Quebec’s long struggle to build a democratic left party
Photo by abdallahh
Introduction by Richard Fidler
There is probably no one more qualified to describe the 60-year struggle in Quebec to build a democratic and progressive left party than Paul Cliche. As a journalist and union activist, Cliche (who will be 80 years old in May of this year) was at various times a member of the Parti social-démocratique (PSD), the Parti socialiste du Québec (PSQ), the Front d’action politique (FRAP), the Mouvement socialiste (MS), and is currently a prominent member of Québec solidaire (QS). Paul Cliche pic
In the following interview, Paul Cliche presents his analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each of these experiences, and discusses in particular detail the lengthy process that led to the founding of Québec solidaire, which currently has three members elected to the Quebec National Assembly.
Pierre Beaudet’s interview with Paul Cliche is published in the Winter 2015 issue (No. 13) of Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme, a semi-annual journal published by the Collectif d’analyse politique. In addition to this interview, this issue features no fewer than 18 articles on the theme “Imperialism in the 21st century.”
Cliche presents us here with a fascinating journey in time through the major changes in the Quebec social formation and the shaping and reshaping of its grass-roots progressive movements since the 1950s.
The interview will be of particular interest to radicals in English Canada who have begun to engage with members of Québec solidaire in discussions aimed at surveying the possibilities for building pan-Canadian anticapitalist political resistance to the ongoing neoliberal austerity offensive.
Some initial discussions were held at the Peoples’ Social Forum in Ottawa in August 2014. More recently, activists from both nations met in Toronto February 28-March 1, and a subsequent meeting is scheduled for Montréal on May 9. The Toronto meeting has been followed by an intense series of email exchanges among a wide number of radicals in both English Canada and Quebec.
Here is the full text of the interview with Paul Cliche. My translation from the French. I have added some paragraph breaks for readability, a few explanations in square brackets, and some notes of my own, signed “RF,” where I thought references might be unfamiliar to Anglophone readers. All the other notes are by Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme.
Pierre Beaudet: Paul Cliche’s “adventure” begins in the Beauce?
Paul Cliche: I was born May 12, 1935 in Saint-Joseph-de-Beauce, in a family of Liberal allegiance that was part of the petty bourgeoisie of the Chaudière region. The Cliches made up a tightly woven clan. Family gatherings resembled sharp debates in which people would argue on one side or another for hours. One of my uncles, the owner of a print shop, published L’Aiglon, the region’s Liberal newspaper. Two others, who were liberal-minded professionals, took time out from their duties to write editorials.
I spent part of my childhood in this magical setting indelibly immersed in the smell of printers’ ink. When Duplessis came to power in 1944, the print-shop shut down for the contracts now went to a Union nationale supporter. The long reign of the Union nationale began, and would extend to 1960.
PB: What courses did you study?
PC: After my primary studies at the college of the Marist Brothers of Saint-Joseph, I began in 1948 my classical course at the Collège de Lévis. It was a traditional institution in which they taught the Greek and Latin humanities and the Thomist philosophy, with the mission of training the future elite. The college bathed in a disciplined and nationalist atmosphere dominated by the clerical ideology with censorship of readings and a conservatism fueled by sermons during the interminable religious ceremonies.
However, some priests with a certain openness read Le Devoir, a newspaper I began reading at the age of 16, in which one could follow the public debates and trade-union struggles. It was quite an opening to the world for a teen-ager who was beginning to emerge from his cocoon.
One day, the college leadership invited Pierre Laporte, then a parliamentary reporter in Québec. Laporte was on Duplessis’ blacklist for he had revealed the natural gas scandal; it was an initial attack against his regime. As I was assigned to welcome Laporte, he asked me find him a quiet place so he could write his article for the next day’s issue. Reading that article in the newspaper less than 24 hours later, I was staggered and from then on I dreamed of becoming a journalist… at Le Devoir if possible. This wish became reality 11 years later!
PB: You then went to university.
PC: At the end of my classical college courses my father, an insurance agent, really wanted me to become a lawyer like my uncles and my cousin Robert. I disappointed him by enrolling in social sciences. I could not imagine life as a provincial lawyer arguing over fences, stifled in that narrow framework in which barristers, notaries, physicians, industrialists and merchants constituted, in my anti-establishment outlook, a caste of privileged gentlemen contemplating their navels and hovering egotistically over the concerns of ordinary people. So I entered an institution that constituted one of the major seats of intellectual resistance to Duplessism, the Faculty of Social Sciences of Laval University, founded by the Dominican priest Georges-Henri Lévesque.
This courageous figure, a forerunner of the Quiet Revolution, was resisting Duplessis’ attempts to cut the faculty’s funding! At the same time, to pay for my studies, I worked part time at the daily newspaper Le Soleil in Quebec City. At first I covered injured dogs and police operations in the seedy parts of the city, which taught me a lot of things. From sessions at the Courthouse covering the daily court appearances, I moved on to the social club lectures at the Château Frontenac, which were accompanied by a generous meal.
PB: What was the intellectual atmosphere in Quebec City?
PC: Despite my 12 hour days, I studied a lot. I learned to manage my time and to pay attention to the organizational aspects of things. Having ideas is one thing, carrying them out is another. And in the social sciences, there were some leading thinkers like Léon Dion, Fernand Dumont, Gérard Bergeron, and Jean-Charles Falardeau. They tended to be federalists, partly in reaction to the obtuse nationalism practiced by Duplessis.
Gradually, however, a new notion of a progressive Quebec nationalism began to make its way, and would express itself after the Liberal victory in 1960. Some more radical students like Rémi Savard and Gabriel Gagnon were inclined toward the social democracy, and thanks to them I became a member of the Parti social démocratique, the Quebec branch of the CCF. I also discussed with my cousin Robert (Cliche), who was impressed by James S. Woodsworth, a pioneer of the Canadian social-democratic movement and founder of the CCF. He was also interested in the Scandinavian social democracy.
PB: It was not so easy to stand up against Duplessis.
PC: In the Quebec of the “grande noirceur” [the great darkness, a common term to describe the repressive nature of Duplessis’ regime], we had the impression with Duplessis of being in a black hole. The Liberal party was still dislocated, which left a lot of space for the Right. Nonetheless, the fact remains that things were bubbling; it began in the artistic circles in 1948 with the publication of the Refus global manifesto, and it spread in society, particularly in the trade-union movement.
After the asbestos strike in 1949 at the mine in Asbestos, there were a series of major union struggles. Thanks to Michel Chartrand, then president of the Parti social-démocratique (PSD), the Quebec wing of the old CCF, we managed to get the party to recognize the existence of the Quebec nation.
In 1958 I became president of the students association in the faculty, and shortly afterwards editor of the student newspaper Le Carabin, which directed one insolent remark after another at Duplessis. In the social sciences, we struck (even then!) to obtain abolition of tuition fees. We demonstrated at the Parliament, but the movement did not extend to the other faculties of Laval University. Meanwhile, at the University of Montréal, the student assembly instructed three of its members (Francine Laurendeau, Bruno Meloche and Jean-Pierre Goyer) to submit the students’ grievances to Premier Duplessis. The three waited for six months without meeting the Chef, who refused to receive them because (he said) he had no time. This episode left a lasting impression on public opinion.
PB: In 1959, there was a feeling that change was coming?
PC: In September 1959, during a by-election in Lac Saint-Jean, I was working to elect Michel Chartrand, who was running for the PSD. On the last day of the campaign, Maurice Duplessis died, which was like a thunderclap. Apprised of the news, the colourful minister Maurice Bellemare cried openly. Three months later, Duplessis’ successor Paul Sauvé changed the tone and spoke of renewal. He was unable to go further, for he died suddenly and was replaced by the Minister of Labour Antonio Barrette, a former railroad worker who lacked the desired stature for the position of premier.
Meanwhile, I began my final university year during which I wrote a thesis on the Quebec electoral system while avidly reading Le Devoir and Cité Libre, where Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Gérard Pelletier, and Pierre Dansereau had joined forces. In their view, Quebec nationalism was intrinsically conservative and reactionary. My opinion, on the other hand, was that there was a means of practicing a progressive nationalism in opposition to the identitarian nationalism focused on survival.
Then, in June 1960, the Liberal party’s “équipe de tonnerre” [the dream team] was elected, headed by Jean Lesage with some reformists like René Lévesque and Paul Gérin-Lajoie. On election night, honeymooning at Mont-Tremblant, I was delirious with enthusiasm. Today, it is hard to imagine the lead blanket that weighed on our society for 16 years with this mix of ultra-conservative nationalism and clericalism.
Shortly thereafter, my life took a turn. L’Action catholique, a Quebec City daily, offered me a job as its parliamentary reporter. I found myself in an ideal position to follow the big debates. The infatuation for the new Liberal program was enormous in the younger generation. In 1961 I gave up my intention to obtain a doctorate in sociology and I accepted the invitation of Jean-Louis Gagnon, editor in chief of La Presse, to become responsible for the regional Quebec section of that newspaper. Later, in 1962, Gérard Pelletier, who had succeeded Gagnon, convinced me to move to Montréal to take charge of the federal and provincial political news section that he had just launched within that huge newspaper. A bit later I became the lead editor on the evening edition.
PB: The centre of gravity was shifting.
PC: Up to the mid-1960s, the “équipe de tonnerre” called the tune. Some important reforms were made in quick succession: nationalization of electricity on the initiative of René Lévesque; creation of the Ministry of Education and rapid expansion of the education system under the impetus of Paul Gérin-Lajoie; creation of the Caisse de dépôt et placement, in the economy; the right to collective bargaining in the civil service followed by its rapid trade-unionization — the CSN almost doubled its membership. “The Queen does not negotiate with her subjects,” Lesage had declared in 1962, but Jean Marchand, at the end of his term as CSN president, changed his mind.
In the media, Jean-Louis Gagnon and his successor Gérard Pelletier believed in the need for investigative journalism and freedom of expression. La Presse hired many apprentice journalists whom I hung out with, freshly graduated from university: Pierre O’Neill, Guy Ferland, Pierre Godin, Louis Martin, and Jacques Guay from the Université de Montréal. Trade-union news was prominently featured. Those were good years; we had the impression that anything was possible.
PB: But the momentum was broken.
PC: Beginning in 1964, Lesage applied the brakes. Little by little he broke the bridges with René Lévesque by moving him from Natural Resources to Social Affairs. The lobby of the elites, under the domination of the major Anglophone capitalists of Montréal, tried again: you can’t do this, you can’t do that. There were still some energetic personalities in the government, such as Georges-Émile Lapalme, who did some impressive work in the Ministry of Culture, which he was the first to head, but he retired before the 1966 election.
PB: It was then that the La Presse journalists went on strike?
PC: In June 1964, things were brewing at La Presse. The typographers and journalists were discontented. The typographers were the first to go on strike. We respected their picket lines, of course, and then, reluctantly, we walked out as well. Our conflict lasted seven long months. The negotiations hit a snag over the freedom of expression of the columnists. We then realized that we had been the victims of a political maneuver. We had been constrained to go on strike at a moment we had not chosen.
Since 1963, La Presse had been publishing the column La démocratie au Québec, under the signatures of Richard Daignault and Dominique Clift. This irritated Premier Lesage. Another committed journalist, Michel Van Schendel, contributed some scoops on the economy that displeased the conservative elements in the Lesage cabinet. Exasperated, Lesage hurled the comment to one of our journalists: “You will soon find yourselves out in the street.” We did not take this threat seriously, but, by a strange coincidence, it happened several months later. The line was thin between those who held political power and the owners of the major capitalist media. During the strike, we published our own newspaper La Presse… libre, with the support of the CSN, which Richard Daignault had just joined as news director. The climate was highly charged, the experience was unforgettable.
I became a founding member of the Parti socialiste du Québec (PSQ), a split from the NDP on the constitutional question. I collaborated briefly with the magazine Révolution québécoise founded by Pierre Vallières, who was at the time a journalist at La Presse, and his comrade Charles Gagnon, but I soon withdrew as I did not agree with their increasingly pronounced attraction to the use of terrorist methods. Anyway, I did not have a lot of time to become deeply involved in political projects. After the strike, things moved fast. La Presse fired me, along with many other colleagues! A few days later, however, I found myself at Le Devoir, delighted and honoured, with a salary that was 40% lower!
PB: That was, so to speak, a high point?
PC: That newspaper was the bible of my generation. Michel Roy, the news director, liked the idea of modernizing the paper, of opening the doors and launching some debates. With the editor Claude Ryan, who was more conservative and less motivated by the projects of the Quiet Revolution, he reorganized the paper, and I became a parliamentary correspondent after the election of the Union nationale government in 1966.
PB: The Quiet Revolution, initially, was not the independentist project.
PC: There was a major convergence between the supporters of modernity, who wanted to bring Quebec out of stagnation, and the progressive nationalists. Everyone understood that Quebec’s backwardness resulted not only from the Duplessis regime but also from the political structure of Canada. We had to modernize, but above all it was necessary, as the Quebec Liberal slogan put it, to become maîtres chez nous, “masters in our own house.”
At this time there emerged the independentist project of Marcel Chaput, a conservative. I can’t say it attracted me much, but my feeling changed after André D’Allemagne and Pierre Bourgault, founders of the Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale (RIN), came into the picture. I voted for that party in the 1966 election, when the Liberals yielded power to the Union nationale headed by Daniel Johnson, even though they obtained more votes than the UN did.
PB: We are up to the big confrontations.
PC: Within the Quebec Liberal party (PLQ) the knives came out. In the fall of 1967, Lévesque resigned along with his comrades in arms during a convention of the party. True to his image, Robert Bourassa was indecisive up to the very last minute, but in the end he lined up on the federalist side because he had good chances of succeeding Lesage. The departure for Ottawa in 1965 of the “three wise men” (Pierre E. Trudeau, Gérard Pelletier and Jean Marchand) also indicated that some major confrontations were coming.
PB: Did that open the door to the left?
PC: The Parti socialiste du Québec (PSQ), like the PSD before it, did not take off. We failed to give sufficient importance to the organizational aspect. We thought a developed program was sufficient to win an election, and we took a beating. We had to await the Union des forces progressistes and Québec solidaire before we rid ourselves of this tendency to verbal inflation and organizational atrophy.
PB: You were getting ready to begin a new stage.
PC: My conflicts with Claude Ryan increased. He was a dyed-in-the-wool federalist, who would succeed Robert Bourassa as Liberal leader in 1976. Above all, he was an intolerant and puritan being with conservative ideas, who was dead opposed to having “his” journalists in any way indicate their progressive, let alone independentist, ideas. He had a dreadful habit of getting me to come down from Québec during my Sunday day off in order to give me a telling-off; I was less and less willing to put up with this. Within 36 months about 15 journalists left the newspaper. At the end of 1968, Richard Daigneault invited me to come to the CSN. This was a major turn in my life: from being an observer of politics I became to some degree an actor… at least potentially.
PB: You came to the CSN at a time when the orientation of the labour body was changing.
PC: When Marcel Pepin succeeded Jean Marchand as president of the CSN in 1965, the labour central began a turn. At the 1966 convention, Pepin stated that we should fight for a “society suitable and to the advantage of the millions of workers who make up the immense majority of the population.” Later, in 1968, he got the delegates to adopt the idea of a “second front” according to which the unions would go beyond the traditional field of the collective agreement to engage in social and political action. The central councils in the regions, assisted by the Political Action Secretariat at the central level, began to set up political action committees in the unions. The idea was not to organize a party but to encourage trade-union members to participate in political struggles, beginning with those in the municipalities. Another field of action was the development of the cooperative movement.
PB: What were the concrete manifestations of the “second front”?
PC: Meanwhile, I joined the Political Action Secretariat team of Pierre Vadeboncoeur, who was an advisor to the president, and André L’Heureux. We participated in all the conventions of the 23 central councils. Parallel to this, we organized some national campaigns, for example in favour of the creation of a universal sickness insurance plan or for automobile insurance. Another initiative was aimed at the nationalization of the private hunting and fishing clubs located on public lands and frequented by rich American tourists and the local bourgeoisie. This campaign resulted in several occupations of private clubs and was punctuated by some arrests, including that of Michel Chartrand.
We also collaborated with the family budget service run by the ACEF in its war on exorbitant debt charges on loans. Prefiguring the arrival of the FRAPRU, the Secretariat published a mass-circulation pamphlet on the housing problem in which we called for construction of 40,000 low-cost public housing units per year. In terms of information, the CSN supported the left-wing weekly Québec Presse, at which I was for several months the CEO.
PB: What form did political action take at the municipal level?
PC: The “second front” was moving ahead. In the municipal elections of 1969, the members of the CSN’s political action committees joined with those of the FTQ and the CEQ. They elected pro-worker candidates in about a half-dozen cities (Sept-Îles, Baie-Comeau, Alma, Sorel, St-Hyacinthe, St-Jérôme, etc.). Following this success, we organized during the winter of 1970 about twenty regional inter-union conferences, in which more than 2,500 activists participated and drafted a platform. Some 400 activists participated in the Montréal conference, including representatives of citizens committees and grass-roots associations. In 1968, some citizens committees had united to create the Mouvement d’action politique (MAP), which on May 12, 1970 became the Front d’action politique, the FRAP; I was elected its president. During the founding convention, Pierre Vadeboncoeur said the time had come to put the salaried workers in power.
In reality, our objective for the municipal election of 1970 was to establish ourselves in as many neighborhoods as possible, and for that reason we did not run a candidate for mayor. Taking power was the objective for the following election, once we were established on a city-wide scale. We already had associations in Saint-Jacques, Saint-Henri, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Saint-Louis and Pointe St-Charles. Within a few weeks we doubled their number to include Rosemont, Ahuntsic, Villeray, Côte-des-Neiges, Saint-Édouard and Papineau.
PB: And then came the October Crisis.
PC: In the fall of 1970, things were going well for the FRAP. The media were generally favourable. An opinion poll by the CROP, published in The Montreal Star, indicated that 57% of the voters were aware of the party and 31% thought it constituted a valid opposition. The membership doubled. Mayor Jean Drapeau felt the mounting pressure. He even had the nerve to intervene with the CSN president, Marcel Pepin, to try to get him to convince the FRAP to withdraw from the political arena in exchange for a promise to leave the field free for it in the following elections. What crap!
Meanwhile, there were some rumours. We had a premonition of a crisis, but we did not know what form it would take. On October 5, the British diplomat James Richard Cross was kidnapped by the FLQ, which still had the look of a gang of Robin Hoods. While I was canvassing door-to-door in Rosemont, people were telling me it was not a bad idea to “punish an Englishman.” Personally, I was wary. Within the FRAP, some people were pushing for some “revolutionary” action.
Later, the FRAP leadership divided. One group, a minority in the party but a majority in its leading bodies, wanted to support the FLQ more explicitly by avoiding taking any position on the issue of terrorism. The second group, composed of myself, the vice-president Émile Boudreau, and the majority of the candidates, wanted to take our distance from the FLQ action. We agreed with its objectives, but not the means taken. The media, of course, kept pounding away at us. Drapeau chimed in, as did Jean Marchand, the former CSN president now a federal cabinet minister: “The FRAP is the legal cover for the FLQ….”
PB: Laporte’s death changed things completely.
PC: On October 7, the FLQ manifesto was published. On the 10th, Pierre Laporte, the Labour minister in the Quebec cabinet, was kidnapped. During the night of October 15-16, the Trudeau government proclaimed the War Measures Act, suspending civil liberties. The Sûreté du Québec [Quebec’s provincial police force] arrested 457 persons within a few hours. The army occupied Montréal. The police harassed me but I was not arrested, unlike my colleagues Henri Bellemare in Saint-Jacques and Jean Roy in Saint-Louis.
When the police announced the death of Laporte, all hell broke loose. Some “radicals” in the FRAP with obscure motivations — including a certain Jean Grenier, responsible for organization — wanted us to endorse this act! The election campaign fizzled out. Grenier even wanted us to withdraw from the race, but the majority refused to let our members down.
However, the crisis did not prevent us from obtaining 16% of the vote in the city as a whole although we had run candidates in only two-thirds of the neighborhoods. On election night, October 25, Drapeau celebrated his victory at City Hall: “We saved the city from the terrorists.” During his speech he literally lost his head, and his supporters avoided me like the plague.
PB: That was the beginning of the end for the FRAP?
PC: To have been manipulated by the media and the police was disagreeable enough. Worse was the atmosphere of division that took hold of the FRAP. Grenier stirred up ill-feeling, and he carried with him a number of young militants with good will but without experience. He denigrated everything that had been done, which is easy in an atmosphere of defeat.
I returned to my duties at the CSN, but my return was not a joyful one. Marcel Pepin, who had never supported the FRAP experiment, put me in quarantine. Also, I was exhausted. In January, seeing that the quarrel was only getting worse, I resigned from my position as president of the FRAP. At the same time, a large number of members were leaving as well. The idea of a progressive mass party was replaced by that of a vanguard Marxist movement, based on the idea that a handful of staunch militants is worth more than a mass of soft members. As for me, I saw mainly that we were losing our members. The FRAP quickly disintegrated. The Marxists of En Lutte, led by Charles Gagnon, took over.
PB: Despite the blow of October 1970, the mass movement started up again.
PC: In 1971, I worked at the Montréal Central Council of the CSN, where my mentor Michel Chartrand was president. Maligned as an anarcho-syndicalist, he embodied the left opposition in the CSN. He enraged the right wing in the central, which split in 1972 to found the Centrale des syndicats démocratiques (CSD). Chartrand was even beaten up by some thugs during a meeting of the CSN Confederal Council. His relations with Pepin were not cordial. Pepin never indicated any support for him during his lengthy imprisonment under the War Measures Act. Chartrand criticized him above all for not really believing in the “second front.”
Notwithstanding his outspoken personality in public, the private Chartrand was a humanist, an assiduous reader with a great love of art and a fine taste for good food and wine. He knew how to inspire his troops without putting undue pressure on them. I remember his arguments with me, which were sometimes hard to take. When he died in 2010, I felt like an orphan.
Meanwhile, beginning in the spring of 1971, strikes were breaking out. We prepared a strategy for confrontation in the public sector negotiations. Mobilization structures were put in place. The “second front” political action committees were recycled in the “first front.” Around the slogan “We, the ordinary people,” we presented some legitimate and popular demands (including the demand for 100 dollars per week). In the fall, the CSN published an analysis with a socialist flavour, disseminated in the tens of thousands of copies: “Ne comptons que sur nos propres moyens.” The Montréal Central Council stated that “the liberation of the workers requires the destruction of capitalism.”
PB: The movement peaked in 1972.
PC: Early in that year, the militants were pumped. In the first moments of the general strike, some educational and health establishments and some government ministries, even Hydro-Québec, were paralyzed. A few days later, things began to radicalize. There were occupations of cities and institutions, blockades of roads and streets, as at Sept-Îles. This happened mainly outside of Montréal, but after the arrest of the three presidents of the union centrals (Marcel Pepin, Louis Laberge and Yvon Charbonneau), the mobilization took off in Montréal. On the First of May, there were 15,000 of us in the streets to celebrate the international festival of the workers, a first not only in Quebec but in North America. The atmosphere changed at the level of the masses, where there was an even greater desire for change.
PB: Was there some movement politically?
PC: In 1974, the idea of a progressive party reappeared in Montréal around rather disparate group that included some left-wing Anglophones, some trade-unionists, some anarchists and some people from the community. From the outset, the project of the Rassemblement des citoyens de Montréal (RCM – Montreal Citizens Movement in English) was less radical than the FRAP’s. Nevertheless, I re-entered the fray. I was one of the 18 candidates elected, representing the Plateau, the northern part of the district of Saint-Jacques. My victory was partly due to the support of the left wing of the PQ, which was at the time a force in Montréal with Louise Harel and Robert Burns. In those days, the RCM was committed to democratizing the city, for example by establishing neighborhood councils.
PB: And then the PQ won a resounding victory.
PC: By the end of 1975, the Bourassa government was discredited by corruption. He was being trashed by Trudeau in Ottawa, who found Bourassa too soft in relation to the nasty “séparatisses.” In Mercier, I campaigned for Gérald Godin, against Bourassa as a matter of fact, who was defeated in the 1976 general election. René Lévesque, who remembered the FRAP, was unhappy. During a public meeting in Saint-Henri, he looked me up and down as if I was a hothead of some sort because I said that the door-to-door canvassing suggested the PQ would win in Mercier!
PB: With the PQ, the euphoria did not last long.
PC: At first, it was no mean feat to defeat not only the party in power, but a party rotted through by an undemocratic system. However, despite the “favourable bias” toward the workers, the PQ, once elected, did not go far. At the 1977 PQ National Council meeting in which I participated, Bernard Landry managed to defeat in the plenary session a resolution I had presented in support of sectoral unionization, for which the CSN was fighting. So I left the party, which I had joined in 1974.
Apart from Law 101 [the Charter of the French Language], automobile insurance, agricultural zoning, the reform in financing of political parties, the list of reforms was relatively short. In retrospect, I think the PQ’s reforms between 1976 and 1981 were less important than the reforms by the Lesage dream team between 1961 and 1966. Lévesque at least wanted to move on the plan to reform the electoral system by establishing proportional representation. But some ministers and MNAs managed to block the draft bill; out of pure political opportunism they argued fallaciously that sovereignty should have precedence over democracy.
Meanwhile, some of the reformists, including Robert Burns, abandoned ship. In the referendum on sovereignty-association, May 20, 1980, there was not sufficient enthusiasm. The convoluted question reflected the equivocation of Lévesque and Claude Morin, who did not really want a break with Canada. The left was divided and generally impotent. The right, in contrast, was well-organized and virulent. The defeat was not surprising, but the 60%-40% result was hard to digest.
PB: This was followed by another fork in your life.
PC: I suffered my first heart attack, which showed that I was somewhat worn out after all these adventures! My doctor advised me to abandon the 24-hours a day 7 days a week routine. In 1980, I had an opportunity to join the consumer protection office. Some important amendments had just been made to the legislation, making it an effective instrument in defense of the rights of citizens. Later, I was transferred to the communications branch of the Environment ministry, which at the time operated under a fairly strong law which, for lack of enforcement personnel, remained a dead letter. The situation worsened when the round of cutbacks began. Attention was effectively focused only on matters likely to have an impact on public opinion. Until my retirement in 1996, I remained outside of the activist life.
PB: You took your distance from the struggle, but it was never far off.
PC: After the 1980 referendum, I observed what was happening, like everyone. After leaving the CSN, Marcel Pepin recycled himself in political action. Together with a group of progressive trade-union members and academics, including Raymond Laliberté, Jacques Dofny and Alfred Dubuc, he launched the “Comité des Cent” [Committee of a Hundred] in 1979, which became the Mouvement socialiste (MS) in 1981. This organization had no intention of transforming itself into a political party. I thought my old president was courageous in embarking on this adventure after his very busy union career. He was the best union negotiator in the history of Quebec, but I did not see him in politics.
Eventually the MS decided to run a handful of candidates in the 1985 Quebec election, to offer a “socialist alternative” to the voters. However, like the PSD and the PSQ in the 1960s, it was not popular. Its 10 candidates got only 1,000 votes. Another attempt in the 1989 election was equally disastrous and the MS disappeared.
PB: At the same time, in the early 1980s, there was the long drift of the PQ.
PC: The 1980 referendum defeat was foreseeable, but I confess that it hurt. I actually thought that the OUI camp would do better, around 45% for example. The PQ did a bad job and we can’t say that the popular movements were very active either. However, despite all that, I did not think it was the end of the world and that the baby should be thrown out with the bathwater. But that is precisely what Lévesque did. The confrontation with the labour movement in 1982 blew to bits the PQ claim that it had a “favourable bias for the workers.” Furthermore, the so-called “beau risque” [worthwhile risk] strategy led the PQ to bed down with Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives. The PQ became the champion of the free-trade treaty concocted in the United States with the Reagan administration. Bernard Landry led the growing chorus in favour of the treaty during a long tour of the chambers of commerce and all the others being actively led by the Conseil du patronat [Employers’ Council].
PB: In 1995, just before your return to the “front,” there was the second referendum.
PC: The PQ was worn-out but not down and out, especially since Jacques Parizeau was trying once again to confront the federal state. You can say what you like about this guy, he has the stature of a statesman. His sincerity is undeniable. His support for free-trade, however, reflected his blindness toward the capitalist system, but he did so with the thought that it would weaken the main adversary, the federal state.
Moreover, Parizeau thought it was necessary to avoid the error of 1976. He foresaw in the referendum strategy the intervention of a significant part of the popular movements, which did mobilize and did lead the OUI campaign within a hair’s breadth of victory. On the other hand — we saw this recently with the essay by Chantal Hébert — Parizeau was reluctant to fully involve the members of the nationalist right like Lucien Bouchard and Mario Dumont.
In any event, the 1995 referendum defeat occurred in circumstances quite different from those of 1980. It did not extinguish the hope, and the idea of resuming the fight very quickly got the upper hand. The March of Women against poverty broke the ice (the Bread and Roses march of 1995). There was something in the air.
PB: It was then that you became involved in L’Aut’journal.
PC: I wanted to regain my freedom of speech and I thought that L’Aut’journal was the best choice in the circumstances. Michel Chartrand encouraged me to become a volunteer journalist there. Pierre Dubuc, its owner-publisher, is a very straightforward man who has strong pro-sovereignty convictions. He thinks he is always right, he does not put up with contradiction and he has the nasty habit of associating those who do not share his cut-and-dried opinions with a federalist plot. However, he is also very intelligent and he is open to the new ideas that circulate in the left. My first article was about the Coalition Eau Secours [Emergency water coalition], which was waging a vigorous fight against the privatization of water in Montréal, a fight which it won.
The real deal began in May 1997 when, for the first time in the journal’s history, Dubuc agreed that someone other than himself sign the editorial. So I made a strong plea that the progressive sovereigntist tendency take its rightful place in Quebec’s political arena. I then organized a roundtable that the journal published in full in June and July, to discuss how to revitalize the political struggle. Participating were Paul Rose, Réjean Parent, Hélène Pedneault, Gabriel Gagnon and others. Could the left break the vicious circle of powerlessness? Ought we to be thinking about a genuine alternative to the PQ? Finally, the idea gained some ground. There were even some PQ supporters who became interested, for it had become clear that the PQ under Lucien Bouchard was increasingly resembling the Quebec Liberal party. The readers were favourable to the creation of a left political organization, either in the form of a movement or of a party.
PB: There was an opening up?
PC: As a follow-up, we organized in November 1997 a meeting at the Maisonneuve CEGEP. Seven hundred people, twice what we expected, came with a galaxy of speakers from the community groups, the popular organizations, the unions, ecologists, feminists, students, academics and even the writer Victor-Lévy Beaulieu. In May 1998, we set up the Rassemblement pour une alternative politique [RAP – Coalition for a political alternative]. At the time I wrote in L’Aut’journal that the popular movements had to overcome their natural tendency to consider themselves solely as pressure groups.
Paul Rose dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s on the question of sovereignty. He explained that the left fights for the sovereignty of the people, not primarily for constitutional change. The manifesto adopted at the congress clearly stated that social emancipation and independence are inseparable.
Parallel to this, the RAP hesitated on the idea of creating a party. The supporters of a movement carried the day by a small margin, but this issue polarized the internal debates for many months. Personally, I preferred that the movement remain non-partisan, while waiting to get the full measure of activists who, for the most part, came from the PQ and needed a period of acclimatization in a new ideological environment. I thought that those who absolutely wanted to engage in partisan political activity simply had to join the Parti pour la démocratie socialiste [PDS – Party for socialist democracy, formed from the remnants of the Quebec NDP], led by Paul Rose.
However, my position was defeated at the congress of November 1999 and in early 2000 the RAP transformed itself into a party, which placed it in competition with the PDS. The left now had one more tiny party and was more divided than ever, despite all the militant efforts deployed for two years.
PB: The march toward unity of the left was relaunched, however.
As I had predicted, the RAP was not at all popular. The leaders failed to take account of the principal message that the rank-and-file militants had loudly proclaimed at the meeting in November 1997: the need to unite the political left. In February 2000, an impromptu meeting was held in Drummondville, with the presence of activists from the RAP, the PDS and other groups. To everyone’s surprise, the meeting was productive. We agreed to hold a symposium on unity of the left.
In June, at the UQÀM, the participation was even greater than at the 1997 meeting (some 800 persons). Once again, there was unanimity on the need for unity. On the morning of the symposium, the former president of the CSN, Gérald Larose, who was quite influential, wanted nothing to do with it. “The time for the left has not come,” he wrote in Le Devoir. I answered him, saying one had to be naïve or in bad faith to stand aloof in front of the two major parties which were like Siamese twins on social and economic issues.
At the end of the symposium, we established a committee composed of representatives of the RAP, the PDS, the Communist party and the Green party, which met several times without really getting ahead. It could be said that some leaders did not yet understand the message of the activists. I was champing at the bit.
PB: Enough chit-chat, let’s get moving.
PC: In the fall [of 2000], Robert Perreault, the PQ member for Mercier, resigned, so there was to be a by-election. After consulting some friends, I proposed my candidature on behalf of the united left. Everyone agreed, including the Greens, although the RAP was harder to convince than the others. I ran under the banner of the Union des forces progressistes (UFP), although that party did not yet exist. The tireless François Cyr, whose qualities I had learned to appreciate in the RAP, became my main advisor.
PB: How did that happen?
PC: I did a tour of the popular and community groups, which are numerous in the Plateau Mont-Royal. Meanwhile, an election committee prepared the campaign. François drafted a platform in three days and nights. It was largely a prefiguration of the UFP’s 12 months later. Then we did what the left has seldom done: going door-to-door. We had to speak to people and not just hold meetings attended by militants who are already convinced! We deployed on the ground several hundred activists. Finally, some serious work!
Another option: at the urgent demand of local militants, we invited citizens to a working meeting to prepare a local action program. About a hundred people attended, including many who were active in the community groups. It was of course an election in Mercier riding, not in Quebec as a whole. We distributed 30,000 copies of our newspaper. No opening was overlooked.
We soon felt the positive impact of this demonstration of strength. Svend Robinson, a star MP for the NDP, came to visit me in Mercier and gave me his support. In the PQ, uneasiness turned to panic, especially because a part of the executive of the local riding association came over and joined our camp. The new premier, Bernard Landry, visited the riding four times.
My objective was a modest one, when all is said and done: to allow a person identified with the left to emerge from the woods. In the end, with 24.2% of the votes, I came third, just behind the PQ and Liberal candidates. In a packed hall on election night the militants chanted the leitmotiv: “Unity! Unity!”
PB: Pierre Falardeau and others accused you of having “divided the vote”?
PC: At a meeting to support Yves Michaud, unjustly censored by the National Assembly for racist comments he had not made, the film producer Pierre Falardeau heckled me sharply, accusing me of having cleared the way for the woman running for the Liberals. I answered that the division had been created by the PQ by veering to the right. The left, quite simply, had the right to exist politically. We had our ideas, our proposals, and we wanted to defend them. No one, including the members of the PQ, had the right to censor us. We found that this mentality went very far. Some people who claimed to be on the left supported the neoliberal turn begun by Lucien Bouchard and continued by Bernard Landry and still later by Pauline Marois.
PB: After Mercier, there was momentum.
PC: There were lots of trade-union members who had participated in the Mercier campaign, above all from the Central Council of the CSN and the Regional Council of the FTQ. And there were popular groups like the FRAPRU.
The Union des forces progressistes was founded in June 2002, and François Cyr became its president. The new party united the RAP, the PDS, and the Communist party. All the patience and all the capacity of François were needed to get everyone to agree. Some activists in the regions, such as Pierre Dostie in Saguenay and Serge Roy in Québec played an important role in overcoming the divisions.
The UFP was the political organization in which I flourished the most, especially during the campaign in support of proportional representation, which resulted in 2003-2004 in a tour of all the regions, where I was received warmly. Once the UFP was founded, I thought I had done my share. I had known Amir Khadir since the Mercier election, when he joined us after having been a candidate for the Bloc Québécois. I saw what he represented. This guy is endowed with a political sense that few people possess. When the leaders of the Mercier association asked me if I intended to run again in 2003, I suggested to them instead that Amir be the candidate. I think he acts in a manner that corresponds to the ideal form of political action. When he speaks, you feel that it comes from the heart. He does not read a text. The results obtained by the UFP in that election campaign in 2003 were modest but it was no longer a time for defeatism, as it had been.
PB: Finally, Québec solidaire is founded.
PC: Meanwhile, the initiative of Françoise David was taking off. The idea behind Option citoyenne was to build a non-partisan political movement to see how citizens could invent something new. It was not long before discussions between the UFP and Option citoyenne began. They proceeded discreetly between Françoise David and François Cyr based on mandates from their respective executives. We held our breath. The feminism characteristic of Françoise was not present very much in the traditional culture of the left. On the question of Quebec independence, there were still some hesitations, but little by little things advanced. The Mercier example was always present in people’s minds.
In February 2006 we were ready. We had been patient, meticulous and respectful. The time had finally come. There were few debates, not even over the name that was obvious to everyone. Everyone was confident. The fusion of a citizens’ movement led by Françoise and the UFP, which had brought together the major share of the organized left, was a magical moment.
Of course, everything remained to be done. In the 2007 election, we achieved a modest but real breakthrough. Amir got more than 28% in Mercier. Things became serious. In 2008, a new advance, with the election of Amir; and later, in 2010, it was Françoise and most recently, in 2012, Manon Massé. That is not something to be sneezed at.
PB: Since then, you have become one of the “wise men” of Québec solidaire, you are not in the front line but not far.
PC: I think that Quebec is ripe for a new big project, but it won’t happen suddenly. There are no shortcuts, we saw this during the Quiet Revolution, which ripened over many years under the domination of Duplessis before bursting out everywhere. Today, since the student strike of 2012 and the citizens’ movement, which was a major breakthrough, we are further ahead but those who dream of a “great gettin’up morning” are mistaken. Popular organization is built step by step. Meanwhile, it is up to the new generations to take over. Which does not prevent me from having my ideas and expressing them.
I react, in particular, to the incendiary and aggressive comments of Pierre Dubuc, who thinks QS is a vast conspiracy against the PQ. He is almost delirious. Unfortunately, Dubuc and his sidekick Marc Laviolette of SPQ Libre have become the guarantee of an unconditional left for a party that has never stopped “neoliberalizing”
for many years. Faced with the rebuffs from the PQ leadership, they act somewhat like masochistic dupes. It’s a pathetic sight.
PB: Otherwise in QS, are there still many big battles to be engaged?
PC: For example, we have to fight for reform of the electoral system. The present electoral system makes no good sense from the democratic standpoint. A party “wins” elections with less than 30% of the votes, sometimes less! The electoral support for QS should translate into at least ten MNAs, not just three. We have engaged in some good campaigns with the Mouvement démocratie nouvelle. When there was a parliamentary committee on the subject, in 2006, it was estimated that 80% of the population favoured the introduction of some sort of proportional representation, as exists elsewhere (in Germany, for example). It wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but even so a step forward that would have allowed Québec solidaire, for example, to take off. In the end, the PQ, which had in fact put this reform on the table as far back as 1969, blocked it all. QS will have to continue this fight.
PB: How do you see the challenges facing QS now?
PC: The last election disappointed me, as it did most of my friends and comrades. In April 2014, we really thought we could get over 10% of the votes. We should not be discouraged for there is some progress, but it is too slow. If I had a magic recipe, I would bring it out! I think QS must become more rooted in the regions. Why shouldn’t some regional leaders be made spokespersons for the party on matters concerning their region? That would enable them to become known, and give some local substance to the party. Québec solidaire seems to me to be too centralized in its functioning. All the positions taken emanate from the central organizations, far from the people we want to convince. We address only the convinced militants.
Quebec is a country of regions in which identities are strong. There are networks, organization, institutions, that have a specific culture and that must be reached. For that, we just have to attract leaders in the regions and take seriously the idea that QS is also the project of the regions, in which we invest in the local, in the local struggles.
For example, QS should become deeply involved in the struggles that are taking place on the hydrocarbons front. Some militants are doing this, but rather as individuals. We have to do more.
On the other hand, it is not for QS to tell the movements and popular struggles what must be done. We have finished with that false model of an enlightened “vanguard.” Fortunately, I do not think our party has fallen into that trap so far. However, QS must be present in the struggles in order to support them, to establish links among the regions and among the movements. It is a discreet job, a basic one, that takes the first steps in a project that must become a second quiet revolution, nothing less!
This article originally appeared on Richard Fidler’s blog, Life on the Left.