For twenty years, the Bloc Quebecois dominated federal politics in Quebec. As in provincial politics, the national question loomed large over all other concerns, and this seemed a permanent feature of the reality in the province. The NDP attempted to establish a foothold here, beginning with the election of Thomas Mulcair in Outremont in 2008. The mainstream pundits and analysts were convinced that the NDP was fooling itself in the province, and nothing would change. But in this election everything did change, suddenly, and all the old assumptions have been turned on their heads.
Now the analysts are confused and completely lost, because they imagined the social and political situation in Quebec to be frozen in time: their assumptions floated disconnected from any sign of change or development in the situation. This is their method. The Marxists, on the other hand, look behind first impressions and attempt a real analysis of the developments in society. This event may have been an earthquake, but every earthquake is the result of tensions accumulated below over a prolonged period of time. What forces led to this event?
On December 15th, 2010, Chantal Hébert wrote a commentary in the Toronto Star titled: “Liberals, NDP deluding themselves in Quebec”. The premise of the story was that the demise of the Liberal party in Quebec was not likely to lead to meaningful gains for the New Democratic Party, and that the Bloc would continue sitting comfortably ahead in the polls. She acknowledged, of course, that even at that point, the NDP was in second place behind the Bloc, with the Liberals a distant fourth, but thought this would not bear any fruit. This was despite the fact that a second place position for the NDP was completely new in Quebec, a sign to pay attention and carefully study the situation. But in her mind, the Liberals and the NDP would simply eat away at each other, and the Conservative Party would be the only beneficiary. The only solution she offered, of course, was that the NDP must merge with the Liberals:
“Moreover, no party leader is eternal and there is no telling whether Layton’s successor will be able to keep the Quebec torch alight. Two decades ago, Broadbent worked equally tirelessly to ignite a modest NDP flame in Quebec only to see it doused in the election that followed his retirement.
“Meanwhile, the fact that the Liberals have joined the NDP on its habitual treadmill to nowhere is the antithesis of a moral victory.”
This is how mounting evidence of a changing reality was casually brushed away by a mind blinded by “pragmatic” lenses. Only that “pragmatism” and “realism” turned out to be the least realistic of all outlooks. History punishes those who would dare attempt to chain it, and attempt to freeze it in time, never to change. In this case, it took six months for that hubris to be demolished.
A superficial glance at society tells us nothing. Underneath all of the things that are normally taken for granted are hidden processes that are at work. Processes which unfold unseen, only to express themselves suddenly, as in this federal election.
Elections are merely a snapshot, and without being placed in context in the turmoil that characterizes our epoch, this election is inexplicable. All the bourgeois analysts, of course, are stumped, precisely because they cannot see what really lies beneath the surface.
Bloc Quebecois says “Talk about Quebec!”; workers say “Talk about healthcare!”
Nationalism is in crisis in Quebec. Its leading light, Bloc founder and former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard, sounded the trumpet for right wing federalists as well as sovereigntists: to unite around an austerity program to shed “the culture of entitlement” in Quebec. All of them can agree that the Quebec workers need to be taught that they are entitled to nothing. This is the thrust of his manifesto “pour un Quebec lucide”.
But by bluntly raising the question that most needs to be resolved for the capitalist class, he also brought into the open the class divisions in Quebec society — divisions which cut across the national question. In recent years, most Quebecois have labelled themselves as “between” nationalism and federalism, an indication that workers too were prioritizing the class question. This return of class issues to the forefront is the key to the election results, and the strength of the NDP.
In this election, the Bloc resorted to old and tested methods, whipping up the national question to hold back the rise of the NDP’s orange wave. In fact, Gilles Duceppe pulled out every nationalist trick, to no avail. He went to the congress of the Parti Quebecois, and hand in hand with PQ leader Pauline Marois, declared the election a first step in a three-step road to independence. The first step was to be the election of the biggest Bloc contingent in Ottawa yet. The second would be the election of a majority PQ government in Quebec, finally followed by a victorious referendum. In this way he brushed aside any illusions some may have had that the Bloc was any different from the hated PQ, which has carried out some of the worst cuts in Quebec history when in government.
This display of desperation by the Bloc culminated in Gilles calling on former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau to campaign, that racist who blamed immigrants for the loss of the 1995 referendum. And finally, Gilles Duceppe declared that the election was not a battle between “left and right”, but between “Quebecois and Canadian”. Yet the Bloc sunk all the faster the more rabid the nationalist proclamations became. The Bloc’s appeals failed because of the general crisis of confidence in nationalism.
For the mass of Quebecois workers, the struggle for national liberation was never a fight to replace a belligerent anglophone boss who refused to address them in French with a belligerent francophone boss who fired them in their own language – but this is the only tangible, concrete result the nationalist movement has offered them over the past decades.
And now that movement is decomposing.
Sovereigntists and federalists, united in the attack on workers of all languages
In recent years, the founder of the Bloc, Lucien Bouchard, has put forward the same proposals as the former leader of the federalist “No” campaign during the last referendum – current Quebec Premier Jean Charest. Bouchard also happens to be the last elected PQ premier. They both agree that the real issue is “teaching” Quebecois workers to expect less from life, that they are not “entitled” to affordable education for their children, that they are not “entitled” to free healthcare. That, especially in this recession, there is no longer any money for the social services they fought so hard for and won over the last decades. Anglophone, francophone, sovereigntist or federalist, Quebec’s ruling class are all agreed on a savage program of cuts for regular Quebecois as the only way to “save” Quebecois capitalism. That includes Jean Charest’s idea presented in his last budget: that Quebecois should pay for every doctor they visit. That idea has since been retracted, but the premier is clearly waiting for a more favourable moment to implement it, and the debate cannot be put back in the bottle.
In this atmosphere, how can a blind appeal for “our own country”, and “let’s talk about Quebec” inspire any confidence in the ranks of the workers, hit so badly by this economy? Our own country? Or Jean Charest’s and the Bombardiers’? How about Bachand’s and Bouchard’s? Or Pauline Marois’ and Francois Legault’s? Or maybe the country of Tony Accurso, the mafia businessman whose tentacles extend into every bourgeois party in Quebec, and even to the Harper cabinet?
Victims of the class struggle which they failed to see under the surface of the struggle for national liberation, the Bloc sabotaged themselves by appealing for all to fall in rank behind Pauline Marois to the promised land of an independent Quebec. Their very slick ads featured Duceppe and a group of Bloquistes in suits around a board room table calling on people to “talk about Quebec”. Somehow, this image illustrates very well why this campaign was an utter failure.
No. The workers of Quebec were not inspired by this appeal from their own ruling class. They did not follow, but neither did they follow the ruling class based in Ontario, Alberta and the rest of Canada. Lucien Bouchard and his tribe called for unity amongst the capitalists, whether federalist or sovereigntist. As the mirror reflection of this call, it is no coincidence that Quebecois workers were attracted to the traditional mass party of the Canadian anglophone working class. For the first time ever, Quebecois workers didn’t vote with ‘their’ bosses. For the first time in three decades, anglophone and francophone Quebecois voted for the same party, and this time, it was the party of the working class.
This election, we instead saw the first significant opportunity to build class unity and a practical internationalism founded in a common struggle to defend our standards of living against the coming attacks. This was neither an embrace of capitalist federalism, nor an outright rejection of independence: it was the healthy instinct of a united fight back regardless of nation or language.
Those who have forgotten history mourn the collapse of the Bloc in this election. But we must understand the historic turning point and the events surrounding the rise of the Bloc Quebecois in order to judge it (and those sectarians who endorsed it during this election). This is also the first step towards understanding if it is gone for good.
The end of reforms and the crisis of the 80s
The post-war boom, and the golden age of capitalism it funded created a Canadian equivalent of the “American dream”. These were illusions with a basis in reality. The capitalist class had room to maneuver due to a huge boom with minor dips. Rather than fight hard to keep living standards low, and risk social friction which could lead to class uprisings, the capitalists across the industrialized world more easily gave way to demands from working class movements, and gave concessions which represented a very tangible rise in the living standards of working people.
In Quebec, this period began with the Quiet Revolution. The province underwent a real transformation from a banana republic under Duplessis to an industrialized economy with a sizeable welfare state and large social concessions: the Universités du Quebec, the CEGEP college system, the Metro, Hydro-Quebec, social housing, the Quebec pension plan, etc. But this period of extravagant spending could only exist because of the boom that paid the bills. The height of the boom in Canada was in 1962, with an annual GDP growth of 7.1%. This is unheard of by today’s standards, when the capitalists would be ecstatic over a meagre 2% growth, but the entire period was marked for similarly high growth numbers. The boom allowed Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau to go so far as raising a new island from the depths of the St. Lawrence river during Expo 67. The reforms also allowed the federal Liberal party to dominate Quebec for all but one election in the period, particularly in the Pierre Trudeau years.
But the world boom ended in spectacular social explosions in the 70s as the party came to an end. 1972 saw a revolutionary general strike in Quebec, as the capitalist class made its first determined attempt to take back what had been given. At the federal level, Trudeau gave way to Mulroney in 1984, the local expression of a generalized trend across the world of a capitalist class shifting to large-scale attacks on the social reforms: Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Ronald Reagan in the USA, and a whole slew of local copies elsewhere in the western world. By 1982, Canada was in full-blown recession with annual GDP growth of -2.9%.
Throughout the 1980s Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives picked up the majority of seats in Quebec. The Quebecois capitalist class which had arisen from the quiet revolution and the René Lévesque years really showed their character for the first time here. In 1984, Parti Quebecois premier and founder René Lévesque endorsed a policy to shift towards a “conciliatory” approach towards the federal government, and put secession on the back burner. This provoked a crisis which led 20 PQ Members of the National Assembly to quit the party, and eventually forced Lévesque to resign. But the crisis in the PQ reflected that the province’s capitalist class was maturing and realizing its own interests. Interests which coincided with the Mulroney government’s, but clashed with those of Quebecois workers, particularly in the context of a recession.
Many PQ supporters endorsed the conservatives, including Lucien Bouchard, who joined the government. Bouchard and other sovereigntists in the Conservative Party played a major role in this blue wave. In return, Mulroney made some noises about reopening constitutional discussions to “represent Quebec’s interests”, something which gave cover to these sovereigntist Conservatives. Under Mulroney’s rule for the next nine years they carried out the agenda of Canadian big business, signing on to NAFTA, privatizing crown corporations such as CN Rail and Air Canada, and creating the Goods and Services Tax (GST).
This caused a massive backlash from the working class in Quebec, which put immense pressure to bear on bourgeois politicians in the province, opening cracks in the two ruling parties. It was from the Quebec wings of both the Liberals and the Conservatives that the Bloc Quebecois was formed.
The Bloc Quebecois was an expression of the general political turmoil created by this historic turn. The crisis had its effects within the ranks of the bourgeois parties, which have their own interests which only in the final analysis reflect those of the capitalist class. But there are other pressures on the capitalist politicians, beyond the needs of their class. Most important amongst them is the pressure of a fat salary doled out to every parliamentarian, which requires that one remain a parliamentarian after the next election. The objective needs of capitalism are one thing, but the massive unpopularity of the programme of cuts can cause strains amongst the representatives who are expected to carry it out. When their right to perks and privileges is endangered, they too reflect the crisis in society, in a distorted way.
The Bloc of francophone Conservatives and Liberals jump ship
It is this pressure which caused a fissure in the traditional parties of Canadian capitalism, particularly in Quebec, where the resistance was strongest. The constitutional crisis of the Mulroney years and the Meech Lake accord was nothing but an expression of this infighting at the top caused by the turmoil below. The Bloc was created by the Quebecois capitalists, Conservatives and Liberals, under pressure from working class discontent in the province, and was a safe bourgeois channel for that anger. They have never been ‘progressive’ or ‘social democratic’. They broke with Mulroney, not because they themselves had any fundamental disagreement with the attacks, but because honour amongst thieves can only hold so long as the booty is plentiful. As soon as there is trouble, it is every man for himself. They found a way out and took it: they were able to use the national question to distance themselves from the target of the masses’ anger. They capitalized on the building thirst for an alternative, and the new party successfully delayed the real change that thirst could have led to.
Gilles Duceppe, a unionist, was the party’s first elected MP, elected in a by-election in 1990. But he was a lone unionist and was not amongst the main founders. Those founders included Bouchard, the former Conservative minister in Mulroney’s cabinet, who split to form the Bloc Quebecois after the failure of the Meech Lake accord. In 1993, the Progressive Conservatives were destroyed at the ballot box, collapsing to two seats. Those who got out while they could, the Bloc, took a majority of the seats in Quebec.
The Conservatives who split to form the Bloc jumped ship in the final years of this extremely unpopular government, and it is no accident they needed unionists like Gilles Duceppe to present a more acceptable face to Quebecois workers. Anger over the Meech Lake accord alone would not have been enough to hide their essential role in the massive attacks carried out by the government they were a part of, and helped bring into being. In his second term after 1988, Mulroney could have implemented nothing and could not have held his reduced majority without the Quebec caucus.
The Bloc used the national question to win over the trade union leadership in Quebec, who played the same role as the AFL-CIO plays in American elections. That is to say, the resources and the best activists of the labour movement were put at the service of a party that the unions had no control over. What did the money and effort of the trade unions gain them? Not a single seat at the congresses of this party was reserved for the unions to intervene and vote on behalf of their membership. The endorsement of the unions gave plenty to the Bloc however: as a result they were able to present themselves as “Social-Democrats”, bury their past deeds, and survive the storm which destroyed the Mulroney Conservatives they abandoned.
But the Bloc’s rise was not inevitable. This discontent with the Conservative government could have been capitalized on by the New Democrats. In the late 1980s Ed Broadbent’s NDP had become quite popular, with some polls showing them in first place federally, with strong numbers even in Quebec. However, the federal election in 1993 saw the NDP collapsing to less than 7% of the vote and just nine seats, losing official party status.
The NDP failed to capitalize on the opportunity, despite the intense hatred for the Conservatives, as well as a Liberal party which did not exactly attract enthusiasm during the Mulroney years. There are two main reasons for this failure, and the subsequent historic collapse in NDP support.
“Rae Days” are not forgotten
One reason begins with the landslide election of the first NDP provincial government in Ontario history in 1990. Bob Rae came to power on a wave that cannot be taken separately from the wave of NDP support across the country.
Working class people in the country’s most populated province placed their hopes in the party of the unions and had high expectations. This was directly linked to the general attacks carried out by the Conservatives, who were attempting to make Canadian workers pay for the economic crisis. Especially in the midst of Conservative austerity, the NDP had a huge opportunity to fight back, and prove that we really do have a choice between cutting standards of living to save capitalism and cutting capitalism to save standards of living.
Instead, Bob Rae told workers that there was no choice, and forced austerity measures onto civil servants, including mandatory unpaid days of leave (known as ‘Rae days’). According to the NDP’s constitution it is a socialist party. But that is nothing but some ink on some paper. And if it remains that way instead of being a real goal of replacing capitalism with a rational economy to the benefit of all, then Bob Rae was right: there is no choice within this system but the most savage cuts to save it.
Because the NDP did not fight clearly for socialism, they were forced to fight clearly for capitalism, and were punished massively for it, lasting only one term in that province.
Having failed their first test in Ontario, the NDP was a burnt party in the eyes of the working class: in Ontario and everywhere else the party was no longer seen as a real alternative to the austerity represented by the Conservatives or the Liberals. Bob Rae went on to join the Liberal party, were he belongs, and now leads it. But it is the NDP that carries the stigma of his betrayals. The effects of this are still felt today, and the memory seriously held the party back in Ontario in this most recent election.
In relation to Quebec, with the example of the betrayals of the Bob Rae government at their doorstep, the Quebecois workers were an easy target for the capitalist politicians in the newly formed Bloc Quebecois, and this played a role.
The second reason is the party’s fractious history in Quebec.
Le Parti de la démocratie-socialiste du Québec
It is little known now that the NDP once had a vibrant wing in Quebec, though it only twice elected a member of parliament, long before Thomas Mulcair was elected in Outremont in 2008.
In the days of Tommy Douglas’ Cooperative Commonwealth Foundation, before the merger with the Canadian Labour Congress, the CCF in Quebec briefly succeeded in electing David Côté in the riding of Rouyn-Noranda in 1944, but this was its first time. It also later briefly elected Phil Edmonston as the NDP in 1990 in Chambly, only to lose the seat again in 1993, when he refused to run again as a result of disagreements over the national question. Until the founding of the NDP, the party carried the name of le Parti social démocratique du Québec and had the support of the Fédération des Travailleurs et Travailleuses du Québec.
In stark contrast to today, back then the FTQ was very forward thinking, leading the charge for the formation of parties by the unions themselves, at all levels: municipal, provincial and federal. When the merger with the CLC occurred and the NDP was formed, the FTQ was essential in the formation of the Nouveau parti démocratique du Québec. The federal and Quebec parties would develop in different directions in the turbulent Mulroney years.
We have already explained that the attacks of the Conservative government provoked a huge backlash in Quebec, and that this would eventually play a huge role in the eventual breakup of the Conservative party and the formation of the Bloc. In the same period leading up to this, the NPDQ was polling high, just as the NDP was polling high across Canada. But the dynamic in the Quebec party was different. The party was not immune to the mood developing in the province, and saw an influx of members at the same time as its ranks were becoming radicalized.
The national question was a flash point. Some of the “lefts” within the party took it further, with the NPDQ congress in 1989 adopting a position that the 1982 repatriation of the constitution was not accepted by Quebec’s National Assembly. A resolution was adopted that a constituent assembly should be called to pass a Quebec constitution and then discuss a new federation with the Canadian state on a new footing, as separate states entering into the talks. Further, a non-binding resolution was adopted recommending that the NDP should be broken up, with the NPDQ becoming a completely separate party in a fraternal pact with the NDP.
We can and should be critical of the adventurism of the NPDQ leadership, who were advocating this division when what was needed was unity against the federalist capitalist state. But we should also be critical of the leadership of the federal NDP for not being able to win over the trust of the Quebecois rank and file.
Gradually, the leadership of the party was taken by a rag-tag group of independantiste leftists, including some who considered themselves Trotskyists. In 1989, the NPDQ and the NDP mutually agreed that the Quebec party would become independent. The NPDQ would run provincially and the New Democratic Party of Canada (Quebec) was formed to run federally. Bob Rae’s actions in Ontario, beginning in 1990, reinforced that divide between the Quebec party and the NDP, and definitely played a role in convincing some of the ranks that they were truly “different” from their brothers and sisters in Canada.
That same year, the Bloc ran for the first time in a by-election, in one riding, with Gilles Duceppe as their candidate. The NPDQ endorsed him and broke the entente with the federal party by calling on NDP candidate Louise O’Neill to withdraw to avoid “splitting the vote”. Today, one can perhaps react with a bemused look as leftists confuse themselves over their own nationalism and mourn the loss of this roadkill of history, forgetting that he was the office boy of Lucien Bouchard, a Conservative. But this was 1990, and it was quite clear what party this man’s leader came from, he had only just left its cabinet! The only vote splitting that happened in that riding was the split between different wings of the Conservative party, and none but the most blind of leaderships could have mistaken it for anything different.
This is when the federal NDP severed all ties and asked the Quebec party to cease using the name. After 1994 the NPDQ changed its name to le Parti de la Democratie Socialiste. Later it merged into l’Union des Forces Progressistes, Amir Khadir’s party. Eventually the UFP would merge with Option citoyenne, Françoise David’s party, and form Québec solidaire.
If the NDP had successfully put forward socialist solutions to meet the aspirations of workers and youth who had had enough of being squeezed by both provincial and federal Conservative/Liberal governments, this confusion and demoralization could never have set in. The discontent could have crystallized around the NDP and led to gains in 1993.
Instead, we were thrown down a blind alley for two decades as a result of the federal NDP leadership, the Ontario NDP bureaucracy and the adventurist and politically naive nationalist leadership of the NPDQ. They created the fertile ground for the Bloc seed to be planted, grow, and dominate election after election.
And since then, the FTQ has been endorsing the Bloc, rather than a party formed by the unions themselves.
Because of them, we have not had a trade union party in Quebec. This wouldn’t necessarily suggest a party that would represent us automatically, as in the case of the Bob Rae NDP, but with the involvement of the working class and our unions, could be pushed onto the road of struggle, as Tommy Douglas showed. Free healthcare could not have been won without it.
This historic detour is now coming to an end, and we are returning to the uncertainty which led to the formation of the Bloc in the first place.
Trade unions try, and fail, to mobilize for nationalism
Throughout the federal election campaign the Bloc, failing to stop the bleeding of support to the NDP with nationalist proclamations, put pressure on the trade unions to mobilize on their behalf. In the final three weeks of the elections, both the FTQ and the CSN came out in favour of the Bloc, trying to hold back the orange wave of the NDP. In a special meeting of its General Council, the FTQ voted overwhelmingly April 11 to endorse the BQ and mobilize the FTQ apparatus behind its campaign. They warned their 600,000 members about the “federalist centralizers” and appealed for Quebecois national unity behind the Bloc.
As with the bourgeois nationalist politicians, the working-class has tired of the nationalist demagoguery of their trade union leaders. With the real threat of a Conservative majority, they turned to the traditional party of the Canadian working-class, largely ignoring their trade union leaders. The complete disconnect of the Bloc from the Quebecois working-class was clearly seen at the trade union May Day demonstration the day before the election. The organized presence of the NDP throughout the demo stood out in comparison to the meagre presence of the Bloc. Gilles Ducceppe and Bloc ex-MP Daniel Paillé appeared briefly for 10-15 minutes, shook some hands, waved goodbye and left without anyone taking notice.
The leadership of the unions in Quebec is disconnected from the rank-and-file. Near the end of the election campaign, this chasm clearly became too much for their tastes. Michel Arsenault of the FTQ came out stating that they do after-all support some NDP candidates, as though his earlier statements did not exist at all. “We share many of the same values as the NDP, it is a social democratic party, and if a majority of Quebecers choose to align themselves with social democrats rather than with a party that promotes right-wing conservative values, that is quite comforting.”
A man in Arsenault’s position knows when to backpedal, and back the side which will ensure his career. This line, buried in a single newspaper article at the end of the campaign and released without much fanfare, speaks volumes about the situation in the unions. The leadership saw the writing on the wall, and prepared to jump ship from the Bloc, just as their one-time favourite Bouchard had jumped ship from the sinking Mulroney conservatives.
This gives us insight into the pressures building within the unions, where nationalism once had deep support, and signals that the situation is extremely favourable for the formation of a party based on the trade unions in Quebec.
Bourgeois nationalism’s grip loosens
The rise of bourgeois nationalism came with the failure of the 1972 Common Front general strike. Three union leaders, from the CSN, FTQ, and CEQ, spent a year each in jail after the defeat. During the strike, they had rejected overtures from the PQ, dismissing them as “technocratic petit bourgeois looking to use the state to become the new bourgeoisie”. We have analyzed elsewhere the causes and failures of the strike, which threatened the very foundations of capitalism and could have led to a revolutionary transformation. But what is essential is that after they failed to take power in their own hands, the unions turned towards the PQ, and towards nationalism.
Failing to resolve the problems of Quebecois society by itself, the working class was willing to give a new road a try. The promise of an independent country had a certain appeal to it, so long as there was an illusion that “things could be different”. Using the banner of the workers’ right to speak their language at work, without being humiliated by a boss who insisted they speak to him in English only, the PQ rallied support amongst the Quebecois working class.
But as soon as the petit-bourgeois and intellectuals who led the PQ cleared the deck of their anglophone competitors in Quebec with bill 101, they immediately stepped in to fill the vacuum. There developed a large francophone capitalist class, whose interests began to come more and more openly into conflict with the workers and youth whom they had inspired with dreams of a new country and their slogan of “masters in our own house”.
Nationalism’s crisis did not begin with the May 2nd election in 2011, but rather in 1984 with the crisis in the PQ and René Lévesque’s endorsement of Brian Mulroney. This was the new capitalist class openly expressing its own independent interests for the first time. Independent, not of the Canadian state, but of the working class whose support it had rallied to propel it to the heights of power.
They came face to face with the same economic conditions which forced other capitalists the world over to come into conflict with their workers: there was no more money for reforms. Quebecois nation or not, the market was the true sovereign. Over the next decades, though the process did not proceed in a straight line, the contradiction between their interests and the interests of the Quebecois workers has only grown.
Now, we have come so far as Lucien Bouchard’s declaration “pour un Quebec lucide”. This is the same Lucien who, in 1996, resigned as leader of the Bloc in order to become the premier of Quebec. He brought the union leaders into a “social pact” to achieve “zero deficit” in 1996 in the name of national unity, which allowed him to carry out cuts without an organized fight back.
This manifesto, published in 2005, described the terminal decline of Quebecois capitalism and prescribed a savage program of cuts and privatizations to “save Quebec” and restore “competitiveness”.
This was a lucid analysis of the needs of Quebec’s capitalist class. Its main ideas were tacitly accepted and acted upon by Finance Minister Raymond Bachand in his and Liberal Premier Jean Charest’s provincial budget. The doubling of tuition fees, the failed attempt to introduce a “moderating ticket” into the healthcare system (code for reintroducing cash registers to hospitals), and the attacks on public sector workers are all ideas borrowed from the program of the “Lucides”. Quebecois have seen in action what the “Lucides” are about. This manifesto was a call for sovereigntists and federalists alike, and shows they know their interests very well.
A single quote from this manifesto sums up quite well the psychology of the new francophone capitalist class who have been the main leaders and the main beneficiaries of nationalism in Quebec: “Another element that must be eliminated is the unhealthy suspicion of private business that has developed in some sectors. The emergence of this type of attitude is something of a paradox. For years, people deplored the fact that the Québec economy was run by English-speaking business people; today, French-speaking business people control our economy and they are roundly criticized, to the point where their motives are questioned if they contribute time and money to philanthropy.” Once francophone capitalists replaced anglophones, these new bourgeois expected the Quebecois workers to be happy with their new overlords, we are one nation after all!
More recently, within the PQ, we had Pauline Marois expelling the trade union club SPQ-Libre from the party and announcing the party would favour “individual wealth creation”, shedding the baggage of the social democratic myth of old.
Under these conditions, it is no wonder that nationalism did not save the Bloc during these elections. But the rumours of its death are greatly exaggerated. Just as it went through a crisis in 1984, only to regain some strength due to the failure of the NDP to capitalize on the anger against Mulroney, if the NDP does not provide a real answer bourgeois nationalism will be attractive once again.
Only internationalism can disarm nationalism
This election, the NDP approached the national question very vaguely, which played to its favour. But in the future, it will not be possible to simply muddle through. One of the traps the Bloc attempted to lay for the NDP during the elections revolved around the clarity act. This was a federal law passed in 2000, which placed limitations under which Quebecois could choose to secede.
It did away with the traditional notion of “majority”, 50%+1, and moved the goalposts by putting in place rules for a “clear majority”. In other words, even if 50%+1 of Quebecois voted to separate, the Canadian government would not recognize the result. Furthermore, the federal government would have to approve of the question asked. The NDP has always, as decided by its democratic institutions, opposed this undemocratic law. But the NDP parliamentarians have at times shamefully broken with the will of the party and its congresses and supported it, including Jack Layton in 2004.
During this election however, the NDP stuck to its official position against the clarity act, neutralizing an important weapon in the arsenal of the nationalists. The position presented was a step forward, in a vague way: respecting the right to separate, but arguing that the NDP wanted to create a federation which Quebecois would not feel the need to leave. Again, not stating how such a Canada would be different was passable this election, as workers were not looking too closely or asking too many questions. But the NDP will not receive such an easy ride in the future.
At some points during the campaign however, some ideas put forward, particularly by Thomas Mulcair, went further than diffusing the defensive mistrust of the Quebecois. Of course, every effort should be made to reassure the Quebecois workers that their brothers and sisters in the rest of Canada have no interest in oppressing them or forcing them to remain within Canada should they choose to leave. But the debate raised by the nationalists over languages of education in Quebec goes further than this.
The nationalists, in the recent period, have been focused on rich immigrants and anglophones sending their children to private English schools for a short period simply to qualify them for transfer into English public schooling. This is a loophole in the language laws which favour francophone schooling in public schools, and limit which students can study in English public schools. Unfortunately, the NDP has waded in on this question, supporting the same slogans of the nationalists, “close the loopholes”, “defend the french language”, etc…
While the beneficiaries of this particular loophole are for the most part the sons and daughters of the rich, the law itself is coercive, and anglophone workers feel pressured when the issue is raised. Marxists stand for the right to learn, speak and write in the language of your choosing. This law only reinforces the ghettoization, particularly in Montreal, of anglophone and francophone workers. It has created a society where children are raised in two separate environments from a very young age. If we want to know where Canadian chauvinism and Quebecois nationalism get their virulence, this fact plays the most pernicious role in reinforcing them.
Children are not born racist; they are born without hatred, whether over language, sex, colour, or anything else. But they enter school and begin to absorb the prejudices of their environment. This law creates a massive wall between anglophones and francophones from a very young age, and a real fear of the other is already prevalent within a few years of schooling.
For anglophones, that fear is further reinforced when the frenzy over “Montreal français” and limiting English schooling is brought up. Add to that the bureaucratic hoops one must go through to “prove” that your child is “anglophone enough” to go to be schooled in English, and you have a minority that simply feels it is being squeezed. According to the very people who push this agenda of francophonization of Montreal, it is close to 50% non-francophone. While a minority, this is a significant minority who are attacked by these demagogic campaigns. We must also mention the First Nations and Inuit groups living in Montreal and across Quebec, who must have language rights too.
Rather than give opportunist concessions to the nationalists on this question, the NDP should stand for unconditional freedom of Quebecois workers to speak their language at work, and to be able to choose their children’s language of education.
Language should never be a barrier to employment; workers who are required to learn a specific language for the job, be it French, English, Chinese or any other, should be paid by their employer for on the job language training.
At an earlier age, we should demand the complete abolition of language segregation. Students should study in a single schooling system, with all languages offered on the same campus. Schools with a significant presence of any language group, be it First Nations languages, Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, Chinese, English, French or any other language, should provide courses in that language as well. There is no reason why a student should not be able to arrive for his classes in the morning, attend a biology course in Arabic, a math course in French, and a history class in English. And not just in Quebec: Francophones and all linguistic minorities in the rest of Canada should have the ability to take courses in their own language within the mainstream education system.
In today’s modern world, we should be encouraging the free interaction of cultures, not limiting the number of languages a student can learn. The nationalists are even going so far as to raise the spectre of preventing francophone students from studying in anglophone colleges. What is the purpose of this? How does this help the Quebecois working class resolve their most burning issues?
It does not. If the NDP plays with this fire, it will be burnt. Much of the orange wave began on the island of Montreal, with its significant anglophone presence. Much of the victory the NDP achieved is based on the fact that anglophones, francophones and immigrants united behind it in a way that they could never have united behind the nationalists or the federalist chauvinists. This unity should not be destroyed by demagogic games with ethnic and language divisions.
The NDP must put forward a real answer to resolve these issues: only a voluntary socialist union can disarm the chauvinists on both sides and guarantee the rights of all workers, whatever language they speak.
After the elections, what way forward for Quebec solidaire and the NDP?
The ‘Orange wave’ of the NDP also caught Quebec solidaire off guard. The official position of QS during federal elections has traditionally been “anything but the Conservatives.” The mistaken view of the Bloc Quebecois as a progressive party because of their ‘sovereigntist’ roots caused confusion within QS. As the NDP wave grew, QS activists joined the campaign and supported the NDP, even as the official position of the party continued to be ambiguous. This position was a mistake, and QS should have thrown its weight officially with the NDP. Not just in words, but by mobilizing its members and organizing concrete support, in the same way as the PQ did for the Bloc.
One QS member, CUPE unionist Alexandre Boulerice, was even elected in Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie under the NDP banner. It is urgent now that the party discuss the question of the NDP. If the NDP, with virtually no prior organized base within Quebec society, can go from one seat to 59 seats in one election, how can Quebec solidaire do the same?
The elections have changed the political landscape of Quebec, and Quebec solidaire cannot afford to ignore this. Since May 2nd, support for the NDP has actually grown, from 43% to 49%: this was no flash in the pan. The party received 1,628,483 votes on election night, twice the vote of the closest party in votes, the Bloc. Now these new NDP supporters will need direction for the coming provincial election in 2012.
But the latest polls have left QS at a mere 12%. Quebec solidaire has not captured the momentum behind the NDP surge, a momentum that was motivated by a real desire for change. The NDP too, has made mistakes. While it has refrained from launching a provincial party in order not to compete with QS, it has never officially endorsed QS in a provincial election either. And the trade unions have tended to back the PQ provincially and the BQ federally, both parties that we have shown do not represent the interest’s of Quebec’s workers.
The coming austerity of the Harper government puts class struggle firmly back on the agenda. In Quebec, even the austerity we have already seen under the Bouchard and Charest administrations is no comparison to what is about to be unleashed upon us. Because of the strength of the unions in Quebec, which organize 39.8% of the working class, this process has until now proceeded slowly, and the bourgeois have been reluctant to push too far. But it is becoming more and more urgent from their perspective. This will be the defining characteristic of the coming period, and must define our response.
The way forward is clear, the trade unions must make a clean break with the parties of the capitalist class and together with the NDP and QS, must put forward a united front to mobilize a mass movement against the austerity.
Against bourgeois nationalism and bourgeois federalism, for an internationalist fight back against capitalism!
The bourgeois nationalists and federalists are in crisis. Precisely now, QS cannot afford to enter the next election with the tarnished banner of independence as its main slogan. Though nationalism is not dead in Quebec, it is clearly severely weakened. Workers are not currently looking to resolve the problems they face through secession.
Since the Common Front of 1972, the Quebecois working class has tried and tested both versions of the capitalist programme of cuts and attacks: nationalist and federalist. Since the failed referendum of 1995, both the leader of the Yes campaign, Lucien Bouchard, and the leader of the No campaign, Jean Charest, have had their turns as premiers to show Quebecois what they represented. Even the father of the clarity act, Stephan Dion, got his opportunity to be tested, as federal Liberal leader in 2008. The message from the workers of Quebec is becoming clear: “a plague on both your houses!”.
Neither bourgeois nationalism nor bourgeois federalism have meant any improvement in the lot of the working class. Neither inspire confidence in the ranks of the Quebecois workers at the moment. Whichever wing of the bourgeoisie has come to power, their programme has offered no way out. This is what is really behind the NDP victory. Quebecois workers are rejecting the old parties and looking for a new way forward.
This election is a historic opportunity for the working class to escape the old dynamic of trailing behind one wing of the bosses or another, and strike out on the road of independence. Independence for the working class from the parties of Capitalism, to put their own issues at the forefront through their own parties. It is an opportunity, but one that can also be squandered.
The burning questions facing Quebecois right now are the questions of jobs, healthcare, education and the attack on the standards of living of the working class.
This should be the main concern of all those who stand with the Quebecois working class, including the best activists of Quebec solidaire. We must elaborate a strategy to beat back the austerity which will be carried out by Prime Minister Harper, and the Quebec premier, be it Jean Charest or Pauline Marois. We must put this at the forefront above all else or risk missing the window of opportunity yet again and handing the momentum back to the Quebecois nationalists and Canadian chauvinists.
Francophone, Anglophone, and immigrant workers need a united front against austerity!
Only concerted mass action by the workers themselves can defeat the ruling class, as our brothers and sisters in Greece and across Europe are learning. This movement must embrace and mobilize all sections of our class, regardless of language or country of origin. Such a movement would build an unprecedented solidarity amongst all workers, regardless of language, ethnicity or sex. For those who think this unity cannot be built through the movement itself, we only need point to Tahrir square in Cairo, where christian and muslim workers who truly hated each other only a year earlier marched hand in hand. Muslims protected churches while the christian revolutionaries prayed, christians protected mosques while muslim revolutionaries prayed. This is the only true way to build brotherhood and sisterhood.
This movement also needs political representation in parliament and the national assembly. What has been missing in Quebec is the presence of a labour party, and we now have a historic opportunity: the trade unions, the NDP and QS can together provide workers with a united front to organize the movement and give it a political voice.
This would be an enormous first step forward. And if such a united front presented the mass of the working class with an inspiring programme worth fighting for, it would quickly set off another wave, bringing the vast majority of society into action against the plans of the bankers and their state to make us all pay for the crisis. If instead of austerity and cuts, and layoffs, and privatizations, this programme were based on free quality healthcare, free education, 100% employment, a livable minimum income, and an end to the wars, it would raise millions in struggle for a better future.
But it is no accident Bob Rae chose the road he chose: such a programme is impossible under capitalism, particularly when the heydays of the golden boom are long gone. The profit motive is incompatible with a programme that seeks to eliminate poverty, that seeks to provide for free what could be sold for a profit, be it health, medicine, education, public transport. Stephen Harper’s refusal to send troops to the Richelieu during the recent floodng, stating that the government does not want to compete with the private sector, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt what we already know: capitalism is incompatible with the well-being of the mass of society.
If the future we want to establish is in the programme set out above, the road to it goes directly through the overthrow of capitalism. Only by taking the control of the economy from the bankers and the largest capitalists and planning it democratically and rationally can society choose to use the wealth we create, not on profits for a few, but on the needs of society as a whole. This is true sovereignty! Democratic control over our futures, control over our economy, really, truly “Maitres chez nous!”.
Only then will we be able to put to rest the worries of any one section of the working class that any other is out to harm it. Together, in a future built on international solidarity and the mobilization of all of humanity’s resources for the betterment of all, we can build a voluntary socialist union of Quebec and Canada that we can be proud of, as the first step towards a socialist union of the Americas and a world socialist federation.