'Sick and tired': Quebec community groups stage provincewide strikes

After two years stretching themselves thin during a pandemic, organizations are demanding the provincial government supply $460 million for workers to continue responding to the specific needs of their communities.

'We're tired of picking up the pieces,' co-ordinator says

Lily Schwarzbaum, left, Charles Letalien and Thérèse Cardinal say the Carrefour d'éducation populaire de Pointe-Saint-Charles is a second home to those who visit it. (Submitted by Lily Schwarzbaum)

A coalition representing 3,000 Quebec community groups is staging provincewide protests this week, calling for the government to supply them with additional core funding.

The Montreal demonstration, which will be held today at Place Émilie-Gamelin at 2 p.m., is part of several protests and strikes planned between Feb. 21 and 24 by the Coalition des Tables Régionales d'Organismes Communautaires (CTROC).

After two years stretching themselves thin during a pandemic, the organizations are demanding the provincial government supply $460 million for workers to continue to respond to the specific needs of their communities.

Diana Lombardi — a co-ordinator for Réseau d'action des femmes en santé et services sociaux — says the pandemic has worsened the chronic problem of underfunding.

"It's really hard to see to what extent people have given all they've got," she said. "There's a lot of people experiencing burnout and overwork, and definitely being underpaid, which is one of the reasons why we need this better funding."

Marie Barrette, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Social Services, said in a statement to CBC News that Quebec had met with the CTROC in the past few weeks, and that the CAQ government has invested more than $90 million to communities since coming to power in 2018.

"We are very aware of the budget requests of community organizations," she said.

But Lombardi says funding given to groups so far isn't enough to cover day-to-day needs.

"The idea that we often work miracles with not a lot of resources, we're often commended for that," she said. "Always being in the department of cheap labour… I think we're just kind of sick and tired and fed up…. We're tired of picking up the pieces."

A dire situation

Between navigating shifting health guidelines and struggling to provide food to those in need, Rose Ngo Ndjel, executive director of Afrique au féminin — a Parc-Extension non-profit that supports women who are recent immigrants — says the lack of staff is frustrating and stressful.

The non-profit started delivering food to seniors housebound by the pandemic in March 2020 even as its nine-person team dwindled to two employees during the first wave.

"Our demand exploded," Ngo Ndjel said. "We met with women who were so scared to go outside… scared of everything…. And we had to reassure them."

Before the pandemic, the organization's food assistance program served 90 people on average. That number has since jumped to 350, and now the organization goes through its weekly grocery budget of $2,000 in about a day.

Striking isn't a decision to be taken lightly, says Lily Schwarzbaum, who has worked for five years at the front desk of Carrefour d'éducation populaire de Pointe-Saint-Charles.

"The fact that the situation has become this dire means that people are ready to sacrifice their everyday activities in order to make sure the Carrefour exists as their second home."

"People come because they trust us… we help them identify if they're not doing well and need help," she said. "Having a reason to live, an active role in society… those are the kinds of things that make our work so important."

with files from Kate McKenna