Quebec: bills on the one hand, angry teachers on the other
Toronto — The Quebec government has bit the hand that elected it. Following a month-long strike by the province's teachers, the government had forced them back to work for at least a three-week cooling off period that ended Monday.
It appears that almost all of the teachers will return to work, but it has been a pyrrhic victory for the government.
By enacting draconian labor legislation, the nationalist Parti Quebecois (PQ) has alienated its own power base, the civil service, and especially the teachers. At meetings over the weekend, leaders of the teacher's union begrudgingly asked their members to return to work and most are expected to obey , especially in the face of harsh penalties if they refuse. In many ways the problem was one of the government's own making.
It first surfaced when Quebec's minister of finance, Jacques Parizeau, went over the provincial books last year and found a province of 6 million people facing a deficit of close to $3 billion. The government felt the only place it could trim was staff.
Last summer the province announced wage cutbacks which amounted to 20 percent in some cases. Not just the highly paid civil service was affected, but also the 90,000 teachers who work in Quebec's grade schools, high schools, and junior colleges.
After a month-long illegal strike in January and February, the province ordered the teachers back to work with one of the harshest pieces of labor legislation ever passed in Canada. It calls for fines and jail terms for teachers who refuse to obey back-to-work orders. It also calls for penalties for parents who counsel teachers to stay off the job. And to avoid any crowded courts, justices of the peace have been delegated to sentence potential offenders, waiving many of the usual rules of law.
All this from a government which calls itself social democratic and which this year is trying to join Socialist International. In its earlier days this same government passed the most pro-labor legislation ever seen in Canada.
Old allies find themselves on different sides of the barricades now. Left-leaning Cabinet ministers describe the teachers as reactionary for their wage demands.
Many members of the PQ are former labor leaders, teachers, and journalists who were sympathetic to the labor movement. Indeed, it was the same people who, once in power, gave the teachers such big raises and fringe benefits - much of this granted before the referendum on separation in 1980 and the provincial election in 1981. The Quebec government, having spent its way to power, has now taken back the money and the perks, alienating the teachers - a group which voted almost en bloc for the separatist PQ government.
The French-speaking teachers have always been sympathetic to the separatist cause. They have seen themselves as having little to lose and much to gain because, as the policies of the province move it to being more French, there is more work for people in ''the cultural sector.''
But the preoccupation with things cultural - which means anything to further the French language - has in part been responsible for the province's economic decline, at least according to opposition politicians and disgruntled businessmen. The combination of that decline and the recession meant fewer dollars for the provincial treasury and ultimately fewer dollars for the teachers.
The government has done more than just alienate the teachers; parents are angry as well.
''Everyone was fed up with the teachers when they were on strike,'' said Susan d'Artois, a mother in Montreal. ''But when the back-to-work legislation came in, we started to feel sorry for the teachers and angry with the government.''
Quebec Premier Rene Levesque threatened to call an election over these issues , but retreated when a poll showed his party with about 25 percent of popular support.
Last week a number of Cabinet ministers were attacked by angry teachers and civil servants as they arrived at a party meeting in Quebec City. Education Minister Canille Laurin was beaten with placards and the rear window of his limousine was smashed.
Dr. Laurin is the high priest of linguistic nationalism, charged with enforcing the province's language and education laws. That he should be attacked by people who have formed the core of support for the separatist party shows that while the teachers may have been forced back to work, they have almost certainly finished off the government. The government is now seen as having little chance of winning the next provincial election.
Since the winners will almost certainly be the federalist Liberal party, the teachers and civil servants, so strongly in favor of nationalism and separtism, have probably dealt Quebec independence a mortal blow.