I had high hopes for the mayor of Montreal. I thought that in all the discourse about Bill 21, Mayor Valérie Plante, the leader of Quebec’s most multicultural city, would take a stand against it.
Instead, despite evidence that applying the law will only hurt Muslim women and prevent the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh people of Montreal from participating fully in our democracy, Mayor Plante has publicly stated that despite her objections to it, she will uphold Bill 21.
As a citizen of Montreal, I was overjoyed to see that we had finally elected a female mayor. I thought that as a woman elected to head the most multicultural city in Quebec, you would do what is necessary to stand up for the people you were chosen to lead. It is therefore disappointing to see that you have publicly stated that while you disagree with Bill 21, you will enforce and uphold it.
I understand that your position is difficult. As a woman in politics you are under greater scrutiny than your male peers, and as leader of our City you feel obligated to uphold the law. But history does not remember those who enforced unjust laws while wringing their hands in supposed discomfort. History remembers those who stood up in the face of them and said NO.
According to a 2011 study by Statistics Canada, 5.6% of Montrealers are Jewish and 9.6% are Muslim. Another 1.3% of the city’s populations are Hindus and Sikhs. All of these people will be affected by this law and thus denied a chance to assimilate and participate fully in our democracy. In these troubled times, they turned to you for guidance and in response you have turned your back on them. We therefore implore you to reconsider your position and prove yourself to be the leader we know you can be.
Stand up and say the City of Montreal cannot and will not enforce Bill 21.
About this time last week came the first reports that Harper – after ramming the extension of the mission through Parliament – had ordered the first Canadian airstrikes within Syria against the Islamic State. To Harper’s great pride, Canadian troops are now fully pledged in the war against terror.
At the same time as Canadian missiles were raining down in Syria, violating every international convention possible and imaginable, students at UQAM were met with the brutal force of SPVM’s riot police squads, who besieged and dispersed the students that had assembled there, violating the “sanctity” of academic space and the cherished democratic right of assembly and of strike.
While Harper is fighting a war against terror in the Middle East, it seems that the federal and provincial governments in Canada are fighting a war on democracy.
And the latest manifestation of this broader “war on democracy” has been the brutal repression with which the student strike of 2015 has been met, in addition to the “delegitimization” campaign student associations have been facing. The arguments in this realm have been quite creative. First of all, we have had a strain of arguments saying that students shouldn’t have the “right” to strike. Then there is the argument that students aren’t striking, that its merely a boycott and to call it anything else is false. Finally there’s the last strain of arguments saying that the strikes/strike mandates aren’t democratic because the proceedings of the general assemblies aren’t democratic, that there’s intimidation, there’s no secret ballots thus the student unions mandates are void.
Regardless of how many times all of these arguments have been proven wrong; regardless of the fact that non-remunerated student work lays at the foundation for many of the advances in research in many areas of study; regardless of the fact that students are workers and produce value; regardless of the fact that student strikes – not boycotts but strikes – have been at the backbone of some of the most important political mobilization in history; regardless of the fact that student assemblies have more legitimacy than, let’s say, the government of Quebec that is imposing austerity; and regardless of the fact that the percentage of students who voted to strike is significantly higher than the percentage of eligible voters who voted for Harper’s Conservatives or Couilard’s Liberals; the mainstream media onslaught continues: student democracy isn’t valid!
Others have argued that the student movement is just an offshoot of ISIS and Boko Haram – no kidding, there’s actually a page created by UQAM’s anti-strike students to denounce the terrorism of the so-called Boko UQAM. It’s imaginative to say the least – their logic is: students are terrorists and must be dealt with as such. They are called terrorists because they dare say that academia must escape the clutches of profit and of limitless speculations, and that education isn’t for profit. Through the lens of this demagogic discourse, the crimes committed against innocent civilians in Syria and the crimes of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and throughout that broader region have an equal footing with the “crimes” of students that are fighting to make sure that public services continue to be accessible to all, that equality of opportunity is preserved, and what was created through public wealth continues to profit the public, and not the private sector or a clique of individuals.
Once the mainstream media draws the correlation between the “war on terror” and the striking students, it isn’t surprising to see the same government which has declared unilaterally a “war on terror,” crush student democracy, painted as a foyer of terrorism.
Today, a war against student democracy and dissidence, which is the essence of democracy, is taking form. Long gone are the days when this government adored the shrine of freedom of expression and of #jesuischarlie. This is the struggle of students today, never mind the headlines which say “They’re just a bunch of spoiled brats that bite the hand that feeds them.” The student associations form the vanguard of the struggle to uphold democracy.
Student associations have taken on the heavy task of ensuring that democracy and the fundamental democratic right of dissidence, of disagreement and pressure tactics (in this case strikes), safeguards of democracy, are upheld.
Where neo-liberal “no alternativism” prevails, strikes and especially student strikes with their weekly GAs and spontaneous direct democracy constitute the proper counterbalance. That counterbalance is the antithesis of the PLQ agenda, which creates a state apparatus that “legalizes” and promotes inequality, precarization of the workforce, and the parcelization of society while ”liberating” the free circulation of capital of all constraints, the destruction of the limits to its accumulation, and the dismantling and privatization of sectors outside of its reach in this case education.
The reason why students have been equated with terrorists is not because of the bloodthirsty radical ideals their espouse. The reason students have been equated with Boko Haram and ISIS isn’t because of their Islamic principals. Rather it’s because of the very sensible idea of direct participatory democracy; because of the idea that legitimacy becoming more than a vote every 4 years terrorizes the class that will benefit the most from austerity. Through this struggle, students are not only combating austerity; they’re reviving and redefining democracy, and that scares the political clique shitless!
“A few days ago in Hong Kong, students went down the streets and they’re protesting against the Chinese government’s recent decision to undermine Hong Kong’s democracy by stating that the candidates that [the Hong Kongese] would vote on in 2017 must be approved by Beijing, prior to election,” said Michael Law to me at the solidarity event that took place at McGill University last Wednesday on October 1.
Law was one of the people who arranged the said solidarity event, which was the first one to be held in Montreal. All around the globe, other Hongkongers who are living abroad are organizing similar events to show their solidarity with what is happening back home.
“We’re staging rallies to show that we are in solidarity with the students and protesters in Hong Kong. We’re allies of democracy and human rights,” Law added.
Alex Liu, the North American representative of the Black Island Nation Youth Front — one of the leading student protest groups and advocates for democracy, human rights and political transparency — was also present in the crowd.
“The fact that the government is above the law is unacceptable; this is best demonstrated by the excessive violence the Beijing-appointed government has used against its own people. Peaceful protestors have been subjected to tear gas, water guns and the government now even threatens to use military forces against the protesters,” Liu said. (Alex Liu’s full speech can be found here.)
The fear of having to face the Chinese military is real. Hui Peng, who is from mainland China, expressed that what is happening in Hong Kong is similar to what happened in China 25 years ago, at Tiananmen Square. Yet he still expresses hope.
“There are some things that are familiar, and some that are different. This time, the people there, they are more disciplined. They know that they are not going to fight and they peacefully argue for their rights. I think there is hope. And what we can do is to urge the government to talk with the people, with the students, to work out a solution to what’s now happening in Hong Kong,” he said.
The Chinese government has declared the peaceful protests illegal, and Chinese media has claimed that these events have been organized by foreign powers to upset the political stability of the country. Yesterday, however, things escalated. Anti-Occupy mobs started attacking the demonstrators, while the police stood by and watched.
Yet what we say here does not matter too much. What we need to hear is the voices of those who are fighting for democracy, those who are fighting for their rights. Below you will be able to read the raw words of students who are currently in Hong Kong.
“I’ve always identified myself as a Hongkonger, and whenever asked the question why we consider Hong Kong different from China, I proudly explained how we enjoy a high degree of autonomy, have different governments, different legal systems and most of all, we enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom to use the Internet and freedom of demonstration and assembly. None of those claims, unfortunately, seems to hold true anymore. Hong Kong is my home. It is, however, ceasing to be the home I’ve loved, known and recognized.
Many question the effectiveness of OccupyCentral and laugh off people who expect to change China’s mind as ‘naïve’. But I cannot be more impressed by how posts after posts regarding the protests have flooded my newsfeed and Whatsapp since yesterday, and that even the most politically apathetic of us are provoked to speak up in face of appalling, heartbreaking injustice.
The certainty of death doesn’t prevent us from living. The unlikelihood of victory shouldn’t prevent us from fighting.”
“The biggest challenge of participating in the Umbrella Revolution is never the tear gases or the police, but your parents who don’t support it. When you think you are doing the right thing for the future of Hong Kong, they don’t appreciate and even do or say anything to make you stay home. I hope all Hongkongese should understand what is happening in Hong Kong and why Umbrella Revolution is necessary.”
“Hong Kong had changed a lot since 1997, the return of sovereignty to China. The mainlanders (China residents) keep flooding in, affecting our daily life. I think this time, Hongkongers had enough. Everything we had — justice, freedom of speech — became nothing but just a word. This time, the government has pushed too far by using excessive force against unarmed students/protesters.
I feel really sad and disappointed seeing Hong Kong’s government become like this: ignoring citizens’ voice.”
“I am a supporter of universal suffrage and for real democracy in Hong Kong. Students came out last week beginning with the boycott of classes to make a point to the government that we care very much about what is happening, and also it is a very good opportunity for us students to learn about what really is happening in Hong Kong. This is due to the fact that actually HK students and citizens weren’t really politically aware before.
As the Occupy Central movement started Sunday night, a lot of people criticized that the organizers took advantage of students’ innocence, but actually we cannot disagree more. We have our independent minds to analyze what is happening at the moment, we know that illegally occupying roads is risky as we might be caught, yet we continued because we know that if something wasn’t done now, we would regret it in the future when it’s too late to change.
As for violence used by the police, I just had a change of opinions. Before yesterday, although I’ve also witnessed how heartless policemen could be by exercising violence, but I would say that they also have their orders, that even when some of them were inhumane by purposely removing their goggles and spraying pepper spray right into people’s eyes; even when I didn’t agree with what they did, I sort of understood what was going through their minds. But after two incidents, I couldn’t help but feel hopeless about the atmosphere in Hong Kong.
The first incident was on Sunday, right before the series of tear gas was used. As I was leaving (I’d heard it would be dangerous), I saw a group of policemen, all geared up with weapons, protection and half of them had long guns loaded with rubber bullets.
At that moment, I could imagine what could have brought the police to have decided in using such violent measures. What were they planning to do? Did they really think they could chase away the 40,000 people a kilometer ahead of them?
And then this girl came up to the group of policemen. She was a student. She walked right up the them and asked several times why they planned to use violent measures. She begged them not to go on ahead ’cause there were many students, as a lot of participants were students. She cried and begged and tried to stop the policemen with words. However, after a couple of minutes, they simply ignored her and after the command was given by the head police, they ran forward.
At that moment, the only thing that came to my mind was what happened in June, when that one single man stood in front of a whole train of tanks. That girl was so brave, yet it must be so terrifying to be in her shoes, she was so powerful yet so weak. The moment the police ran forward into the the direction where the crowd was running down from where they were, it seems very much like a battle field to me. I didn’t understand how the police could continue hitting people or using tear gas when we have nothing to use really to defend ourselves. And we weren’t violent, we didn’t even have weapons, as we had all along stressed that we are peacefully occupying the roads and wouldn’t do it by force.
The second incident was what happened yesterday (it’s Saturday morning here now). In short, the opposing group came to make trouble, hitting people and sexually harassing girls of our side. The police condemned us, not them. We did nothing wrong. We were the victims yet the police had ‘ joined forces’ with the other side, which was pro-China, and didn’t act like a policeman should. There are many examples from yesterday of police catching the persons making trouble and then secretly letting them go at the corner of the street. How is this justice? Who can we depend on now?
Though all this is heartbreaking, I try to pull myself together, because these are the times when they want to break us, but we would stand strong in demanding what we want. If we don’t start now, if we give up now, I really don’t see when we could have the opportunity to demand for universal suffrage again.”
On September 18, the Scottish nation went to polling stations all around their country to decide whether they would become an independent country or not. Turns out, 55% of those who voted wanted to stay in the United Kingdom (UK).
We have to interpret this result carefully. After all the difference between those who voted yes and those who voted no is about 400 000 people. This is not a small number; it represents 10% of the entire electorate. If you compare this with Quebec’s similar referendum in 1995, where the referendum failed by a mere 1%, you start to see the difference.
The 10% means that there was, apparently, no chance for the vote to go either way. It indicates a clear decision made on part of the Scottish nation, and it is very important to emphasise this. The referendum was not a victory for the British government, nor a loss for the Scottish government. It was a statement made by a nation in a democratic context.
At least, that’s what they say.
Using human rights rhetoric, we can say that the victory here belongs to the concept of right to self-determination: the idea that the nations and peoples of this world have the right to decide their own fate. Even if the Scottish nation voted not to become an independent country, the fact that they were able to vote on it sends a clear message to the world: it was their decision.
Assuming that governments are the sole “official” representatives of nations, this is the only definition we can work with.
Thinking within the Western paradigm of countries and governments, this is all very great. Let the people vote and let them decide whether they want to be ruled over by a government of their own peoples, or a government of other peoples. However, we need to realise that the right to self-determination only matters for those who already have power.
Take for instance Crimea and their referendum to choose between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. The Crimeans overwhelmingly voted in favour of joining the Russian Federation. This is exactly where the picture gets a bit muddy, when the politicking of people in power is mistaken for the decision of a nation. Was it actually the average Crimean’s desire to become a part of the Russian Federation, or was it ex-President Viktor Yanukovich’s hesitance to say no to Vladimir Putin?
The Crimean referendum happened within the context of a military occupation. Pro-Russian forces were occupying the parliament, when they decided to hold their referendum.
For the average Scottish person, the fact that Scotland will remain a part of the UK does not change much. But for Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, the referendum also means that he has lost the chance of becoming the president of an independent state. And even if Scotland had become independent, Queen Elizabeth II would still remain the queen of Scotland.
Nevertheless, Scotland has made its decision; or more importantly was able to make a decision. There are other nations out there who cannot even get to that stage; let alone discuss the finer implications of the right to self-determination. The Catalonians living in Spain are denied their right to hold a referendum by the Spanish government, and the Kurds in Turkey cannot even openly talk about self-determination.
The world of politics loves to pacify people by making them believe their choices matter. The human rights rhetoric is the most perfect tool of legitimization in the 21st century. Argue that you are doing things to protect the rights of your nation, and for the betterment of the people you represent; and everybody seems to forget that you are in a position of power, and anything you do is technically in order to protect that position.
In the past few days I’ve written extensively about the current events engulfing the St Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. In my last article I went into the details of the case, trying to shed a little bit of light on the demagogic arguments that have been boasted right, left and centre by the mainstream American and Canadian media. As I stated, the specific events that led to Michael Brown’s death shouldn’t be for his namesake, for the sake of his family and loved ones and for the community of Ferguson in general, lost of sight in the intense media scrum that is unfolding before our eyes.
This being said, the events that are occurring in Ferguson have happened before and will happen again. Unfortunately in these times, many economically impoverished communities are being held at gun point by a morally corrupt system that perpetrates their submission and oppression, right across the United States and Canada, right across the Americas and the Atlantic Ocean, right across the globe.
As I stated in my previous article the protesters —I refuse to call them rioters because as was rightfully stated by many of the inhabitants of Ferguson, the protests in Ferguson aren’t ‘’riots’’— are calling for the end of inequality in the way they are treated by law enforcement, but know that it will only come when they will have succeeded in garnishing true economic equality.
Is it a coincidence that the media has portrayed as a riot every major protest challenging the economic status quo since the economic downturn of 2008? Aren’t there parallels in terms of police response and media portrayal to be drawn between the Occupy Wall Street movement —OWS— , the student strike of 2012 here in Quebec and the ‘’riots’’ in Ferguson?
Indeed there are. They are so blatantly apparent, they sting our eyes like a zephyr of tear gas. The question of police brutality and the gung ho militarization of police forces throughout the western world can only be fully understood when included into this bordered strategy of skimming any social movements for economic justice, of any traction.
In his most recent book, The Democracy Project, David Graeber’s main thesis is that democracy is, unlike the preconceived western idea, not a western cultural phenomenon. Quite to the contrary, democracy in itself is the product not of ancient Greek philosophers, but the result of people of various backgrounds coming together and trying to find consensus. Graeber’s thesis is that democracy’s natural habitat is found outside of the state apparatus. I would like to develop on this idea to include the notion that in the past few decades new robust forms of democracy have grown out of the conflict with the globalized neo-liberal form of capitalism enforced by the state.
It goes without saying that capitalism in its current form is completely at odds with democracy. The current form of capitalism within which we live cannot sustain democracy, for democracy can only exist among equals, or within some semblance of equality. Democracy is thus the antithesis of neo-liberalism, which wants to concentrate wealth and thus power within the hands of a few. Within such a framework democracy is bound to perish.
What does the OWS movement, the Quebec general student strike of 2012 and the events in Ferguson have common? They are movements that are at the forefront of defending our democratic rights and pushing for a greater enhancement of democracy. Fox News ran a story during this past week entitled “Forgetting MLK’s message”, lest we forget that Martin Luther King Jr died in Memphis fighting for economic justice. Martin Luther King Jr knew very well that democracy and civil rights were void, merely a nice gesture if the economic structure which had allowed the oppression of African-Americans for so many years wasn’t challenged. Ultimately he gave his life trying to make that message reverberate throughout America.
Why is there a militarization of police forces within this start of the 21st century? The answer is simple: because of inequality, political elites that have every interest in keeping things the way they are and every interest in maintaining the status-quo will not relinquish their power, and thus have to kill in the egg any such movements that calls for greater economic equality before they gain any margin of maneuver.
Not only are these movements fighting for a more democratic society, they are redefining the space for democracy as a system that isn’t about the wish or aspirations of a political elite and that doesn’t follow the tempo of electoral cycles, but rather is a tool of variable dimensions that magnifies the voices of those that aren’t heard within our current system.
Grabaer in his most recent work—maybe somewhat intentionally—provoked all the right wing and liberal media pundits by equating the OWS movement with the democratic inspirations of America’s first patriots. I not only think that Grabaer’s assertion is correct, but I would also like to extend this to all of the movements that fight for economic, social or environmental justice. The minutemen of the 21st century are to be found in the streets of Ferguson tonight.
In Ottawa, Chairman Harper is taking a sledge hammer to what was already our feeble excuse for democracy. With the ‘son of omnibus’ he has displayed a disregard for democracy so severe the CBC’s At Issue panel, no bastion of liberalism, unanimously condemned it as an “affront to democracy.” Meanwhile, below the radar and in secret negotiations, he seems set to sign FIPA – a free trade deal with China that represents perhaps the most serious threat to our sovereignty and ability to protect our well being and environment in history.
His party bounces from one scandal to another, as it turns out many of his MPs overspent, accepted illegal contributions and may have placed fraudulent robocalls to suppress the progressive vote.
But, despite these and so many other scandals, Harper is looking downright clean compared to the mess being unravelled in Quebec.
Just yesterday, former Montreal city engineer Gilles Surprenant arrived at the Charbonneau Comission into corruption with an unexpected present for the comissioners: a ziplock bag full of hundred dollar bills totalling $123,000. It was, he said, all that was left of over $600,000 he took in bribes since 1990 to inflate the cost of city contracts. He also testified that he blew over $200,000 of this bribe money at the Montreal Casino, because he wanted to return the money to the government. I swear, you could not make this stuff up.
His testimony corroborated that of former construction magnate Lino Zambito earlier in the week that politicians and parties, most notably Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay’s Union Montreal and former Premier Jean Charest’s Liberal Party, were in a partnership with the Mafia to rig bids, raise money illegally and steal millions from the public purse. These kickbacks were used to finance the election campaigns of the politicians who have ruled us for the last decade.
If this story was not so profoundly depressing, it would be laughable.
Meanwhile, rather than apologize, rather than act even a little chastened, our politicians are plumbing new depths of shamelessness. Today, Montreal executive committee chairperson Michael Applebaum of Union Montreal expressed his “disgust” with Surprenant, but compared the situation to a few bad apples which are present in any organization. He also played coy about his intentions to replace Tremblay at the helm of Union.
Are you kidding me Michael?
This is no bad apple, the system is rotten to its core. Continuing to insist otherwise at this point is frankly insulting to our intelligence. Furthermore, his party was a major player in this endemic corruption and financed its election campaigns, including his, with kickbacks they received for screwing over the taxpayers they were supposed to be serving.
I don’t care how involved or not any Union politician was with this scheme (although it beggars belief that someone as senior in the party as Applebaum would have been unaware of it), their campaigns were financed by corruption, and their party robbed us blind.
If they had a shred of integrity Union Montreal councillors would be resigning in droves. No one deserves to go more than Mayor Tremblay, but the rest of his sorry lot should follow him off the plank.
At this point, if you aren’t outraged, you simply aren’t paying attention. I wonder where the resolute defenders of the integrity of both Union and the PLQ have gone. They were all over critics in the summer, and yet have gone deathly silent in recent weeks. Perhaps, unlike their political leaders, they are possesed of a modicum of shame.
Although we have had an inkling of how bad things were for years, to see the sordid details of this massive scandal aired publicly at long last is still shocking. Our political system is rotten to the core, and has been for years.
It’s time to turn the page. There can be no re-boot for these crooks. This time it’s over. I’m sorry Mr. Applebaum, but a fresh coat of paint and a new leader won’t save your party. If there is any justice it won’t save the provincial Liberals either, but the last election results seem to suggest otherwise.
If we don’t stand up together and reject corruption, then we are as complicit in this mess as our ‘leaders’.
Vision are part of the same system, they won’t change what works for them. The PQ are no doubt a preferrable alternative to the Liberals, but they too are implicated in this pervasive corruption. We need to look outside our comfortable political dualities and seek out real alternatives. It’s time for real change, and that will not come from the crooks who got us into this mess in the first place.
Our democracy is in an existential crisis at every level. We are at a turning point. If we do not take real and concrete action, right now, we will lose whatever vestiges of democracy remain in our broken system.
If it makes you angry, good! Channel that anger, use it to build neighborhood assemblies that can practice direct democracy and provide a counter point to this mess. Work to elect a city government next year that will take real and concrete steps to clean up, but also to build strong and sustainable democratic structures. But whatever you do, don’t shrug and sigh and believe there’s nothing to be done. There has been far too much nothing done already.