protests: increase the tuition even more! Jean Charest and Line Beauchamp gave a press conference on April 27 announcing a six-point plan to end the protests, with absolutely no input from the protesters themselves. Charest began the press conference, speaking to the stenographers of power (the media), stating, “There is an increase in the tuition fees… Let’s not pretend it isn’t there.” The proposal suggested that the government would spread the increases over seven years instead of five, though Charest announced that the government would begin “indexing” the tuition costs in the sixth and seventh years to the rate of inflation, which would mean an annual increase of $254 over seven years (instead of $325 over five), resulting in a total of $1,778, as opposed to the $1,625 over five years. Beauchamp added that, “after factoring in the income-tax credit on tuition fees, the increase is $177 a year, or 50 cents a day.” Beauchamp told reporters, “I invite the students to go to their courses because the solution proposed by the government is a just and equitable solution which ensures better financing of our universities, which ensures a fair share from students, which also ensures access to university and ensures better management of our universities.” Further, Charest and Beauchamp announced that the government would add $39 million in bursaries, the premise of which suggests that it’s fine if the government takes a lot more money from students, so much as they give a small fraction of it back, without raising the obvious question of: why don’t we just keep it in the first place? A student organizer commented that Beauchamp’s “50 cents a day” argument was “very clever,” yet, “It does not touch the nub of the question.” The president of the student organization, the Federation etudiante universitaire du Quebec (FEUQ), Martine Desjardins, commented that, “Quebec families are already heavily indebted,” and the new plan would only increase the debt burden.
An overlooked report from late March by the Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-economique explained that, “increased student debt from higher tuitions could have severe repercussions on public funds.” The researchers noted that, “the provincial government is creating a precarious situation when it encourages students to incur higher debt, much in the same way banks in the United States created a risky situation when they made it easy to obtain mortgages – a situation that ultimately threw the U.S. economy into a recession when homeowners began to default on their payments.” When interest rates go up, as they are set to do so, “today’s students may well find themselves in the same situation of not being able to pay off their student loans.” One of the researchers commented, “Since governments underwrite those loans, if students default it could be catastrophic for public finances… We are already seeing signs of a higher education bubble like that in the U.S… If the bubble explodes, it could be just like the mortgage crisis… The fact is, there is no need for additional funding for Quebec universities.”
The student movement has now begun the campaign for other social movements, labour groups, and activist organizations to join the protests in a wider ‘social strike’ against the Québec government. The more radical student organization, which represents 47% of the 175,000 striking students in Quebec, C.L.A.S.S.E., issued a press release in late April calling for a “social strike” from the “population as a whole!”
Following a massive demonstration of over 200,000 people on April 22 in Montréal demanding the protection of the environment and natural resources, the message was clear: more than tuition is at stake. A manifesto for a “Maple Spring” appeared and spread through social media networks in late April. The manifesto declared that:
2011 was the year of indignation and revolt. The Arab spring unnerved autocrats, swept out dictators, destabilized regimes and drove many to grant reforms. The images of these Arab peoples deposing their oligarchies went around the world and set an example.
Inspired by the spontaneous occupations of public places in the Arab world, the first Indignados appeared in Spain, when deep-going austerity measures were imposed on the country. The Spanish highlighted the real limits of democracy in that country, strongly affected by the economic crisis, subject to the dictates of the financial markets, with 46 per cent of its young people unemployed. The initiative produced its emulators and the movement spread in Europe and beyond.
The movement extended to North America, and from New York around the Occupy Wall Street initiative. That movement was aimed at the richest 1 per cent, the major banks and multinational corporations, which dictate the laws of an unjust global economy that is mortgaging the future of all of us. The movement then spread to more than 100 U.S. cities, but also to Canada (Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Montréal).
The rebellious Arabs, the European Indignant, or the American occupiers, all have gathered behind the same message of hope: Another world is possible!
This storm of global protest against economic and political elites out of touch with the legitimate concerns of insecure peoples who are always being asked to pay more, to work harder, and above all not to demand anything in return, is now blowing over Quebec. The students’ courageous fight for the right to education now constitutes the spearhead of a profound movement of indignation and popular mobilization that has been stirring in Quebec for several years. The monster demonstration of March 22 launched the printemps érable! [Maple Spring!]
Let us join in this global current of revolt and follow the example of the Icelanders who, in January 2009, forced the resignation of the neoliberal government of Geir Haarde, which had participated in the genesis of the economic and social crisis in which that country plunged in 2008.
It’s Quebec’s turn to bring down its corrupt clique!
Charest, that’s enough! Let us demand the government’s resignation!
Among the ‘demands’ that the manifesto made were:
- The right to education for everyone, without discrimination linked to money;
- The right to a healthy environment and the conservation of our natural resources, to protect our water, our rivers, our forests, our regions, and not to yield to the voracious appetite of the mining and oil and gas companies;
- The rights of the indigenous peoples to their aboriginal lands;
- The right to enjoy a responsible and democratic government, serving its people and not some financial interests;
- The right to pacifism and international solidarity, clearly displaying Quebec’s opposition to the militaristic and commercial policies of the federal Conservative government;
- The right to a local, sustainable, mutually supportive social economy that puts humans at the centre of its concerns.
Solidarity for the Québec students has been shown from students and unions and other groups across Canada and indeed, around the world. Students from the University of Ottawa have participated in strikes and protests in Montréal, and the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) sent a bus of students to participate in the mass rally of hundreds of thousands of students on March 22. SFUO president Amalia Savva stated, “When it comes to tuition fees in general—when we see a 75 per cent increase in tuition fees over the next five years in Quebec—that’s extremely dangerous for students not only in Quebec, but across the country, to set a precedent like that… Tuition fees are one of the common struggles students have, not only between Quebec and Ontario, but across the country and across the world as well.”
A number of unions from Ontario expressed solidarity with the student strike, stating that, “We stand in solidarity with the student strikers and the professors, campus workers and community members who have supported this movement. Students in Quebec are fighting against the commercialization of education and user pay through tuition increases that create massive barriers to access and student debt that profits the banks while haunting students for years after graduation.”
On April 26, roughly 50 peaceful protesters assembled in downtown Toronto, with riot police assembled nearby, demonstrating in support of the Québec student strike. A progressive think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, had called for the Toronto protest, issuing a press release stating: “Join us for a rally in front of Québec’s Office in Toronto in solidarity with the ongoing student strike. On this occasion, we will be delivering a petition to be sent to the Premier’s office in Québec. With this action, we also want to contribute to bringing this great movement’s democratic and combative spirit to Ontario.” Students, while fighting against tuition hikes around the world, continue to express solidarity with Québec’s strike, including signs of solidarity appearing at a protest against tuition hikes in Taipei, Taiwan, as well as small protests in Paris and Brussels specifically assembled to show solidarity with Québec students.
Solidarity protest in Belgium
Solidarity protest in Paris, France
Student protest in Taiwan, also showing solidarity with Québec
Québec is not the only place where there is a massive student movement developing into a wider social movement. In fact, Chile saw the start of its massive nation-wide student protest movement in May of 2011, roughly one year ago. The movement began as a student protest and evolved into a wider social movement with demonstrations drawing hundreds of thousands of Chileans, often met with the state apparatus of repression, remnants from Chile’s military dictatorship put in power by the CIA in 1973. The student movement has continued into the new year, and on April 25, the same day that large protests erupted in Montréal, Santagio had a protests which drew tens of thousands of students into the streets (between 25-50,000), rejecting the government’s proposed reforms as “too little.” Student leader Gabriel Boric declared, “We will carry on making history… We students will not give up the fight to make education a public right.” Roughly ten days prior to the protests, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Chile seeking to extend “free-trade” agreements for the benefit of multinational corporations. Canada already has the largest investment in Chile’s mining industry. Reportedly, the massive student movement in Chile was not under discussion between Harper and Chilean President Pinera.
So in Québec, the premier is dismissing the students and subsidizing the mining corporations. In Chile, the Canadian Prime Minister is ignoring student movements in both Canada and Chile while seeking to better secure Canadian mining interests. Thus, in the provincial, national, and international arena, Canadian politicians continually seek to protect, support, and expand the interests of multinational corporations while simultaneously undermining, ignoring, dismissing, and repressing massive student movements demanding social, political, and economic justice. This is not merely a Canadian issue, but a global one, making what is happening in Québec all the more relevant in attempting to bring about a ‘Maple Spring.’ Informal acts of solidarity and formal associations and relationships should be established between the two student movements in Québec and Chile so as to further empower and support those around the world who are partaking in a similar struggle.
What the Students are Saying
I had the chance to interview students and youth taking part in the strike and protests here in Québec. While the mainstream media inundates readers with quotes and concerns of the minority of students who do not support the strike, thus giving a very slanted perspective of the events taking place, I felt it was important to provide statements and perspectives from students who do support and have been taking part in the strike. I asked the students to tell me about their experiences, perspectives, and hopes for the strike and student movement, and what their message to the rest of Canada would be, in light of the poor information being given through the media.
Karine G. from Québec City said that her message to the rest of Canada was that, “Québec is not Canada. Our education system, like other specificities in our society, reflects our difference and our values. We are not complaining, simply trying to defend who we are and how we think it should be reflected through our institutions. Democracy supposes that citizens are free to invest in what they value the most; we think education should be a priority.” She added, “No matter what people try to justify with numbers, raising tuition fees is an ideological decision. Even though the Liberals are trying to make us believe – ‘There is no other alternative’ – we are not fools.” She expressed a great deal of frustration in getting others to understand what democracy and strikes actually represent and consist of, and finds a great deal of “ignorance and individualism” as well as apathy among others who criticize or oppose the strike.
Mathieu Lapointe Deraiche from Montréal stated that while the strike began in opposition to the tuition hikes, “I think after 11 weeks of strike, in the middle of one of the greatest student movements in the history” of the province, in both numbers and duration, “the hike of fees is now only a detail.” He added, “It is now a social crisis that [has] revealed an important generational gap (not to say ‘war’) between Quebec’s youth and the children of the ‘Trentes Glorieuses,” referring to the “30 Glorious Years” of growth following World War II, ending in the 1970s. He explained that the “social crisis” has “called into question the role of the police and the media,” such as TVA, the Journal de Montréal, and the Gazette. Referring to it as a “socio-political war between the youth and the government,” Mathieu explained that it has now reached the point where he “couldn’t be satisfied with a cancellation of the fees,” as his “actual disgust towards [the] government… transcends a financial issue.”
Freezing the ‘Spring’: State Repression of the Strike
Andrée Bourbeau, a member of the legal committee for C.L.A.S.S.E., is responsible for organizing funds to pay for the legal defense of those who are arrested at the protests (whether or not they are students), by disputing the tickets and fines which are dispersed to protesters by the police for taking part in the demonstrations. The mass arrests are done through the use of such tickets, using two Québec laws in particular to repress the student protests, which C.L.A.S.S.E. maintains – and rightly so – as being unconstitutional. For example, article 500.1 of du Code de sécurité routière (Québec law) is “unconstitutional,” explained Bourbeau, “because it prohibits any demonstration.” The article states that, “No person may, during a concerted action intended to obstruct in any way vehicular traffic on a public highway, occupy the roadway, shoulder or any other part of the right of way of or approaches to the highway or place a vehicle or obstacle thereon so as to obstruct vehicular traffic on the highway or access to such a highway.” In short, the very notion of a street protest is declared “unlawful” by Québec, which is a very violation of the right to assemble, the right to free speech and movement. Thus, it is unconstitutional. This article has led to the repression of every demonstration in Québec City, where more than 300 people have received $500 fines under this law. If any of those individuals take part in another protest, and receive another fine, the amount increases to between $3,500 and $10,500. Bourbeau told me, “this is outrageous because this is purely political repression of the student movement in Quebec City.” From the beginning of April, demonstrations have been declared illegal by the police, who threaten students that they will be fined if they take part, even if the demonstrations are peaceful, and of course the vast majority of them are.
It’s a stark reminder of the reality of how the student movement is presented in the media that with over 160 protests – with an average of 2-3 per day across the province – the rest of Canada only hears about the few protests that turned violent. Yet, for the nearly 200 protests that have taken place thus far, they are consistently met with a large police presence, fines, police brutality, and other forms of state coercion and repression. But it is the incidents of bank windows being smashed which the rest of Canada hears about. In Montréal, protests are repressed by the police through a bylaw which forbids assemblies that “breach the peace.” Bourbeau explained, “this is so broad it covers every kind of demonstration.” Thus, at each demonstration, the police arrest students and other protesters simply for being present. When some protesters react with violence or vandalism, this is referred to in the media and by the government as a “riot.”
For example, an article in the National Post written by David Frum was entitled, “David Frum on the Quebec student riots.” The first line in the article wrote, “The rioting students of Quebec got scant sympathy even before they started smashing windows and detonating smoke bombs.” He later referred to the student protesters as “a radical fringe,” who do not “deserve any sympathy.” He added: “And besides, they are part of the problem: a richer-than-average tranche of their own cohort demanding support from the taxes of less affluent people.” David Frum, it should be noted, is a Canadian-American “journalist” who was previously a speechwriter for U.S. President George W. Bush, an ardent neoconservative, and was one of the loudest voices calling for the war on Iraq. Frum was also responsible for coining the phrase “axis of evil,” which George Bush first used in a speech from 2002. Hard to imagine that Québec would get fair coverage from the likes of Frum.
The use of bylaws and other unconstitutional ‘articles’ are – explained Bourbeau – aimed at “trying to demobilize the students, to make us fear going out to demonstrations and organize.” Of particular concern for protesters and organizers, she said, was the recently created police “GAMMA squad” in Montréal. In January of 2011, the GAMMA (Guet des activités et des mouvements marginaux et anarchists) squad was created as a special unit of the Montréal police, specifically designed to monitor anarchists and other “marginal political groups.” In short, it is a political policing unit, designed to engage in repression of ideological opposition to the state. These types of “squads” are typical in fascist and authoritarian countries around the world, but it’s new to Montréal. While protest organizers are very concerned about this squad, they have remained virtually out of the national media (though there is some discussion of them in the French media), so very few are even aware of their existence.
In July of 2011, C.L.A.S.S.E. filed human rights complaints against the GAMMA squad after an “unprecedented” wave of arrests, when four members of the student group, three of whom were executives, were arrested as they were preparing to organize a campaign against the tuition hikes. The stated reason for the arrests was for the organizers participating in having organized protests the previous March which resulted in a small injury of a staff member of Québec Finance Minister Bouchard’s office. A CLASSE spokesperson stated that the aim of the arrests was to “break the back” of the student movement before it even began to mobilize. CLASSE is neither an “anarchist” nor a “marginal” organization (due to it being the largest representation of the student movement), which is not to say that monitoring anarchist and other “marginal” groups (however the State defines that) is acceptable, because it is not. The “evidence” against the student organizers was largely provided by an informant for the GAMMA squad. CLASSE spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois stated, “There is no doubt about the political nature of these arrests… This is clearly an attempt by the [Montreal police] to decapitate the Quebec student movement on the eve of one of its historical struggles.”
Alexandre Popovic, a spokesperson for the Coalition against repression and police brutality, explained that the GAMMA squad represents “police use of social stereotyping to hinder the legal expression of opposition to social and legal policies.” He stated, “It’s ridiculous… They have a stereotypical cartoon image of anarchists,” adding that while anarchists believe in opposing authority (which is a good thing!), they also have families, host book fairs, and engage in intellectual discussions. Referring to the complaints filed against GAMMA to the Québec Human Rights Commission, Popovic stated: “The commission needs to remind the police that we are not in a police state. We have the right to disagree and even have thoughts they might not like.” CLASSE spokesperson Nadeau-Dubois explained, “This squad is really a new kind of political police to fight against social movements.” The GAMMA unit is a branch of the Montréal Police Force’s Organized Crime Unit, which “uses tactics developed to monitor mafia and street gangs in order to keep tabs on political activists.”
Though apparently they don’t do a very good job of handling the Montréal mafia, since the city government they work for has been handing out public contracts to the mafia, who have connections to political parties and the construction industry as well. Back in 2009, a former city government opposition leader, Benoit Labonte, facing corruption charges, stated that the Montréal mafia controls roughly 80% of City Hall, telling Radio-Canada, “Is there a Mafia system that controls city hall? The response is yes.” Mafia-connected construction executives have been involved in election campaigns in municipalities all across the city of Montréal and elsewhere, and have thereafter been awarded with lucrative public contracts. Arrests were made on anti-corruption charges in Montréal in late April, and among the 14 suspects arrested, two of them were Liberal Party organizers, putting Jean Charest’s government further on the offensive. One of those Liberal Party organizers was personally given an award by Jean Charest at a Liberal Party meeting in 2010. Back in September of 2010, Jean Charest’s Québec government was declared by Maclean’s Magazine to be “the most corrupt province” in Canada. Marc Bellemare, the province’s former Justice Minister in the Charest government, spoke out about the rife corruption, favouritism, collusion and graft, with Charest granting Liberal Party fundraisers a say in the appointments of judges, not to mention his government’s deep connections to the overtly-corrupt construction industry. Interestingly, “it costs Quebec taxpayers roughly 30 per cent more to build a stretch of road than anywhere else in the country.” So if Québec really is concerned with “balancing the budget,” perhaps the government – and the police, for that matter – should start with ending corruption in the governments itself (as if that were even possible!). It seems that the government is more interested in supporting organized crime than organized students.
I do not mean to paint Charest as a pawn of the mafia, since he always has been and always will be far more beholden to elite financial and economic interests, specifically that of the powerful Desmarais family (Canada’s equivalent of the Rockefeller family), with its patriarch Paul Desmarais Sr, who treats Charest like a little poodle, and who has established close connections with every Canadian Prime Minister since the 1970s, and all but two of Québec’s premiers in the same amount of time. As one reporter with the Globe and Mail explained, “Desmarais has been personally consulted by prime ministers on every major federal economic and constitutional initiative since the 1970s. Most of the time, they’ve taken his advice.” It was also reported that, “[o]ver the last several years, [Paul Desmarais Sr.] has spun his web to such an extent that it now enables him to call the shots,” especially in promoting his right-wing economic vision, with “a disproportionate influence on politics and the economy in Quebec and Canada.” In particular, Desmarais “has a lot of influence on Premier Jean Charest.” Quebec writer Robin Philpot wrote that when Paul Desmarais received the French Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honour) from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Jean Charest was in attendance, of which Philpot stated, “He took him along like a poodle.” Philpot added, “It’s a very unhealthy situation for a government to be indebted to a businessman that has his own interest at heart. They get their hands tied.”
Québec Premier Jean Charest (right), with French President Sarkozy (centre), and Canadian billionaire oligarch Paul Desmarais, Sr. (left)
And now Charest is attempting to ensure that future generations of students are themselves beholden to the same interests he is: the bankers and corporations, the political-economic and financial elite who dominate the province and the country.
The Students ‘Spring’ Forward
Following Charest’s announcement of a new “seven-year” program for the tuition hikes (with even more tuition costs added on!), students took to the streets in another night of major protests in Montreal. Student leaders rejected the absurd proposal, declaring, “It’s not an offer, it’s an insult.” When some students in the protest occupied an intersection and sat down in the street, the police responded with tear gas. Then, after two hours of peaceful protest (apart from police aggression and a few projectiles thrown at police in response), the police declared the demonstration to be “illegal” and began arresting people.
In late April, in the eleventh week of the strike, international media have finally taken notice, as the student movement is making its way into the headlines of CNN, the BBC, and Al-Jazeera. Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ), one of the main student groups, commented that, “I think we’ve seen that no matter how far reaching the movement is, Charest just isn’t listening… After months of taking to the streets, it’s encouraging and surprising to see the struggle catching on like this. It’s been tiring for students to have to keep marching and striking but this gives us new hope moving forward.” However, despite the general perception of the protests, both student leaders and the police themselves admit that the vast majority of those assembled do so peacefully. Constable Yannick Ouimet of the Montreal Police said, “We know that 99 per cent of the people who show up to protest want to do so peacefully… What we’re seeing now is that the peaceful protesters and their leaders are helping police identify criminals so that they can be removed from the crowd.” Desjardins reflected on the latest “proposal” from Charest, calling it “a smokescreen.” He explained: “the offer was never mentioned when we set down to negotiate with the government. Instead, it was sent above students’ heads as an attempt to win over the general public.” While the media continues to repeat the falling support for the students among the general public – figures which are attributed to the violence – Desjardins felt it noteworthy to point out, “We’re seeing small openings and we’re seeing our support base broadening. It’s not just students out there, it’s parents, teachers, trade unions and different social groups. We don’t want to have gone through all of this and to go back to school empty handed.”
Québec students are increasingly frustrated with the government response to the strike. At a protest in late April, a number of students gave their complaints to the media. “I don’t think there is any class of society that would like to be ignored for three months,” one student explained. She added, “Now, all of a sudden, people realize something is going on because some windows were broken.” Another student, and mother of two, Aurélie Pedron, raised the issue of agent provocateurs being used to demonize the students: “When there are vandals on bicycles, with rocks so huge that you could not find them on Ste. Catherine Street [where the protest was taking place], when it’s a bookstore whose window is smashed, do you really think it is students who do that?.. Don’t take us for idiots.” Another student explained that, “the government approach is to present us as a bunch of vandals.” One political science student explained, “this has become more than a student fight, it is a fight against the government and the state.” Another student at the protest agreed: “The issue is bigger than tuition fees. It is a question of re-establishing democracy. There is no democracy. We are closer to totalitarianism. Decisions are made without listening to the people.” Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the spokesperson for CLASSE, elaborated on the increased scope and vision of the struggle of students: “Those people are a single elite, a greedy elite, a corrupt elite, a vulgar elite, an elite that only sees education as an investment in human capital, that only sees a tree as a piece of paper and only sees a child as a future employee.” Thus, he explained, the student strike would be “a springboard to a much wider, much deeper, much more radical challenge of the direction Quebec has been heading in recent years.”
C.L.A.S.S.E. spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois
Andrée Bourbeau of CLASSE told me that, “if Quebec is the province that has the lowest tuition fees and the best system of bursaries, it’s because we fought since the 1960s through organized actions and strikes,” with the current 2012 strike being the ninth one, and the largest of its kind, with the longest duration. She added, in regards to the methods of the student organizations, that, “we have practiced direct democracy through our student general assemblies for several decades now,” and that it is through this ‘direct democracy’ approach that decisions of the students are made before approaching the government. When the government ignores and dismisses the demands of the students, it is through the direct democracy approach of syndicalisme de combat that the students decide to target – through civil disobedience and peaceful assembly – the economy itself. “Transparency is very important,” explained Bourbeau, “Acting with syndicalisme de combat means that we mobilize people, we organize demonstrations and actions. The movement is its members, not an enlightened elite.” I asked her what her message to the rest of Canada was, to which she replied:
I wait for Canadian students to start struggling for their rights, for free tuition and self-governed universities. I don’t think Quebec has to be different than the other provinces in regards to social programs and public services. [I speak] in solidarity with the people of Canada!
The “political police” and its corrupt and elite-beholden government sponsor continues to repress dissent, demonize an emerging social movement, prevent the expression of basic – constitutionally guaranteed – rights and liberties of hundreds of thousands of youth and activists across the province. The government of Québec is attempting to turn a potential ‘Maple Spring’ into a ‘Hopeless Winter.’ But as we here in Montréal can see and feel, winter is on its way out, the temperature is getting warmer, the sun is starting to shine more and more, and spring is sprouting!
Message from Canada’s Youth: We Refuse to be a Lost Generation!
The argument that Québec students are “whining and crying” about “entitlements” is not only wrong, but deeply immoral. What Québec students are doing is finally standing up and saying, ‘No More!’ What Québec students are doing is not a misguided attempt to preserve “entitlements,” but to try to ensure for ourselves a future, a future which is being – year-by-year – stolen from us. My generation of Canadians – and for that matter youth all over the world – are shackled with more debts than any before us, with less job opportunities, with more poverty, and with the burden of beginning our lives under a system which has consistently favoured the rich few at the expense of the rest. We are told to go to school and get a good job. So we go to school, get deep into debt, and graduate into a market with few jobs. With professional degrees, we go work at Starbucks, so that we may pay the interest on our student debts, or the interest on our credit card debts, struggling to pay our monthly rent, or living at home for much longer than any generation before us because we simply can’t afford to move out. Rents are going up, and housing prices are sky-high in an absurd bubble waiting to burst. So then we are told that if we want “a future,” we have to buy property. None of us can afford a $500,000 condominium in Vancouver or Toronto, so we are told: get a mortgage, it’s the “smart” thing to do. So we get a mortgage, because our parents, our banks, and our government said: “It’s the smart thing to do.” And when this absurd housing bubble pops, our interest payments on our mortgages will skyrocket, and our student debts will skyrocket, and our credit card interest payments will skyrocket, and we won’t even be able to keep up with the increasing costs of food.
We are doomed to poverty before we even have a chance at possibility. We were raised with expectations of a life we could have. For those of us who grew up middle class, like myself, we grew up in a world built on a mirage of debt. The average Canadian household today spends 150% of its income, so that for every $1 they make, they owe $1.50. The average Canadian household is $103,000 in debt, largely due to mortgages, but also as a result of credit card debt, student debt, and other loans. Canada’s big five banks help provide the mortgages, the student debt, tell us to get credit cards, and through the Bank of Canada (our central bank), keep the interest rates low so as to encourage people to get more loans and go deeper into debt. Everyone is told to get an RRSP because “it’s the smart thing to do.” So we save what money we can, and put it into an RRSP account. Yet, if we want to spend that money, we have to do so on property. If we take out the money for anything other than a house or condo (which would still require us to get a mortgage to cover the full expense), then we lose a huge percentage of the money within the account. I took a class in high school where the teacher explained to all the compliant young students that investing your money in an RRSP is “the smart thing to do.”
So now our parents are struggling to pay their rent, meet their interest payments, or even pay for food. They work several jobs, and still we struggle, day-to-day and week-to-week. Our parents see us – their children – also struggling, falling behind and not meeting the social expectations that were set for us: when to move out, when to get an apartment, when to go to school and graduate, when to get a job, when to get a house, when to get married, when to have kids, etc. So our parents, naturally, want the best for us, want us to have what they tried for but are now struggling to even maintain as an illusion. So they tell us: get a student loan to go to school and get a good job, get a credit card, get a mortgage to buy a house. They encourage us to follow their path, when where they currently stand is already dangerously close to the cliff’s edge. Our path, then, is much rougher, much more dangerous, and all the more illusory than theirs. They see only their own children, and want the best. But we, their children, see each other: we see our friends, co-workers, fellow students and compatriots; we see our entire generation and how we all struggle. Our parents see the individual struggles of their own kids. We see and feel the collective struggle of a generation. We did what we were told, and now we are left with massive debt and no jobs, higher rents and fewer hopes. We did what we were told, year after year, because, as they say, “It’s the smart thing to do.” We did everything we were told to “get ahead,” and now we are being left behind.
So what the students in Québec are doing is simply trying to catch up, is simply speaking up and saying that we don’t want to be a “lost generation,” doomed to debt bondage. And now that we – finally! – are awakening to our situation and taking action, we are derided and dismissed, insulted and ‘dissed’, spat on and chastised, beaten with batons, bombed with tear gas. We are told, now, that we are “crying and whining,” that we are spoiled children, demanding “entitlements” and subsidies. We aren’t asking for a free ride through life, all we are wanting… is the chance to have a life.
The future is the world that we are inheriting, and before we can even enter the future, it’s being stolen from us. We are disciplined under heavy debts and higher costs before we have the chance to even reach a true sense of autonomy and independence. We are indebted before we even move out of our homes, before we get our first job. And then we are told we are spoiled and entitled!
It’s time for older generations to move aside, to stop telling us what it is we should want, how we should get it, and then deride us for not doing what they say. If we feel we are ‘entitled,’ it is because we were raised to feel that way. This is partly the fault of our parents’ generation, who have lived a life in debt, and who now instruct us to follow them into the abyss, and dismiss us when we say we want to chart our own course. Well now it’s time for them to move aside. They tried, in the 1960s and early 70s, to civilize society and make a better world – something we are now told is not worth aspiring to – and indeed, achievements were made, but it was stopped short. The elites of our society saw the emergence of social democratization and struggles for liberation and put a finish to it. The system they constructed to strangle the struggle for liberation is what we call “neoliberalism” and debt-domination.
Demonstration in Montréal
Now, all around the world, from North Africa, to Latin America, East Asia, Europe and right here in Québec, the youth are finally standing up against this ruthless global system of exploitation, militarism, racism, and domination. What the students in Québec are doing is joining the global struggle as it emerges around the world, and setting an example for the rest of Canada and North America, who have so far been lagging far behind. We are not preserving entitlement; we are seeking empowerment. If our parents failed to do it, it is left to us. So, for those in previous generations who only want “the best” for their children, it is time to stop telling us to follow their examples, and time to start following ours. It is time to stand with and behind the youth, instead of out in front and above us. It is time to support us where we need it most. What the youth of the world are now saying is that we will welcome your support and encouragement, but if you get in our way, we will push you aside and leave you behind. So if you – like all people of this world should – desire a better world for your children, want to enter a more hopeful future, and create a more equal and fair society, it’s time to step up to the plate and stand behind the vanguard of the revolution: the youth!
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada, writing on a number of social, political, economic, and historical issues. He is also Project Manager of The People’s Book Project. He also hosts a weekly podcast show, “Empire, Power, and People,” on BoilingFrogsPost.com.
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Canada’s Economic Collapse and Social Crisis: Class War and the College Crisis, Part 5
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
Hundreds of thousands of students take to the streets in Québec to protest tuition increases
What are the Spending Priorities of the Government?
In the debate raging over increased costs of tuition in Quebec, increased debt loads of the federal and provincial governments, the need to reduce costs – impose “fiscal austerity” – and find “solutions” to these problems, very little context is given. As students fight back against increased fees, the counter argument simply states that people must pay for their education, that governments must reduce their deficits, and therefore, cuts in spending and increases in tuition are necessary, though undesirable. But how necessary are they? Where is the government putting its money?
The question really comes down to one of priorities and approach. What are the spending priorities of the government, for people in need or for the benefit of the rich? What is the government’s approach to spending in terms of addressing a major social and economic crisis, to treat symptoms or address the cause? A great deal is revealed about the moral, ethical and humanitarian considerations of a state in terms of how and where it spends its money. Canada is no exception.
First, let’s start with Canada’s debt. In October of 2011, it was reported that Canada’s combined federal and provincial debt equaled roughly $1.1 trillion. This raised calls from the business community in Canada stating that, “It’s time for governments across Canada to get more serious about controlling and reducing debt.” In other words: time for fiscal austerity! (i.e., cutting social spending and increasing costs and taxes) This debt load amounts to roughly 58% of government GDP (that is, 58% of yearly tax revenues), as opposed to Greece, with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 160%.
An interesting issue to note is that the Bank of Canada (Canada’s central bank) was created in 1934 as a private bank, and it was transformed into a government-owned bank in 1938, and was then able to lend to the government without interest, and thus, “the Bank is ultimately owned by the people of Canada.” The job of the Bank is to manage monetary policy, by issuing the currency and setting interest rates. Canada had a unique central bank, as most other central banks were founded and maintained as private banks (responsible to private shareholders), such as the Bank of England (1694), the Bank of France (1801), and the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States (1913). It was responsible for financing Canada’s war machine during World War II, railways, the St. Lawrence seaway, the TransCanada Highway, schools, hospitals, healthcare, pensions, and social security, all with no interest attached. Between 1940 and 1974, Canada had a national debt below $18 billion. In 1974, all of this changed as Canada sunk into its neoliberal abyss, when private banks (the “big five” in Canada) essentially took over the function of lending to the government, and at high interest rates, with Canada paying over $61 billion per year on interest to private banks alone. Between 1981 and 1995, the Canadian government collected $619 billion in income tax, but because the debt was owed to private banks, instead of being interest-free with the Bank of Canada, during that same period of time, the Canadian government paid the private banks $428 billion in interest payments.
Interest payments on Canada’s debt account for roughly 15% of Canada’s revenues. Statistics Canada provides information up until 2009 on the Canadian government’s expenditures and revenues. In 2009, the federal government’s expenditures amounted to $243 billion, with $26 billion spent on health care, $88 billion on social services, $5.8 billion on education, and $18.6 billion on debt charges.
So, while cuts are being made to social programs and education (fiscal austerity), they are increasing dramatically to the military, defense, and police. In 2000, Canada spent $10 billion on defense, and that rose to $21.8 billion in 2011. In 2008, Canada’s Conservative government set out a plan to increase defense spending over the following 20 years, setting the goal at $490 billion in total defense spending over that period. Included in the plans are the purchase of 65 F-35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin, the American war profiteering corporation, to a possible dollar amount of $30 billion or more. So there is money for the war machine, to support an increasingly imperialistic foreign policy, and as the ever-present appendage lap-dog to the American Empire to the south.
And since Canada has its lowest crime rate since the 1970s, naturally the ever-pragmatic Conservative government is seeking to rapidly accelerate the construction of prisons and expansion of police forces. The government’s proposed changes to the criminal system seek to “create a flood of Canadians into the prison system.” The government identified prisons, police, and the purposely-Orwellian classification of “public safety” as the biggest winners in increased budget allocations for 2011, seeking to build more prisons and hire hundreds more police officers. At the same time, the government is slashing benefits to seniors and old-age pensioners. According to the Parliamentary Budget Office, prison costs are expected to rise from $4.4 billion in 2011 to $9.5 billion in 2015-16. When the Conservatives came to power in 2006, prison costs amounted to $1.6 billion per year. So while the government spends billions on corporate tax cuts, fighter jets, police and prisons, it is simultaneously planning on cutting spending for old age pensioners and social security programs.
As the government cuts between 11-22,000 federal public sector jobs, the Canadian Forces (military), RCMP (police), and the overall ‘national security’ establishment will not suffer such cuts, and in fact, will gain employees. Ultimately, under the plans of the Conservative government, between 60,000 and 70,000 jobs could vanish across the country to implement $8 billion in spending cuts.
While spending on health care exceeded $200 billion in 2011, it amounted to $5,800 per person in Canada. While this system – of what is often called ‘socialized healthcare’ – is portrayed by Americans as costly and wasteful, it is far cheaper than the American corporatized – or privatized – health “care” system. The average spending on health care for OECD countries – as a percentage of GDP – is 9.5%: Canada spent 11.4% of its GDP on healthcare in 2009, compared to the United States, which spent 17.4% of its GDP on healthcare; with the Netherlands spending at 12% of GDP, France at 11.8% and Germany at 11.6%. In terms of spending per capita (that is, the cost of healthcare spread out evenly to each individual within the country), Canada spends $4,363 (U.S. dollars) per person on healthcare, with the OECD average at $3,223, and compared to the United States at $7,960 per capita. The irony here, of course, is that a for-profit health system is far more costly than a ‘socialized’ healthcare system, despite the common claims to the contrary.
So naturally, the Federal Government, in the midst of – and on the precipice of a far greater – economic crisis, decides that the best courses of action are to increase unemployment by firing tens of thousands of people, reduce social spending so that they are left with less support in their newfound poverty, and continue to privatize everything. Of course, this inevitably leads to social unrest, protests, even rebellion. Quebec is a great example, as it seems that the anti-tuition strikes and protests are getting more dramatic with each passing week. As the reality of our situation settles in over the course of the next year and years, the protests and resistance will exacerbate and grow nation-wide (along with the development of similar movements around the world). Thus, we may properly understand the impetus of the government to increase spending on police, the military, “public safety” (national security/police state) and prisons: as typical state responses to social crises, throw money at the systems, structures and institutions of oppression so that when the people begin to rise up, the state may have the force available to push them down, oppress them, and imprison them.
The Government of Quebec, which is doubling tuition costs over the next five years, has a current debt of $184 billion or 55.5% of GDP. Quebec’s current budget, released in March of 2012, projects spending of $70.9 billion, with 42.5% of the budget allocated to healthcare and social services, 22.5% on education and culture, 11.6% on debt servicing, 3.5% on families and seniors, and 19.9% on “other.” Total expenditures on education, leisure, and sports amount to less than $16 billion, with $1.3 billion being allocated to Quebec’s corporations, $5 billion going to manufacturing, while $8.2 billion of the budget is going to pay the interest on the debt. Meanwhile, the government was announcing major investments in mining, aiming to produce a surplus, with $1 billion in investments in mining and hydrocarbon industries, as part of Quebec’s ‘Plan Nord,’ The Plan includes the creation of Resources Québec, a new Crown corporation that will oversee a $1.2-billion equity portfolio, designed to “help develop the north and exploit the province’s abundant mineral resources.” The government, in turn, is expecting $4 billion in mining royalties over the next decade. The forestry, tourism, and agribusiness industries are also getting support from the government, creating partnerships between big business, government, and unions. Quebec provides a great deal of corporate welfare. In 2007, Quebec ranked first among Canadian provinces in how much corporate welfare was doled out, at $6 billion, followed by Ontario at $2.1 billion, Alberta at $1.2 billion, and British Columbia at over $1 billion. So, there’s no more money for education, but there’s plenty of money to throw at multi-billion dollar corporations.
For all the screaming and wailing governments engage in over the costs of social programs and benefits for the public, there’s very little discussion over the expenditures of governments which go to corporations, not to mention, tax cuts. Beginning in 2000, under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, the Canadian federal government began implementing massive corporate tax cuts, which “allowed Canadian companies to amass some $477 billion in cash reserves,” with corporate taxes going from 28% in 2000, to 21% when the Conservatives came to power in 2006, to 15% at the beginning of 2012. While the tax cuts were supposedly to encourage job creation, in reality, the cuts “allowed companies to hoard cash, pay out larger dividends to shareholders and beef up executive salaries.” For each percentage point in a decrease of corporate taxes, the federal government loses $2 billion in potential revenue. Thus, the total loss from the new tax cuts amounts to $26 billion. A report from the Canadian Labour Congress explained, “The government has been borrowing money to pay for its corporate tax giveaways. Now, to pay for tax breaks, the government is planning to make massive cuts to public services, such as meat inspection, that are essential to Canadians.”
So while students, seniors, and the poor suffer, Canadian corporations are doing marvelously well. Reports from Statistics Canada show that Canadian corporations are “sitting on more than $583 billion in Canadian currency and deposits, and more than $276 billion in foreign currency.” The cash reserves of these companies have climbed 27.3% since 2007, back when Canada’s economy was “booming,” and 9% of the increase in reserves was since last year. Not including financial corporations and banks, Canadian companies saw their cash reserves increase by $33 billion in the last quarter of 2011. While Canadian household debt has doubled since 1990, corporate taxes have been cut almost in half in the same amount of time. Canadian provinces have been lowering corporate taxes as well. Back in 2000, Canada’s combined federal and provincial corporate tax rate was the highest of the OECD countries, at 43%. Today, it’s around the world average of 26%. So while Canadian corporations sit on hundreds of billions of unused dollars, the Canadian government is continuing to give them more money to put in their bank accounts, which then reduces the government budget by billions each year, and the Canadian people are then expected to pay for this corporate welfare through reduced social services, loss of public sector jobs, increased tuition costs and increased debt.
Corporate welfare is dolled out by provincial governments as well. In 2011, the Province of Quebec and Quebec City each provided $200 million to build a new hockey arena for a for-profit hockey team. Ontario is also a corporate welfare haven, as between 2003 and 2005, the province gave $422 million to GM, Ford, Toyota and Chrysler, and in 2009, the province participated in a Canada-Ontario $15.3 billion bailout of GM and Chrysler. The last year that government statistics are available, in 2008, Ontario spent $2.7 billion on corporate welfare, while Quebec spent $6 billion. Between 1991 and 2009, the government of Ontario gave $27.7 billion in tax dollars to corporations. Meanwhile, the Government of Quebec increased taxes in 2010, and the provincial sales tax increased by 2% since then, along with an increased gas tax, and of course, tuition increases.
This system is, by definition, corporatist. A corporatist system (alternatively referred to as “corporate socialism” or “economic fascism”) is one in which profit is privatized and risk is socialized. In other words, the state ensures that corporations profit and become more powerful and dominant, while the people have to foot the bill and suffer for it. As Benito Mussolini reportedly stated, “Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism, for it is the merger of state and corporate power.” It is no surprise then, that as the state becomes more supportive to the suckling-pig-like-corporate cancers of our society, they also become more oppressive and totalitarian. The very circumstances demand it.
The Big Five Banks Declare War on the People
In early March of 2012, it was reported that Canada’s big five banks (Royal Bank, CIBC, TD, Scotiabank, Bank of Montreal) have recorded “sky-high profits” of $7 billion in the first quarter alone (from November 2011 to January 2012), an average increase of 5.8% since last year. Much of the profits, especially for CIBC, “were mostly due to higher volumes of personal and commercial loans,” or, in other words: debt for people and corporations. Canadian banks are, on the whole, doing better than ever. They are consistently rated as the “world’s soundest” banks by the World Economic Forum, and are even adding some jobs, while U.S. banks cut theirs.
A recent report released by CIBC stated that corporate Canada is as “fit as a fiddle,” as “a health check on Canada’s corporate sector shows businesses across the country passing with flying colours.” In fact, according to economists from CIBC, Canada’s corporate sector has never been better. The major indices of corporate ‘health’ are: “debt-to-equity ratios, cash to credit ratios, profit margins, returns on equity, returns on capital.” The economists concluded that, “even with public sector retrenchment under way, and indications that consumers may not have the same appetite to spend as earlier in the recovery, corporate Canada could be positioned to pick up the mantle and drive economic growth in the years ahead.” So naturally while Canada’s corporations are as “fit as a fiddle” and the public at large is dominated by debt, the government – both federal and provincial – seek to extend more benefits to corporations (tax cuts and state subsidies), while extending hardships to the majority of Canadians (increased taxes, reduced social spending, increased costs). Again, it’s about priorities.
The banking sector in Canada itself is becoming two-tiered, where the big five banks are vacating the inner cities, and so-called “fringe banks” are becoming the choice banks for poor and low-income Canadians. Professor Jerry Buckland wrote that, “There is something ethically troublesome about a situation where low-income people are paying high fees for low-quality services and middle-income people are paying low fees for high-quality services.” Unexpected fees, bad banking hours, lack of ID, and other constraints have pushed lower income groups away from the big five and toward the ‘fringe banks’ which also charge big fees but are more accessible. However, the combination of the big five leaving the inner cities and the fringe banks charging high fees and interest rates, “exacerbate poverty and create a two-tiered banking system.”
Canada’s big five banks are rolling in money. CIBC reported $835 million in profits for the first quarter, up 9.4% from last year; Royal Bank reported first quarter profits of $1.86 billion; TD Bank had profits of $1.48 billion; Scotiabank had first quarter profits of $1.44 billion, a 15.2% increase from last year; and the Bank of Montreal recorded profits of $1.11 billion, up 34.5% from last year.
So why are Canada’s banks doing so well? It’s simple: because people are in debt, and getting deeper into debt. As the Globe and Mail reported, “Mortgages and credit card spending have fuelled bank profits for years.” So now what? Well, Royal Bank of Canada and TD both announced in March of 2012 that they will begin to increase their interest rates on mortgages, which means that they are seeking to further sap the wealth and deflate the future potential of the average Canadian household. But the increase in interest rates will increase bank profits, so it’s a good thing for Royal Bank and TD, never mind that it’s bad for everyone else. The other major Canadian banks will likely follow suit in raising their interest rates. The chief economist at TD Bank estimated that, “more than one million Canadian households, or about 10 per cent of those that currently have debt, will have to devote 40 per cent or more of their income to making their monthly debt payments if rates rise by two-to-three points to more normal levels.”
A Bubble Waiting to Burst?
So what is the Canadian mortgage and housing market doing? Well, it’s replicating the disaster seen in the United States just prior to the 2008 crash. Canada’s banking regulator, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions warned that Canadian banks were offering mortgages very similar to the U.S. subprime loans and that these pose an “emerging risk” to Canadian banks. Now the regulator didn’t just come out and say this, because that might be helpful. Instead, this information was released to Bloomberg news via a Freedom of Information law request, which revealed that Canadian mortgages “have some similarities to non-prime loans in the U.S. retail lending market.” In 2009, Canada’s housing market began to soar with record-low interest rates on mortgages. This is one of the primary reasons why Bank of Canada governor (and former Goldman Sachs executive) Mark Carney warned that household debt is the greatest threat to Canada’s economic stability.
The state of the Canadian population is abysmal. The average debt for a Canadian household is over $100,000, and the average Canadian household spends 150% of their income. This means that for every $1,000 earned, $1,500 is owed. These debt figures are primarily made up of mortgages, but also student debt, credit card debt, and other lines of credit. A 2011 report indicated that, “17,400 households were behind in their mortgage payments by three or more months in 2010, up by 50 per cent since the recession began. Credit card delinquencies and bankruptcy rates also remain higher than before the recession.”
In March of 2012, the Bank of Canada warned that household debt “remains the biggest domestic risk” to Canada’s economy. While part of the Bank’s role is to set interest rates, it has kept interest rates very low (at 1%) in order to encourage lending (and indeed, families have become more indebted as a result). Yet, the Bank says, interest rates will have to rise eventually. Economists at Canada’s major banks (CIBC, RBC, BMO, TD, and ScotiaBank) naturally support such an inevitability, as one BMO economist stated, “while rates are unlikely to increase in the near term, the next move is more likely to be up rather than down, and could well emerge sooner than we currently anticipate.” The chief economist at CIBC stated that, “markets will pick up on the slightly improved change in tone on the economy, and might move forward the implied date for the first rate hike.” This translates into: the economy is doing well for the big banks, therefore they will demand higher interest rates on debts, and plunge the Canadian population into poverty; the “invisible hand of the free market” in action.
The Canadian housing market is in a major bubble, “with a run-up in prices, high ownership rates and overbuilding.” A majority of Canadian mortgages are financed through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), the equivalent of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the United States (which both went bust in the 2008 crash). The CMHC has an outstanding balance of $132 billion in mortgage-backed securities, $202 billion in Canada Mortgage Bonds, and last year issued a debt of $41.3 billion (compared to $6.5 billion in 2001). The big five banks generally provide the remaining mortgages (again, just like in the U.S.). A spokeswoman for the Canadian Bankers Association, however, reassured those who somehow still trust bankers that Canadian banks “carefully manage risk in their mortgage portfolios.” Home sales are increasing – another indication of the growing bubble – by 9.5% last year alone, while home prices increased by 7.2%. CIBC reported that Canadian homes are overvalued (that is, their prices are artificially inflated) by 10%, and the heads of the Bank of Montreal and Royal Bank both warned in late 2011 that, “condominium markets in Toronto and Vancouver are at risk of correction,” which is to say, a crash.
The problem is especially large in Vancouver, which was recently rated as the most expensive city to live in across North America, followed Los Angeles and New York. Vancouver is now the 37th most expensive city in the world, whereas just last year it was ranked as 72nd. The average price for a detached bungalow in Vancouver increased by 17% from the previous year to $1.02 million. The average cost of a condominium in Vancouver rose 5.1% to $513,500 and the “average priced home in Vancouver is now 11.2 times the average family income, a figure many economists call unsustainable.” In certain areas of Vancouver, such as Richmond, West Vancouver and the West End, housing prices have soared nearly 80% in the past five years, and 27% just in the past year alone. This has been raising fears of a housing bubble in Vancouver, and indeed it should be.
In January of 2012, Bank of Canada governor warned – in very subtle and vague terms – that Canada’s property market is “probably overvalued,” meaning that it is heavily overvalued. Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty also hinted that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, stating, “We watch the housing market carefully and we are prepared to intervene if necessary.” So is it a bubble? Yes! In fact, the Bank of Nova Scotia recently reported that, “At 13 years and counting, Canada’s current housing boom is one of the longest-lasting in the world.” The price of Canadian homes has increased by over 85% since 1998, with a slight stagnant period in 2008, and then continued to rise in 2009, growing by a further 20%. It is no coincidence that household debt has increased as well, with the debt burden of Canadian families at 153% of their income, which is “almost as much debt as American households had at the peak of their bubble.” In fact, the Economist magazine estimated that the Canadian housing market is overvalued by more than 70% (which is to say, it’s probably much higher than that). One of the major American banks, Merrill Lynch, issued a report indicating that the Canadian housing market is rife with “overvaluation, speculation and over supply.” According to an international survey of housing affordability, Vancouver is the second-least affordable city in the world.
It seems that 2012 will be the year the housing market bubble begins to pop, with the economy slowing down, unemployment rising, and job creation has virtually stalled, according to CIBC, which explained that, “the job market is currently weaker than any non- recessionary period.” Canada is not alone, of course, as the United States and Ireland were just the beginning. It is expected that the U.K., Australia, Belgium, France, New Zealand, Spain, and Sweden are all set to follow suit. Within Canada, however, British Columbia and Ontario will be the most affected. But don’t worry, the Canadian banking sector will survive the pop, because it is actually the Canadian government which owns 75% of the mortgages, meaning that this will then pass to Canadian taxpayers, not the poor disadvantaged millionaire and billionaire bankers. Besides, the risk they have will probably be bailed out by our government. As our Finance Minister stated, “we are prepared to intervene if necessary,” which means that they will take all the bad debts of the banks, and then hand them to YOU.
An economist at the Bank of Montreal said not to worry, however, because Canada’s housing market isn’t a bubble, “it’s a balloon,” and therefore, she predicted, “Canada’s housing market is expected to deflate slowly rather than pop.” The argument, however, is one based upon faith: faith that the banks won’t increase interest rates by too much, faith that Canadian household debt won’t inflict as much harm as American household debt, and faith that one can compete in verbal and mental gymnastics in such a way as to convincingly refer to a bubble as a “balloon.” It should be noted that up until the burst of the American housing bubble, all the major players were denying that a bubble even existed.
Patti Croft, a recently retired chief economist from the Royal Bank of Canada warned the Canadian Parliament in January of 2012 that, “the risk of a housing bubble was among Canada’s biggest issues.” The Bank of Canada’s extremely low interest rate (of 1%) has stimulated this growth, just as the Federal Reserve in the United States helped stimulate the housing bubble there through historically low interest rates. The result of such low rates is an excess of speculative actions in the housing market, driving prices up. Croft warned that, “the greater concern is the looming housing bubble that we see, particularly in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, because I think that is where the speculative excesses lie.”
In March, TD Bank warned that Canada’s housing bubble posed a “clear and present danger” to Canada’s economy, and singled out Vancouver as “the market with the greatest risk of a housing price correction.” The effects of the bubble are already evident, as British Columbia is increasingly losing people who are moving to other provinces due to the high cost of living.
It should be noted that, even though this housing bubble in Canada has been inflated since the late 1990s, it is only being talked about, admitted as even existing (though some make absurd claims about magical “balloons”), and acknowledged NOW. This is dangerous. The fact that it is now being acknowledged by top banks, the finance minister, the Bank of Canada and other major international organizations and banks, implies that they are now preparing for it to burst, and are thus positioning themselves to profit from the coming collapse. Remember, this is not a strange idea: during the housing bubble collapse in the United States, all the big banks which helped create it then bet against the market and profited off of its collapse, not to mention, they were then rewarded by the federal government with trillions of dollars in bailouts for their outstanding accomplishments in causing the crisis in the first place. Criminals are rewarded, and victims are punished. That is for a simple reason: government is organized crime.
Canada’s youth are in a major crisis. The youth unemployment rate in Canada is at 14.7%, compared to an overall unemployment rate of 7.4%, with 27,000 less jobs for young Canadians than last year. As one economist explained, “In addition to the fact that youths are facing competition from their own age cohorts, they are now facing competition from people who just lost their jobs during the recession and have 20 years of experience in the workforce.” Further, the economist added, “the whole process of trying to get to where you wanted to be when you got out of university takes years longer than it used to. Taking a lower wage than you were initially expecting has significant repercussions for your long-term career.” A one percent increase in unemployment rates leads to a six-to-seven percent decrease in salary, and thus, “It can take anywhere from 10 upwards to 15 years to close that gap of reduced wages. So your lifetime earnings are substantially lower, for the simple fact that you graduated at the wrong time.” The real rates of unemployed are actually much higher than the stated 14% “because a lot of young people aren’t collecting Unemployment Insurance or welfare.” Thus, it is 14% of Canadian youths who are on Unemployment Insurance or welfare, and the statistics don’t include the rest of the unemployed youth population of Canada.
As for the net unemployment rate of Canadians at 7.4%, this too is misleading, because the statistics don’t include the number of Canadians who have simply given up on the job search, amounting to 38,000 Canadians in the past year. The province of Manitoba created 600 new jobs in 2011, while cutting 10,000 jobs in the same amount of time. The Canadian economy has cut 37,000 jobs just since October of 2011, and it’s only going to get worse. While there are 27,000 less jobs for Canadian youth than there were last year, this number grows to 300,000 less jobs for youth than there were in 2008.
The Canadian federal budget, released in late March, set out the government’s priorities for the coming year. Students and youth, who are among the most in need of help, were basically left out of the budget, naturally, since they are not multinational corporations, bankers, or billionaires. What money is going to schools is marked for industry-related research (i.e., a corporate subsidy), and as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty explained, “The plan’s measures focus on the drivers of growth: innovation, business investment, people’s education and skills that will fuel the new wave of job creation.” Again, it’s important to note that when politicians use the terms “jobs” or “job creation,” what they actually mean is “profit” and “profit creation,” invariably for corporations and banks. In regards to education:
The Conservatives placed a clear emphasis on partnerships between businesses and universities when it came to research funding: among their plans, they intend to dedicate $14 million over two years to double the Industrial Research and Development Internship Program, which currently supports 1,000 graduate students in conducting research at private-sector firms.
While the Canadian government announced funding of “$500 million over five years to support modernization of research infrastructure on campuses through the Canada Foundation for Innovation,” as well as through other research granting councils, the funding will actually be reallocated from other areas of education financing, what are deemed “lower-priority programs,” which means that they do not directly support corporate or industrial profit-making potential. The government will also cut 19,200 jobs from the public sector.
The federal government’s budget estimates a $5.2 billion cut in spending, as well as increasing the limit on Old Age Security from 65 to 67, meaning that older people will have to work longer before getting any benefits. That will give the government just enough time to steal everyone’s pension and hand them to corporations before the people actually need them. So while the government cuts social spending, ignores the needs of Canada’s youth, and fires tens of thousands of workers – this is what economists call “fiscal austerity” – it simultaneously is increasing its spending and support to Canada’s corporations (who are already as “fit as a fiddle”), with “direct spending and incentives to help firms expand, invest and export, as well as measures designed to shed some of the shackles on their growth.” The chief economist at TD Bank stated, “They are trying to create a favourable environment in which businesses can grow.” So while the government provides a meager $50 million to help students find jobs, it hands out billions to corporations. The increased funding for research at universities is also specifically designed to produce products to go onto the market; so again, education funding is being further railroaded into merging business and higher education.
These moves are obviously not taken on the initiative of government alone, but are lobbied for by the corporate and financial elite, whether directly through interest groups, or indirectly through think tanks. The Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) – formerly the Business Council on National Issues (BCNI) – is an interest group made up of the top 150 CEOs in Canada, and which directly lobbies the government to serve their interests. They played a major role in the efforts to create NAFTA and to pursue the agenda of North American integration, as well as a plethora of other free trade deals. However, their “interests” extend beyond trade, and they seek to lobby the government to serve their interests across the whole society.
The current President and CEO of the CCCE is John P. Manley, former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, former Minister of Finance, Industry, and Foreign Affairs. He was the co-chair of a Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on the Future of North America (which set the agenda for the Security and Prosperity Partnership and North American integration). He is also on the board of directors of CIBC and a number of other corporations and non-profits. The Vice Chairman of the board of directors of the CCCE is of course, Paul Desmarais Jr. (of the powerful Desmarais family, who essentially OWN Canada’s politicians and Prime Ministers), and other board members include: William A. Downe, CEO of BMO Financial Group; Gordon Nixon, CEO of Royal Bank of Canada; and a number of other leading corporate executives.
The CEOs of the following companies and business organizations are all represented in the CCCE: Air Canada, Astral Media, Barrick Gold Corporation, BCE Inc and Bell Canada, BMO Financial group, BNP Paribas (Canada), Bombardier, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, Canadian Oil Sands Limited, Canadian Pacific Railway, Canfor Corporation, Cargill Limited, Chevron Canada, CIBC, CN, Deloitte & Touche LLP, Desjardins Group, Dow Chemical Canada, E.I. du Pont Canada Company, Encana Corporation, Ford Motor Company of Canada, GE Canada, GlaxoSmithKline, the Great-West Life Assurance Company, HSBC Bank Canada, Hudson’s Bay Company, IBM Canada, Imperial Oil Limited, Manulife Financial Corporation, McCain Foods Limited, Microsoft Canada, National Bank of Canada, Pfizer Canada, Power Corporation of Canada, Power Financial Corporation, Royal Bank of Canada, Scotiabank, SNC-Lavalin Group, Standard Life Assurance Company, Sun Life Financial, Suncor Energy, TD Bank Group, TELUS, TransCanada Corporation, The Woodbridge Company Limited, among many others.
Back in October of 2010, John Manley spoke to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada on the issue of making Canada “a leader in the knowledge economy.” Manley stated that Canada needed to ensure that “more of our academic discoveries successfully ‘cross the chasm’ to commercial success,” referring to the need to market what is done in university laboratories. Manley stated that, “there is a need for closer collaboration between post-secondary education institutions and the business community,” as, he explained: “Business-university collaboration is key to Canada’s ability to compete more effectively, to enhance our quality of life and to provide better opportunities for tomorrow’s graduates.” Manley elaborated:
All of us have an interest in achieving stronger partnerships between post-secondary institutions and the private sector, and in overcoming the barriers to commercialization of university research – barriers ranging from “hard” issues of funding and intellectual property ownership, to less tangible considerations such as differences in expectations, culture and behaviour between academia and the private sector.
With the release of the Canadian federal budget for 2012, the CCCE of course praised the budget as “taking steps to promote job creation and business investment.” John Manley stated, “By restraining the growth in public spending, reducing regulatory overlap, improving Canada’s immigration system and enhancing support for business-driven research, the government is helping to build a stronger and more competitive Canadian economy.”
Economists from Canada’s major banks had a good deal to say about the budget. Economists from TD Bank explained that, “When combined, the various measures included in today’s budget are aimed at improving productivity and boosting private sector growth, at a time when public spending is being constrained,” and that, of course, this is a good thing. An economist at CIBC praised “the path towards fiscal balance,” as “the 2012 budget was as much about Canada’s longer term prospects as it was about squeezing spending.” Economists at the National Bank of Canada praised the budget’s decision to raise the old age security pension eligibility from 65 to 67 years, “While it is a step in the right direction, it could have been implemented earlier.” Economists at Royal Bank of Canada stated that the Canadian government “has delivered on its promise of guiding the Canadian economy towards improved fiscal performance in what are generally difficult economic times globally.” Meanwhile, the National Pensioner and Senior Citizens Federation declared that, “Today’s budget tabled by Finance Minister Flaherty confirmed the worst for our children and grandchildren… This government has attacked the retirement security of future generations as it looks years ahead for dollars to finance other priorities… There was nothing for seniors, not even a discarded penny for the poorest living in poverty.”
But then, that’s the point, isn’t it? Why would you seek to help the elderly and the poor and needy when you can help the multinational corporations and global banks, and thus, when you leave government, get a secure position on their boards (as John Manley did), and live the rest of your days as a jet-setting, globe-trotting, high-rolling elite? As a politician, you get no personal benefit or profit from supporting or serving the poor or the majority, you must only serve a tiny elite, and then your place is ensured among them.
Make no mistake: Canada’s Big Five Banks, the corporations they control, and the federal and provincial governments, which they collectively OWN, have declared class war on the people of Canada. The agenda is simple: get the population of Canada indebted, which is to say, enslaved; then, increase interest rates, cut social spending, increase unemployment, increase tuition, increase consumer costs, increase taxes, and at the same time, give more support and money to corporations and banks, and decrease their taxes. Then, build prisons, fund the military and the police and the police state apparatus of surveillance and control, so that when the people wake up to the fact that their future is being stolen from them, you can put them in their place: under the boot.
So the question for Canadian is this: will you acknowledge the class war taking place against you, your friends, and your families and fellow brothers and sisters, and then seek to fight back; or, will you continue to go into credit card debt, further into student debt, get mortgages and passively accept subservience to a system which treats you like a slave, sub-human degenerates, and superfluous, that is, useless and expendable. It is a question of passive acceptance of an evil system, or active resistance to forge ahead and creatively construct a humane society. The question is for all; the answer is yours alone.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada, writing on a number of social, political, economic, and historical issues. He is also Project Manager of The People’s Book Project. He also hosts a weekly podcast show, “Empire, Power, and People,” on BoilingFrogsPost.com.
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