According to the government, austerity exists only in the minds of its critics. Of course, efforts are required to restore the state's financial health, but that's only "rigour." Trimming the fat. Making what already exists more efficient. But without affecting services. Reality nonetheless catches up with the spin fed to the media.
In a few instances, we got news of budget cuts that captured our collective imagination, that targeted symbols. Quickly, the government would react, stepping in and proclaiming that the cuts had to be made elsewhere instead. That's how we saved school libraries, the mythical youth science magazine Les Débrouillards, the Mount Megantic Observatory, the Databank of Official Statistics on Québec, and other cherished institutions.
Despite these victories, in most cases, austerity stays its course, marching through all Quebec institutions. All sectors, all regions are affected, but often the budget cuts are less spectacular and don't make it to the headlines. We feel that something's going on, but what is it exactly?
According to our conservatives calculations (some initiatives must have escaped us, and when two sources don't quote the same amount we use the smallest), nearly $3.6 billion have been cut throughout Quebec's economy since the 2014-2015 budget. Without affecting services?
In fact, this abstract number means that schools are letting education professionals go (psychologists, SLTs, etc.), sub-standard housing renovation programs are abolished, and environmental scientists are losing their jobs. One of Montreal's French school boards is therefore expected to do as much and as well as it previously did, but with $23 million less. Concretely, 175 people are being fired, including 71 professionals and 65 support staffers. And next year, the payroll will have to be reduced again. Are there that many unnecessary workers helping our kids learn?
In healthcare as well, austerity has a very concrete impact. South of Montreal, $38 million are being cut. To reach that target, hospital beds are closed and the number of nurses and healthcare professionals is being scaled down. In the Laurentians, north of Montreal, an entire mental health rehabilitation centre is being shut down.
And yet everybody knows that the healthcare system is already overflowing, that the staff is forced to work tirelessly, and that caring for the ill helps them get into better shape for longer than if they are left to their own devices. But who cares? Budget cuts must be made, and the most vulnerable are the ones that get screwed over. And since they usually don't finance election campaigns, enraging them can be done with little consequences for politicians.
Examples like this exist for every sector, in all regions of Quebec. Thanks to our new website austerite.iris-recherche.qc.ca, you can browse through the (increasingly) exhaustive list of cuts. The government can certainly try to deny the impact its decisions have on public services, but the effects are real, concrete, and experienced by the entire population. And now we have the list to prove it.
Eve-Lyne Couturier is a researcher with IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think tank.