In light of the recent austerity measures put forward by the Quebec government, Montrealers have been taking to the streets in public demonstrations and assemblies. Those of us in the streets come from a wide range of backgrounds and include families, the elderly and the very young. May Day of this year was a great example of this. For me, it was a beautiful May Day morning. The daycare down my street was leading the children in their own demonstration around our block. I saw this as part of the necessary enculturation process that goes with democracy. Democracy doesn't start with elections. Real democracy starts with conflict and conversation among people in public spaces, in the form of debate, assembly and even protest. But as Montrealers know all too well, the authorities don't want us assembling and protesting in public spaces.
The daycare demo was a strong statement, especially since the Quebec government began its austerity budget by slashing the universal daycare program. Austerity measures disproportionately affect women and children. Women hold 75 per cent of public and semi-public sector jobs—these are the jobs slashed by austerity in Quebec. But it isn't just about budget cuts. These jobs were built, legitimated and secured through a long struggle by women for women, and especially mothers, in Quebec. This isn't just a budget cut, it's a dismantling of feminist institutions and a return to a more ingrained patriarchy.
These institutions, like the Centre de la Petite Enfance (CPE) and the Centre Locale de Services Communautaires (CLSC) provide services that all mothers need. They provide universally accessible childcare, which means that women can exercise their right (and often need) to provide for themselves and their family. These institutions also provide job security in an otherwise–and historically–precarious job sector comprised predominantly of women. Prior to the establishment of these institutions, child-care providers were working on a grey market subject to the whims and even abuse of their employers.
Without these institutions the bulk of family care will fall more and more into the hands of mothers—not by personal choice, but by financial coercion. Mothers will be more dependent on precarious economic relationships like grey market labour and marriage. This gives women little recourse to report unfair wages, unpaid hours and abuse in the workplace. It also increases a mother's dependency on her spouse, making it more difficult to exercise her rights within the family and even to leave an abusive situation. For single mothers, institutionalized support is essential. A Quebec that accepts austerity for women is a Quebec that denies mothers' rights and strengthens patriarchy. For a mother, these issues make it worth it to get up and out into the streets. We do so for our children and out of respect for our elders, for our mothers who built these institutions and for our daughters who will need them in the future.
I want to share with non-mother allies what the streets look like to a mother right now. Montrealers have all seen how austerity is accompanied by increasingly violent and repressive tactics. Under the city’s municipal bylaw P-6, if three people or more are gathering in public they have to give the police their itinerary or the police can declare their presence in that public space illegal. Once a demonstration is declared illegal, the police have the legal right to exercise violence. This is the bylaw that the Montreal police used to justify violence against protesters—mothers and children included—on May 1, 2015. They tear gassed a radius of at least six blocks and attacked citizens with pepper spray, tear gas, batons and shields. It was a violent and dramatic ending to a peaceful and beautiful day.
What happens to mothers when police tactics get violent and political action is deemed criminal? We're forced to make a choice between protecting our children, or protecting our children. Mothers have to ask themselves, who will take care of my children if I get arrested? If I get injured by violence, sick from tear gas? Mothers have to ask themselves, will an arrest affect my custody rights? All the while, we are asking ourselves long-term, bigger questions. If I don't stand up for my rights, will I be able to afford childcare so that I can work? Will I have a job so that I can work to support my family? When we go to the streets, we need to remember who isn't there and why.
On a brighter note, families have continued to organize public assemblies and demonstrations against austerity. Many are creatively opting to gather in parks rather than the streets. Demonstrations organized by and for families are a crucial part of our resistance to austerity. Everybody should be joining and supporting these assemblies.