We publish here a translation of the first of a four-part article on the history of the Parti Québécois written by Julien Arseneau, member of the editorial board of the Quebec Marxist journal and website, La Riposte socialiste.
The Quebec elections on Oct. 1, 2018 coincided with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Parti Québécois (PQ), which took place on Oct. 11, 1968. This election saw the PQ’s worst electoral defeat in its history, where the party received only 17.06 per cent of the vote and 10 seats. This historic defeat marks the end of an era, and the PQ could very well be in irreversible decline.
This anniversary is an opportune moment to revisit the party’s history in order to re-establish the facts about what the Parti Québécois really was, and about its relationship with the labour movement. In Quebec there is a nationalist mythology surrounding the PQ. This tends to mask the fact that the party has been, at various times, the tool of choice for the capitalists to impose austerity and attack the working class.
The Quiet Revolution
We cannot understand the role played by the PQ without going back to the context in which it was founded. The PQ was born in the most turbulent period in Quebec’s history, a period in which the working class took the centre stage and attempted to transform society.
It can be said that the Quiet Revolution began with the workers’ movements of the 1950s (Asbestos in 1949, Louiseville and Dupuis Frères in 1952, Murdochville in 1957). However, it was only with the Liberal Party of Jean Lesage coming to power in 1960 that the reforms of the Quiet Revolution would be put in place. In the 1950s and ’60s, the modern nationalist movement came into being. The slogan of the 1962 Liberals, “Maîtres chez nous” (“Masters of our own house”), resonated with the desire of the francophone masses to free themselves from national oppression and imperialist domination. The Liberals came to power surfing this wave.
It is often said that the Parti Québécois is the only “social democratic” party to ever come to power in Quebec. But in reality, the most significant progressive reforms in the history of Quebec were the work of the Liberal Party of Jean Lesage! The nationalization of hydroelectricity, the creation of the CEGEPs (a public network of colleges), the Université du Québec, and the new Labour Code, were just a few of the most significant reforms of the Lesage government during the first half of the 1960s.
Of course, the Liberals did not concede these reforms because of altruism or love of the workers. Workers had to actively fight to win the Labour Code. The nationalization of hydropower was primarily intended to stimulate the development of the private sector, particularly in the regions. Lesage claimed that it was not “the beginning of a general socialization campaign across Quebec” (Denis, 240). Paul Sauriol, journalist and author of the book La nationalisation de l’hydroélectricité published in 1962, explained that this industry would be “like a great school from which well-prepared leaders would emerge to take the lead of the industries that will be born in our country or will pass into our own hands as a result of the growing mobilization of our accumulated capital” (Denis, 239). Similarly, PQ founder, and later Quebec premier, René Lévesque explained in his memoirs: “The control of such a vast sector of activity, essential to the development of each of our regions, would it not constitute a real school of competence, this nursery of builders and directors we so badly needed?” (Lévesque, 234).
The crown corporations SIDBEC (steel), SOQUEM (mineral exploration), and REXFOR (forestry) were created in the first half of the 1960s. The Liberals also set up the Société générale de financement in 1962. This was a crown corporation which aimed to raise funds to finance Quebec businesses and reduce Quebec’s dependence on foreign capital. Then in 1965, the Caisse de dépôt et placement was created to invest the huge sums collected by the Quebec Pension Plan and the other Quebec government accounts. By massively buying bonds from the Quebec government, it reduced the domination of foreign banks. The Quebec state was thus used to stimulate the development of a Québécois bourgeoisie and to limit foreign capital in the Quebec financial market.
By the mid-1960s, the Quiet Revolution was at an impasse which was felt throughout society. The Liberals had managed to gain some support among the workers for their reforms, but these were still incomplete. The strikes and the workers’ struggles, which had not stopped despite the coming to power of the Liberals (strikes in hospitals in 1964, the lockout at La Presse the same year, the battle for the Labour Code also that year), proliferated in the mid-’60s. The Labour Code won by workers included the right to strike for public employees. In his memoirs, Lévesque commented on the Labor Code stating: “Concerning the rise of unionism, it was also in 1964 that we not only surpassed all the world, but perhaps even surpassed the limits” (Lévesque, 249).
The reforms of the Quiet Revolution created space for the development of a national bourgeoisie of Quebec, but they of course could not abolish the contradictions of capitalism. The return of economic crisis from 1965-1967 was particularly felt by the working class. Unemployment, having decreased from 9.2 per cent to 4.7 per cent between 1960 and 1966, rose from 5.3 per cent to 8.3 per cent between 1967 and 1972. The nationalist project of “Maîtres chez nous” was now dividing along class lines. Through their reforms, the Liberals aimed for class peace and the construction of a modern Quebec capitalist state, but the workers wanted more. The working class was increasingly moving to achieve its own emancipation. In 1966-67, for the first time there were more labour disputes in Quebec than in Ontario, even though Ontario had 200,000 more unionized workers at the time. Despite the advances of the Quiet Revolution, wages remained low.
As the working class took the path of independent action, the dead end of the Quiet Revolution was also reflected in other classes and within the political parties. On the sidelines of the major political parties appeared the Rassemblement pour l’indépendence nationale (RIN), a small independentist party to the left of the PLQ, founded in 1963. The leader of the Union Nationale, (a conservative nationalist party which ruled Quebec from 1944 until 1960), Daniel Johnson, suggested the possibility of an independent Quebec in his book Equality or Independence, published in 1965. After the Liberals were ousted from power in 1966, René Lévesque proposed sovereignty-association (political independence while maintaining an economic partnership with Canada) at the party congress in 1967. Finding himself in a minority at the congress, Lévesque left the party to found the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association (MSA).
Lévesque had become an extremely popular figure during the Quiet Revolution. After making his name as a journalist for Radio-Canada, he was the Minister of Natural Resources during the nationalization of hydroelectricity under Jean Lesage’s Liberal government. His personal popularity made the MSA a pole of attraction. In January 1968, Lévesque published the famous Option Québec, where he explained his idea of sovereignty-association. In his memoirs, he returned to this project: “The main lines were beautifully simple and there was a paradoxical added advantage that was far from revolutionary. In fact, it was almost banal. […] Above all, and more seriously, the notion of independence had been so dragged through the streets by the RIN, acquiring an absolute, rigid character from demonstration to demonstration as if independence were an end in itself, that the name was not much more, alas than an invitation to the riot squad!” (Lévesque, 288). Later in 1968, the MSA began negotiations with other pro-independence parties, the right-wing Ralliement national (RN) and, further to the left, the Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale (RIN).
In the end, the Parti Québécois was born from a merger of the RN and the MSA only. René Lévesque broke off negotiations with the RIN in the summer of 1968, after a rally on June 24 at which a riot broke out and Pierre Bourgault, leader of the RIN, was arrested. These events had been the ideal excuse for breaking off negotiations with a party that Lévesque considered too radical and combative (Lévesque, 310). As Lévesque himself explained a few years later, “we weren’t exactly eager to merge with them because of their image. Political realism was what we needed.” (Fraser, p.48). According to journalist and writer Graham Fraser, Lévesque had always wished there was a party on his left to attract the “idealists and ideologues who harassed him” (Fraser, 48), to avoid having them end up in the PQ.
Despite the RIN’s radical phraseology and its combative actions on the ground, it would dissolve itself a few weeks after the founding congress of the PQ of October 1968, and encourage its members to join the party of René Lévesque.
The PQ and the unions
The PQ was founded in a period of increasing radicalization among the Quebec working class. What role did the PQ play in this process? What did the creation of the PQ represent?
Since the awakening of the labour movement in the 1950s under then-premier Maurice Duplessis, one of the burning issues of the movement was independent political action of the working class. The idea of founding a workers’ party in Quebec was popular, and corresponded to a general movement in this direction in English Canada. This push led to the founding of the NDP in 1961, but that party’s reverence for the Canadian federal state—and the Anglo-chauvinism among some leaders of the Canadian labour movement and the NDP—disgusted its Quebec activists and fueled their nationalist sentiments. The Quebec NDP finally split in 1963, leading to the formation of the Quebec Socialist Party (PSQ) independent of the NDP. According to Pierre Vadeboncoeur, an activist for the PSQ, this party was meant to fight for a “socialism for the Québécois.” He said that only an independent party could “effectively promote socialism in the province.” But this split did not bring the movement forward one step. Without support from the unions, the PSQ was a flop and the party quietly dissolved in 1968. The division of the labour movement along national lines was a crime of which we are still experiencing the repercussions, as Québécois workers are still without a party of their own.
Meanwhile, workers had become radicalized and labour disputes become more and more violent. The Quebec state had become much more uncompromising with respect to the labour movement, particularly with the return of the Union Nationale to power in 1966. For example, in February 1967, Bill 25 in practice eliminated the right to strike for teachers unionized with the Centrale de l’enseignement du Québec (CEQ, the main teachers’ union), and imposed working conditions on them. Then in September and October, the 6,500 public transit workers in Montreal went on strike, which also ended with back-to-work legislation in the form of Bill 1.
In this context, the question of a workers’ party arose once again. In the midst of these events, the Confederal Bureau of the Confédération des Syndicats Nationaux (CSN) set up, in September 1967, a Central Committee of Political Action to give a voice to workers “outside the traditional parties.” At the FTQ convention in October, working councils were invited to set up political action committees, and a resolution was passed to organize conferences with other progressive movements in order to potentially lead to the “regrouping of leftist forces in the province within a provincial party of the people.”
Unfortunately, these initiatives did not succeed. In October 1970, the Front for Political Action (FRAP) ran in the municipal elections in Montreal. The FRAP, supported by the CSN’s Montreal Central Council, was in a way the beginning of a workers’ party. However, these elections took place a few weeks after the October crisis and the assassination of Pierre Laporte by the FLQ. The mayor of Montreal, Jean Drapeau, directly associated the FRAP with the FLQ, calling it a “cover” for the terrorist group. The FRAP received only 15.6% of the vote, and internal crises would lead to its dissolution in 1974.
The radicalization of the workers’ movement led it to criticize the capitalist system as a whole. The unions put socialism on the agenda, as evidenced by the radical manifestos drafted by the three main federations: Ne comptons que sur nos propres moyens (Rely only on our own means) by the CSN in 1971; L’État, rouage de notre exploitation (The State, Cog in Our Exploitation) by the FTQ in 1971; and L’école au service de la classe dominante (The School at the Service of the Ruling Class) by the CEQ in 1972. Jean Cournoyer, then-minister of labour in Robert Bourassa’s Liberal government, was not surprised by this phenomenon. “The nationalist movement was ripe to acquire a class character,” he said (Auf Der Maur, 92). The movement culminated in April 1972 with the general strike of the Common Front, which took on quasi-insurrectional proportions in May of the same year.
As workers entered the political arena and directly attacked capitalist interests, the PQ attempted to create a broad coalition that included all classes to achieve Quebec’s sovereignty. These two movements were heading in opposite directions.
Thus, the rise of the PQ made it possible to cut short the rising radicalization. During the general strike of May 1972, the PQ declared: “To all union members, especially those who are members of the Parti Québécois, we urge you to not put in jeopardy, with an insoluble and self-destructive crisis, all the chances, which get closer every day, for the true political and social renewal that so many of us have worked for in recent years” (Piotte, 106). The PQ wanted the labor movement to focus on the “true political and social renewal” embodied by… itself!
The PQ was never a homogeneous organization. Particularly in the 1970s, there was constant tension between the leadership of René Lévesque and the left of the party. The latter was embodied by people like Robert Burns, a former trade unionist who considered himself a socialist. An example of this tension was at the demonstration in support of the locked out La Presse workers on Oct. 29, 1971. Burns was among the PQ members who wanted the party to participate, while Lévesque opposed it. In the end, the PQ executive decided against participating.
It was following this demonstration, which was brutally repressed by the Montreal police, that Lévesque said he would “rather live in a South American banana republic than in a Quebec dominated by the ranting and raving of labour leaders.” (Auf Der Maur, 110).
It was a very conscious decision that the PQ did not forge organic links with the labour movement and the unions. Indeed, Lévesque, Jacques Parizeau, and the party’s “technocrat” wing did not want to undermine their image of moderation and responsibility by associating themselves organically with the unions (Tanguay, 178). In 1972, Lévesque passed a resolution that said: “With union members and their organizations, we share a fundamental goal of changing and humanizing the social and economic situation. […] But we must never lose sight […] that our time frames are not the same, our methods either, that their approach is essentially demanding while ours is essentially persuading […]” (Bernard, 117) Lévesque argued that having no connection with the unions allowed the PQ to be “the government of everyone, without ties” (Ibid.). History would show that having no attachment to the labour movement meant having ties to the bourgeoisie.
Was the creation of the Parti Québécois progressive? The progressive nature of the PQ at its beginning is today often presented as self-evident. During the recent election campaign, the leadership of Québec solidaire itself drew parallels between the rise of QS today and the rise of Lévesque’s PQ in the 1970s. But was the PQ really progressive?
In relation to the tasks of the workers’ movement, to create their own party and to fight for socialism, the creation of the PQ represented a step back. The creation of the PQ cut short the formation of a genuine workers’ party in Quebec. The PQ did have a program containing reforms, which made it all the easier for it to prevent the formation of a workers’ party. But as the workers’ movement became more radical and revolutionary, the moderate and class collaborationist approach advocated by the PQ was all the more reactionary. Over the next 50 years, the PQ would use its authority as the leader of the nationalist movement to woo the workers, in order to more effectively attack them and destroy the revolutionary traditions that had taken root.
The Quiet Revolution had paved the way for the creation of a francophone bourgeoisie, and the PQ wanted the Quebec capitalist class to definitively become “master of its own house” by achieving independence. The PQ’s political project aimed to finish what the Lesage Liberals had begun. Jacques-Yvan Morin, who was the parliamentary leader of the PQ before Lévesque had a seat, explained this to the Montreal Chamber of Commerce in 1974:
“The business community has everything to gain by exiting a regime that leaves Quebec entrepreneurs and financiers with only a small slice of economic activity […] Quebec industrialists, entrepreneurs and financiers, relegated by the current system to a secondary role, will be able, in sovereign Quebec, to fully play their role as agents of development.”
Was this result inevitable? It is undeniable that the PQ, since its arrival on the political scene, has been a pole of attraction within the francophone working class. It managed to channel the anger of francophone Quebec workers, their hatred of oppression and the capitalist federal state. Much of the responsibility for this lies with the leaders of the labour movement who had stopped fighting for a workers’ party and by the 1970s all supported the PQ, directly or indirectly.
The FTQ was the first major federation to openly support the PQ. Ahead the 1976 elections, it adopted a resolution at its December 1975 convention which, although it explained that the PQ was not a workers’ party, gave the PQ its support in a “critical and tactical” manner (Louis Fournier, 119). Louis Laberge, president of the federation, said in a speech at the congress that the PQ was a popular and social-democratic force, and that the creation of an exclusively workers’ party would be “untimely and premature” (Louis Fournier, 121).
For the CSN, their position was covered in a radical veneer, but they still ultimately called for a vote against the Liberals, and therefore for the PQ. This was put forward in their report on the Bourassa government:
“Given, once again, that we are facing different bourgeois parties, parties that the workers do not control and who do not defend their demands, we believe that workers must vote according to an essential criterion: to make sure that the balance of power of organized workers is in the best possible situation after the election” (Le Devoir, November 3, 1976).
Since this time, it has almost become a tradition for union leaders to call for a vote against the Liberal Party, if not for an outright vote for the PQ.
This was not the first time the union leadership had effectively endorsed bourgeois parties. With the rise of Jean Lesage’s Liberals in 1960, the leadership of the FTQ and the CSN had called, in one way or another, for workers to support the Liberals, and had put the project of a workers’ party on the back burner. The movement was therefore disarmed when the Liberals put the brakes on reforms in the mid-1960s. The support for the PQ led to the same result in 1982-83 when the PQ attacked public sector workers.
In part two, we will cover the first two terms of the PQ government, the first referendum and the attacks of René Lévesque against the working class in the early 1980s.