Larry Rousseau on Political Action and the Quebec Elections

The past several months have been extremely hectic and important for all of us as public servants devoted to providing the highest quality public services. Many of us do not like being called public servants. The word servant being seen as denigrating or demeaning, as if to make the comparison to the scullery maids or chimney sweeps of older more harshful times in our society. I believe, however, that the very word “public” lifts the word “servant” to a level of honour, and even nobility. When I was growing up, the idea of entering the “public” service was seen as devoting yourself to the cause of good government, peace and welfare, or order, especially if you were entering the military or security services.

Today, the word “public” has been denigrated and demeaned to the point that the expression “public servant” no longer holds the vocational aspect it once did. Mainly due to the very effective messaging campaigns of private sector corporate political agendas, society has been trained or taught to see government as too expensive, too ineffective and simply “bad.” Today, our youth no longer sees a job in government as attractive, and overall, except for a few professional categories, government no longer attracts the talent that it used to.

PSAC finds itself and we find ourselves as members in the thick of all this. Many of us love our jobs, and don’t want to even contemplate leaving public service or being told to do so. Should it be any wonder that when a government comes to power on a platform of destroying public services, so that the corporate private sector can pick up the (profitable) pieces, unionized public sector workers use whatever means they can to try and save what can be saved? Many people outside the public service (and some, inside as well) tell me “Come on, Larry, the cuts aren’t so bad, like 5 and 10% overall, the public service is still huge.” Well so is our country, and we have fallen below the critical mass necessary that many experts believe is necessary to maintain levels and quality of service delivery that Canadians should expect. That level is 1% of the Canadian population should be federal public servants (excluding the military and the RCMP), putting the number of federal civil servants required at 340,000. The current level is now below 275,000 with the latest cuts, and well on the way to 245,000 as a maximum at the end of the Conservative mandate in 2015-2016.

The current atmosphere in the federal public service is bow your head, keep it low, and don’t ever question any political decision of the current government. With the highest (executive) levels of the public service fearful for their own jobs in the face of being seen by the powers that be as too lax, too slow or too resistant in implementing the orders of the PMO and the PCO, the trickle-down effect is awesomely negative. Morale is the worst I have ever seen in the past 30 years, and the major public service unions, PSAC, along with PIPSC and CAPE, are the sole actors in this whole mess actually challenging the government. PSAC especially, and mainly through (effective) political action. Which is why political action by the unions is being savagely attacked. Those who believe that the unions and especially PSAC should “shut up”, ignore or do not wish to look back on history to see and understand that precisely, the best gains that workers have made (mainly  through strikes), have been by standing up to the employer. If unions bow their heads and shut up, and unconditionally accept whatever the employer, in this case the federal government, a highly political actor, dishes out (in the name of saving economy and country, which is highly debatable), then it is a question of time before the union becomes completely useless and irrelevant, which is EXACTLY the agenda of this Conservative government. 

Last weekend, a plane flew a banner with the StephenHarperHatesUs message. The government has only succeeded in convincing a large number of Canadians that it finds the message highly irritable and unacceptable. Indeed, the RCMP informed PSAC directly that they questioned the pilot because they had concerns that the message could constitute hate speech, and therefore a threat to the Prime Minister. That is ridiculous and unbelievable, and confirms that the union has latched on to something important. Criticism of the Prime Minister constitutes freedom of speech, not hate speech. And freedom of speech is not only a sacred principle in our free and democratic society, it is protected in our country by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, enshrined in our country’s constitution. The same Charter that this Conservative government has shown repeatedly it does detest and find irritable and pesky (need we refer to gay rights and other equity issues?). That the PSAC plans to continue flying said plane at other events in the coming days and weeks proves that the union continues to fight for what it believes to be right, namely the public servants it represents and the services that this Conservative government continues to destroy throughout the country, and the list grows weekly.

In keeping with the right to free speech guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the PSAC has an internal policy (23B) that guarantees its members freedom of political affiliation and belief, free of harassment within its ranks. Which means that every PSAC member has the right to vote and support whichever political party or movement, from Conservative to Marxist-Leninist to Green to whatever is legally constituted in this great country of ours. And that includes the Bloc Québecois and Québec Solidaire and Parti Québecois and whatever other party should start a sovereigntist movement. For example, when in the 1990s Stephen Harper threatened to build a “firewall” around Alberta, mainly because of the then Liberal Government’s policies on energy and natural resources, he had the perfect right to do so, guaranteed under the Charter. And if he had started a separatist Alberta party, and  federal public servants in Alberta, including members of the PSAC, had supported him, no one either within the PSAC or outside the PSAC would have the right to stop it.

The PSAC does not support and never has supported sovereignty, under any conditions. There is no resolution on record. None. There is, however, a National Convention resolution on record that supports the right of the people of Québec to self-determination. Which is entirely in keeping with the stated policy of the PSAC that guarantees PSAC members the right to freely and openly support whichever political party they choose. And that includes the very Conservatives who are chopping federal jobs and services. In fact, on the CFRA radio Lowell Green talk show, one caller was incensed and shocked that a federal worker in Québec would vote sovereigntist, which could possibly lead to the breakup of the country and the loss of their job. The counter-argument of course would be that there are members who are incensed and shocked that there are PSAC members who vote Conservative, which is currently guaranteeing that members are losing their jobs. It is a question of perspective. End of discussion.

The sovereignty debate is a highly emotional issue that most Canadians outside of Quebec must find extremely frustrating because precisely, it is up to the people of Québec to decide and vote upon. What is very important is that we must realize that the actions of all of us who are on the outside looking in, can potentially influence the decisions of those who are on the inside looking out. Let us be respectful of the right to freedom of speech of all PSAC members and all federal public servants living in Québec, and though we may disagree with their  political beliefs and affiliations, no matter what they may be, let us stand in solidarity and do the right thing. No matter how difficult or offensive we may find it to be, we must defend every Canadian’s rights to freely express themselves within what is allowed in a free and democratic society,  which is what helps make Canada so great.

In total solidarity,

Larry Rousseau
Regional Executive Vice President
National Capital Region
Public Service Alliance of Canada