By Richard Fidler. Once again, the Bloc Québécois has taken a majority of Quebec’s seats in the House of Commons — 50 out of 75, one less than in 2006, although down by three percentage points.
In doing so, it dashed Stephen Harper’s hopes of a Conservative breakthrough in Quebec that would deliver him a majority government in Ottawa. Working people throughout Canada heaved a sigh of relief.
The Bloc’s support is more than a rejection of the Tories’ right-wing policies. As Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe declared on election night, October 14, it is a clear demonstration “that Quebec is a distinct nation linguistically, culturally, socially and economically.” This was the sixth consecutive federal election since 1993 in which the pro-sovereignty Bloc has won a majority of Quebec’s seats under the first-past-the-post system.
Any credit the Tories may have won for their parliamentary vote in 2006 recognizing the existence of a “Québécois nation within Canada” has been dissipated by subsequent events revealing the superficiality of that non-binding motion. Even on the eve of the election, Ottawa made drastic cuts in federal funding to arts and culture programs in Quebec as elsewhere, undermining its claims to respect and foster Francophone culture. So strong was the reaction in Quebec that even Liberal premier Jean Charest, a firm federalist, came out publicly for transferring all control over culture and communications to Quebec jurisdiction.
Earlier, Parliament had rejected a Bloc motion to force federal government institutions in Quebec to comply with Quebec’s Charter of the French Language.
Ottawa continues to defend its alleged right to create and fund programs in areas that are constitutionally within Quebec’s jurisdiction. And during this election campaign, the Tories promised youth justice reforms that would jail 14-year-olds — a clear violation of Quebec’s rehabilitation-oriented juvenile justice system, which has helped the province achieve one of the lowest crime rates in Canada.
The Tory mocking of Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s English (when he had difficulty understanding a question put to him) was a painful reminder of anti-French chauvinism in the rest of Canada; as many Québécois noted, they welcomed Harper’s attempts to speak French although his mastery of that language is much less than Dion’s of English.
Such incidents, which may seem trivial to some, reflect an important underlying reality: Quebec, for all the progress it has made through educational reform, social programs, language legislation, etc., is still threatened by its minority status within Canada and its lack of control over key powers essential to its survival and development. It is an oppressed nation within the Canadian state. And in federal elections, the Québécois vote is strongly influenced by their consciousness of their vulnerability as a minority lacking even constitutional protection of their national rights.
As if to drive this point home, on the day after the election Harper threatened to proceed with plans for an elected Senate, which would further reduce Quebec’s weight and influence within the federation. It was a reminder that Quebec is becoming increasingly marginalized as a political force within Canada.
The Bloc Québécois platform, while proclaiming its support of Quebec independence, was essentially defensive, vowing to defend “Quebec’s interests” against “Alberta oil interests, Ontario financial interests” and “free of compromises with the centralizing left or doctrinaire right of Canada….”
NDP has little impact
As in past elections, the New Democratic Party was not a serious contender in Quebec, largely because of its perception as a Canadian nationalist party. Although its platform claimed to recognize “the national character of Quebec” and opposed federal spending on “new programs in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction”, its proposals on “Canadian federalism” were little more than bromides about such things as the “unique role and responsibilities of the Quebec National Assembly”. Among its “key priorities” were support for “Our Canadian Cultural Identity”, with no reference to the need to defend the French language and culture.
In fact, when Impératif français, a French language rights group, polled the federal parties on their views during the campaign, neither the NDP nor any of its candidates responded — while the Bloc provided detailed answers describing its own record and making concrete proposals for positive measures at the federal level.
The NDP undermined its own memberships’ convention resolutions in support of Quebec’s right of self-determination when its MPs voted in 2000 to support the Chrétien-Dion “Clarity Act”, giving Ottawa the power to override a Quebec referendum vote for secession. That decision, which shocked many Québécois, continues to block the party’s electoral prospects in Quebec. Its only victory this year was the re-election of one MP, an Anglophone ex-Liberal running in a multicultural Montréal riding.
The NDP in Quebec lacks the identification with the trade unions that it has in English Canada. The Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ), the largest union central, endorsed the Bloc and some Bloc candidates were prominent FTQ activists. A four-page pamphlet explaining the FTQ’s position stated that the choice in the October 14 election was “between two diametrically opposed visions of society”.
“Despite the nice words on the recognition of Quebec as a ‘nation’, none of the federalist parties in Ottawa — and especially not the Conservatives — has undertaken to entrench this in the Canadian constitution. Without that commitment, all the motions voted in Ottawa are just symbolic.
“The Bloc’s presence in Ottawa shows that English Canada is still not prepared to accept in fact that Quebec is a nation….”
Events in the last five decades have demonstrated over and over that Quebec workers, as they develop political consciousness, do so in a nationalist context that sees Quebec sovereignty as the framework for resolving their social problems. This has important implications for the left in both Quebec and English Canada.
Unable to build a strong base in Quebec, the NDP lacks credibility as a contender for governmental office in Ottawa. Conversely, the lack of a credible political ally in English Canada has seriously hampered the Quebec left’s ability to build a viable alternative to the nationalist but neoliberal Bloc. The result is a left in both nations that has no viable governmental perspective at the level of the federal state — notwithstanding NDP leader Jack Layton’s unconvincing claim that he was running to be prime minister!
Debate among Quebec socialists
These dilemmas were the subject of a lively debate during the election campaign among supporters of Québec solidaire, the fledgling left-wing pro-sovereignty party. (For a report on earlier stages of this debate, see http://tinyurl.com/3kpaye.)
Writing in the September 30 edition of the on-line journal Presse-toi-à-gauche (PTàG), <http://www.pressegauche.org/> Jean-Paul Pelletier put the issue clearly:
“I am well aware that a recommendation to vote for the Bloc does not lead straight to a unified progressive alternative in Quebec and Canada, as we would like. But does a call for an NDP vote do that, either? … We have enough trouble building an independentist left-wing party in Quebec; in addition, do we have to convince the Quebec working class to vote for a federalist and centralizing left party? …
“Federally, we need an alliance between an independentist left party based in Quebec and a left party based in the rest of Canada that truly recognizes Quebec’s right to self-determination and rejects the Clarity Act. But there is no such thing. This is the tragic history of two working classes that constitute two solitudes, that engage in struggles and develop their political consciousness in accordance with their own completely different dynamics.”
Pelletier said he would vote for the Bloc in order to defeat the Conservatives, but “without illusions” that it would provide real protection against neoliberal policies. A Conservative defeat, he said, might give us some needed time in which to organize resistance to the coming right-wing offensives.
André Frappier, in a further contribution to the debate, was more positive about the value of the NDP. In his view, the real task is “the construction of a pan-Canadian left alternative”:
“The NDP is a vehicle on the basis of which we can begin working with English-Canadian progressives,” he wrote in the October 10 PTàG. “Recognition of Quebec’s right to sovereignty is an issue on which we must work to achieve a break with the Canadian ideology. If it turns out that the NDP is no longer the tool to achieve this, it will be necessary to create a Canada-Québec solidaire alternative.
“In Quebec, the challenge is to bring about a break with the bourgeois nationalist solutions of the PQ and the Bloc, in order to take our place and impose the solutions of the workers movement and the progressive and feminist movements. From this perspective, the conjunction of the Canadian and Québécois workers movement is decisive, and the only promising one.”
Short-term “lesser evil” strategies to block the right, Frappier argued, did nothing to advance the task of building a left alternative. In Parliament, the Bloc voted with the Tories in support of free trade deals and in favour of the war. In Quebec itself the so-called strategic vote for the PQ has impeded the emergence of a genuine party of the left.
More than a voting formula
Summing up the PTàG debate — which included several other contributions — Jean-Paul Pelletier noted in the October 14 edition that it was much more than a debate on a voting formula. More fundamentally, he said, it comes down to the place occupied by the demand for independence in the perspective of the left in Quebec:
“Which should prevail? A sovereigntist vote, or a social-democratic vote? Some posed the question very directly in those terms. Others were less direct, but strongly emphasized the NDP’s good social positions while minimizing the importance of its unacceptable positions on the question of Quebec and the Clarity Act.
“The question of independence does not seem important enough to prevent them from voting for the NDP, but the Bloc’s weaknesses on Afghanistan and NAFTA categorically prohibit a vote for the Bloc. There is a certain ‘hierarchization’ here which leads to a dichotomy between the social question and the national question. Are we sovereigntists first or leftists first? Is that the right way to pose the question?
“Personally, I am unable to answer a question put that way. It reminds me too much of the old hobbyhorse of a certain left that sought to dissect the reality into “principal contradiction” and “secondary contradiction”. Of course, the proper proletarian morality always had it that the national question was simply a secondary contradiction, and thus subordinate. Today, we no longer use these old-fashioned terms, but it seems that the same schematic thinking tends to rise from the ashes. It is always more reassuring to be able to classify things that way, in hierarchical order, but it has little do with the reality….”
Pelletier was referring, of course, to the approach taken in the past by Quebec’s largest far-left organizations, the so-called Marxist-Leninists or Maoists, whose opposition to Quebec nationalism and support of Canadian nationalism was a major cause of their quick decline and demise in the early 1980s.
“Is it the disarray and retreat of sovereigntist fervour under a neoliberal leadership that has promoted a tendency to relativize the importance of the national question within the left? I tend to think so when I read certain interpretations of the position of Québec solidaire, according to which [citing a contribution by Mario Charland] ‘political independence is meaningful only to the degree that it strengthens the possibilities of achieving a substantial reduction in inequalities between social classes and not in a so-called pressing need for national affirmation or some sort of search for identity of the Québécois.’ This way of opposing independence as a mere tool for social justice, on the one hand, and the search for identity on the other, seems to be another way to reduce the importance of the national question. And that is a serious error.”
A pan-Canadian left?
As to the perspective of building a pan-Canadian left alternative held out by André Frappier, “a genuine left independentist”, Pelletier responded:
“If I really believed in the possibility of such a pan-Canadian left alternative, with the objective of course of taking power and implementing a progressive social program respectful of the Quebec nation, I would no longer be an independentist. What would be the use, if the national question could be resolved in the pan-Canadian context? Instead, I would be a partisan of a left-wing version of the ‘beau risque’ [PQ premier René Lévesque’s phrase to describe his gamble in accepting Mulroney’s promise to reintegrate Quebec “in honour and dignity” within the Canadian constitution by recognizing its distinctiveness]. Perhaps I would keep the independentist option in my pocket, just in case it didn’t work (I’m not completely crazy), but I would no longer be an independentist. I, too, would end up relativizing the importance of the national question.
“If it were possible, it would certainly be the best way to go. But all of history shows us the contrary, and I see nothing in the Canadian political landscape to convince me otherwise. Quite the contrary…. The search for a pan-Canadian strategy is illusory. We can intervene only indirectly on some players who will never clearly reflect our values.”
This, then, is the challenge that Quebec socialists put to the left in English Canada. As long as it is posed in the restrictive context of an electoral contest in which socialists in both nations confront only a choice among lesser evils, there are no obvious answers. But the debate in Quebec touches on a fundamental issue that has long haunted the left in both nations: whether an alliance can be built between us and on what basis. There is no disagreement that a genuine alliance would aid the struggle for socialism in both nations.
Quebec socialists are clear that any meaningful alliance must be based on the defence of Quebec’s right to national self-determination, not just in words but in deeds. It is indeed virtually excluded that the social-liberal Canadian nationalist New Democratic Party can serve as an adequate vehicle for Quebec’s aspirations. But it is equally true that no anticapitalist force can be built in the Rest of Canada that does not put Quebec self-determination at the centre of its program.
Richard Fidler is a Socialist Voice Contributing Editor. This article originally appeared in his blog, Life on the Left.