Spartacist Canada No. 152
The Nation Debate: For Quebec Independence!
Labour Must Oppose Canadian Unity Chauvinism
Quebec is a nation, oppressed within a majority English-speaking Canada. For over two centuries, attempts by the English rulers to solve the national question through repression, assimilation or, more rarely, accommodation have met with failure each and every time. The latest gambit by Tory prime minister Stephen Harper—a November 27 parliamentary motion stating that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada—will eventually meet the same fate.
The motion, introduced by the Tories for crass electoral purposes, has no legal value and will most likely be forgotten in good time. But the hand-wringing in English Canadian ruling circles over the mere idea of acknowledging that there is a Quebec nation says much about this oppressive capitalist country. As far as the Canadian rulers are concerned, Quebec may be a nation, but it has no national rights. The Clarity Act, passed in 2000 by the Chrétien Liberal government with support from the Tories and NDP, effectively outlaws Quebecs democratic right to self-determination, i.e., to independence. Harper, a founding leader of the arch Anglo-chauvinist Reform Party, was the laws ideological father, while Stéphane Dion, now Liberal Party leader, was its chief architect, pushing the law through parliament in the face of widespread opposition in Quebec.
Behind the we love Quebec rhetoric currently favoured by the capitalist parties in Ottawa lies the fact of Quebecs forcible subjugation within the Canadian state. During the 1970 October crisis, the Trudeau Liberal government ordered a military occupation of Quebec, aiming to crush growing national and social struggle there. Seven years later, after the election of the first Parti Québécois government, Trudeau again threatened to use the sword against Quebec independence. The lead-up to the PQs 1995 sovereignty referendum saw the federal government launch shadowy military exercises in and around Montreal. The referendums razor-thin defeat—a near-death experience for Canada, said the media—produced both the Clarity Act and the Liberals notorious sponsorship program, a cynical ploy to push Canadian unity in Quebec through bribes and corruption.
The latest unity gambit began last fall when Liberal leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff endorsed a Quebec nation motion introduced by the Liberals Quebec wing. The sovereignist Bloc Québécois then presented a motion to the same effect in parliament, only to be outflanked by Harper, who added the words within a united Canada. Harper made no secret of his intent, telling the assembled MPs: Our position is clear. Do the Québécois form a nation within Canada? The answer is yes. Do the Québécois form an independent nation? The answer is no and the answer will always be no (CBC News, 22 November 2006).
Most Liberals ended up backing the motion, as did the NDP. After some hemming and hawing the Bloc did the same, underlining the fundamental meaninglessness of it all. Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe, joined by the PQs André Boisclair, argued that the motion will help the recognition of an independent Quebec in the future. Pierre Dubuc, spokesman for the PQs left-wing SPQ-Libre caucus, was more nuanced:
adding the complement in a united Canada constrains us to applaud with only one hand, because the right to self-determination and secession of the Quebec nation is still denied. Prime minister Harper acts like a husband who would recognize the existence of his wife only in the framework of a united couple, simultaneously denying her the right to divorce.
—lautjournal, December 2006-January 2007
Dubuc noted that Harper was careful to use the term Québécois as opposed to Quebec in the English version of the motion. By implying that the nation is solely that of old-stock francophones, this leaves the door open to a future partition of Quebec, most specifically, carving up the island of Montreal along linguistic lines. This program, for which Harper was a central proponent during the 1995 referendum, can only be a recipe for chauvinist ethnic cleansing.
Class Struggle and National Oppression
The whole purpose of the capitalists Canadian unity campaigns is to reinforce the chauvinist binds that tie workers and the oppressed in English Canada to their exploiters. The NDP social democrats and the central trade-union bureaucracy promote this reactionary nationalism in the labour movement. While rarely lifting a finger when workers are under attack from the bosses, the labour tops sell to the multiracial working class of English Canada the lie that this is the greatest country in the world, as a solace for an increasingly oppressive and economically uncertain existence. In Quebec, symmetrically, the labour tops push the more militant francophone proletariat into the trap of supporting their own bourgeois nationalists of the Bloc and PQ. The result is a deeply divided working class, profoundly undermining prospects for the struggle of labour against capital.
A Léger opinion poll last November gave a snapshot of this national divide: 77 percent of respondents outside Quebec rejected the notion of Quebec as a nation, while francophone Québécois supported it by 71 percent. English Canada and Quebec are divided just as two separate countries speaking different languages are divided. Indeed the division is arguably even deeper than that, if one takes into account the mutual animosity generated by never-ending national unity crises. The Québécois justifiably resent being treated as a second-class nation. At the same time, the dominant Anglo bourgeoisie has ample trouble defining just what its national characteristics are, given how little separates English Canada from the U.S. culturally, linguistically or, increasingly, economically. All this also nicely covers up the truly criminal treatment of Native people, beleaguered immigrants and ethnic minorities, and victims of Canadas peacekeeping abroad like the detainees tortured in Afghanistan. Its worth noting how the Bloc and PQ, responsible would-be rulers of an independent capitalist Quebec, support Canadas role in the bloody occupation of Afghanistan.
We Marxists advocate independence for Quebec, both to fight the dominant Anglo chauvinism, and as the only evident road to make clear to the workers of both nations that their enemies are their own respective capitalists and not each other. Since our inception, the Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste has upheld Quebecs right to self-determination, not least within the English Canadian labour movement. We defended the FLQ left-nationalists jailed and persecuted in the 1970s, despite our profound political differences. We denounced the multiple threats against Quebec by Trudeau, Chrétien and others. In 1992, we called for a No vote against Brian Mulroneys Charlottetown Accord, another attempt to solve the national question within a united Canada—i.e., to put Quebec back in its place and reinforce the Canadian state. Before the 1995 sovereignty referendum, we went over to advocacy of independence, recognizing that this is the only way to get the question off the agenda and bring the class question to the fore—to highlight the understanding that all nationalisms are ultimately tools of the bosses against the workers, and that, in the words of the Communist Manifesto, The working men have no country.
Pseudo-Socialists in the Camp of Anglo Chauvinism
The Canadian capitalists (and a large proportion of the Québécois ones) will go very far indeed to stop Quebec independence, which they see as a threat to their interests, both financial and political. At the same time, they obviously worry about the constant constitutional and parliamentary instability borne of the unresolved Quebec national question. Entrenched support for the sovereignist Bloc—which has won a majority of Quebec seats in all five elections since its founding in 1990—all but guarantees this will continue. Since 2004, minority governments, both Liberal and Tory, have followed one another. The next federal election, possibly this spring, isnt likely to change this. Columnist John Ibbitson expressed the rulers concerns in the Globe and Mail (30 January):
If, as expected, the next government is a minority, the cycle will repeat itself, and pre-election preparations will begin again. At some point, this constant state of political crisis will start to exact a toll.
It will show up in desertions from the public service, in lost investment caused by the uncertain political climate, in an international reputation for instability.
Instability of bourgeois rule, even if only at the level of parliament, can be a good thing for the working class—if it learns to mobilize independently of the bosses for its own interests and not, as the groveling social-democratic NDP has done, by waving the Maple Leaf flag and supporting one capitalist party against another. A fight for a class-struggle leadership of the unions is inseparable from a fight to defend Quebecs national rights. Such a fight will pose point blank the question of a new, revolutionary party of the working class opposed to the pro-capitalist NDP and to the bourgeois nationalists in Quebec.
This is certainly not the perspective of the rest of the Canadian left, who push support to the NDP in English Canada, or to the Quebec nationalists, or, impossibly squaring the circle, to both at once. The most blatant Canadian chauvinists are the misnamed Communist Party of Canada (CPC). Their program, Canadas Future Is Socialism! (2002), calls to struggle against U.S. domination and for genuine Canadian independence, while railing vis-à-vis Quebec that The separatist solution would bring severe additional economic hardship to the working people of both nations and would weaken their political unity against the common enemy. In the acid test of the 1995 referendum, the CPC lined up with the Canadian bourgeoisie in calling on the Québécois to vote No to independence.
The same stance was taken by the Bolshevik Tendency (BT), a dubious group founded by ex-members of our organization who spend much of their energy slandering us. So blatant was the BTs capitulation to the Canadian powers-that-be that they were officially welcomed to join a massive Canadian unity rally in Montreal organized by top business leaders on the eve of the referendum. When the BTs only Quebec member quit, he protested their de facto bloc with the Canadian bourgeoisie (see Kneeling Before the Body of General Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham, SC No. 141, Summer 2004).
While noting the cynicism behind Harpers motion, the International Socialists (I.S.) saluted the nation vote in parliament as a significant victory for the Québécois in their decades old struggle for recognition (Socialist Worker, 16 December 2006). From the Meech Lake Accord of the late 1980s to the Charlottetown referendum and more, the I.S. has consistently backed the Canadian rulers attempts to shore up their rule via token, overwhelmingly meaningless concessions to Quebec. Far from advocating Quebec independence, their aim throughout has been to act as a pressure group on the NDP, who they support in every election (including in Quebec, where the Anglo-chauvinist New Democrats have zero roots in the labour movement).
Today the I.S. begs the New Democrats to finally get things right on Quebec by backing the right to self-determination and opposing the Clarity Act. That, they claim, is a road that would allow the NDP to galvanize a class-based, principled pole. The idea that the NDP could provide a class-based, principled pole over Quebec (or any other issue) is the sheerest illusion-mongering. The role of social democrats, even on occasions when they are forced to posture more to the left, is to defend the capitalists state power against the working class. They do that by seeking to divert class struggle, when it does occur, into channels that do not threaten bourgeois rule or, failing that, by directly helping the capitalists to suppress the workers. A general struggle against the capitalist system requires breaking the working class from the NDP—a process in which defense of Quebecs national rights against both the Anglo ruling class and the chauvinist NDP tops is likely to play a central role.
Québec Solidaire: A Populist Trap
While pleading in English Canada for the NDP to clean up its act, in Quebec the I.S. enthusiastically backs the new Québec Solidaire (QS) party. When QS was formed last year, the I.S. French-language paper Résistance (February 2006) gushed: It seems that the Quebec left has finally found its path, after 38 years of struggle, outside of the suffocating shadow of the PQ. It is this feeling of liberation which electrified the crowd when the name Québec Solidaire was adopted. Forgive us for not sharing this feeling of liberation! As we noted at the time, QS isnt even a half-step on the road to anti-capitalist struggle: it is a populist roadblock that fosters terrible illusions in a reformed bourgeois rule (SC No. 148, Spring 2006).
QS aims to attract those opposed to the attacks of the right-wing provincial Liberal government but disenchanted with the PQ, particularly under Boisclair, a colourless technocrat who has alienated much of the partys putative left wing. Heavily staffed by housebroken ex-Marxists, and backed by just about every present-day reformist left group in Quebec, QS eschews even the rhetoric of socialism and the class struggle in favour of environmental/feminist-tinged petty-bourgeois politics.
This is seen clearly in QSs platform for the next Quebec election (now called for March 26) adopted at a November convention. While containing detailed proposals for nationalizing wind energy, reorganizing the forestry sector and increasing taxes on dividends, it does not even rhetorically oppose capitalism (a word that appears nowhere in the lengthy document). Even minimal proposals for free drug care for all low-income Québécois and an immediate increase in the minimum wage to $10 an hour were defeated after party leaders argued they would be too expensive. QS doesnt even call to unconditionally withdraw Canadian troops from Afghanistan, demanding instead Canadian participation in a military force under United Nations auspices.
The I.S.s Résistance (January 2007) salutes QSs sub-reformist platform as a clear rupture with neoliberalism and calls to enthusiastically back it in the provincial elections. From Europe to Latin America and Quebec, opposition to neoliberalism has become a code phrase for unity with those supporters of capitalism who aim to co-opt the workers with chatter about solidarity. The Stalinists used to dress this up as the popular front (against monopolies, fascism, etc.). While the jargon has changed, the idea is the same: subordinating the workers interests to a wing of the enemy class. We Trotskyists say: QS is not a genuine left alternative to the PQ, but another trap for Quebecs workers and oppressed. No vote to the petty-bourgeois QS, any more than to the openly capitalist PQ and Liberals! Workers in Quebec and throughout Canada need a party based on proletarian class struggle, not another class-collaborationist obstacle.
In approaching the national question in the Canadian state today, we take inspiration from the Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution of 1917, the only successful workers revolution so far in history. The Tsarist Empire was a cauldron of Great Russian chauvinism and national antagonisms directed against myriad oppressed nations. The Bolsheviks fought as a tribune of the people, opposing all manifestations of great-nation chauvinism, while calling on workers and peasants of the oppressed nationalities to join with their Russian class brothers and sisters in a common struggle against capitalism. Only socialist revolution and the inauguration of proletarian power laid a basis to liberate all the oppressed from the tsarist prison house of peoples.
Today we advocate Quebec independence as a means of breaking the proletariat in both nations from deadly illusions in their own respective exploiters. The oppression of Quebec within united Canada has for too long poisoned relations among the workers and undermined prospects for anti-capitalist struggle. We fight for the advanced elements of the working class and radical youth to take up the struggle to construct a Marxist workers party, one that can unite the many victims of this exploitative system—women, immigrants, Native people, the Québécois—behind the social power of the proletariat in the fight for socialist revolution.