Usually it takes social movements years, even decades, to significantly affect public policy. The movement unleashed by Québec students last spring has had a much quicker impact.
Beyond politicizing a generation, it has spurred a more socially and ecologically progressive political climate. It is within this context that Pauline Marois’ government has adopted more progressive reforms in its first days in office than any other provincial government in recent Canadian history.
After rescinding the Charest government’s special bill that criminalized student demonstrations, they abolished the tuition increase that universities had already begun charging (many students have received a rebate). The Parti Québecois also eliminated a highly regressive two hundred dollar per person health tax and have moved to shut down a controversial nuclear power plant. In another decision prioritizing the environment and people’s health, they placed a long-term moratorium on hydraulic fracking and eliminated subsidies for asbestos mining, which prompted the federal Conservative government to announce it would no longer block the Rotterdam Convention from listing chrysotile asbestos as a toxic product.
In addition to these reforms, the PQ appears to be reevaluating the $3 billion Turcot Interchange highway expansion that the Montréal city council has criticized and the Plan Nord resource extraction initiative, which has been criticized by environmental, socialist and indigenous groups. Even though the PQ has a history of backing free ‘trade’ agreements the Marois government looks set to obstruct the Harper Conservatives’ negotiations around the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Europe, which would further entrench corporate rights. Marois may even embarrass Harper at the upcoming Francophonie summit by supporting African countries in their call for a permanent UN Security Council seat.
To pay for abolishing the health tax and tuition freeze the government announced a tax increase for those making over $130,000 and another higher tax bracket for those making over $250,000. Additionally, the government announced that it will increase certain corporate taxes and reduce capital gains tax exemptions, which allow those who make their money from investing to pay lower tax rates than those who make their money from working.
Not surprisingly the corporate media is up in arms about these developments. Right-wing commentators are complaining that Marois’ ministerial appointees are too ecologically minded and not sufficiently concerned about business interests. They are particularly angry about the tax increases.
To a large extent these reforms by the PQ government, which had drifted to the right in recent years, are the fruit of the last eight months of protests. But don’t expect the dominant media to credit all those unnamed individuals who demonstrated, put their body on the line or risked their entire school semester to defend socially progressive ideals. To do so might spur further activism.
But that’s exactly what is needed. The grassroots movements that have developed need to continue pushing for a more equitable and ecologically sustainable society. The minority PQ government is especially vulnerable to popular protests as it looks to capture the broadly progressive electorate and squeeze out Québec Solidaire, the left-wing party that has two members in the National Assembly. At the same time the PQ is facing a backlash from right-wing commentators and corporate lobbyists who are most powerful when the streets are quietest.
For those in Québec, recent gains should inspire further mobilizations. For those outside, the PQ’s reforms are a reminder that determined grassroots movements can create a political climate in which governments place environmental concerns and social rights over the interests of corporations and the wealthy.