Chantier Politique

March 31, 2017

English Edition, No. 9

Hundreds Abandoned on Quebec Roads During Storm

Workers Hold Quebec Government to Account

Hundreds Abandoned on Quebec Roads During Storm
Workers Hold Quebec Government to Account
- Pierre Chénier
Oppose Attempts to Blame Workers for Blatant
Mismanagement During the Snow Storm!

- Normand Chouinard


Hundreds Abandoned on Quebec Roads During Storm

Workers Hold Quebec Government to Account

From March 11 to 16, a severe snowstorm hit North America's East Coast. It was at its peak in Quebec on March 14 and 15. The storm had been forecast days before by various weather services including Environment Canada, Transport Canada and many other agencies. Over a period of two days, between 30 and 45 cm of snow fell on Quebec, accompanied by heavy winds and blizzard conditions. The government departments in charge, the Ministry of Public Security, responsible amongst other things for civil security, and the Ministry of Transport, had ample time to set up the preventive and emergency intervention measures needed, however this was not done. While the majority of Quebec roads and highways remained closed to traffic, over 300 cars were stranded on Highway 13 South, which links the northern suburbs to the Island of Montreal. More than 500 people were held hostage in their cars from between 4 to 13 hours without receiving any assistance or information whatsoever from authorities, with no food or water, sanitary services or blankets to keep warm. Many were forced to abandon their cars, which had run out of gas and brave the storm on foot. It was only due to people helping one another out and the intervention of fire fighters - the latter acting on their own in the absence of any intervention by the concerned ministries - that people who had otherwise been left on their own were able to ensure their physical and psychological wellbeing. At least six people died in various Quebec regions during the two-day storm.

The Quebec government and the Sûreté du Québec (provincial police force) immediately went into damage control mode. On March 16, the Transport Minister demoted an assistant deputy minister, claiming this proves the government actually defends accountability. The Sûreté du Québec quickly took disciplinary action against two of its officers. A truck driver was arrested for allegedly having refused to have his truck towed, creating the initial bottleneck. This was all a diversion to hide the fact that no measures were taken in time to deal with the situation, while the trucker in question is now contesting the allegation that he refused to cooperate. Premier Couillard has announced an external investigation into the events. Meanwhile, two class actions have been filed on behalf of people left stranded on the highway.

The Quebec government has completely discredited itself by affirming that the disaster was the result of a lack of communication. It claims the "lack of communication" was due to the fact that senior officials failed to inform the ministers responsible as to the scope and urgency of the situation at hand. The entire Northeastern United States and all of Eastern Canada were hit by a particularly severe snowstorm but the ministers were not "informed." The government would rather save face than admit that the main responsibility lies with neoliberal ideology and practices over the past 30 years. That is what has destroyed public institutions and given rise to the thousand and one pay the rich schemes at the expense of the public interest, resulting in disasters such as this.

Of all Quebec government ministries, Transport has been one of the hardest hit. It is estimated that in the early 1990's, a Liberal government Transport Ministry reform drastically reduced ministry personnel from 12,000 to approximately 6,000 employees. Plans and specifications, maintenance and other aspects that were largely carried out internally were transferred to the private sector along with staff. Year after year a good number of Ministry personnel joined private engineering consultant firms. Through the transfer of engineers and other experts to the private sector and its promotion of early retirement while only partially replacing those who left, the government has deprived itself of precious expertise. Experienced civil security personnel working within the Ministry of Public Security were encouraged to leave. The number of technicians and workers was also reduced between 2004 and 2016. From 2004 to 2013, the number of workers at the Ministry of Transport dropped from 3,174 to 2,248. [1]

This was all accompanied by self-serving propaganda to the effect that the "state's mission" should be focussed on "major policy guidelines" while leaving the "operational functions" to external agencies - a lot of hot air to cover the fact that the privatization of road infrastructure had been accelerated, allowing major private firms such as SNC Lavalin to increase its staff by recruiting executives from within government ministries, such as the Ministry of Transport. Outsourcing with regard to road infrastructure became rampant. It is not haphazard that during the storm the biggest disaster took place on a highway where snow removal had been outsourced by the government to a private firm that also happens to be a long-time Liberal Party contributor. The dismantling and privatization of public services, such as road infrastructure, was accelerated when neoliberal governments put forward their "balanced budget" dogma to to justify the calling into question of all social programs and public services and increasing payments to the international oligarchy. For example, the Liberal government used its position as public sector employer to downsize personnel and hand over control to the ministers, as was done through the Act respecting workforce management and control within government departments, public sector bodies and networks and state-owned enterprises passed in 2014, which gives supervisory jurisdiction over the public sector workforce to the Treasury Board.

The Ministry of Transport is recognized as a springboard for senior officials to gain a few years of service and expertise before being hired by private companies. Deprived of its raison d'être to defend the public interest, the immense value created for society by workers through the production and maintenance of road infrastructure, deprived of the human factor to ensure that everything functions properly including prevention and intervention in times of emergency, the institution finds itself in contempt of itself and we are left with a pathetic explanation from the Minister that he was not informed by his senior officials.

This latest disaster can only serve to convince workers even more firmly of the importance of stepping up to the plate to render the ruling elite and the powers-that-be accountable for their actions and deprive them of their ability to act in such a destructive manner. More and more, the anti-social offensive in the service of narrow private interests is posing itself as an increasing risk to peoples' lives. With that in mind, workers are intensifying their resistance and building their independent press and organizations, to prevent such occurrences from taking place and to open the path to progress.

Note

1. "Pour un ministère des Transports qui a les moyens de ses responsabilités" (For a Ministry of Transport with the means to take up its responsibilities), Brief presented to the Charbonneau Commission by the Syndicat de la fonction publique et parapublique du Québec, June 2014.

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Oppose Attempts to Blame Workers for Blatant Mismanagement During the Snow Storm!

The Quebec Couillard government must be held responsible for the chaos that occurred during the fierce snowstorm of March 14 and 15. It must also be held accountable for the responsible Ministries' lack of organization, namely Public Security and Transport.

Workers reject making truckers the scapegoats for the traffic jam that paralyzed over 300 cars on a section of Highway 13 in Montreal. Both they and the public at large want to know why the necessary emergency measures were not implemented, and why the situation degenerated into general chaos on several roads. They want to know why private contractors fared poorly within the situation and why there was no communication between various emergency services. They do not want to know why "certain" truckers refused to be towed away. Truckers are not in charge of snow removal or public security. Far from it -- as with the rest of the population, they were the victims of Transport Ministry mismanagement, since it did not organize the snow removal, which falls under its responsibility. They want to know why, right in the heart of Montreal, no one came to their assistance during an entire night.

Although the parties in the opposition demanded the removal of Transport Minister Laurent Lessard for his inaction in the management of the crisis and one of the truckers blamed for allegedly blocking Highway 13, who according to the monopoly media was "wanted for fraud" in Ontario, was arrested and charged, the people of Quebec are not so gullible. They know that the rich may once again blame one of their own to avoid having to deal with the destruction of the public authority. Wrecking by Liberal governments and neoliberal policies has led to a massive privatization of public services. Whether Minister Lessard resigns or not, holding the Liberals to account for their inaction and policies is at the heart of public concern. Philippe Couillard's "apology" for what happened, for the fact that over 500 people were left stranded on one of the City of Montreal's biggest arteries (amongst others) for an entire night, doesn't cut it.

The Liberals, through their anti-social policies, are blocking the way for people to be able to organize themselves under all conditions and circumstances, regardless of events such as a major snowstorm. They then blame the people for the problems and look for a culprit, as was the case with the trucker. It is unacceptable. Ministerial and governmental inadequacy and lack of accountability, the criminalization of workers as the diversion and neo-liberal wrecking of the public authority to block the striving of the people to organize themselves will only worsen the crisis. The problem has been raised and must be taken up for solution, in particular because of the fact that such situations, where the security and health of the population are endangered, are more and more frequent.

This is not the first natural disaster that has hit Quebec and its people have always been able to deal with the situation based on their experience, expertise, courage and social love. They hold in high esteem their emergency relief workers such as firefighters, paramedics, and others for their work and want nothing more than to assist them in any way they can. They must be applauded.

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