Montreal’s bottom-up social democracy

Montreal's Bottom-Up Social Democracy

This article was originally published on Progressive City.

Residents of St-Henri, Montreal display a collective art project at a protest-assembly in front of the borough’s city hall to demand public ownership of the derelict Canada Malting factory. The text reads: “St-Henri, my neighborhood is not for sale”, “a meeting place for everyone”, and “my garden”.

Montreal is one of North America’s most politically vibrant cities, and is an important case study highlighting the power of—and barriers to—radical municipalist organizing in a Western context. But, because Montreal is mostly French-speaking, its thriving social movements are often not heard about in the rest of North America. This is a shame, because its citizens have innovated what could be called “bottom-up” citizens’ welfare run by the people—with important lessons for movements elsewhere.

The 1960s in Quebec, like in the rest of the world, was a time of social upheaval and great changes. Many wanted Quebec independence and a more secular society. This period of protests and reaction against the Catholic church is now called the Quiet Revolution.

Less well known is the 1961 movement across the province of Quebec called “les indignés” (the indignant, like los indignados in 2011 in Spain) for representation in rural areas. In great part inspired by this movement, citizens of Montreal began organizing their own caring economy in the 1960s. They started up groupes populaires like citizens’ committees, collective childcare, cooperative housing and businesses, and political action committees. By 1968, they began to form autonomous community centers. The first autonomous community-run clinic was set up that year in a working-class neighborhood, Pointe Saint-Charles. Childcare collectives, cooperative housing and businesses, and community centers followed. Residents of the Milton-Parc neighborhood organized what became the largest housing cooperative in North America, which in the 1970s became a model and inspiration for the establishment of a Quebec-wide cooperative movement.

Citizens’ assemblies and tenant associations sprang up in different neighborhoods to coordinate these efforts. By the end of the 1960s, Montreal’s citizens had built an ecosystem of mutual aid organizations by and for the working class.

This period also came with intense social movement mobilization from militant labor unions, women and students. But, there was little vocabulary available to describe non-hierarchical organizing focused on the sphere of daily life, rather than the workplace alone. As Jonathan Durand Folco describes in his book À Nous la Ville, grassroots leaders, recognizing the immense power coming from the quartiers populaires (people’s neighborhoods), began to see the need for a “second front” (deuxiéme front) beyond traditional labor organizing. As he notes, “These citizens’ committees and people’s assemblies were influenced by ideals of participation, techniques to build consciousness and autonomy, and the burgeoning idea of community organization.” This movement was in large part influenced by the work of Saul Alinsky—where professional activists put more emphasis on working at a neighborhood level and developing tools for community empowerment. However, when applied to the Montreal context, this strategy developed into something unique, with more emphasis on creating long-lasting institutions and coordinated action that grew from local efforts. Neighbors were coming together, organizing across the city for similar goals—starting city-wide tenant unions, citizens’ assemblies and networks of cooperatives. People quickly saw the need to scale up this blossoming groundswell of local activism and connect it to labor, feminist, student movements and all of the working class.

In 1966, leftists founded the Partie Socialiste du Quebec, with labor unions playing a major role.  They participated in the provincial election of 1966, but lost and shortly after disbanded because of infighting. For those involved, the experience taught them that leftists needed to go further than the workplace and the ballot, to transform society as a whole. The term “second front” was proposed by Marcel Pepin at the 1968 conference of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN)—Quebec’s second largest and most militant labor union. Folco quotes Frédérique Bernier, a Quebec labor historian: “collective bargaining against employers was considered insufficient in countering the systemic injustices against workers, and there was a need to act in a broader way toward the directions and structures of society.”

As a result, in 1969, the FRAP (Political Action Front), a coalition of grassroots municipal activists and autonomous political action committees based in the neighborhoods, formed a party and ran for city elections. Unfortunately, growing political tension came to a head during the 1970 October crisis, when pro-Quebec independence radicals kidnapped a Quebec politician (Pierre Laporte, who eventually was assassinated) and a British diplomat (James Cross). The kidnapping resulted in a full-scale military occupation of the city by the Canadian Army, under the War Measures Act of Canada—involving raids of the homes of prominent activists. This was put in place by the Pierre Elliot Trudeau government, which took away all habeas corpus—meaning no more constitutional law on arrest. Many of the FRAP’s main leaders and candidates were arrested, despite their commitment to democratic ideals and peaceful activism. The FRAP became perceived as the political front of the terrorist Front de Libération du Quebec, similar to Sinn Féin’s position vis-a-vis the Irish Republican Army (IRA). This was in the middle of the municipal election campaign, and the FRAP lost the election.

At this point, political tension was reaching its peak and shortly after the election, Quebec unions called the largest general strike in North American history—with 300,000 workers on strike. The strike was called by what was called the Front Commun—a common front between three of Quebec’s largest unions.  Their three leaders were thrown in jail, including Marcel Pepin. Suffice it to say, Quebecois and Canadian leaders were feeling the power of Montreal’s social movements and realized it was necessary to appease them in some way.

The 1970s and 1980s saw an expansion of the welfare state, involving slow integration of Montreal’s independent citizens’ initiatives. Community-run clinics (centres local de services communautaires, or CLSCs) became part of the public health system. Citizens’ assemblies became formalized into a partly government-funded system of “tables de concertation” (community groups). The city started providing legal and financial support for housing cooperatives, integrating them in their social housing system.

By the 1990s, the Quebec government developed a policy of what they call the “economie sociale”—the social economy. This had a two-sided effect. On the one hand, it strengthened and supported a lot of existing initiatives, creating a social safety net for those excluded by the dominant capitalist system. On the other, what were initially citizen-run, autonomous movements and spaces became part of the state bureaucracy, and thus depoliticized and, eventually, defunded under austerity measures. The social economy model became a way for the state to offload the costs of vital social safety networks onto its citizens, closely integrated with a grant-based, charity-oriented network of community provision—creating a class of professional “community organizers” that spent much of their time competing for government funding, while having little incentive to help build up people-power.

The 2000s saw a rebranding effort by the city, essentially a neoliberal make-over. Festivals totally removed from the city’s music and cultural communities were given massive funding, and a whole area of downtown was demolished to make way for the “Quartier des Spectacles”—a new complex of museums, art centers, clubs, and bars. Post-industrial sites, particularly in working-class neighborhoods, were revamped into condos, high-tech, and IT districts. These developments brought gentrification to working class neighborhoods, to the point that people could no longer afford housing, leading to displacement.

However, resistance to neoliberalism came to a head in the massive 2012 students’ strike—“the Maple Spring.” Protesting tuition increases imposed by the liberal government, an estimated 250,000 students from universities and community colleges went on strike in the whole province. Students were organized in a leaderless horizontal confederal model, with university-based syndicates organizing closely in collaboration at a provincial level. The sheer size of the protests, and the mass participation by citizens, provoked the government to react, first making protest illegal, then calling an election, which the government lost. Though tuition fees did eventually go up under the newly elected government, there were several direct effects, which today put Montreal at an interesting crossroads between more neoliberalism, protecting the welfare state from further erosion, and an alternative model of radical municipalism, which is today seeing a rebirth.

Following the violent police attacks on student protesters, citizens joined the daily protest marches. Protests started in each neighborhood and funneled out to larger arteries—eventually ending downtown and in the city parks. We called this movement “the casseroles”—because it involved banging our pots and pans at marches—inspired by the cacerolazos in Argentina. One result of the casseroles was that residents started self-organizing in neighborhood-based assemblies, which eventually confederated for a brief period—only to wither away shortly after when the movement momentum slowed down.

Another effect of the student strike was the further growth of the progressive electoral party, Quebec Solidaire. This party is structured to be directly democratic, with full participation of its members in decision-making and party policy—an innovation inspired by the students’ strike. In the 2018 provincial elections, they became the third largest party at 16% of the vote—with ten elected representatives in Quebec parliament. Comparisons can be made here with Syriza in Greece and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey, and the equivalent role of the student strike and the Occupy movements in making space for this new form of politics.

Today, we are seeing a renewal of municipal-oriented progressive politics. Projet Montreal, a sort of urban planner-community activist party, won municipal elections in 2017, and Valérie Plante became the city’s first female mayor. However, the party quickly showed its neoliberal agenda with their focus on attracting more high-tech business and investment capital, and an unwillingness to seriously address the growing housing, racism and poverty crises. This has left an opening for radical municipalism. Many community organizers see little change from the usual party politics, and, frustrated by the lack of action by politicians, are seeing the need to organize independently of them.

Take for example the neighborhood of Parc-Extension. It is arguably the poorest and most diverse neighborhood in Canada, being the “first arrival” site for many immigrants. However, the arrival of an Artificial Intelligence district, a Microsoft headquarters and a new university campus on its borders mean that rapid change is coming soon. During the last election, the borough elected a long-time community activist as mayor, who worked on housing and migrant justice issues. The celebration was not long-lasting: as soon as she got into office she was forced to agree to the building of a new high-end condominium where there are now several important ethnic and community groups.

Though some see the new mayor as “abandoning” the movement and her election as another example of why we should not engage with electoral politics at all since politicians will always, and inevitably, fail us, there are others who are seeing this as an opportunity to build people power outside of the local government. This approach can both force the new government’s hand and support allies within the government when necessary. Activists are now setting up autonomous tenant associations to develop mutual aid networks, and fight increasingly emboldened and profit-hungry landlords. They are also organizing public assemblies, trying to shift activism from being purely protest-based to building people power.

While protests can often help build interest and engagement, they also tend to be reactive, without offering viable alternatives, and are limited to holding officials morally accountable, rather than forcing them into action. In contrast, organizations like tenants unions can take advantage of collective power to withhold profits from landlords, thus forcing a confrontation with local power-players. Democratically-organized neighborhood assemblies can allow residents to make decisions about their lives without having to rely on sympathetic politicians alone, thus displacing politics from city hall to the level of the block.

These initiatives are happening in tandem with a resurgence of community-based radical municipalism around the city. In 2018, neighborhood activists (many of whom had experience from the student strike) opened Bâtiment 7, a huge self-run autonomous cooperative center in the working-class area of Pointe Saint-Charles, the same neighborhood where the first community clinic was born in 1968. This clinic still exists today, and “La Pointe”, as people call it, continues to have a flourishing ecosystem of groupes populaires, who are now mobilizing against gentrification.

Residents of Milton-Parc, home of the largest housing cooperative in North America as well as Black Rose Books—publisher of many of Murray Bookchin’s early texts—are organizing a series of conferences on municipalism and advancing a dual power framework, and have sought to bring together leftists under a new extra-parliamentary group, the Montreal Urban Left.

Throughout Montreal, there is a renewed interest in cooperative housing, and a growing movement for social housing and tenant rights, largely as a reaction to gentrification. Indeed, the housing movement is today emerging as the key struggle going forward. Around the city, citizens are also seeking to start cooperative economy initiatives and autonomous, political community centers.

Montreal remains one of the most politicized cities in all of North America. This vibrancy is due, in large part, to past struggles—which shifted from traditional, top-down labor organizing by embedding the struggle in people’s daily life, building democracy at the level of the neighborhood. However, the future is uncertain—will Montreal become a hyper-branded, neoliberal, and exclusive city like so many others? Or will its citizens take on the lessons from decades of municipalist organizing and build a second “second front” to hold the state accountable, force its hand, and eventually replace it?

The future looks uncertain, however, it is there for the taking. What remains to be seen is how the growing municipalist movement engages with, and perhaps merges with, existing movements for climate justice, anti-fascist, migrant and racial justice, and Indigenous self-determination. Montreal may become the next radical municipalist hotspot, like Barcelona today—which recently re-elected its feminist, anti-capitalist mayor, Ada Colau. But success depends on whether municipalists leave their close-knit activist circles, and once again begin to build institutions of direct democracy and solidarity at the level of daily life: in the streets, on the block, and in every neighborhood.

An older version of this article previously appeared in Turkish at Birartibir.

Aaron Vansintjan is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. He lives in Montreal and writes about cities, politics, and ecology.

Donald Cuccioletta is an activist and researcher. Born in Montreal in 1945, he was a factory worker, union organiser, founding member of the Front D’Action Politique, and a professor at Université du Québec à Montréal from 1998-2017. He is currently president of the board of directors of Alternatives, founder and coordinator of the Nouveau cahiers du Socialisme, and a founder of the Montreal Urban Left.

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