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Panel "Unite Against Austerity" sparks discussions in Toronto

Speakers, crowd talk austerity and how to fight back

by David Gray-Donald

Unite Against Austerity! Toronto Panel, April 25, 2015
Unite Against Austerity! Toronto Panel, April 25, 2015
A hundred Torontonians spent a cool sunny afternoon on Saturday April 25th hearing five panelists discuss austerity, before dividing into small groups to talk about how the issue affects their communities and how to fight back.
Unite Against Austerity! Toronto Panel Discussion marked the on-the-ground launch of Smart Change's Canada-wide anti-austerity campaign. The Montreal-based organization is hoping to spread the energy from Quebec to the rest of Canada. 
Panellist Jennie Miller put the public education challenge in perspective, telling the crowd about a friend who had confided to her that they had heard austerity was bad, but had to ask, "What is austerity anyway?" 
Long outside of the Canadian political lexicon, austerity is being used all over the world and now here at home as an analytical framework through which to see certain government policy and budgeting approaches. The federal Conservative budget is perhaps the most unifying example of austerity across the nation, but the concept is also being discussed more locally. In Nova Scotia a resistance has grown in opposition to deep service cuts, oil revenues in Alberta are drying up while an election and major economic questions loom large, and Ontarians are learning about austerity after Kathleen Wynne's Liberals tabled a budget last week cutting services, freezing wages, and selling off public assets to private interests while protecting the rich and corporations - textbook neoliberal austerity economics.
Tying many issues together with an austerity narrative
The panel at the event in Toronto consisted of Crystal Sinclair, involved with Idle No More Toronto and working in the legal system as a public service employee, Jennie Miller from the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), Chris Ramsaroop representing Justicia for Migrant Workers, John Clark with Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), and Avi Lewis of the This Changes Everything book, film, and mobilizing team.
Sinclair reminded the crowd that the politics of dispossessing the many for the benefit of a few has been a centuries old feature on this continent, and indigenous peoples have known this intimately, including through the ongoing failure of the Canadian state to honour the treaties that form the basis of the nation. Sinclair read the six demands of the Idle No More Defenders of the Land.  
Chris Ramsaroop noted that the systems of temporary foreign work and migrant labour in Canada, continues a long racist and colonial history. Many migrant workers doing agricultural and service labour are indentured to employers, live without rights afforded to residents, and face widespread scorn in media. Ramsaroop challenged the audience to amplify narratives that run contrary to the status quo media message, such as stories of migrant workers fighting to protect themselves with workplace safety enforcement nearly absent due to government service cuts.
John Clark discussed the intensification of the "war on the poor" in Toronto, "the developing neoliberal city" which he notes has the second largest population of ultra-rich citizens on the continent, behind only New York City. Clark pointed to, in recent years, an agenda of "increasing the levels of exploitation and enrichment by really creating out there a climate of desperation." The number of people working at minimum wage has been growing, and people with injuries and disabilities have been forced into the workplace through cuts to disabilities services. Toronto has seen significant increases in homelessness along with the closing of services for people living in poverty, such as the recent closing of the Hope Shelter downtown, noted Clark.
Jennie Miller spoke of the ongoing negotiations between approximately 35, 000 OPSEU members and the government of Ontario, and about how talks aren't going well, but how they have drawn much inspiration from the victory a month ago of CUPE 3903 at York University. Toronto, in recent memory, has had few labour victories, and much anti-union sentiment. Miller mentioned that the Ontario Liberal government has been adamant there is no money for public sector employees, but have shown they have money to spend on the Pan Am Games, cancelled gas plants, Ornge helicopter scandals and more, underscoring that austerity is a choice. 
There was enthusiasm around a suggestion made by panellist Avi Lewis for a wide-ranging demonstration to be held on July 5th, coinciding with the Kathleen Wynne-hosted Climate Summit of the Americas. Lewis, who will soon be releasing a film accompaniment to his wife Naomi Klein's book This Changes Everything, spoke to the intersection of austerity and climate change, arguing that the current moment presents an urgent opportunity to remake our economic system to ensure fairness between people. While Lewis cited the example of democratization of power distribution systems in Germany, he was quick to note that Germany has been launching destructive austerity measures on southern Europe, and in that regard is not a model to copy wholesale. 
Fighting back
Popular education was seen as a challenge to building a strong anti-austerity movement in Toronto, Ontario and Canada. Starting with describing what austerity is and what its effects are, there is much work to be done in building a united front. In Quebec, 80, 000-member student group ASSÉ began a widespread popular education campaign in the fall of 2013, but while opposition to austerity has been visible there, it has yet to rack up substantial wins.
The early July events, including the Climate Summit and the International Economic Forum of the Americas featuring Henry Kissinger, are events to potentially build campaigns around. Avi Lewis' suggestion of a major mobilization on July 5th around climate and also austerity was met with encouraging applause from the audience and featured in several small group discussions. 
Organizers from various sectors, who made up a large part of the crowd at the Toronto event on Saturday, will have to careful to avoid burn-out, criminalization (like during the 2010 G20), and public backlash. As organizers in Quebec and many other places have learned, the fight against austerity, as with climate change, is for the long-haul.
Videos of the panellists addresses at the event are available here.


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