Paul Rose’s tortuous path in search of Quebec liberation
Paul Rose, Quebec sovereigntist and socialist, died March 14 in Montréal, following a stroke. He was 69.
Notorious for his participation in the 1970 kidnapping and death of a Quebec cabinet minister, for which he spent 13 years in prison, Rose went on to become a trade union activist, the leader of the Parti pour la démocratie socialiste (PDS) — formerly the Quebec wing of the New Democratic Party — and most recently a founder of the Union des forces progressistes (UFP), which became today’s Québec solidaire.
Paul Rose was part of a generation of Québécois who radicalized in the wake of the Cuban revolution, African colonial liberation, the Vietnam war and the Afro-American upsurge, and who sought to apply the lessons of these liberation struggles to the reality of Quebec’s national oppression. But Paul Rose was most remarkable because in later years — in contrast to many of his former comrades — he sought above all to develop a political strategy that could fuse the cause of national liberation with that of proletarian emancipation independently of the Parti québécois, in a period when seeking to change the world usually meant swimming against the current.
A figure of controversy to the end, Paul Rose was the subject of sharply conflicting obituaries in the major media outlets. While reporters in the Globe & Mail and the Montreal Gazette sought to describe Rose’s life and political evolution in relatively objective terms, the Francophone media — addressed to an audience much closer to the action, and deemed more susceptible, perhaps, to identify with Rose — denounced him as little more than a “terrorist.” Most outrageous was a sneering column by Patrick Lagacé in the mass-circulation daily La Presse comparing Rose to a “bearded salafist,” the Shining Path guerrillas of Peru, and the Red Army Faction in Germany.
Not to be outdone, federal parliamentarians voted unanimously March 18 to register their “zero tolerance toward all forms of terrorism” and to condemn “any attempt to glorify a member of the FLQ convicted for such criminal activities.” The motion was aimed in part at Québec solidaire MLA Amir Khadir, who had tried unsuccessfully to get a motion through the Quebec National Assembly honouring the memory of Paul Rose.
Québec solidaire tribute
In a short obituary note, Québec solidaire expressed its condolences to Rose’s family and friends, as well as “to the progressives and independentists who had the pleasure to fight alongside him over many years.
“Throughout his life, Paul Rose remained convinced of the need to struggle for the national liberation and political emancipation of the Quebec people. After the tragic events of October 1970, he chose to conduct this struggle on the terrain of democracy and citizen involvement.”
That last sentence covers a lot of territory in a few words. Too few, in fact. Unfortunately, Paul Rose himself, to my knowledge, said little for public consumption about the evolution of his political views and affiliations over the years. He was an activist, a militant, much less a tribune. In his few public statements for the record, he seemed more concerned with establishing the continuities, not the changes. But both continuity and changes merit some consideration, in my view.
In a 2005 interview with the newspaper Unité ouvrière (cited in the Globe & Mail obituary, incidentally), Rose described the context in which he, his brother Jacques Rose and their associates came to political consciousness. “Before October , we were all in the workers or student movement. The struggle that politicized us came from the whole process of democratization of education, access by working-class sons and daughters to education. Ultimately, this youth put into practice what it was learning, creating tools of liberation in the working class. These were the groups and popular clinics, the workers’ committees and neighbourhood citizens’ committees.”
But increasingly they found their activity obstructed by the enactment of repressive laws by governments and municipalities. In Montréal, for example, an anti-demonstration bylaw, emulated by other municipalities throughout Quebec, seemed to block legal political protest actions. The new political engagement of working-class youth was a matter of great concern to the state, said Rose. “Because as long as it’s just ideas, all right, but when these ideas become demands, and militant action, it is a danger to that authority.” Unable to identify with the legalistic electoralism of the newly formed Parti québécois, Rose and his associates opted for armed action.
A major influence in Rose’s thinking, at the time, was a book written by Pierre Vallières, a talented journalist who, like Rose, had spent his childhood in Ville Jacques-Cartier, in the shanty town of Côteau Rouge where, as Pierre Dubuc writes, “the houses were built of sheet metal and the sewers were open pits.” In his own book L’autre histoire de l’indépendance, Dubuc — who was asked by Paul Rose’s family to handle media relations after his death — has described the salient ideas in Vallières’ book, Nègres blancs d’Amérique, “the White Niggers of America,” subtitled the “precocious autobiography of a Québécois terrorist.” His account bears lengthy citation.
“This book synthesized the anger and ideas of an entire generation of young rebels of the late 1950s who, during the following decade, would identify with the revolutionary decolonization movement — more particularly, the Cuban revolution — and promote a revolutionary solution to the Quebec question.Nègres blancs articulates this generation’s interpretation of the history of Quebec, perceived as a colony of hewers of wood and drawers of water. It likewise set out, albeit in a rudimentary and fragmentary way, the project of a socialist Quebec, although oddly enough the references were not Marx or Lenin but the economists Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy and André Gunder Frank of the U.S. magazine Monthly Review, which at the time had substantial influence in the Quebec left….
“Vallières’ great gift was to have brilliantly summarized our history and our condition as Québécois in that wonderfully evocative title, White Niggers of America. It was the reverse, the mirror image, of the discourse of the Anglophone oppressor and his arrogant “Speak White.” Vallières had grasped the very essence of our américanité, shall we say, to use an expression of our day. An américanité quite different from the myth of the Québécois as a model of the American frontier colonist.”
Nègres blancs was drafted in a prison in New York, where Vallières was incarcerated along with Charles Gagnon, a comrade in the “Front de libération du Québec” (FLQ).
“Vallières and Gagnon had been jailed for demonstrating in front of the United Nations on September 25,-26, 1966 to demand political prisoner status for their comrades jailed in Montréal and to publicize worldwide the struggle for national liberation of the Québécois. They had taken refuge in New York among groups of Black Panther militants after the police break-up of their FLQ network they had just set up.
“Vallières and Gagnon had met at the University of Montréal in the early 1960s. They had both participated in the magazine Cité Libre edited by Gérard Pelletier and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. In 1964, the two of them broke with Cité Libre and created the magazine Révolution québécoise, where they advocated Quebec independence but criticized nationalism and favoured workers’ struggles. In the fall of 1965, they opted for the FLQ and clandestinity.
“After a series of violent actions, including placing bombs at the Lagrenade factory and Dominion Textiles during labour conflicts, the network was dismantled by the police; Vallières and Gagnon fled to New York.
In an article published at the time, Vallières wrote that the task was to
“provide the people with the opportunity, the motivation and the material means (a) to rise up against the established authority, (b) to conquer state power and finally, (c) substitute a ‘new order’ in place of the old structures, the conquest of power or independence being simply a stage on the path of the political, economic, social and cultural transformation of the country.”
“Vallières identified three phases in this liberation struggle: ‘1. conquest of sufficiently extensive popular support for the idea of independence; 2. opening of a period of direct actions with the goal being to provoke an initial breach in the established order, to exalt popular passions, to oblige the regime to reveal itself publicly as it is, and to undermine the morale of the adversaries; 3. finally, the general offensive.’
“Vallières and Gagnon thought the situation in Quebec called for the opening of the second phase.
“This brief summary helps us to understand the general orientation of the FLQ of Vallières and Gagnon. We should note, by the way, that the Libération and Chénier cells in 1970 shared the same outlook.”
And it was the Libération and Chénier “cells” of the FLQ that initiated the October crisis: the first by kidnapping a British diplomat; the second (which included Paul and Jacques Rose) by kidnapping Quebec’s labour minister, Pierre Laporte.
The October Crisis dramatically confirmed the naiveté of Vallières’ analysis. It was not hard for the governments concerned to turn the tables on these tiny groups acting solely on their own initiative. The Trudeau government’s invocation of the War Measures Act, and the resulting arrests of hundreds of political activists, revealed the real relationship of social forces, chilling free speech and throwing the left on the defensive for a period. While members of the Chénier cell managed to negotiate their exile to Cuba, the Roses and their comrades were soon arrested and sentenced to long prison terms.
For interesting examples of the response to these developments by revolutionary socialists, who always rejected the theories of “minority violence” propagated by these naïve ultraleftists, I recommend the readings assembled by the Socialist History Project under the heading “The October Crisis (1970),”. Socialists in both Quebec and English Canada worked to build committees to defend the direct victims of the War Measures repression, who included, in addition to Vallières and Gagnon, such figures as trade-union leader Michel Chartrand and the leader of the movement for defense of political prisoners in Quebec — all of them charged with sedition. And articles in our newspapers explained why Marxists opposed acts of individual terror as counter-productive to the necessary building of mass movements for social change.
The War Measures repression gave Pierre Trudeau and his counterparts in the Quebec government and Montréal’s civic administration a temporary advantage; for example, in the municipal elections held in the midst of the crisis Montréal mayor Jean Drapeau was able to crush the opposition FRAP (Front d’action populaire), a new labour-based municipal party.
However, the mass movement revived within the following year, and the early 1970s saw a radicalization of the labour movement around some important strikes. The major union centrals each adopted anticapitalist manifestos. And in 1972 the jailing of leaders of the three main centrals sparked a spontaneous general strike that shut down entire cities in some parts of the province. Opinion polls registered growing popular support for the pro-sovereignty Parti québécois.
The paths not taken by Paul Rose
Meanwhile, Pierre Vallières and Charles Gagnon both renounced their “FLQ” past, but went separate ways. Vallières, in L’Urgence de choisir, published in December 1971, called on radicals to join the PQ. Gagnon, in an essay published a few months later, Pour un parti prolétarien, denounced Vallières as a “traitor to the cause” and rejected not only the PQ but what he termed “the nationalist dead-end.” This document became the founding text of the En Lutte/In Struggle group, and its hostility to Québécois nationalism was also characteristic of the other “Marxist-Leninist” (Maoist) groups that thrived in Quebec during the following decade.
Imprisoned during this period, Paul Rose was unable to participate in this debate on the left.
In 1976 the Parti québécois was elected to government. Notwithstanding some major reforms such as adoption of the Charter of the French Language (Law 101), its record in office was soon to disappoint those like Vallières who had viewed it as the instrument of Quebec’s national emancipation.
In the early 1980s the various Maoist groups collapsed under the combined effect of the crisis of the nationalist movement following the defeat of the 1980 referendum on sovereignty; the retreat of the labour movement under the blows of the capitalist austerity agenda (the onset of the neoliberal period); the rise of the feminist and gay liberation movements; and the opening to capitalism of post-Mao China.
According to the Globe & Mail obituary, in 1982 “Mr. Rose was granted full parole.
He wrote for l’Aut’Journal and worked as an adviser for the Confédération des syndicats nationaux trade union.
He also joined the provincial New Democrats, which had split from the federal party over the issue of Quebec independence.
When Mr. Rose tried to run for a provincial seat in 1991, mortified federal NDP officials considered legal actions to force the Quebec party to drop New Democratic from its name.
The controversy became moot when the Quebec chief electoral officer ruled that Mr. Rose couldn’t run for office because of his murder conviction.
In his most recent notable activity, Mr. Rose gave a speech at a rally in support of last year’s student protests against increasing tuition fees. He was the leader of a fringe leftist party, the Parti de la démocratie socialiste.
This last paragraph is misleading. In fact, the PDS was the remnant of the Quebec NDP following its break with the federal NDP. And Paul Rose, as its leader in the 1990s, was an active participant in the effort to join with other groups on the left to found a new pro-independence party in 2002, the Union des forces progressistes (UFP), which in 2006 fused with Option citoyenne to form Québec solidaire.
Denise Veilleux, a Gatineau QS member who was previously a leading member of the PDS, toured Quebec with Paul Rose in the 1998 provincial election. Although the PDS vote tally was quite small (24,000), she tells me that some of the meetings were well-attended, as many people came out to see and hear Paul Rose, the infamous “felquiste” of lore.
National liberation and international solidarity
“The struggle for national liberation is a class struggle,” Paul Rose said in his interview with Unité ouvrière, “because it is the people and the popular classes that suffer the real oppression.”
Quebec nationalism, in contrast to the nationalism of those who support the Canadian federal regime, “is a nationalism of liberation. It’s a people being denied its existence, that is trying to find its place in the sun, in the same way as Palestine and Ireland. These are long battles of liberation waged by the popular classes….
“It’s not the degree of aggression and resistance that determines whether or not there is oppression….
“National oppression is the negation of a people’s existence and belongingness. And the only way to be in solidarity with all peoples is to exist. Existence is the beginning of solidarity.
“To exist autonomously, to regain control, to organize on the ground, that is what’s essential…. Human reality develops from the ground up, from the neighborhood, the city, the region…. Independence and full autonomy of peoples, that is where internationalism must be built, for internationalism can have no meaning if there are no nations.”
The Irish connection
“Ireland was always a source of inspiration for Paul Rose,” writes Pierre Dubuc. “In prison, he went on a hunger strike in support of the hunger strike of Bobby Sands.
“Bobby Sands, an Irish republican of the Provisional IRA, died in prison at the end of a 66-day hunger strike. During this period, he had been elected an MP at Westminster. His death resulted in riots in Northern Ireland and a demonstration of more than 10,000 persons. Margaret Thatcher, commenting on his death, used words similar to those of Patrick Lagacé concerning Paul Rose. ‘Bobby Sands is a criminal,’ she declared.
“During a visit to Montréal, Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, considered the political arm of the Provisional IRA, publicly thanked Paul Rose in a press conference for his gesture of support to Bobby Sands.
“During another visit to Montréal, Gerry Adams insisted on discussing once again with Paul Rose, in a private meeting I attended.
“Last summer, Paul Rose went to Ireland with his son Félix. It was his only trip to Europe. He was hosted by members of Sinn Fein and had the honour of being invited to a private pub where the only ones admitted are Irish revolutionaries who did time in prison for the cause.
“With a quite legitimate pride, Paul was pleased to relate to us that he was received with the greatest homage by his Irish comrades.”
Richard Fidler, March 19, 2013
 However, the Globe editors took a quite different tack. See “Paul Rose more deserving of being forgotten than being honoured.”
 With the notable exception of the nationalist daily Le Devoir. See “Paul Rose 1943–2013 - En désespoir de Rose.”
 Rose was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Pierre Laporte. However, it remains unclear as to whether he was present when Laporte was strangled while attempting to escape captivity. As the Globe obituary notes, “A 1980 Quebec government investigation [the Keable commission] concluded he wasn’t present….”
 Translated as Choose! (New Press, 1972).
 For an historical overview and balance-sheet of this experience, see François Moreau, “Balance Sheet of the Quebec Far Left.”