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Demonstration in Montreal on 29 November 2014. Cutbacks had started. (Photo credit: lost)


Quebec Independence Flag (Photo credit: Google images)

This Year’s Budget: Cutbacks

On 29 March 2015, a friend and I attended a meeting of the Quebec Liberal Party. When we arrived, we had to be identified as legitimate guests. There were several police cars and police busses.

As we proceeded to the building where Sherbrooke members of the Quebec Liberal Party were meeting, we saw demonstrators kept at a ‘safe’ distance, if there is such a thing, by several policemen. This was not life as usual.

The problem was the following. Dr Philippe Couillard, Quebec’s Premier had trimmed down Quebec’s budget in order to pay the Province’s debt, and he would be visiting members of the Sherbrooke Parti Libéral du Québec (FR), the Quebec Liberal Party (EN), at the beginning of their meeting. Dr Couillard was not aware of the extent of the debt during his campaign. This matter has been resolved. On 29 March 2015, Dr Couillard stated that future candidates to the Premiership of Quebec would be aware of the province’s financial circumstances.

In short, cutbacks hurt, so people were demonstrating.

See: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/quebec-budget-boosted-by-exports-on-track-for-235-billion-deficit/article21886430/
See: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/the-quebec-liberal-mandate-has-been-hijacked/article22359789/


Protester displaying an anti Bill 78 sign on 22 May 2012 in Montreal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Student Strike: Bill 78

I would like to discuss the cutbacks and the population’s reaction in some detail. It is, for instance, a product of the Quiet Revolution (Révolution tranquille). However, this post cannot be exhaustive.

You may remember that, in 2012, Quebec students went “on strike.” For several decades they had paid the lowest tuition fees in Canada—they still do—but were facing an increase of “$325 per year over five years (or $1,625).” This was an increase of “75% over current rates.” (See: Bill 78.)

The 2012 student strike was disorderly. Several students were in fact prevented from completing their academic year on the date it was scheduled to end.

On 12 May 2012, Jean Charest’s government, Quebec’s Liberal Party, passed Bill 78, which, for instance, limited the extent to which students could protest. It had other provisions. However, students defied the bill.

On 20 May 2012, members of CLASSE (Coalition large de l’association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante) voted to call for “continued protests and civil disobedience to oppose the new law, in addition to any increase in tuition.” (See Bill 78, Wikipedia.)

Allow me to quote Wikipedia further:

“Student Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, co-spokesperson for the student association CLASSE (Coalition large de l’association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante), has urged the population to consider disobeying the law. Université de Montréal philosophy professor Daniel Weinstock has stated that the bill is a scare tactic to frighten students and student leaders.” (See: Bill 78.)

On 22 May 2012, 150,000 students protested in Montreal, defying the law. “After mass arrests on the nights of 22 and 23 May, daily protests where galvanized.”

Bill 78 was condemned by the Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission, the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse. But the Quebec Council of Employers supported the bill because students had not complied with earlier court orders. In short, reactions varied. (See: Bill 78, Wikipedia.)

The Parti Québécois’ Involvement

One may not agree with the law, but it is in one’s best interest to respect it. As for opposition parties, I believe there is a limit to which members and leaders should use student, very young students in particular, to further their political ambitions.

Pauline Marois, the leader of the Parti québécois, comforted striking students and was elected Premier of Quebec on 4 September 2012. She then “promptly repealed the punitive sections of Bill 78” and also repealed the increase in tuition fees. (See: Bill 78, Wikipedia.)

However, in February 2013, her government held a Summit on Education. This summit had to take place so tuition fees could be increased. Discussions led to an increase of 3% per year. By the time the summit took place, in February 2013, the students had been led to expect a tuition-free education. They were disappointed, but as Madame Marois stated:

The responsibility of the government is to decide, and I decided.

See: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/quebec-education-summit-ends-without-consensus-1.1321678
See: http://freeeducationmontreal.org/quebec-summit-on-higher-education-2012-13/

Labour Unions

It surprised me to see Madame Marois use the students to be elected Premier of Quebec. As a university teacher and Chair of my department, I took a dim view of teachers who involved students when denied a renewal of their contract, tenure, or a promotion.

With respect to the 2012 strike, it may have been legitimate for political figures to involve students. The context was different. Yet seeking support from individuals who are very young and advocate civil disobedience is unsavoury.

However, what truly astonished me was the Labour Unions’ involvement.

“A deal reached between Quebec Liberal Party representatives and student representatives was rejected by striking students on 10 May. The deal had been supported by student unions and major Quebec labor unions including the Quebec Federation of Labour, the Confédération des syndicats nationaux and by the Centrale des syndicats du Québec.” (See: Bill 78, Wikipedia.)

The Asbestos strike, 1949

I should not have been so surprised. Before the Quiet Revolution or Révolution tranquille, when Maurice Duplessis was Premier of Quebec, there was a violent strike. It may seem distant, but in the 1960s, people remembered. Maurice Duplessis, the leader of l’Union nationale and the Premier of Quebec from 1936 to 1939 and 1944 to 1959, was an opponent of trade unions:

“The strike which began on February 14, 1949 in Asbestos, Quebec, is one of those events that resonate beyond the immediate and define history. It was, as Pierre Trudeau later wrote, ‘a violent announcement that a new era had begun.’”[1]

The Asbestos strike of 1949 was repressed mercilessly and among sympathizers of the strikers was the Church and, especially, Montreal Archbishop Joseph Charbonneau (31 July 1892—19 November 1959).

“But even the conservative Church found itself in sympathy with the strikers and it raised most of the support for the destitute families. When the Archbishop of Montreal, Joseph Charbonneau, openly championed the strike, Duplessis had him exiled to Vancouver. In June Archbishop Roy stepped in to mediate the strike and an agreement was finally reached on July 1.”[2]

There is at least one other version of Monseigneur Charbonneau’s demise. According to this other version, Rome planned Monseigneur Charbonneau’s resignation. Be that as it may, Monseigneur Charbonneau resigned on 9 February 1950 and moved to Victoria, British Columbia, where he worked as hospital chaplain until his death in 1959.  “Archbishop Charbonneau has been seen as a precursor to the Quiet Revolution.”  (See: Joseph Charbonneau, Wikipedia.)

The asbestos strike brought a degree of prominence to other sympathizers: Jean MarchandGérard Pelletier, and a young Pierre Trudeau, who would be active in the 1960s. Pierre Trudeau would be Prime Minister of Canada from 1970 to 1979 and from 1980 to 1984

La Révolution tranquille, the Quiet Revolution

Several elements characterize the Révolution tranquille, but I will mention four:

  • First, the province of Quebec was secularized. Quebec had been called the “priest-ridden” province.
  • Second, strong labour unions were formed.
  • Third, leaders all but promised a welfare state (l’État-providence).
  • Fourth, a terrorist group, the Quebec Liberation Front, was created within the separatist movement. It ceased to exist in 1970.

The first element, secularization, was entirely predictable, but the second, the emergence of powerful unions was less easily foreseeable. The third and fourth, the possible emergence of a welfare state and the growth of a strong separatist movement reflect the enthusiasm of Quebecers who were no longer led by the Church and Maurice Duplessis. Although they were and are “maîtres chez soi,” masters in one’s own home, for many Québécois, boundaries are a condition of nationhood.

Separatism could therefore be foreseen, but it militated against the development of a welfare state as it could be perceived and was perceived as unfriendly by other citizens of Canada. A large number of Quebecers left Quebec to settle in a province or country that was perceivably more ‘stable’ than the province of Quebec. The actions, not to say the mere existence, of a terrorist branch among separatists, its Front de Libération du Québec, was harmful to Quebecers. Moreover, these were the 1960s: the war in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara and marijuana. 


On 24 March 2015, University of Sherbrooke students went on strike. A number of students obtained an injunction so they could finish their academic year undisturbed. Striking students defied the injunction and walked into the classrooms of students who had obtained an injunction. These students could have been cited for contempt of court which carries a penalty. They were not cited for contempt of court, but a few days later, students decided to end the strike.


Québec contre la grève étudiante et pour l’austérité (Quebec against the student strike and for austerity), Université du Québec à Montréal (Photo credit: Canoe.ca)

Université du Québec à Montréal faculty members call for a dialogue.


“What Charest wanted, Couillard is doing.”

It seems that “what Charest wanted, Couillard is doing.” Charest, the former leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, served as Premier during the student strike of 2012. He was defeated in the General Election of 4 September 2012.



Cutbacks always hurt. But in the case of Quebec, they hurt a great deal. Quebecers were promised a welfare state.

It would be my opinion that Quebecers have grown to believe they are entitled to a free education and other free services.

There is nothing wrong with entertaining such expectations, but a government cannot give the money it doesn’t have. Without a sufficient and varied number of taxpayers, a government is not in a position to offer free education. There were cutbacks in the new budget, but no increase in taxes. Quebecers now pay taxes to two governments, the federal government and the Quebec government.

I also suspect that Quebec’s reliance on the power of syndicates may have been  somewhat unrealistic. Workers need syndicates or professional associations. The Asbestos strike of 1949 is an example of the misery brought to workers who do not have a syndicate. Yet, if employees are to be provided with generous benefits, fewer working hours, lengthy leaves of absence (maternity leaves, etc.) and cushy pension plans, quantity re-enters the topic from every direction.

In other words, if the government of Quebec and the syndicates do not have a large purse, high wages and concomitant benefits cannot be extensive. Moreover, there may be fewer jobs. In Quebec universities, too many courses are taught by part-time  faculty members, the chargés de cours, some of whom have given themselves a syndicate. These part-time teachers often travel from university to university to earn a meagre living. Many leave Quebec.

I will end on a happy tone. Premier Couillard is going forward with the Plan Nord. Quebec is rich in natural resources. These must be further tapped, which happened in the 1960s. The Manicouagan réservoir is an immense source of electrical power. Premier Couillard has also announced a plan to stimulate small and medium-sized enterprises. (Sherbrooke visit; 29 March 2015.)


Sources and Resources

My regards to all of you. The delay is due to illness.♥

[1] James H. Marsh, “Asbestos Strike,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/asbestos-strike-feature/#

[2] Ibid.

Pauline Julien sings “La Manic”

Dr Philippe Couillard
Dr Philippe Couillard

© Micheline Walker
12 April 2015