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June 8, 2005

Canada’s Governmental Crisis: Rooted in Quebec Independence Struggle

By Roger Annis and John Riddell

The revelations by the federal government commission of inquiry headed by justice John Gomery have deeply shaken the stability of capitalist politics in Canada. They are placing the issue of Quebec independence at the center of politics in this country, once again.

The minority Liberal government is still clinging to power thanks to support from the New Democratic Party and the split of multi-millionaire Belinda Stronach from the right-wing, opposition Conservative Party. But the evidence presented to the Gomery Commission of widespread Liberal Party graft and corruption have undermined the party’s authority. Liberal support in Quebec is reaching new lows, while the governmental crisis has paradoxically weakened the Conservatives, strained by divisions within their own ranks.

Rampant graft and corruption

The Gomery commission was created during the run-up to the 2004 federal election to investigate the practices of federal government spending on “sponsorship” programs whose purpose was to subvert the democratic will of the Quebec people and promote the profile of the Canadian government in Quebec’s economic and social life. This so-called Sponsorship Program was set in motion shortly before the 1995 referendum vote in Quebec on national sovereignty. The pro-sovereignty forces lost that vote by less than one percent, creating panic in corporate boardrooms across Canada and the halls of power in Ottawa. The Sponsorship Program was quickly expanded.

The commission’s investigation has revealed that hundreds of millions of dollars were spent. Some went into sponsorship of cultural and sporting events and media advertising. Much was directed to funding political events and the Liberal Party itself, sometimes in violation of Quebec’s stringent laws limiting the role of big finance in funding political parties and activities. A lot of the money was simply stolen, or went into the pockets of corporate advertising firms and criminal elements with connections to the Liberal Party.

The findings have provoked anger and outrage in Quebec. The broadcasts of the daily hearings of the commission attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers. Quebecois are rightly offended by the notion that their political allegiance can be bought with federal money doled out by sleazy politicians and business people like those who have appeared before the commission.

Liberal Party leader Paul Martin hoped that by the time the commission’s hearings and report were finished, the country’s attention would have moved on. But Martin failed to win a majority government in 2004, and the revelations have been more damaging than expected.

Federal subversion of democracy

Corruption is endemic in capitalist politics, so the findings of the Gomery Commission should not be a big surprise. The dilemma faced by the federalists is that corruption has become more and more central to their domination over Quebec as support for the federal system has progressively fallen away over the past 25 years.

In an article in the May 23, 2005 Globe and Mail, Réal Séguin describes one side of a decades-long effort by the federal government to destroy the Quebec independence movement. The article opens:

“Years prior to the 1980 Quebec referendum, former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau put it bluntly:

“‘One of the means to counterbalance the attraction of separatism is to use the time, the energy and enormous sums of money at the service of Canadian nationalism.’

“For Mr. Trudeau and the federal Liberals, all means were justified to preserve national unity.”

He describes how Jean Chrétien, Canada’s prime minister from 1993 to 2004, took graft and corruption to new heights.

Erosion of Liberal Party support

The Liberal Party, both its federal and Quebec wings, is a vital prop of the Canadian federal system. It is the party that ushered in the so-called Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, the modernization of social and political institutions of capitalist rule that had become necessary to combat rising Quebec nationalism. The party withstood the battering ram of the independence movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, it is the only federalist party in the Canadian Parliament with elected representatives from Quebec, and its Quebec wing, the governing party in the province, is the only federalist provincial party that can compete with the pro-independence Parti Québécois.

The Liberal Party was decisively weakened in 1982 when the Trudeau government imposed a new Canadian constitution against vehement opposition from the Quebec government of the time. The constitution denies both the existence of the Quebec nation and the rights that should flow from its national status.

In 1992, a Conservative Party government in Ottawa tried to repair the damage from 1982 with the so-called Meech Lake Accord, which would have transferred modest constitutional powers to all the provincial governments. The Quebec wing of the Liberal Party favoured Meech Lake, but the federal party opposed it, and played an important role in defeating it.

With their principal Quebec party in decline, Canada’s capitalists today face growing difficulty in creating a federal government with serious representation from Quebec. The Conservatives have not benefited from the disarray of the Martin government. The only alternative government to the Liberal Party in Ottawa would be a Conservative Party coalition with the pro-sovereignty Bloc Québécois, which won 54 of 75 Quebec seats in the 2004 federal election, but that prospect does not sit well with Canada’s rulers.

Despite all the gains made by Québécois during the last 40 years, national oppression is a persistent reality. It is shown in the economic disadvantages faced by Quebecois (lower incomes, higher unemployment, etc.), and, above all, in the increasingly extreme stance of the federal state against Quebec self-determination. Ottawa has adopted a law (the “Clarity Bill”) authorizing it to ignore the verdict of a future Quebec sovereignty referendum. Government leaders have proposed various options for the use of federal authority to block Quebec independence (“Plan B”), including military intervention.

The NDP-Liberal alliance

The weakening of the Liberal government in Ottawa should be an opportunity for the union-based New Democratic Party to make gains on behalf of working people. The party could campaign to end to the deep cuts in living standards and democratic rights that successive Liberal Party governments have imposed. It could call for an alternative foreign policy, one that seeks alliances with peoples in other countries who oppose the war drive of the imperialist powers. And, most relevant to the current crisis in Ottawa, it could support the aspirations of Québécois for independence or sovereignty. In parliament, the NDP could find common ground on this question with the Bloc Québécois.

While the Bloc is a pro-capitalist party, its stand for Quebec sovereignty is in the interests of workers across the country. And its proposals for social reform are no more or less timid than those of the NDP. A “bloc with the Bloc” would enable the NDP for the first time in its history to stand as a convincing alternative for government.

The NDP could also use the weakening of the federal government to aid the fight of Canada’s Native Indian peoples for sovereignty and radical improvements to social programs. Natives are the poorest of the poor in Canada, and most live in calamitous social and economic conditions.

Instead, the party has chosen to ally with the Liberals. In exchange for a promise of four billion dollars in increased spending on social programs, the party is supporting the minority Liberal government’s proposed budget, thus allowing them to stay in office.

Many people see the spending promises made to the NDP as a significant gain. But the budget’s most important feature is its commitment to a rapid increase in military spending. while increased spending for social programs is left for the future, and can be repudiated by the Liberals later on, as they have done in the past.

In allying with the Liberals, the NDP leaders have once again stood for maintaining Quebec’s oppression. This stand, more than anything else, has doomed the party since its inception to irrelevance in Quebec and minority status in federal politics.

United struggle needed

In the early to mid-1970s, a powerful upsurge of Quebec labour struggles took place. The main trade union federations adopted manifestos supporting Quebec independence and socialism. Their stand won wide respect from the unions across the rest of Canada. Several major pan-Canadian unions took positions in support of Quebec self-determination, as did a strong minority in the NDP.

The lesson from this period is that unity of the working class in Canada becomes more possible as struggles deepen on both sides of the Ottawa River, and that support for Quebec self-determination must be an integral part of that unity. The oppression of the Quebecois is a central and decisive feature of capitalist rule in Canada, and it is the responsibility of the entire working class movement to join the fight against it.

Today, an important part of that fight is simply telling the truth about Quebec’s struggle and enabling the voice of Québécois youth and working people to be heard elsewhere in Canada. There were massive strikes in Quebec earlier this year of students opposed to education cuts and of workers protesting cuts to jobs and social programs. These struggles — like other progressive movements in Quebec — have faced a conspiracy of silence by the media outside Quebec. We need to act to break through the silence.

Quebec independence may come to fruition while Canada remains a capitalist country. Or it may be won as part of the victory of workers across all of Canada over the capitalist rulers. In either case, victories for the Quebecois in their struggle for national liberation weaken the common capitalist foe and strengthen the potential for unity of workers across the country. Defense of Quebec self-determination is the prime duty of the working class across the rest of the country. And as long as Quebec remains imprisoned within Confederation, the goal of the working class movement must be a united struggle for a workers’ government in Ottawa committed to guaranteeing the right of Québécois to independence if they so choose.

The establishment of a workers and farmers government in Ottawa would be a first giant step in a process of social and economic liberation. Active support for self-determination of Quebec and other oppressed nations in Canada is a vital precondition to achieving that goal.

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