Election 2008 — the Quebec left’s challenge to socialists in the Rest of Canada

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.

He continued:

“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.


2 thoughts on “Election 2008 — the Quebec left’s challenge to socialists in the Rest of Canada

  1. Richard Fidler

    Translation of Marc Bonhomme’s comment (above):

    1. The debate on the voting formula occurred in a context in which there was no mass (or even modest) anticapitalist party running, which is essential nevertheless to respond adequately to the economic and ecological crises, and in which the two “lesser evil” parties were both social-liberal, one Canadian nationalist and the other Quebec nationalist, that is, in the last analysis they support, through greater state interventionism, their respective national capital.

    2. In this context, for the people of Quebec, an oppressed nation, the thoroughly unattractive choice could only be to vote in terms of resistance to oppression. English-Canadians conscious of the crucial distinction to be made between the nationalism of the oppressed and that of the oppressor could only indicate their agreement with that option by voting for the only lesser-evil solution that was available to them, while expressing the necessary reservations.

    3. In this election, there were only two versions of the “lesser evil” for “progressives”, and nothing else: a left-wing one explained above and a right-wing one, “defeat the Conservatives”, which opened the door to voting sometimes for the other party of the bourgeoisie — an unacceptable option for the left.

    4. The crucial response to the debate on the voting formula was not the demobilizing (and in the case of Quebec, divisive) voting formula as such, but the mobilization in the streets for the demands most capable of rallying the masses in the specific context of the election campaign, this mobilization being very often in response to the reactionary discourse of the Conservatives.

    5. The Quebec people modestly mobilized but their mobilization found little response from the English-Canadian people. Moreover, in terms of the vote itself, the Quebec people resisted the Conservative offensive, at the same time not choosing the alternative party of the bourgeoisie. In a general context of demobilization in Quebec, as in English Canada, the people of Quebec rose to the task and averted the election in Canada of a Conservative majority government, whatever the illusions that this situation creates.

    6. A summary examination of the distribution of the vote shows that [the vote of the] Quebec people was partially relayed — too often in favour of the Liberals — by the Acadian, Newfoundland and indigenous oppressed peoples, by the Franco-Ontarian national minority and by the minorities of colour and other minorities in the pockets of the major urban centres. Hats off, therefore, to the oppressed nations and nationalities of the Canadian state.

    7. In Quebec, the majority of the anticapitalists, all tendencies of the left and even some “progressives”, opt for the independence of Quebec. As for the anticapitalists, and in particular the revolutionaries, given this reality, which has been consistent for a generation, should they conclude that the weak link of the bourgeoisie in the framework of a revolutionary strategy for the Canadian state is the Quebec national question, there is no choice but to defend publicly and clearly the demand for the independence of Quebec while welcoming the English-Canadian mass organizations that publicly demand the right of self-determination of Quebec.

    [And my response]


    The first six points of your reply we have already discussed between us; we are in agreement on most of them and may have disagreement on others, albeit on relatively small points of difference. On your point 7, however, which seems to be the crux of the disagreement between us, I want to clarify one thing.

    You argue categorically that if Quebec’s oppression is the weak link in the Canadian bourgeoisie’s state structure and system of rule, as you and I agree, revolutionary socialists in the oppressor nation, as well as the oppressed, must make their main demand the independence of Quebec. I say that the importance and prominence of the demand for Quebec independence in the agitation of socialists in English Canada is contingent on (a) the degree to which the Québécois have made this their own demand, and therefore (b) the degree to which our fundamental support for the right of national self-determination of the Québécois can be expressed in the form of the demand for Quebec independence.

    Recognition of the right of self-determination, the principle for revolutionary socialists in both nations, does not automatically and directly translate into strategic support for independence in either the oppressed or the oppressor nation, in the abstract, particularly in the case of an “internal nation”, that is, an oppressed nation within an existing state that is not exactly a colony.

    In the case of Quebec, with its own territory as well as common language, etc., the struggle against national oppression has manifestly taken the route of national independence. But generally speaking, the axis of agitation by socialists in the ROC must be defence of the right of the Québécois to make their own choice free of interference by the federal state: its government, military and police, parliament, courts, etc. This does not preclude propaganda in favour of Quebec independence, of course; that will take the form primarily of conveying and defending the ideas of the independence movement of the Québécois to working people in English Canada.

    When you exhort me to support Quebec independence you are of course preaching to the choir. As early as 1964, while a student living in Montréal, I wrote a lengthy document addressed to my comrades in English Canada arguing that our demands as revolutionary socialists should include the concept of “dissolution of Confederation” as a concretization of the right of self-determination. That is to say, this demand would illustrate our understanding that the state structures, the Constitution, violated Quebec’s right of self-determination and that any relationship between Quebec and the ROC must be determined by the Québécois themselves. At that time, in the early years of the Quiet Revolution, Quebec independence was still the demand of only a small minority of Québécois. In 1970 the organization to which I then belonged, the League for Socialist Action/Ligue socialiste ouvrière (LSA/LSO, later the Revolutionary Workers League, or RWL/LOR) voted overwhelmingly for a document I authored entitled “For an Independent and Socialist Quebec”. By then it was clear to us that independence was the political form that self-determination was taking in Quebec.

    In practice, however, while Quebec independence was a central component of our program as a binational organization, in English Canada the axis of our defence of Quebec remained self-determination in all of its aspects — from support of Quebec’s language legislation (Bill 101) to support of the “yes” vote in 1980 on a sovereignty-association referendum that fell somewhat short of independence but was nevertheless the rallying point of all supporters of independence in Quebec in opposition to the federalists. Contrast that with the record of other organizations on the far left, including (I believe) the one you were in at the time.

    So why do I think the debate among ostensible socialists in Quebec on a voting formula in this federal election is of interest to socialists in English Canada, my primary audience? For the simple reason that it demonstrates anew that unity with the Quebec working class and Quebec socialists will be achieved only on terms of defence of Quebec’s right to self-determination, and that the NDP’s failure to defend that right is a major obstacle to unity, as recognized even by — or especially by — those Québécois who defend a vote for the NDP. We can bemoan the fact that this debate occurs in a lesser-evil context where there is no class or independentist option that can politically be supported. Perhaps in contrast to some of my comrades here in English Canada, I don’t believe that a vote for the Bloc Québécois was necessarily excluded in principle; however, I find it of interest that those who rejected the Bloc on grounds of seeking a pan-Canadian alternative were inclined to give critical support to the NDP. There are lessons in this for socialists in both nations. But I’ll leave it at that, for now.

    October 25, 2008

  2. Marc Bonhomme

    Here are my comments in French :

    1. Le débat sur la consigne de vote se faisait dans le cadre où il n’y avait pas de parti anticapitaliste de masse en liste, même modeste, ce qui est pourtant essentiel pour répondre adéquatement aux crises économique et écologique, et où les deux partis “le moins pire” étaient sociaux-libéraux, l’un nationaliste canadien et l’autre nationaliste québécois, c’est-à-dire qu’en dernière analyse ils soutiennent, par davantage d’interventionnisme étatique, leur capital national respectif.

    2. Dans ce cadre, pour le peuple du Québec, nation opprimée, le choix tout à fait inintéressant ne pouvait être que de voter en fonction de la résistance à l’oppression. Pour le peuple canadien-anglais conscient de la distinction cruciale à faire entre le nationalisme de l’opprimé et celui de l’oppresseur, il ne pouvait que signaler son accord à ce choix tout en votant pour la seule solution du moins pire qui s’offrait à lui en faisant les réserves nécessaires.

    3. Dans cette élection, il n’y avait pour les “progressistes” que deux versions du “moins pire” et rien d’autre, une de gauche expliquée ci-dessus et une de droite, “battre les conservateurs”, ce qui ouvrait la porte, inacceptable pour la gauche, de voter parfois pour l’autre parti de la bourgeoisie.

    4. La réponse cruciale au débat sur la consigne de vote n’était pas la démobilisante (et dans le cas du Québec, divisive) consigne de vote proprement dite mais la mobilisation dans la rue pour les revendications les plus rassembleuses dans la conjoncture de la campagne électorale, très souvent découlant du réactionnaire discours Conservateur.

    5. Le peuple québécois s’est modestement mobilisé mais a été peu relayé par le peuple canadien anglais. De plus, au niveau du vote, il a résisté à l’offensive Conservatrice tout en ne choisissant pas le parti alternatif de la bourgeoisie. Dans un contexte général de démobilisation au Québec comme au Canada anglais, le peuple du Québec a été à la hauteur et a évité au Canada un gouvernement majoritaire Conservateur quelque soient les illusions que cette situation crée.

    6. Un examen sommaire de la répartition du vote montre que le peuple québécois a été partiellement relayé — trop souvent en faveur des Libéraux — par les peuples opprimés acadien, terre-neuvien et autochtones, par la minorité nationale franco-ontarienne et par les minorités de couleur et autres des noyaux des grands centres urbains. Chapeau donc aux nations et nationalités opprimées de l’État canadien.

    7. Au Québec, la majorité des anticapitalistes, de la gauche toutes tendances et même des “progressistes” optent pour l’indépendance du Québec. Étant donné cette réalité qui ne se dément pas depuis une génération, pour ce qui est des anticapitalistes du Canada anglais, particulièrement des révolutionnaires, s’ils arrivent à la conclusion que le maillon faible de la bourgeoisie dans le cadre d’une stratégie révolutionnaire pour l’État canadien est la question nationale québécoise, il n’y a pas d’autres choix que de défendre publiquement et clairement la revendication de l’indépendance du Québec tout en saluant les organisations de masse canadiennes-anglaises qui revendiquent publiquement le droit à l’autodétermination du Québec.

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