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Why Quebec Says No to War

Canadian Politics

Just over half the Canadians polled this past November strongly opposed missile defence. In Quebec, opposition to Star Wars was stronger by far: nearly two thirds were strongly opposed. This popular opposition, in addition to being co-opted by the Bloc Québécois, also managed to break the ice with the Liberal Party and won the support of the Quebec section of the federal Liberal Party.

On March 15, 2003, 250,000 Montrealers responded to the call from the “Échec à la Guerre” (Block the War) Collective. They marched through downtown crying out their opposition to the Washington’s war of aggression against Iraq. Elsewhere in Quebec, a further 40,000 people were mobilized. Many sectors of the Quebec population rejected this war and came out into the streets.

What accounts for the strong anti-war movement in Quebec? In our view, there is a direct relationship between the Quebec nation’s struggle for independence and various progressive, pacifist and anti-globalization struggles.

At the same time, the sovereigntist movement is subject to contradictions and opposing strategies, as in the issue of globalization, for example.

Nationalism and Class

Today, Quebec’s social movements define themselves around a movement for Quebec independence. Members of the trade-union movement are massively sovereigntist and define themselves as Québécois and in solidarity with the struggles of the people of the world. By way of contrast, Quebec’s bourgeoisie is massively federalist and defines itself as Canadian or French-Canadian, or defends the idea of multiple national identities. But when the question becomes political, their move towards the Canadian state is overwhelming.

National identity is stratified in Quebec. It is the product of national oppression and resistance to this oppression. Since the 1960s, a majority of francophones, and those immigrants who became integrated with the francophone majority, began to identify first and foremost as Québécois. But national oppression does not only produce opposition and resistance. It also produces disorientation and an identification with the dominant nation. Quebec francophones remain torn between multiple identities: the Canadian, French-Canadian and Québécois identities. This is even more so since the Canadian bourgeoisie’s strategy has not been one of exclusion, but rather one of assimilation of the French-Canadian elite.

The Quebec sovereigntist movement, led by the PQ, is constantly challenged by this contradiction. It is obliged to present itself as the defender of the national aspirations of Quebec if it hopes to retain its leading role in the sovereigntist movement. Yet at the same time, the PQ also seeks to maintain an economic and political partnership with the Canadian state and to be integrated into capitalist North America as part of NAFTA. The essential PQ illusion is that the Quebec nation’s struggle for independence can be realized without putting capitalism into question, remaining in the shadow of the state that has assured its oppression and with the support of the United States.

An Alternative Approach

Independence – as in a rupture with the federal state – is not part of the Quebec bourgeoisie’s program. Nationalist sectors of the Quebec bourgeoisie seek, at best, autonomy. Yet, sovereigntist aspirations remain and are an inspiration to the working and popular classes, as people link their national aspirations to social aspirations: a more just, more egalitarian and more united society.

Why? Because Quebec independence embodies working and popular class indignation against national oppression and exploitation by capital. The revival of mass struggle for a new society that is more equitable and more egalitarian will revive the struggle for independence. It is not surprising that, in the past few years, this rise in mass struggle and sovereigntist feeling has been concretized in the opposition to the imperialist American project of war. This opposition rests upon deep convictions among Québécois that a people’s fate cannot be sealed by a foreign power and against imperialist wars that violate the rights of peoples. Within the context of capitalist globalization, the strength of Quebec anti-war mobilizations shows that the redefintion of the Quebec national identity is not so much tied to a concept of common francophone roots, but more to rallying around an egalitarian social project, under which the popular majority struggles for its independence.

The strength of these mobilizations is reflected in the fact that the Quebec identity – despite nationalist factions that attempt to use this identity for other ends – aims to integrate egalitarian elements brought by different peoples of the world in the struggle against the capitalist system. One result is that the economic, political and social integration of ethnic minorities in Quebec happens through the struggle against exploitation, for the right to work and against discrimination in all its forms.

To struggle against economic marginalization is to struggle for full employment and for a massive reduction in the work week, without a drop in salaries. It means creating legal conditions that broaden access to unionization.

To struggle against linguistic discrimination is to define a true policy of French as the language of work for all businesses, particularly small businesses. The promotion of French as Quebec’s national language must seek the integration of all into a democratic, egalitarian and united society. In a pluralist society, a common language facilitates the participation of all in democratic debates.

In sum, to struggle for true national liberation is the opposite of nationalist efforts to smooth over class differences or to use the reality of different identities to preserve the status quo. To struggle for true national liberation is to place popular sovereignty at the heart of moves towards independence. And, within such a perspective, all hopes are permitted.

This article appeared in the May/June 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension (Fighting Harper).


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