Volume 38, Number 5: September/October 2004

The 2004 Election & the Left: Some Lessons from Quebec

A few thoughts on the June 28 federal election, focused on the Québec results and their implications for the Left in the Rest of Canada.

The Sovereignty Movement: Here to Stay

This was the fourth consecutive federal election in which the Bloc Québécois has emerged as the dominant party in francophone Québec. And the sixth consecutive election in which the federal Liberals, Canada’s “natural governing party,” failed to win a plurality–let alone a majority–among Québec’s francophone voters. The Bloc received 300,000 more votes than it got in 2000; rumours of its imminent demise proved greatly exaggerated.

Québec has produced nationalist splinter parties in the past: Henri Bourassa’s Parti Nationaliste, the anti-conscription Bloc Populaire in the 1940s and Réal Caouette’s rural Créditistes. But none had the longevity and popular support of the Bloc Québécois, not to mention the Parti Québécois. Throughout most of the twentieth century, until the 1980s, Québecers, as a minority people within Canada, tended to vote overwhelmingly with the party in power in Ottawa. That, the reasoning went, was how they could exert maximum influence within the federal system of government. Now, however, the myth of “French power” within the federal government has been largely abandoned.

One obvious explanation for this change in traditional voting patterns lies, of course, in the fallout from the unilateral patriation of the Constitution in 1982 and the failure to repair that error (Meech Lake, Charlottetown). The roots go much deeper, however. During the Trudeau years, many francophone Québecers were able to overlook his visceral hatred of Québec nationalism because his governments, initially at least, offered some real hope of improvement in their status within Canada through such things as the official languages policy and repeated (albeit unsuccessful) attempts to develop a made-in-Canada constitution that would be acceptable to Québec. But since the early eighties, federalism–now meaning the constitutional status quo–has been on the defensive in Québec. Federal politics in Québec now more closely resemble the alignments that have developed on the provincial level since the Quiet Revolution of the1960s, the PQ and now the BQ building on the ongoing strength of the pro-sovereignty sentiment.

Québec’s alienation from the federal regime in the wake of the Meech debacle triggered the collapse of the Tories, and has now, following the disclosures over the “sponsorship” campaign–with its contemptuous approach to Québec referendum laws and Québécois political allegiances–reduced the Liberals to minority government status.

NDP Hopes of Québec Breakthrough Dashed

The NDP’s vote in Québec, while increasing by 95,000, remained well below 10 per cent of the total. And some of its best scores were for candidates known for their pro-sovereignty views, like Omar Aktouf, a leader of the Union des forces progressistes (UFP). Until recently, Jack Layton and his Québec adjutant Pierre Ducasse had banked their hopes for big NDP gains on what they perceived as waning support for sovereignty and, with it, a decline and eventual disappearance of the Bloc–just as the PQ’s decline in the mid-eighties, when it dropped the sovereignty goal and embraced the “beau risque” strategy with the federal Tories, resulted in a brief surge in the provincial NDP’s Québec support. But when the PQ reoriented toward sovereignty under Jacques Parizeau, the Québec NDP collapsed; its remnants are now in the sovereigntist UFP.

The Québec national question has plagued the NDP from its inception. At its 1961 founding convention, attended by some 300 delegates from Québec, the new party adopted a position that recognized Québec as a distinct “nation.” Even then this was controversial; Eugene Forsey, then the research director for the Canadian Labour Congress, quit the party on the floor of the convention over that nod to reality. Within a few years, faced with the chauvinism of the party’s federal leadership and some key members, mainly Anglophone, in Montréal, most of the party’s supporters in Québec had left, first to form the Parti Socialiste du Québec, then to join the Parti Québécois or one of the groupuscules further to the left. Since then, with the notable exception of some goodwill earned by the party’s opposition to the War Measures occupation of Québec in 1970, the NDP’s support in Québec has been inversely proportional to the fortunes of the sovereigntist movement.

The party’s claim to support Québec’s right to self-determination has been constantly belied by its practice. In 1982, in the face of unanimous opposition from Québec’s National Assembly, the NDP parliamentary caucus supported Trudeau’s reform of the Constitution, with its Charter of Rights specifically designed to frustrate Québec legislation in defence of the French language. In 1992, the party campaigned for the Charlottetown Accord, rejected by a majority of Québec voters. And in 2000, its MPs voted with only two exceptions for the Clarity Act, Parliament’s arrogant declaration that it–and it alone–would decide whether Québec had a right to negotiate its exit from Confederation.

For a moment, during the recent campaign, it looked as if the federal NDP had finally got it: in Baie Comeau, Pierre Ducasse at his side, Jack Layton denounced the Clarity Act. But Layton’s statement was promptly denounced by both NDP provincial premiers and leading members of his parliamentary caucus. He quickly backtracked: the Act was “ancient history,” it was time to move on. And its repeal was not included in Layton’s conditions for possible support to a minority Liberal government.

The NDP’s 66-page platform had one sentence referring to the Québec national question: it called for “recognizing the fundamental differences that constitute Québec being a nation within Canada and working with Québec to obtain common objectives with equitable outcomes, with the option of Québec opting out of new federal programs with compensation to pursue common objectives and standards in a provincial program.” The emphasis throughout was on the need to enforce “common objectives and standards”–without even a hint of recognition that many of the planks in the platform are matters over which Québec has or seeks exclusive jurisdiction. Québec was treated as little more than a province like the others, albeit one requiring perhaps a bit more attention.

The source of these deficiencies is clear. Social democrats have a fundamentally benign and classless perspective on the capitalist state, which they view as the primary instrument and repository of progressive social policy. Québec’s national demands, by threatening the integrity of the central state, disrupt this perspective, even though Québec has in recent decades enacted some of the more progressive legislation in Canada in asserting and occupying its jurisdiction. The NDP’s Canadian nationalism effectively trumps Québec nationalism and subverts the party’s ability to relate to progressive grassroots social movements and activists in Québec who are in most cases supporters of a sovereign Québec. As the NDP’s record amply shows, the party’s entire political culture is hostile to Québec self-determination. It has more or less consistently tailed the Liberal conception of Canadian federalism.

The NDP’s indifference, misunderstanding and sometimes downright opposition in the face of Québécois national demands and aspirations (recall Ed Broadbent’s spurious claim, just prior to the PQ’s 1976 election victory, that French-language communication between francophone air crews and ground controllers jeopardized air safety) has tended to isolate it from some of the most dynamic and progressive forces in Québec society. And, as a direct result, its lack of support in Québec has undermined its credibility throughout Canada as a serious contender for government in the Canadian state.

Strategic Challenge for the Left

In English Canada, it is not just the NDP that identifies the defence and extension of social programs with preserving and strengthening the Canadian state. Virtually the entire Left and progressive milieu shares this perspective to various degrees, and often reveals a remarkable inability to relate to Québécois concerns.

A notable example of the contradictory dynamics in the two nations occurred in the 1988 struggle against the original Canada- U.S. Free Trade Agreement. The pro-capitalist PQ favoured the Agreement: free trade, it argued would guarantee access by a sovereign Québec to the U.S. market, lessen Québec’s dependence on Canadian markets and investments and limit the regulatory authority of the Canadian state. Québec trade unions were skeptical and opposed the deal. But nationalist-minded Québec trade unionists and social activists were unable to relate to a movement against the deal that framed its campaign as one in defence of “Canadian sovereignty” and even named its coalition the Pro-Canada (later Action Canada) network!

When Québec voters, under the influence of the still-pending Meech Lake Accord, helped to re-elect Mulroney’s Tories, leftists in English Canada could hardly contain their anger. It was the definitive breach for many who had found it easy in the 1970s to sympathize with the radical manifestoes then being published by Québec’s unions, which for the most part had not yet become overt supporters of independence.

The divisions and hostility generated in the 1988 FTA fight graphically illustrates the need for the Left to develop a strategy that could encompass Québec self-determination and independence with English-Canadian workers’ concerns and interests in a joint struggle directed against the common ruling class in the Canadian state. The failure to develop such consciousness and solidarity–replicated in both the major political confrontations (Meech, Charlottetown, the 1995 referendum, the Clarity Act) and the ongoing issues over language rights or the fiscal imbalance that strongly favours the federal government–is arguably the greatest single weakness of the working class in both nations.

Significant progress in developing such ongoing strategy and practice of solidarity would do much to help unions and grassroots social movements in Québec to see and develop progressive, classbased options independently of the current pro-capitalist leadership of the nationalist movement. In any event, it should be clear by now that there will be no anti-capitalist party with mass support in Québec that does not support Québec independence. Developing such a strategy is not an easy task, to be sure, but it is one that in my opinion the newly formed Socialist Project needs to address in the near future.

Its founding statement, a 4,500-word document, assigned virtually no strategic weight to the Québec national question, simply stating that “acknowledging Québec’s right to self-determination…means being prepared to facilitate sovereignty-association.” The election pamphlet, A Different Canada is Possible, acknowledged that “Québec has a wider claim to jurisdictional authority than other provinces” and urged the NDP to commit itself to “bargaining in good faith for a new constitutional settlement.”

The support for “sovereignty-association” or a “new constitutional settlement,” however, sits somewhat uneasily with the unconditional recognition of Québec’s right to self-determination. There is certainly no harm in holding out the possibility of a federalist constitutional arrangement that accommodates both nations on an equal footing. But the formulations, as they stand, appear to put the cart before the horse. What if Québec decides it does not want some form of constitutional “association” or “settlement” with Canada?

A more strategically oriented approach, in my view, would build on the UFP’s call for a democratically elected Québec constituent assembly to adopt a Québec constitution that would then be put to a popular vote. After all, it is Québec–a nation that is denied recognition as a nation under the Canadian Constitution, laws and courts–that has the right of self-determination, not Canada, an independent country.

Unlike the NDP, socialists do not equate the existing state structures with democracy, equality and progress. We have every interest in supporting the struggles of the Québécois for national independence, if that is their choice.

And we need to flesh out and implement a strategy that incorporates the right of self-determination in all its expressions. It cannot be confined to the formal issue of separation or federation. It must include day-to-day solidarity with the Québécois fight against all manifestations of national inequality and oppression, including the issue of language rights, repressive legislation, inequitable tax policies, etc. The recent columns by UFP leaders in Canadian Dimension and the joint production of the election pamphlet with the UFP comrades have been very positive initiatives toward beginning to develop this solidarity between anti-capitalist activists in both nations.

Richard Fidler is an Ottawa member of both the Socialist Project and the Union des forces progressistes (UFP).