Montreal: In search of a new approach for defining social solidarity

GIF RGB 150 Pixels with BorderPierre Hamel, Roger Keil and Grégoire Autin report on findings from a second round of research in Montreal carried out as part of the collaborative governance under austerity project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Urban Transformations Network.

Montreal is renowned for its social and cultural dynamism. It is an important point to underscore as the city continues to struggle to improve its performance in terms of job creation and support for innovation in a variety of sectors, renewing hope in the improvement of working and living conditions for all citizens. It is necessary to remember that structural problems remain at the scale of the city-region. For example, the system of post-secondary education is less successful than elsewhere in turning out university graduates and Montreal’s labour market continues to struggle to integrate immigrants more than in comparable North American cities, as noted in a report released by the ‘Institut du Québec’ (IQ) in November 2015.

In some respect, a discrepancy has always prevailed within Montreal’s neighbourhoods, at least if we go back to the beginning of the 1960s, between, on the one hand, the dynamism of civil society – and more specifically community and voluntary sector organisations – and, on the other hand, the difficulty of the economy to offer well-paying jobs, especially for retaining new immigrants. Furthermore, this situation is no longer exclusively a major concern for new immigrants. Precarious working conditions have been rising almost in all sectors of activity since the beginning of the new Millennium. Nonetheless, among Canadian metropolitan regions, Montreal remains characterized by the quality of overall living standards due to the low social polarization and reasonable housing affordability.

In that respect, the city is demonstrating a dual character. This is due to a tension between social innovation and efficient economic activity. This challenge is anything but new. To some extent, all metropolitan regions are torn between, on the one hand, favoring adjustments to the international market place through, for example, promoting competitive clusters, and on the other, sustaining social solidarity. While those two strategies do not necessarily need to be incompatible, in capitalist economies they mostly are. What can a city do to overcome those contradictions? The answer can be found in local culture and political choices made by the local state and civil society alike.

Like in other urban jurisdictions in this research project and beyond, austerity has been on the agenda in Montreal. But, as we noted in our earlier blog post hard austerity policies have traditionally not been favoured by governments of the city, the province of Quebec and the recent federal government of Canada. Still there is repeated reference to rigeur in the policy landscape, the French term most often used when referring to austerity measures at all levels of government. The overall social consequences of austerity policies remain difficult to assess. But a large consensus prevails among the respondents to our investigation that those policies have been affecting the most vulnerable population groups.  In this respect, an ambiguity exists regarding the time period of reference.

Since their return to power at the provincial level, the Liberals adopted a series of austerity measures in order to reduce the Quebec public debt, the most significant one among Canadian provinces after Newfoundland and Labrador. This has been used as a the main rationale by Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, elected in April 2014, to go forward with drastic measures: cutting expenses in health care and education systems, welfare programs and salaries of government employees. Severe damages in service provision in those areas for some specific social groups have resulted from that. The children living in deprived areas and/or in need of specific educational support, poor people waiting for access to social housing, or recipients of social assistance are among the groups who have been the most affected by those measures.

This said, austerity policies are not an invention created by Premier Couillard in 2014. As a number of our respondents mentioned, this goes back to the Fordist crisis of the 1970s and its repercussion on welfare policies. From this moment onwards, the social compromise between economic elites and workers as managed by the state was put aside. In its place, social policies were managed increasingly through contracts with the private sector and/or community-based groups.

In that respect, above all, austerity has become a public issue that necessarily involves a rebalancing of relations between the various internal components of the state, and new relations between state and society. From a sociological perspective, the question of social cohesion is expressed in different terms compared to the Fordist era.  As public action gains legitimacy from expertise, and proposes diverse partnership mechanisms for managing public services, the democratic deficit is growing.  Henceforth, solidarity among citizens cannot rely exclusively on a blind faith in state capacity to manage solidarity and reduce inequalities. Democratic crisis and the legitimacy deficit of the state (at all levels) are necessarily on the agenda again.

This is why the coalition ‘Main rouge’ – opposed to pricing and privatisation of public services – supported by several groups active in the community sector but also by some trade unions, student and women movements, organized rallies to oppose the Couillard’s government austerity policies.  In November 2016, 1200 community groups even organized a two day strike in order to contest the chronic underfunding of their activities while serving a continuously increasing clientele..

Building a coalition against policies and programs managed by the state has proved to be a difficult task in Montreal for two reasons. First, the vast majority of community groups continue to rely mainly on the state for financing their internal operations. For that matter, mobilization against the state cannot be taken for granted. In addition, when governmental specific resources are available for dedicated projects, a competition over subsidies can occur among groups.  Second, the collaboration between the community sector and the trade union world is not self evident. This is not new, of course. The objectives of those two categories of actors are not always on the same page. Sometimes, it can be the case – one can recall, for example, the political project of the trade union left in the 1960s and 1970s in Quebec when, among other things, political action around urban and municipal issues was encouraged and supported by major labour federations in the Montreal region. But divergent interests also exist. In the past, as it is still the case nowadays, the community sector is concerned about the most vulnerable populations that are confronted with social exclusion, which is normally not the case for the members of trade unions. Constructing a politics of solidarity is difficult under these circumstances.

In regards to the crisis of democracy and the definition of new paths for overcoming this crisis, fighting against poverty and exclusion remains a central issue in OECD countries. For that matter, initiatives coming from civil society provided a source of innovation and a played a forerunner role in coping with a lack of social cohesion. The case of Community Development Corporations (CDCs) is a good example. At the beginning of the 1980s, these corporations were introduced by community-based groups in Montreal’s old working class neighborhoods in response to de-industrialising processes underway since the 1970s. Not only did these actors promote a social vision of economic and urban development, they also defended an integrated vision of the urban, so to speak, a vision that can be associated with the idea of a just city or with the spirit of the urban as conceived by Henri Lefebvre. On the terrain of Montreal neighborhoods, what they have achieved has paved the way for the project of social economy (Chantier de l’économie sociale) launched by the Quebec government through the Chantier de l’économie et de l’emploi in 1995. The activities underway with the Neighborhood Tables as well as the experiments with local programs of urban revitalisation (Revitalisation Urbaine Intégrée) initiated by the municipal administration in cooperation with community groups are also indebted to their action.

However, if these initiatives are welcome for overcoming sectoral biases ingrained in traditional governmental programs, their visibility and the support received by the state remain very weak. They are lacking resources and institutional support to cope with the contradictions underneath social and economic exclusion.

In Montreal, the picture of socioeonomic poverty is far from the key element when we are trying to grasp the city image. Nonetheless, social movements and community actors cannot forget that dimension. As they mobilised against the neo-liberal vision of social policies management, or struggled over economic and social issues, they explored new avenues for building social solidarity. Without all the answers to improve the living conditions of the general population, they revealed however being essential stakeholders. In many ways, fighting against austerity measures was also an occasion for exploring a new approach in defining social solidarity.

Pierre Hamel is Professor of Sociology at the Université de Montréal; Roger Keil is Professor and York Chair in Global Sub/Urban Studies at York University, Toronto; and Gregoire Autin is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the Université de Montréal.

 

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