Spartacist Canada No. 181
Debacle for PQ and its Racist Charter
Quebec Liberals Prepare Austerity Onslaught
Barely two weeks after winning the April 7 Quebec election, Philippe Couillard’s Liberal Party government began preparing a new round of austerity attacks. The Liberals plan to slash nearly $4 billion in government spending, which will mean huge cuts to medicare, education and other vital social programs. The government is also set to take a hard line in negotiations with the Common Front of 400,000 unionized public-sector workers, whose contracts expire next spring.
The Liberals returned to power less than two years after losing to the Parti Québécois in elections held in the wake of the militant 2012 student strike. Hundreds of thousands staged mass protests during the strike, including trade unionists and other workers seeking a way to throw back incessant government attacks. The bourgeois-nationalist PQ hypocritically claimed to support the student struggle, only to launch its own austerity cuts (and tuition hikes) soon after taking office. Then last summer the PQ introduced its thoroughly racist “Charter of Quebec Values,” which would have banned the wearing of prominent religious symbols anywhere in the public sector. The chief targets of this anti-immigrant, anti-woman legislation were Muslim women who wear the headscarf.
Doubling down in nationalist demagogy, PQ leader Pauline Marois made the Charter a centrepiece of her re-election bid. The flagrantly reactionary character of the PQ’s campaign was further underscored by its recruitment of Pierre Karl Péladeau as a star candidate. Péladeau, the former CEO of Québecor and Sun Media, is known as the “lockout king” for his wholesale attacks on workers at the Journal de Montréal and elsewhere. But Marois’ gambit failed spectacularly as the PQ won only 25 percent of the vote, its worst result in more than 40 years.
The ascent of Péladeau and the PQ’s abandonment of its “progressive” rhetoric brought sharp rebukes from most of the Quebec union bureaucracy, long a pillar of support for the party. Leaders of the FTQ, the largest union federation, called Péladeau’s candidacy a “catastrophe” for the workers. The Montreal council of the CSN federation went further, backing the left-nationalist Québec Solidaire (QS) rather than the péquistes. Denouncing Péladeau, Montreal CSN president Dominique Daigneault told the media: “It’s unbelievable that the Parti Québécois, which claims to be on the left, has opened the door to him” (TVA Nouvelles, 23 March).
In contrast, former CSN presidents Gérald Larose and Marc Laviolette welcomed Péladeau in an open letter co-signed with such nationalist luminaries as former PQ premiers Jacques Parizeau and Bernard Landry. Laviolette currently leads a “left” caucus in the PQ called SPQ Libre (Trade Unionists and Progressives for a Free Quebec), which issued its own statement backing Péladeau’s candidacy. After a few for-the-record criticisms of the notorious union-buster, it affirmed:
“Our fight is a fight for national liberation and, as we have frequently written, this fight by its very nature involves different social classes and social groups in a united front.
“In our history, the Parti Québécois has constituted the political rallying point for this united front.”
—Le Devoir, 12 March
The bitter truth is that the Quebec labour tops’ decades-long nationalist “united front” with the capitalist PQ has produced only disaster for the workers.
Quebec Labour and the National Question
Quebec has a powerful working class with a long tradition of militancy and the highest unionization rate in North America. But the union bureaucrats’ alliance with the PQ has politically tied the workers to their own exploiters and the capitalist profit system. The pattern is constant and repeated. A Liberal government attacks workers and the poor; the union tops channel widespread anger toward support for the PQ; the péquistes take over and launch their own attacks.
In the early 1980s, PQ founder René Lévesque broke strikes by the Common Front unions. In the late ’90s, Lucien Bouchard took an axe to public services with his “déficit zero” drive. More recently, Landry and then Marois took their turns to enforce capitalist class rule. In every case, the PQ’s attacks merely paved the way for another round of Liberal rule.
Today’s austerity onslaught in Quebec is part of a global offensive by the ruling exploiters, who seek to shore up their vast profits at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable. Workers in Quebec and across Canada desperately need united struggle against the depredations of the capitalists and their governments, whether the Harper Tories in Ottawa or in the provinces. But they are saddled with leaders who accept and defend the profit system, seeking only cosmetic reforms.
Moreover, the working class is, and has long been, deeply divided along national lines, a reflection of the historic oppression of the francophone Québécois nation within the Anglo-dominated Canadian state. The hold of nationalism flows from and is constantly reinforced by the anti-Quebec chauvinism that runs rampant in English Canada. The unions there overwhelmingly support the right-wing social democrats of the NDP or the bourgeois federal Liberals, parties with long records of hostility to Quebec’s national rights. In turn, the Quebec labour misleaders ally with the PQ and the Bloc Québécois against English Canadian domination in the name of “national solidarity.”
Given the deep divisions in the working class, the Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste advocates independence for Quebec. We do so as Marxist internationalists, recognizing that the creation of an independent Quebec would get the national question off the agenda and create better conditions for the workers to see that their own national capitalists are not allies but class enemies.
The capitalist media in English Canada naturally hailed the PQ defeat as a triumph for “Canadian unity.” A National Post column (4 April) just before the vote was headlined “Call in the undertaker, Quebec separatism is dead.” A week later, Maclean’s (11 April) saluted “The epic collapse of Quebec separatism.” Both cited Péladeau’s fist-pump declaration that his “most profound and intimate values” were to “make Quebec a country” as the turning point in the campaign, after which the PQ’s support collapsed. Certainly, many workers were repulsed by the idea of sharing “intimate values” with the “lockout king.” But for years now, polls show that support for sovereignty has been steady at around 40 percent, i.e., about half the francophone population, even if there is little enthusiasm for an early (and possibly losing) referendum.
The death-of-separatism refrain—de rigeur whenever the PQ loses an election—is echoed by parts of the reformist left. The Fightback group, for example, claims the PQ debacle showed that “Workers in Montreal are also sick and tired of this federalist-sovereignist debate” (marxist.ca, 11 April). This is not merely an ignorant analysis blind to the depth of the national divide. Fightback’s article doesn’t even pay lip service to the reality of Quebec’s national oppression or to its democratic right to self-determination. Logically enough, Fightback also supports the “pro-Canada” social democrats of the NDP.
In its own way, the broad support for the anti-immigrant Charter of Values in francophone Quebec—especially outside cosmopolitan Montreal—testified to the continued hold of nationalism. The unions and Quebec’s influential feminist organizations were split over what stance to take toward the Charter. An FTQ congress last November was so closely divided that the union was unable to take a position. And while the opposition parties opposed the PQ’s draft law, they all—including Québec Solidaire—agreed on the need for some sort of discriminatory “Secular Charter” restricting religious symbols.
In fighting to build a binational, multiracial workers party, we Marxists seek to break the workers from the mutually reinforcing grip of Anglo chauvinism and Quebec nationalism and toward a perspective of anti-capitalist class struggle. That means an unstinting fight against all aspects of capitalist oppression: from the national subjugation of Quebec, to the racist scapegoating of immigrants and other minorities, to attacks on Native people. The goal of such struggle must be the overthrow of the exploiting class through workers revolution, paving the way for an egalitarian socialist society in the interests of the vast majority.
Québec Solidaire: A Populist Cul-de-Sac
This perspective is light years from that of most self-styled socialist groups in Quebec today, who support the petty-bourgeois nationalist QS with few (if any) criticisms. After a vapid campaign centred on the slogan “For the love of a fair Quebec,” QS increased its vote slightly and now has three deputies in the National Assembly. Heavily funded by capitalist state subsidies based on its level of electoral support, QS does not even pretend to be a socialist organization. Rather it is, as we have written previously, a “fifth wheel” of the bourgeois PQ, working to pull disaffected youth and workers (and rightward moving ex-leftists) into the trap of eco-tinged populism.
Over the last few years, QS leader Françoise David has repeatedly offered to prop up a PQ minority government, but the arrival of union-buster Péladeau was too much for even her to swallow. She proclaimed, “Today, thousands of [PQ] sympathizers can mourn the party of René Lévesque.” Another QS leader, Amir Khadir, issued an “appeal to trade unionists,” calling on “those who care about the balance between the rights of the employers and the rights of the unions” to join Québec Solidaire (quebecsolidaire.net, 10 March). There you have QS in a nutshell: return to the early, purportedly progressive PQ and work to “balance” workers’ rights with those of the exploiters!
As the Couillard government prepares its assaults on labour and on social programs, it is necessary to fight for a very different political perspective. A starting point must be the complete and unconditional independence of the labour movement from the capitalists, their political parties and their state machinery. The “anti-corruption” Charbonneau commission set up under the last PQ government has lately targeted the FTQ, especially its construction sector. We say: Government hands off the unions! The close ties between the FTQ’s $10 billion investment fund, the Fonds de Solidarité, and the owners of the construction industry are indeed an outrage. But the labour movement must clean its own house, as part of a struggle to make the unions instruments not of collaboration with the enemy class but of anti-capitalist struggle.
As we wrote two years ago in a leaflet distributed to the mass protests of students and their supporters:
“The Quebec working class, allied with the vibrant student youth, has the power to be a key component of a revived North American workers movement, which has been battered by decades of austerity and strikebreaking. In May 1972, the spontaneous Quebec general strike against the jailing of union leaders gave a taste of this power. But in the upshot, the aspirations of the Québécois workers were channeled into the framework of bourgeois nationalism as represented by the PQ. Unchaining the power of the proletariat requires a political break with such nationalism, including today its ‘left’ variant in Québec Solidaire.
“The only road to socialism lies through a workers revolution that smashes the capitalist state and replaces it with a workers state, the dictatorship of the proletariat. That means replacing bourgeois democracy—a ‘democracy’ for the rich—with workers democracy. Only then will the road be open for the construction of an egalitarian communist society where both poverty and a repressive state are relics of the past.”
—“Student Strike Shakes Quebec—Mobilize the Power of the Working Class!” SC No. 173, Summer 2012
In “Quebec Liberals Prepare Austerity Onslaught” (SC No. 181, Summer 2014) we stated that the “anti-corruption” Charbonneau commission was set up by the last Parti Québécois government. In fact, it was created by the previous Liberal government in 2011. (From SC No. 182, Fall 2014.)