Anna Kruzynski is professor at the School of Community and Public Affairs at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. Her research activity aims to help activists and organizations document, analyze and reflect on their activism. In addition to her academic work, she is also deeply involved in activism and has been involved in a variety of community organizations (la Pointe libertaire, Collectif de recherche sur l’autonomie collective) and social movements. She co-edited “Nous sommes ingouvernable” (We are ungovernable) about contemporary anarchism in Quebec, which was published in March 2013. Our conversation focuses on last year’s “Maple Spring” and the history of student activism in Quebec.
Paul Gottinger: Many people believed when the Quebec Liberal Party lost power in the provincial elections of September of 2012 and the Parti Quebecois (PQ) came to power (the PQ immediately ended the tuition hikes and an emergency law, which essentially criminalized protest) that the students won. Is this accurate? What was achieved by the protests that comprised the “Maple Spring”?
Anna Kruzynski: We can break the student movement and what has been called the “Maple Spring” into two phases. The first part is from February/March 2012 to the election of the PQ in September of 2012. The second part is from September until now. The balance of power was in favor of the student movements prior to the elections in September. All of the different student associations, whether they were more radical or more reformist, were all united in favor of a tuition freeze. Everybody knew that was what was going on. CLASSE was talking about free education as a long-term goal, but their demand was a tuition freeze. That was clear. [CLASSE was a temporary coalition of student unions created to stop the tuition increases. Its name stands for Coalition large de l’ASSÉ. ASSÉ or l’association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante made up the core of CLASSE. ASSÉ is one of Quebec’s more radical student associations.]
This is one of the factors that contributed to the election of the PQ and to the loss for the Liberals. The Liberals clearly had an ideological slant towards imposing user fees for public services. There wasn’t only the issue of tuition fees, but also fees for health, electricity, and public transportation. There is a general ideological shift that they wanted to impose on Quebec following neoliberal trends. For this reason they couldn’t really fold on the issue of a tuition freeze because it would have been fundamentally against their ideological position. I mean they might have folded if there had been a really unbelievably huge uprising, but they were able to kill the uprising, to a certain extent, with Bill 78, which implemented major repression. [This bill suspended the university semester and made protests of larger than 50 people, which were not approved by the police illegal. Infractions against the bill resulted in large fines for individuals and student unions.] The Liberal party decided to take a chance and go into elections. The general population wanted the crisis to be resolved and decided that the PQ was going to be the best government to resolve the crisis. At that point when the liberals were not re-elected we can say yes, that was a victory for the student movement and the citizen’s movement that emerged from it.
Since the election of the PQ we’re in another phase. Historically the PQ has had a completely different approach to politics than the Liberal Party. The PQ uses governance with civil society as a way to impose policies that are unpopular. They don’t “force” their policies onto people. Instead they bring all the actors together around the table. They’ll bring together the business community, unions, the community organizations, and the social movements and they’ll try to come to “consensus” on unpopular policies. But this process is really just a public relations campaign and not a true consultation process; there’s no real deliberations that result in a collective decision. The PQ then comes out publicly with the results of the “consensus”.
This process ends up creating a dynamic where some organizations feel that they’re on equal footing with the government. For example, February 26, 2013 the more reformist student organizations: the FEUQ (Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec) and the FECQ (Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec) ended up taking part in the consultation process (education summit on tuition increases). But instead of continuing to build a counter-power (students in the streets) as is part of a conflict strategy, they decided to engage in the negotiation. Of course, it’s the government who decides on the policies and the power dynamic between a government (PQ or otherwise) and a student association is clearly unbalanced. In order for the power to be more equalized there needs to be some form of action in the streets.
In this second part of the movement the CLASSE coalition disbanded, but ASSÉ, which is the more permanent form of the organization, gave an ultimatum to the government and said ‘if we’re not going to talk about free education we’re not coming to the summit’. So, they boycotted the summit and called for actions in the street. The spokesperson from the FEUQ ended up denouncing ASSÉ in the media because ASSÉ didn’t participate in the summit. This is something that the reformist student organizations like FECQ and FEUQ didn’t do during the “Maple Spring” (first phase of the movement). The movement during the “Maple Spring” was so large and there were direct actions going on everyday that the more reformist organizations didn’t agree with, but they never denounced the actions publicly and maintained a front of solidarity.
But then in the second phase they criticized the decision of ASSÉ to boycott the summit and that ended up contributing to the marginalization of ASSÉ. The student federations didn’t call their large number of members to participate in the street demonstrations that were planned during the summit. There were tons of actions planned, for example there were teach-ins and demonstrations before, during and after the summit. If they had called for their members to participate in the demonstrations, so that when FECQ and FEUQ were at the negotiating table they could say, ‘we demand a tuition freeze and look at all the people supporting us’, then they would have been in a much more powerful position. Instead there were hardly any people in the streets. There was one demonstration that had 10,000 people, but compared to the hundreds of thousands we saw in the spring it was nothing. Some demonstrations had to be canceled because there was no one there.
Because of this, the government was able to say, ‘there is no support for the more radical demand to freeze tuition and people want us to solve this crisis at this summit’. So, the PQ imposed indexation (gradual tuition hike). In one sense it’s not as bad as what had originally been proposed, but this indexation is an eternal hike (a new slogan is La hausse éternelle). It’s constant increases, year after year. So, with the PQ proposal tuition costs are going to increase significantly. I think that the FEUQ/FECQ misunderstood that in the system that we’re in where social relations are stratified one must always keep in mind that the government in not an ally. The government is your target, even if they’re pretending to be your friend. It’s still a conflict in social relations and it’s still about building power. It’s never going to be possible to sit down and negotiate on equal footing with the government.
Was it a victory? I think we can look at many of the positive aspects that came out of the “Maple Spring”. First and foremost, even though the tuition hike was not blocked as was demanded, the increase will be lesser than what was originally set forth by the Liberals. In addition, there have been improvements to the loans and bursaries program, the creation of a “council on universities” to oversee governance and the government has opened the door to a consultation process on “afferent” fees that have been mushrooming in the past decade or so. But some of the most important gains were made on an organizational level. The movement has contributed to the politicization of youth, but also of the general population. The movement educated people on neoliberalism and public services, but also on democratic processes. Thousands of students had firsthand experience with horizontal, decentralized direct democracy. It has also enabled a building of power that can now be counted on for future mobilizations.
During the “Maple Spring” there were people taking to the streets in the largest act of civil disobedience in the history of Canada defying Bill 78. Bill 78 made it so that you could no longer protest in any spontaneous way and that is something that is very foreign to Quebec policy. We can also mention the creation of the neighborhood popular assemblies. People started to organize and began talking about how they could organize in their communities. It went beyond the tuition hike discussion into discussions about gentrification and other kinds of issues, which was quite interesting in terms of impacts. There’s also the fact that lots people in Quebec have realized that the police force is not there to serve and protect. Many have realized that the police are part and parcel of the state, which is trying to control social revolt and social upheaval to maintain power even when a significant proportion of the population was supporting the student movement.
PG: If you could talk about the differences between the student unions (ASSÉ and FECQ and FEUQ). Which has more members and which has more support of the students and the community?
AK: FEUQ and the college equivalent FECQ tend to be lumped together. I’m not sure how many members each organization has because people can be members of the FEUQ/FECQ, or ASSÉ, or both. The FEUQ and FECQ are considered more reformist. Historically they have used a negotiation and conciliation strategy with government and have been much less combative in their tactics. However, this changed during the “Maple Spring”. This is why I think its particularly interesting and why the movement really took off. They seemed to recognize that a combative strategy is necessary to win their demand. That’s why we saw the potential for a real gain. ASSÉ is a more combative student union. Their platform is much more radical. Their platform calls for free education, and a tuition freeze is one step towards free education.
FEUQ and FECQ are not talking about free education in the way that ASSÉ is. ASSÉ believes capitalism is a system of oppression and exploitation. This analysis will influence their actions; they are willing to use stronger tactics. During the “Maple Spring” there was a proliferation of direct actions that were highly effective in disrupting the city, its economy and therefore in increasing pressure on targets. The decentralized nature of CLASSE (and ASSÉ), coupled with a principled stance in favor of a diversity of tactics, opened up the space for autonomous groups of students to be creative and organize several direct actions per day, at the height of the movement.
So there is distinction between the student federations and CL(ASSE) in terms of demands, tactics, and the third is the organizational structure. The FEUQ and the FECQ have more of a representative democracy form where people are elected to represent the students. There are general assemblies of representatives. ASSÉ and CLASSE had more of a direct democracy form. The assemblies are huge and the individual members can participate at the local level. Then the people who are elected as delegates will go to an assembly at another level and will debate with delegates from other student associations, but they won’t be able to make decisions unless they have a mandate to do so. So, they will have to go back to their local association and there is this back and forth process. Within this structure there was also space for autonomous organizing on a local level; because of this, there was an exponential increase in creative and often disruptive tactics happening simultaneously.
PG: Can you place the tuition increase in the context of the rest of the neoliberal attacks that are taking place in Quebec?
AK: In Quebec the social programs are generally paid for through progressive taxation and not through user fees. This has been the case since the “Quiet Revolution” in the 1960s and 1970s. During this time a social democratic model emerged. Since the onset of neoliberalism there has been this pressure, as there has been in all advanced capitalist countries, to privatize social services and to impose user fees for services. And we have seen this in Quebec regardless of the political formation. All parties are trying to increase user fees for services, except Quebec Solidaire, which is the left wing political party, and which emerged out of the global justice movement at the turn of the century.
That political party is aligned with the social movements of the “Maple Spring”, however they only have two elected officials in Parliament. They’re not very powerful, although they are present now in the media. So, apart from Quebec Solidaire, the other main political parties, the PQ and the Liberals, but also the new center-right-wing party which has emerged over the last couple of years the CAQ (Coalition Avenir Québec, or Coalition for Quebec’s Future) all believe that user fees should be introduced or increased in the case when there are already user fees. So the tuition hike clearly fits into this neoliberal trend, but there’s also the issue of health care.
All over Canada, but especially in Quebec, people tend to agree that you shouldn’t pay out of pocket for health care, that instead it should be paid for with progressive taxation. Over the years different health institutions have been defying Canadian health policy and have been increasing revenue by charging for certain kinds of tests, like CAT scans or ultrasounds. Desperate to get tested within a reasonable time frame, which is less and less the case within the public system, people have begun paying. This is a slippery slope towards a two-tiered health care system. The Liberals proposed la taxe santé (health tax). This is a regressive tax; people would have to pay $200 every year for health care, irrespective of income.
When they were in the opposition, the PQ were against it, but when they came to power (elected, amongst other things, on the promise that they would get rid of the health tax) they did not scrap this policy. Sure they modified who had to pay and how much, but it still exists. The same for electricity (which is a state-owned institution) and public transportation costs which increase every year. In Quebec there’s a coalition called La Coalition Opposée à la Tarification et à la Privatisation des Services Publics (Coalition Against User Fees and Privatization of Public Services). This coalition is very wide. It includes the major unions, the student movement, the women’s movement, community organizations and it has existed for a few years. This coalition was an important ally during the campaign against the tuition hike.
PG: To what degree was Quebec nationalism an undercurrent of the “Maple Spring” and can you comment on how the history of tension between Anglophones and Francophones, and how that impacted people’s perceptions of the “Maple Spring”?
AK: Well I don’t read the Montreal Gazette (English paper), or listen to English language media. But from what I heard there was a difference between how the main-stream English language media covered the protest and how the French language media covered the protests. The alterative media, however were one of the amazing things about the “Maple Spring”. Had there not been autonomous alternative media out there, I don’t think we would have had a “Maple Spring” like we had. There was a proliferation of alternative media, mostly francophone, but also Anglophone. The most important Anglophonic media was CUTV. CUTV, which is associated with Concordia University, was out there every single time there was a demonstration, or action, or anything going on. They live streamed everything. Where there may have been a divide as far as what the Francophones were following compared to Anglophones; that was broken down because everyone was following CUTV. Even the main-stream media was using CUTV footage.
My impression of the issue of Quebec nationalism is based on what I saw in the streets. I don’t know what kinds of debates the different groups were having internally, but you would regularly see a person carrying a nationalist flag and then right next to them a person carrying an anarchist flag. So irrespective of people’s position on nationalism, borders, or federalism there was a united front in the public sphere for a tuition freeze. I didn’t get the sense that people got into debates about where to go from here at that point.
PG: How has support for the student movement changed since the beginning of the “Maple Spring” until now? Is there more of a culture of solidarity or has protest fatigue set in?
AK: At the beginning of the movement there was a real effort by the state to marginalize the student movement. There was a period of time, for about a month, when all you would hear in the mainstream media was that the students were taking the workers hostage by disrupting the everyday functioning of the city. You would hear things like: ‘the students may be on strike, but they’re actually partying up a storm in Florida’, or ‘the students are complaining about the increase but they all have iphones’. This was how the government, via the main stream media was portraying the movement. This is part of the state trying to regulate itself; before using repression, generally the state tries to marginalize protest.
It was hard to gauge what the public was thinking during this time. But the students kept going and the movement kept getting bigger. The size of the demonstrations that were held the 22nd of each month, kept increasing. On the 22 of March 2012 there were hundreds of thousands in the streets. It was incredible. It was 30 degrees and the whole downtown was completely blocked. There was families, elderly people, students, professors, artists, punks, pretty much everybody. It was amazing. Clearly there was popular support in March of 2012.
From that point on state actors realized they were going to have trouble marginalizing the movement and you started to see the increasing repression to try to stop the expansion of the movement. Bill 78 was really the prime example of this. With that they were really trying to stop the movement from expanding. But with that bill people became outraged. Whether or not people agreed with the students and whether or not they agreed with their tactics of disrupting the regular functioning of the economy and the city, they felt that this bill was over the top. So, support for the student movement increased even more. That’s when you saw people banging their casseroles on their balconies all over Montreal in solidarity with the students on the streets. You would see people hanging the red square (symbol of the student movement) out their window everywhere you went.
The bill made it so that you had to be 50 meters from a university building if you wanted to demonstrate on a university campus, and it also became illegal for professors to refuse to teach if there were only 1 or 2 students in their classroom. Prior to that it was up to the professors to decide whether or not they would teach if only a couple of students showed up. Our unions had been telling us ‘if there’s less than 10 people in the class don’t teach’. After the bill it became illegal for the union to tell us that and the fines for an organization violating the law were in the tens of thousands of dollars. There were heavy fines for teachers who still refused to teach and individuals participating in a picket. There were different levels of fining depending on if you were an organizer, or had some official position. This had an impact. People stopped organizing in a transparent way. People started becoming more anonymous in what they were doing. The bill also suspended the semester. So, there was no more strike because there was no more session. It was a lockout.
There were a few associations that were still on strike, but over-all the student movement went on break over the summer. There were still meetings going on all summer organized by the more radical organizations in the movement. For example, anarchists would organize meetings to talk about the necessity of a social strike. Some of the other social movements were also talking about a social strike. The CSN (Confédération des syndicats nationaux), which is one of the major unions in Quebec had a one day social strike mandate to use. It’s not much, but it’s important for a trade union in this context. They had a mandate voted in assembly, but they didn’t use it. Had the other social movements joined forces with the students when Bill 78 passed the social upheaval might have gone to another level.
In the spring I was doing workshops about the necessity of the social strike. People were very interested, but the social forces didn’t seize the moment. During the summer things fizzled out, then there was an attempt to rekindle the strike movement when school started at the end of August. But the elections were on September 4. And after the PQ was elected only a few student associations voted to continue the strike and even some of the most combative ones voted against continuing the strike. People were tired and some people had faith that the PQ would follow through on their promises. The current premier, Pauline Marois, who was the opposition at the time, was wearing the red square during the “Maple Spring” in the parliament. During the election, the PQ said they would: over turn the tuition hike and the health tax, not increase electricity bills, and get rid of Bill 78. They ended up getting rid of Bill 78, but a few months into their mandate they backed out of the other promises.
It wasn’t surprising to me, an anarchist. But many people had hope that the Summit on post-secondary education that the PQ organized would result in a tuition freeze, but the PQ just wanted to bring the groups together and calm things down. In the end the PQ got their way. After the summit there was even more demobilization. Associations tried to get strike mandates, but people were not willing to go on strike. At that point there was some protest fatigue. But it wasn’t just protest fatigue; it was also demoralization because a lot of people feel like they got screwed over by the PQ.
It’s really unfortunate because the conditions were there for the social movements to win their demands. And had the more mainstream federations worn their “conflict” lenses, remembering that the PQ is not an ally, but is an adversary; had there been lots of people in the streets during the negotiations, then the demand to freeze tuition could have been won. The PQ would have seen the risk for upheaval was still there. Instead the PQ concluded, ‘only the radicals are in the streets’, the population wants the city to return to normal; they took advantage of that to force through their policies
Since the summit, there have been demonstrations every couple of days against the “eternal hike” and every single time there are mass arrests. On March 15, 2013 there was the police brutality demonstration, but the demonstration didn’t even take off. There were 300 people at the protest, and 250 were arrested. Prior to the demonstration the police had announced that they were going to arrest everybody and nothing was going to be tolerated. So, clearly lots of people, myself included, decided not to go. Now that the movement is not as broad as it was before, it’s easier for the police to just arrest all the radicals. The police are arresting people under the city bylaw, P-6, that was adopted in the wake of Bill 78. P-6 requires organizers to provide the authorities with the protest route and makes it illegal to demonstrate wearing a mask. During the Maple Spring, the police force used this bylaw with parsimony; now, they are using it every time there is a demonstration. This is a clear attempt to put an end to the movement. Currently, there is a campaign to get rid of P-6 that is building steam.
PG: As you mentioned earlier there were hundreds of thousands of people in the street during the “Maple Spring” and I’m wondering how such powerful organizing was accomplished and how the “Maple Spring” fits into the history of student strikes in Quebec?
AK: In Quebec there’s a history of student strikes that we don’t see elsewhere in Canada and North America. There have been strikes in Quebec since 1968. And since then there has been a strike every 5 to 8 years. Some have been more successful than others. In Quebec there are two levels of higher education. The collegial level here is the equivalent of the last few years of high school in other places. It is either preparation for university, or technical studies. This is called Collège d’ enseignement général et professionel (CÉGEP) and it’s free. The university level tuition of a few hundred dollars was maintained for long time because of the student strikes that would come up every time the government tried to increase the tuition. In the wake of these strikes some of the more combative student associations were born.
After the strike of 1974 there was the creation of an organization called ANEQ (L’association des étudiants et étudiantes du Québec). This was one of the most combative student associations, which lasted until the 1990s. ASSÉ is of this tradition. In 1978 there was another strike; students were demanding improved bursaries and free education. The strike movement was so strong at the time that the government immediately agreed to a drastic improvement in the student bursaries. In 1986 the Liberal government tried to unfreeze the tuition fees and again there was student strike that was called by ANEQ and again the students managed to prevent an increase in student fees.
In the 1980s the authorities realized it was very difficult to raise tuition fees, so the universities began introducing “afferent” fees for libraries, information technology, and all kinds of other things, which aren’t technically tuition fees. In 1990 the government decided unilaterally to unfreeze the fees again, however the movement at the time was quite disorganized and ANEQ fell apart at that time and the student strike at that time was not successful. After ANEQ fell apart it took a few years to re-create a combative wing in the movement.
In 2005 the government wanted to transform the student bursaries into loans. The student movement won to a certain extent because they managed to stop part of the transformation. So, if you look at the history there has been a combative wing of the student movement since 1968. Every time the government tries to unfreeze tuition or modify the loans and bursaries the student movement is ready to go on strike in order to preserve the accessibility of the education system. Every time there is a strike there isn’t always a full win but the movement is contributing to slowing the march of neoliberalism. That’s important because in order for other possibilities to emerge, neoliberalism needs to be slowed down.
PG: Why do you think there’s this culture of protest in Quebec that is so different from the rest of Canada?
AK: Here we have the legacy of the Nationalist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The more radical elements of the nationalist movement like the FLQ (Front de libération du Québec) are references for some in the current movements. There’s also the tradition of neighborhood organizing, which is very strong here in Quebec. All over Quebec, not only in the urban centers, but even in the rural areas you have community organizations that started up in the 1960s and 1970s with the slogan “Power to the People”. It was about self organization, self determination, direct democracy and direct action. After the “Quiet Revolution” there was the founding of the welfare state. This was the result of everyday conflictual social relations between movements in the streets and the State.
There were “welfare mothers” that were occupying the office of the minister of social security for a week at a time. They were having soup kitchens in there. This was common practice. The same thing was happening for social housing. There were demonstrations, occupations, direct actions, citizens committees. There was street organizing where each street had a committee and once a month the delegates from each committee would meet to talk about who needs a park, who needs what, how are we going to help each other in terms of urban development. There was a whole movement around cooperatives where workers were controlling the means of production.
There was also a very strong Marxist-Leninist movement from the early 1970s to 1980, which had an incredible impact in the community organizations and unions in Quebec. They were organizing reading circles with Marxist analysis, which was extremely interesting. People were getting explanations for their situations. The dogmatic organizational form turned out to be part of the demise of the Marxist-Leninist movement. But irrespective of that it had an impact on the politicization of the people of Quebec. In the 1980s there was a big empty period, a kind of political vacuum.
In this period the state started co-opting many of the local initiatives. For example these kinds of initiatives where people were deciding with their neighbors to set up a daycare, a food co-op, a housing co-op, a people’s health clinic and a people’s legal aid center, all of which were self-managed with the members being the users. But many of these were co-opted by the state. For example the people’s health clinics became CLSCs (centre local de services communautaires), the network of health clinics in Quebec, which is state funded. There’s only one people’s clinic left in Quebec (in the Pointe-Saint-Charles neighborhood in Montreal), which is funded by the state, but still run by the citizens. All the rest have become engulfed by the state. The same is true of the legal aid centers. The only one run by the citizens and funded by the state is in Pointe-Saint-Charles. The people’s health clinic and legal aid center in Pointe-Saint-Charles managed to hold onto their autonomy because of the strong activist history of the neighborhood.
So in the 1980s you had an institutionalization of the community sector. And the same thing happened with the unions that happened everywhere else. The unions that had been combative in the early years became part and parcel of what we call the “co-management model”. Many unions worked hand in hand with state actors. This is especially true when the PQ is in power. The PQ, with its position in favor of sovereignty, is more of an ally to unions that share those politics than the Liberals who take a federalist stance. Overall, from the 1980s to the mid 1990s there was a calming down. Partnership, cooperation and consensus became the norm. Combative street politics and building of counter-power became the exception.
Then at the turn of the century with the anti-capitalist and anti-globalization movement we see a resurgence of combative politics and combative organizations. In 2001 there was the 3rd Summit of the Americas in Quebec City with 34 heads of state discussing the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). This was a key moment for the resurgence of street politics in Quebec. At this point there were many huge demonstrations. There were a hundred thousand people in the street against the FTAA. Then in 2003 there were hundreds of thousands of people in the street against the war in Iraq. There were these huge symbolic demonstrations with zero impact. It was as if the government didn’t even notice what was happening in the street. People were outraged by the war and the neoliberal measures and when symbolic demonstrations had no effect they felt very demoralized.
Then there was the World March of Women. In Quebec the women’s movement has played a big role in terms of what is going on now. La Fédération des femmes du Québec was the initiator of the World March of Women, which was huge in Quebec. In 1995 you had the Bread and Roses March; where 850 women marched from all over to Quebec City. This was the precursor to the World March of Women in 2000 when there were actions across the world and especially strong actions in Quebec. These women were marching against capitalism and patriarchy and they had specific demands. There was a whole grassroots movement that participated in neighborhoods and mass demonstrations.
I remember on the last day of the march when Françoise David (who is now one of the members of the Quebec national assembly as Québec Solidaire and was president of La Fédération des femmes du Québec at the time) made a speech and there were huge crowds in the streets. She said, ‘the government is not listening to us and something needs to change. Either the women’s movement needs to decide to participate in civil disobedience and direct action, or we need to create a feminist political party’. After that she decided to create the feminist political party.
That’s when Option Citoyenne (Citizen Option) was created, which was the precursor to Québec Solidaire. Québec solidaire was the fusion between Union des forces progressistes (UFP) and Option Citoyenne. Option Citoyenne emerged out of contemporary social movements while the UFP was more of an old-style socialist party. Amir Khadir, the other Québec Solidaire member in Parliament, came from the UFP. Québec Solidaire came out of the social movements with this idea that we have to break out of the politics of demand to the politics of act. Their idea of politics of act was to form a political party in an attempt to take power to put into place another vision of society. The party really took off. There are feminists , environmentalists, unionists, and even anarchists in the political party. Also during this time, the contemporary anarchist movement is gaining momentum. People are thinking about and experimenting with alternative political, economic and cultural institutions. To paraphrase the preamble to the constitution of the IWW, we are working to build a better society within the shell of the old.
People are really interested in politics in Quebec now. Lots of people are talking about politics. Currently, the Charbonneau Commission is providing us with daily information on corruption and collusion at the municipal level and at the provincial level. The focus is on corruption in the construction industry and in particular, on the construction of public infrastructure. The population is discovering that politicians, civil servants, the construction business, and the mafia are all working hand in hand. The Commission is also shedding light on illegal funding for political parties. It’s like a reality show. Each of us tunes in for our daily dose of the life and times of the rich, powerful and corrupt. You watch all these men on TV say, ‘yes, I’m sorry I gave $10,000 to this guy with in the municipal political structure in order to get a contract to build such and such road, or such and such building’. There’s one highly placed civil servant who has been nicknamed “Mr. three percent”’. He would get three percent of every contract with the construction industry.
This is also affecting the provincial government: both the Liberals and the PQ; everybody is touched by this. People are seeing that structural corruption is built into the system. So, on the one hand you have this, but on the other hand you have the PQ, which got elected on a platform that they’re not putting into practice. This is not new. But now, in the wake of the “Maple Spring”, more and more people are listening. They’re paying attention to what the government is saying, doing, or not doing. For example, within the last couple weeks one of the ministers, Agnès Maltais, announced that there was going to be cuts to welfare in order to “encourage people to reintegrate the workforce”. The people targeted are families with small children and people that were over 55. We are talking about cuts to a welfare check that is hardly enough to pay the rent, not to mention food, clothing and transportation. They also want to cut the funding for treatment for people who are struggling with drug problems.
In the social media you see this very same minister, Agnès Maltais, when she was in the opposition, denouncing very similar policies that the Liberals were trying to pass. It does not take a rocket scientist to see that politicians get elected on lies and end up passing unpopular policies on the backs of the poor and disenfranchised. People are realizing that something is wrong with our political institutions. People are hungry for alternatives. There are numerous conferences and meetings on forms of democracy. People are discussing participatory, direct and representative democracy. What are the differences, what are the options that are out there and what can we do.
A book I co-edited that came out in March on contemporary anarchism in Québec Nous sommes ingouvernable (We are ungovernable) has also captured peoples’ interest; ten days after the book was on bookstore shelves, we had to print a second batch. Mainstream media has also taken an interest. So yes, there is a strong activist tradition in Quebec and people are particularly interested in politics. All this reached a real height with the “Maple Spring” in the world-wide context of the anti-austerity movement.
One of the things that I am personally very excited about is how with the “Maple Spring”, Occupy, and other recent movements there’s the massive street demonstrations and the taking of public space, but then there’s a shift towards the neighborhoods where people are trying engage in alternative political forms in their communities. What I find the most exciting is that people are putting to practice these principles of self-determination and self-organization in an advanced capitalist context, in the Global North. This is not Chiapas and this is not Oaxaca. These attempts at reclaiming space and experimenting with direct democratic forms confirm Bakunin’s claim that human beings have the potential not only for rebellion, but also for self-determination.
PG: What do you think is the next phase of the Quebec social movements?
AK: I think that depends on what position you take. I’m a big partisan of the politics of proximity. I think in this context there’s something in the idea of reclaiming the commons and reclaiming public space as collective and doing that through direct action and creating alternative political institutions. This can allow space for people to deliberate and talk to their neighbors, or their coworkers, or their fellow students, or whatever and experiment with different kinds of political forms. This is in the perspective of the Chiapas Zapatista motto ‘walking: we ask questions’. Where as we walk together we deliberate and we experiment and we figure things out. We make mistakes and come up against obstacles, but then we collectively figure out new ways of doing things and as we do that answers to the big problems in our society will emerge. To me this is one of the most interesting ways to move forward. The logic is that as you try out ideas and practices you will engage those who are searching for alternatives. And through pollination of ideas more people get involved. As more people invest alternative political, economic, cultural, social institutions they build power.
In Quebec right now there’s a relatively large network of cooperatives; within these people are controlling their means of production. It’s not a very huge phenomenon, if one compares with places like Latin America, but more importantly, people are not necessarily making the links with the political sphere. Most people are not talking about how cooperatives are getting at the core of capitalism in terms of wage labor, production for profit, and other things. Without political intention, cooperatives remain a pimple in the grand scheme of things. And capitalism will move forward regardless of whether or not cooperatives exist.
I’m not saying we need to federate them and create a formal political organization. One of the strengths of the movements of the last few years is the fluidity of the organizational form. It’s something that is difficult for some of the older social movements to grapple with. The refusal to put everything on paper with regards to vision, concrete solutions, and of a formal organizational structure that’s going to take us there. There’s old movements that are trying to force that on the current movements which are fluid and embody the “walking: we ask questions” mentality, which is very different from the “grand narrative” mentality. Myself, a community organizer, was more into organization and platformism 5 years ago than I am today because I’ve been studying these contemporary movements and I can see that there’s something very interesting happening. The movements that aren’t able to adapt to the fluidity of modern movements are actually not moving forward and are stagnating.
Examples of this are the big unions and the big federations of social movements that function with membership cards, recruitment and have a very formal process. Many of them have not been able to adapt to what’s going on now. Some have opened up to other forms of organizing and are sharing their resources; this is key for creating alliances across generations and movements, in order to build power. And power we need to counter the austerity measures that will continue to be imposed upon us in the years to come. Unfortunately, many older organizations are uncomfortable with not knowing exactly what the more fluid movements are going to do and when. The decentralized and non-hierarchical form of the latter renders them unpredictable. People are regrouping based an affinity and based on community and they’re doing things on an autonomous basis. In these smaller groups, people engage in conjunctural analysis, identify targets and tactics and take action. They are not asking permission from anybody. It is difficult for more structured movements that have a tradition of formal campaigning to work with this kind of fluidity.
This being said, there is hope. More and more rank and file organizers, along with movement analysts are calling on unions and other institutionalized movements to take act of the “Maple Spring” and to open up their horizons to other ways of being and doing. It is well documented that the calm between the storms is a time for evaluation, regrouping and rebuilding. If we do that now, when the next Spring comes along, perhaps the rebellion will be even more startling and effective than in 2012.