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A movement is born

By: | May 1, 2016

The provincial government’s 2016 austerity budget has sparked province-wide outrage and politicized a “whole new generation of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians [who are] not going away.”

As many as 1,000 residents descended on Confederation Building in St. John's on April 29 to protest the Liberal government's 2016 austerity budget. Photo by Michael Hollahan.

On Friday more than a thousand people united in Corner Brook, Wabush, Forteau and St. John’s in a province-wide day of action against austerity. With more actions planned in other communities in the coming days and weeks, and with a growing number of ad hoc anti-austerity groups and coalitions forming to organize many of them, the public response to the Liberal government’s budget has morphed into a movement and shows no sign of slowing down.

“This is a broad-based popular movement that has emerged from the grassroots of this very community,” says Jon Parsons, an activist, academic and political commentator.

Parsons, a PhD student and instructor at Memorial University who studies social and political movements and writes an occasional column for The Independent, says the fact people around the province are organizing in their own communities and coordinating events to resist the government’s austerity budget is a sign the movement is in its early stages and could be a powerful determinant in how the Dwight Ball Government shapes its policies in addressing the fallout from its attempt to usher an era of austerity in to Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Regular people are out there spreading the word and working together to oppose this budget,” says Parsons. “Nobody’s waiting for instructions, no one’s waiting for some formal political entity to take charge and to bring this forward. People are literally just doing it themselves. Many of the demonstrations that have happened have been organized by regular folks.”

Friday’s demonstration in St. John’s drew as many as 1,000 people, who marched from the Avalon Mall to Confederation Building, where people representing various groups and demographics condemned the Liberal government’s budget, arguing the tax and fee hikes, along with cuts to social services, will disproportionately affect low and middle-income earners and the province’s most vulnerable people.

The Corner Brook demonstration drew about 150 people and featured a march led by Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Chief Brendan Mitchell and members of the Mi’kmaq community from Margaret Bowater Park to the Sir Richard Squires government building. There, speakers shared similar messages as those in St. John’s.

Mi'kmaw Elder Mutchie Bennett and Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation Chief Brendan Mitchell lead the April 29 anti-austerity march in Corner Brook. Photo by Justin Brake.

Mi’kmaw Elder Mutchie Bennett, Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Chief Brendan Mitchell and members of the Mi’kmaq community led the April 29 anti-austerity march in Corner Brook. Photo by Justin Brake.

Mitchell said a lot of people in the province, including many Qalipu members, are living on or near the poverty line, and that the measures in the Liberals’ budget “are things that are going to make it more difficult” for them.

“We’re all pretty forgiving and we don’t have a problem with the premier changing his mind about this,” he said.

On Saturday more than 100 people gathered at the College of the North Atlantic campus in Bonavista, while about 50 came together in Stephenville, making their communities the latest to host anti-austerity protests.

Many are using social media platforms to form grassroots groups and organize the actions. Coordinated Approach NL recently formed to bring organizers from across the province together to share ideas and resources in planning actions, while Mutual Aid NL is keeping track of all the actions while also coordinating efforts.

Meanwhile, established groups like the Social Justice Co-operative N.L. and the Council of Canadians are lending their voices and resources to the planning efforts.

And labour unions are playing no small part in the fight against austerity. The Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE) took the lead on Friday’s actions in Forteau and Wabush and are behind recent demonstrations in Harbour Grace, Bell Island, Bonavista and St. John’s, with more actions planned in Burin and Grand Falls-Windsor this week.

On April 26 Common Front N.L., a new coalition of labour unions, community organizations and individuals, launched a campaign at Memorial University in St. John’s.

Prior to the launch of We Are NL, Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour President Mary Shortall, one of the group’s organizers, told The Independent the coalition has been planning for months with the expectation the Liberals would drop an austerity budget.

We Are NL will facilitate a public discussion on the negative impacts of austerity on people and the economy “over at least the next several months leading into a new budget, and probably even longer if we have to,” Shortall said.

“We’ll be trying to engage the public and put pressure on the politicians in whatever way we can,” she added. “One thing that politicians have in common is that they all want to be re-elected, for the most part, and so votes matter and people’s votes matter. So the more people we can engage and have them come with us the better we’ll all be in whatever we’re doing.”

More than three years until the next election

At Friday’s march in Corner Brook Humber-Bay of Islands MHA and Cabinet Minister Eddie Joyce told the crowd he will continue to listen to people’s concerns but will ultimately “do what I feel is best for the province. If it means that I don’t get elected again, so be it.”

Unwilling to wait for the next election, which is up to three and a half years away, and since the Liberals reneged on a number of key election promises under the pretence of not understanding the gravity of the province’s dire fiscal situation, others are stepping up the efforts to bring about change before 2019.

On Saturday a small group of people demonstrated outside a McDonald’s restaurant on Topsail Road in St. John’s owned by Finance Minister Cathy Bennett, encouraging would-be customers to take their business elsewhere. Police arrived to talk to protestors but eventually left them to continue their action while passing cars honked in support.

Organizer Tom Beckett told The Independent before the action that he doesn’t think letters, petitions and phone calls will be enough to move the premier and finance minister to rescind the austerity measures presented in the budget, saying the efforts “have all proven to be fruitless on past issues.”

Ball and Bennett “do however understand business, and if enough people boycott their enterprises and those of their cabinet colleagues there may indeed be a reconsideration,” he said.

Beckett explained Saturday’s McDonald’s protest is the first in a series.

“I plan to keep the boycott events going on a random basis until Budget 2016 is amended,” he said. “Usually government wins these types of conflicts since the institution has a longer life than an individual, [but] making the protest personal to individuals within cabinet shortens the time period.”

Beckett and others have also called on Lieutenant Governor Frank Fagan to exercise his authority to dissolve government and call a new election, arguing enough people in the province have lost confidence in the Liberals’ ability to govern effectively.

“The government has lost the confidence of the electorate. This doesn’t make them bad people, just the latest victims of a system that no longer works. It is time to fix the system. There are other countries in the world who have taken similar unconventional approaches to crisis (e.g. Iceland) from whom we can learn,” Bell Island resident Katherine Walters wrote in a recent letter to Fagan, which she then shared with The Independent.

 The government has lost the confidence of the electorate. — Katherine Walters, Bell Island

“I respectfully request you use your authority to halt the present course towards disaster and dissolve the current government. Call together experts in governance and crisis management from educational and other public institutions to develop a plan for moving forward in a new direction, one that ensures input from the people of the province.”

Beckett said he sent a letter to Fagan requesting the lieutenant governor “exercise his authority under Section 3 of the House of Assembly Act to save democracy given Budget 2016 is a complete reversal of the promises made by the now premier and his team in November 2015,” he explained. 

While the act of dissolving parliament is not a customary practice in provincial politics in Canada, Beckett said there are precedents in other jurisdictions that could be followed.

Parsons said the widespread outrage to the austerity budget and the subsequent actions province-wide are the reason he calls what’s happening a “broad-based movement, because you’re seeing all these things happening at once. There’s a flurry of activity. There’s all these new groups forming, so that is for me what defines this as a movement.”

No more excuses

Last week Bennett announced the government will create a new website with a built-in calculator so the people of the province can see that those who say they will be hit hard by the tax and fee increases will in fact benefit from the government’s new Income Supplement program. She also said the new online tool will not take into consideration the Liberals’ Deficit Reduction Levy, a tax measure that will force people earning $20,000 and more annually to fork over a percentage of their income up to to $900 to the government. The levy features various income brackets and demands a higher percentage of lower and middle-income workers than it does from higher-income earners.

When explaining the new online tool, Bennett said “whether or not [the] budget was properly communicated I will leave that for the history books,” but on Friday in Corner Brook Joyce told The Independent he believes the Liberals “never did a good job putting the information out” about how Budget 2016 would not place a greater burden on low-income earners.

“With the Guaranteed Income Supplement anybody under $25,000 will have actually more money in their pocket,” he said, adding those earning between $25,000 and $40,000 will see the increased taxes offset by the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

But many are skeptical of the Liberals’ claims. Young parents, disabled individuals, seniors and students are among those who have written letters to The Independent since the April 14 budget, and all have outlined how the budget will negatively impact their personal finances and force them deeper into poverty or put them in a position where they will have to consider leaving the province altogether.

Natasha Blackwood, a young worker and mother who wrote the first letter on April 15, which has garnered tens of thousands of reads and prompted others to share their stories, recently told The Independent the public’s response to the Liberals’ austerity has given her hope that things will change.

“I feel more hopeful because it seems a lot of people are refusing to accept [the budget], and a lot of people who wouldn’t normally be getting involved are getting involved,” she said.

"These events...are not the climax of the movement — they’re just the beginning," says Natasha Blackwood. Photo by Kerri Breen.

“These events…are not the climax of the movement — they’re just the beginning,” says Natasha Blackwood. Photo by Kristine Breen.

“I know a lot of politicians are hoping this will fizzle out and go away, but the more these groups are hearing these kinds of comments the more enraged they get and the more determined they get. These events planned for [April 29] are not the climax of the movement — they’re just the beginning.”

Blackwood has joined up with others on social media to help organize some of the anti-austerity events and said with each action “you feel a little bit more empowered, you become a little bit more vocal and you convince more people to join the movement. And I feel like we’re just gaining momentum and we’re going to keep gaining momentum for weeks to come.” 

The anger and frustration are palpable at the events. At a demonstration outside Confederation Building last month protestors shouted over former Premier Paul Davis as he attempted to criticize the Liberals over their handling of the province’s almost $2 billion deficit, one that Unifor representative and Common Front N.L. member Karen White said at the coalition’s April 26 launch is 40 percent a result of the Progressive Conservatives’ handling of the province’s finances.

At a demonstration in Labrador last month former Lake Melville MHA Keith Russell was interrupted too as he tried to criticize the Liberals’ budget.

Despite claims by some commentators that the blame should rest squarely on the shoulders of the former government, residents recognize structural and systemic problems that have persisted throughout the rotation of Liberal and PC administrations in recent decades and are out of patience when it comes to top-down explanations from elected officials.

On Friday Corner Brook MHA and Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Gerry Byrne tried to address the crowd outside the Sir Richard Squires building but was drowned out by protestors, who shouted “Tax the rich! Tax the rich!”

With the new budget Newfoundland and Labrador will see personal income tax rates increase on all income brackets, but critics say the tax increases on higher-income earners don’t go far enough.

In an April 13 interview with The Independent, B.C.-based economist David Thompson, who met with Ball and Bennett earlier this year on behalf of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, said if this province adopted the same personal income tax rates as some neighbouring Atlantic provinces, then N.L. could generate significant revenues.

Budget 2016 will see income tax rates for those earning $125,500 or more per year jump by three percent by 2017. People earning $125,500 to $175,700 will pay 17.3 percent, while those earning $175,700 or more will pay 18.3 percent. 

By comparison Nova Scotia’s personal income tax rate for those earning more than $150,000 per year is set at 21 percent, while New Brunswick’s is 20.3 percent. Quebec boasts the highest personal income tax rates in Canada, set at 25.75 percent for those earning more than $103,150 annually.

 Government has made decisions based on politics, not based on good governance, and it is time for that to stop. — Alison Coffin, MUN economist

St. John’s resident and author Michelle Keep wrote in an April 20 column for The Independent that “those of us who can afford to pay a larger share need to speak up for those who can’t,” and that “those who are comfortable need to take a stand and let our government know that we’re not in support of their morally bankrupt budget.”

Memorial University economist and former provincial NDP candidate Alison Coffin told the crowd gathered outside Confederation Building on Friday that the Liberal government’s budget lacks vision, and that people are angry when they “hear the budget say that the reason we are here is because of the volatility of oil, and in the next breath [government says] that in the long run we are hoping for oil to come back so we can base our next budget on that.

“There is no diversity, there is no hope that our children can have jobs when they graduate,” she said.

Coffin also pointed to Muskrat Falls and the impact it will have on Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

“I am angry that before we started Muskrat Falls we had $2 billion in the bank,” she announced. “Last year we borrowed $3.4 billion. We are angry because we are paying a levy because we are expected to pay for Muskrat Falls. And not only should we be angry because we are paying for Muskrat Falls through a levy, but we are also paying for Muskrat Falls when the power starts to run — our power bills will go up and we will be angry and we will have less money to spend.

“Government has made decisions based on politics, not based on good governance, and it is time for that to stop.”

Rural communities will be hit hard

When Gambo resident Michael Paul started calling people in his community to organize a demonstration to protest the impending closure of Gambo’s Child, Youth and Family Services (CYFS) office and a medial clinic in neighbouring Hare Bay, he didn’t think he could rally the troops in a town of 2,000. But on April 23 around 200 people showed up.

“People are really upset. There were people who on a normal day wouldn’t go out because they’re seniors, they can’t get around too well,” he told The Independent. “And they’re showing up to show their support because it’s brutal for them.”

Michael Paul organized a recent anti-austerity protest in Gambo. Jo Dee Photography.

Paul said many of the 1,000 or so patients in Hare Bay area will be forced to travel 60 kilometres to Gander to see a doctor, and then will have to find a family doctor in Gander, “which is not very easy.”

Meanwhile, the closure of the CYFS office in Gambo, which he says services communities “all the way down the shore to Musgrave Harbour, and then from Gambo all the way to Charlottetown, and all the communities that go down to Eastport and Salvage,” will force social workers to commute to Gander for work.

“It’s only seven social workers and a clerical,” he said. “And they’re moving them 42 kilometres further away from all these communities. So now the [workers] are going to have to travel to Gander—if they have to visit a family—pick up their files, turn around and backtrack 42 kilometres and then go to whatever town they got to go to.”

Paul questions whether the minimal savings to the government are worth the strain it will put on the important social services offered through the local CYFS office.

Last week the government further outraged residents across the province when it announced the closure of more than half of Newfoundland and Labrador’s public libraries. Education Minister Dale Kirby told VOCM the province’s high illiteracy rates were an indication that change was needed, so the Liberals will regionalize libraries, a move critics say will make books, free internet and other services offered by libraries inaccessible to many.

A CBC article published Friday revealed that many of the libraries that will be closed in fact boast high usage rates.

Frustration boiling over

Parsons says the growing discontent is a result of “longstanding grievances that are coming to the surface.

“In the context of this unrest you’re seeing a total re-evaluation, number one, of Muskrat Falls. You’re seeing a questioning of the relationship between Newfoundland and Labrador. You’re seeing issues brought to the surface around gender, mental health, Indigeneity,” he explains. “So all these things that have been sort of covered over by everyday life are coming back with a vengeance in the context of this budget.”

Parsons says much discussion has also been going on in the groups and coalitions about the structure and nature of government and politics, “and about democracy and the kind of decision-making processes [people] want in their politics.

“From my point of view, as someone who’s been active in the community here for a number of years, we’ve been preparing for this, knowing that something was on the horizon and that things were broken in the way that politics was happening.

"There’s this reserve of strength and now people are drawing on that to fight back against this budget," says Jon Parsons. Photo by Michael Hollahan.

“There’s this reserve of strength and now people are drawing on that to fight back against this budget,” says Jon Parsons. Photo by Michael Hollahan.

“I think the government can do reasonable things to calm some of the unrest that’s out there, but at the same time I think that a whole new generation of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have been politicized by this, and they’re not going away. So I see this in the context of a longer struggle for a more robust democracy in this province. There should be concessions from the government, and yes, maybe it will calm this sort of explosion of anger, but I don’t think the movement is going to go away; I think that people are going to continue pushing for a new politics in this province.”

Parsons says the numerous petitions in circulation, the letters and the phone calls to MHAs are helping to create a “culture of resistance” that will continue to give way to more and stronger turnouts at anti-austerity actions and that government is most likely to respond to those events.

“What’s interesting, as someone who’s interested in social movements, is just to see the way that this has formed organically, the way this is happening on its own,” he said. “People clearly know how to do it. [The government] tapped into some energy that’s been there that people just haven’t used in a long time, but there’s this reserve of strength and now people are drawing on that to fight back against this budget.”

Parsons says he doesn’t think the resistance will go away unless the government makes some “real concessions”.

“I think they’re going to have to go back and take another look at this, and if they don’t, if they really dig in their heels, I think going forward this government’s going to have a real hard time with legitimacy,” he says. “Imagine, this coming fall, they’re in negotiations with all the public sector unions — this certainly doesn’t help their position going forward. And if they’re going to try and take a strong stance against the unions, well then this is something that will go on into the fall that will, I think, even if it calms down for a little while, come right back to the surface. And I don’t know how this government can hope to survive.”

Several anti-austerity actions are planned for the coming week. Here is a partial list:

Monday (May 2)
Public Town Hall on the Economy (hosted by Common Front NL)
Hotel Gander, 5:30 p.m.

Monday (May 2)
‘Fight the Budget’ rally (outside the CBC building in St. John’s)
The Premier and Finance Minister Bennett will visit the CBC studio for a one-hour Here and Now taping. 5:30 p.m.

Tuesday (May 3)
NAPE rally against the budget
Burin Health Centre. 12:30 p.m.

Wednesday (May 4)
Spring into Action (a town hall about the budget, hosted by St. John’s Centre MHA Gerry Rogers)
St. Teresa’s Parish Hall, 120 Mundy Pond Road, St. John’s. 7 p.m.

Wednesday (May 4)
NAPE rally against the budget
Wednesday, May 4 — 12:30 p.m.
Law Courts Building, Grand Falls-Windsor

Saturday (May 7)
Solidarity Saturday Budget Protest #NLRising
Meeting at MUN Clock Tower at 11:30 a.m. and marching to Confederation Building
(This is a solidarity action that will meet up with the NLFL demonstration below.)

Saturday (May 7)
NL Rising! A rally for strong communities, good jobs, and tax fairness.
Confederation Building, St. John’s. 12 p.m.
(Organized by the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour.)

To stay up to date on discussions about the budget and informed about other anti-austerity actions, the following websites and Facebook groups may be of interest:

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