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Policy Resolution on the Quebec Referendum adopted by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Canada

At its meeting on Septtember 15-17 1995

The long-festering crisis of Confederation has now reached a critical juncture. Within weeks, the people of Quebec will be asked through a referendum vote to give approval for the Assemblie Nationale to declare Quebec a sovereign state, together with a proposal to the rest of Canada to form a new economic and political "partnership."

Because the outcome of this referendum may fundamentally impact on the future of Canada (as it is presently constituted), profoundly affecting the working class and the people as a whole - not only in Quebec, but also in English-speaking Canada and among the First Nations - it is incumbent on all left and progressive forces and on all democratically-minded Canadians to understand the true nature of this deepening crisis and to speak out for a democratic, just and lasting solution.

In our opinion, the "Yes" option advanced by the Parti Quebecois for the separation of Quebec would open the door to the total dismemberment and absorption of all parts of Canada - including Quebec - by U.S. imperialism. And it would weaken and divide the working class and people's movements in both Quebec and the rest of Canada, undermining the fightback against the pro- corporate assault on social services, wages and working conditions and the labour and democratic rights of all Canadians. This is no solution for working people.

At the same time, we reject the position of the chauvinist, pro-federalist forces which dominate the "No" camp, particularly in English-speaking Canada, who resist any meaningful democratic change from the constitutional status quo, which Quebec has never accepted. In particular, they reject any recognition of Quebec's national rights, especially the right to self-determination up to and including secession. They also reject any constitutional guarantees for the fundamental rights of the First Nations.

The only truly democratic alternative to the crisis of Confederation - a just and lasting solution - is one based on an equal and voluntary partnership of Quebec and English-speaking Canada, together with the constitutional guarantee of the rights of the First Nations to self-government and a just settlement of all outstanding land claims.

Unfortunately, this democratic alternative has not been sufficiently projected into the increasingly polarized debate over the future of Canada. The dominant class and political interests in the country are forcing the people of Quebec, and indeed all Canadians, to line up behind either separation or the constitutional status quo.

We therefore urge all labour and other democratic movements to intervene in this crucial debate before the October 30th referendum deadline to demand this alternative option in place of either separation or the status quo. A democratic way out of the crisis must include, in our opinion, a call for the convening of a democratically-elected Constituent Assembly - composed of representatives from Quebec and English-speaking Canada, together with the First Nations - to draft a new constitution, followed by full and democratic debate and approval by all national constituent groups.

The position of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Canada on the current debate over the referendum proceeds from the analysis and positions contained in the June 1994 Central Committee statement and in the resolution adopted at the 31st Central Convention (May 1995). In brief, those party documents point out that:

The crisis of Confederation is maturing at a time when nationalism is on the upsurge n many parts of the world. Long simmering disputes, arising from the historic failure to resolve national injustices and oppression, are being further aggravated by the impact of new integrational processes on a regional and global scale. "Globalization," under the control of transnational capital and the TNCs, further erodes the sovereign control of nations and peoples, and fosters alienation, despair and anger.

Likewise, the current crisis takes place in the context of a deepening structural and systemic crisis within capitalism in Canada itself, with unprecedented efforts by monopoly capital to "re-engineer" both the Canadian economy and the Canadian State, and in the midst of a wholesale attack on the socio-economic rights and living conditions of the working class, and the democratic rights of the people in general. The constitutional crisis is part of, and in turn impacts upon, this general crisis.

The roots of the ongoing crisis of confederation go back to the conquest of French Canada, the suppression of the native peoples and the oppression of both by the British colonial authorities. That oppressive relationship was carried into Confederation in 1867. Canada's constitution was flawed from the start, by creating an unequal relationship between Quebec and English-speaking Canada, and by denying the fundamental rights of the First Nations.

Quebec is a nation, with a common language and territory, and a unique history and culture. As a nation, Quebec has the basic democratic right of self-determination - up to and including secession, if the people so decide.

In the present conditions, the separation of Quebec would not, in our view, be in the interests of the working class of either Quebec, or English-speaking Canada, or of the First Nations. The break-up of Canada would have profound economic and political ramifications and would seriously - perhaps fatally - weaken Canada's sovereignty as a whole, by opening the door to complete absorption by U.S. imperialism.

The interests of the working class across Canada would best be served by rejecting the approach of both the narrow nationalist forces in Quebec, which advocate separation as the only solution to Quebec's national aspirations, and equally the forces of big-nation chauvinism in English-speaking Canada - represented in the first place by Canadian and transnational capital - which insists on the constitutional status quo, and which continues to deny Quebec's status as a nation.

Instead, the working class and democratic forces throughout Canada should build support for a democratic solution; namely, a new constitution based on the equal and voluntary partnership of Quebec and the rest of Canada, together with the right of self- government and other fundamental rights for First Nations. The preferred route to this new, democratic arrangement for Canada would be through the convening of a democratically-elected Constituent Assembly, which would construct a draft constitution for country-wide debate.

This approach, a class internationalist position which has been developed over many decades, is predicated on the view that the struggle for a democratic solution to the national question in Canada is an essential condition for uniting the working class in its battle to defend and advance its social and economic conditions, to extend democracy, and ultimately to achieve socialism. It is part-and-parcel of the overall democratic tasks of the working class at this stage in the class struggle in Canada.

The ruling class refusal to recognize Quebec's national rights only serves to arouse indignation and resentment among the quebecois(es), which in turn is used by reactionary elements to ignite narrow nationalist sentiments in the oppressed nation. This refusal also feeds big-nation chauvinism amongst English-speaking Canadians. The result can only be to divide the working class and its democratic allies, to dampen class consciousness, and to weaken the workers' resistance to class exploitation and oppression. It exacts great social, economic, political and psychological costs and can even engender - in the worst instances - national exclusivism, racism and war.

We therefore categorically reject any tendency that would ignore or underestimate the importance of the national question in Canada, or would counterpose the national question to other social or class issues. We must also avoid rigid, mechanistic approaches to the national question. In developing our tactic, we must first study the concrete situation at the given moment.

Based on the above, the Central Committee makes the following observations about the current situation on the eve of the Quebec referendum:

  1. The Parizeau government in Quebec, having failed to secure a strong mandate for its independantiste agenda in the September 1994 provincial elections, has been forced to make significant retreats and manoeuvres before it could feel sufficiently confident to place its principal objective - independence - before the people in a referendum. Part of the Parti Quebecois strategy to shore up domestic and international support for the independantiste option was to reassure Quebec, Canadian and transnational capital in general, and U.S. imperialism in the first place, that an independent Quebec would continue to support NATO and NORAD, and would seek entry into NAFTA, as well as to reassure capital markets that Quebec would assume full responsibility for its share of the public debt [an issue which would be subject to difficult negotiations with the Canadian government]. These assurances were combined with the promise that an independent Quebec would continue to steer a pro-corporate economic course.
  2. These manoeuvres, however, failed to shift enough public support to risk calling a referendum. Repeated polling indicated that most quebecois(es) continued to favour maintaining some form of political and economic union with the rest of Canada. Accordingly, and under tremendous pressure from Bloc Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard and his own advisors, Parizeau agreed on June 12, 1995 to an entente between the PQ, the BQ, and the Parti Action Democratique leader Mario Dumont.
  3. This Pact proposes to combine the declaration of independence with a formal offer to the rest of Canada for the establishment of a Economic and Political Partnership, including various structures and elected bodies to coordinate trade, investment, currency, immigration, security, and other political, social and economic matters. The referendum question is framed around these two objectives, with the understanding that within one year - whether or not the "Partnership" offer is accepted - Quebec would unilaterally decree its political independence.
  4. This new framing of the referendum question has shifted some public support to the "Yes" side. At this moment, opinion in Quebec is almost evenly divided between the "Yes" and "No" camps.
  5. The dominant nationalist forces within the "Yes" camp are bourgeois and petty bourgeois elements who feel that an independent Quebec would provide better conditions under which to advance their class interests. The existence of a regional market under NAFTA [for which Quebec nationalists campaigned actively in the 1988 federal elections and into which they hope to enter as a separate entity] would, they argue, guarantee Quebec business access to the North American market, thus lessening their dependence on the domestic Canadian market. Playing on the legitimate national sentiments of the people and on the failure of previous efforts at constitutional reform, they hope to rally all other classes behind their national "project de societ".
  6. The working class in Quebec is divided on the issue, with important sections supporting the independantiste camp. All three labour centrals - FTQ, CEQ, and CSN - officially support the "Yes" option, as do many other democratic movements. While many activists in these movements are critical of the PQ's increasingly right-wing economic and social policies [compared to the PQ's earlier, quasi- social democratic positions], they have concluded - mistakenly in our opinion - that there is no other way out of the constitutional quandary, and that independence will create more favourable conditions for social advance.
  7. The "No" forces in Quebec are also dominated by bourgeois interests, grouped around the Conseil du Patronat and their main political vehicles, the provincial and federal Liberal parties. These sections of capital - which include business interests based both in Quebec and in English-speaking Canada - are concerned about the "destabilizing" impact independence might have on inter- provincial trade and capital flows, on the value of Canadian currency and on interest rates, concerns which they share with big capital elsewhere.
  8. The "No" campaign seeks to whip up the understandable fears of working people in Quebec about economic "dislocation" which would attend political separation, its impact on jobs, living standards, etc. It also manipulates the concerns of the minority anglophone, "allophone" [recent immigrant], and First Nation communities in Quebec that their rights might not be adequately respected in an independent Quebec.
  9. Both sides in the referendum debate are hamstrung by their own contradictions. The pro-independence forces are trying to argue that the current constitutional setup is so untenable that it requires major surgery [separation], but at the same time claim that such a radical political and economic restructuring will be "painless", ie. will not precipitate economic or political instability or social unrest. More fundamentally, the Parti Quebecois' pro-free trade platform, and their enthusiastic embrace of regional economic integration within the NAFTA framework, will further undermine the national sovereignty of Quebec, which separation ostensibly aims to enhance.
  10. For their part, the "federalist" forces in Quebec are calling upon their allies in the rest of Canada for political support in the referendum battle. But, in fact they are hampered by these same allies in the Chrtien government and in other provincial capitals. Daniel Johnson and the "No" forces in Quebec publicly acknowledge that the current Canadian constitution denies Quebec's national rights and make the argument that the "door will still be open" to constitutional reform if the referendum is rejected. This position has been undermined, however, by the open declarations of Chrtien and several premiers that there will be no more constitutional discussions following a "No" vote. Confrontational, chauvinist statements emanating from the Chrtien cabinet, the Reform Party, and from several provincial governments have only added fuel to the independantiste fire. Damaging remarks, such as the one made by B.C.'s NDP Premier Mike Harcourt that "You're either 'in' or you're 'out'" only serve to convince the people of Quebec that the rest of Canada will not budge from the status quo.
  11. This is not to say that monopoly capital and its parties in English-speaking Canada are opposed to constitutional change per se. They have shared interests with the bourgeois independantiste elements in Quebec in seeking to devolve political and economic power from Ottawa to smaller, weaker provincial authorities so that they might more effectively exploit Canada's labour and natural resources. Their main difference with the independantistes is that they seek these changes within the structural shell of the federal system.
  12. Some sections of monopoly capital in English-speaking Canada, particularly those associated with transnational capital, even welcome the idea of Quebec separation as it would accelerate the dismemberment of Canada as a whole, and would facilitate its plunder. This explains the duplicitous and dangerous role of Preston Manning and the Reform Party, which publicly supports the "No" option, but acts in ways that promote the "Yes" forces.
  13. Faced with the possibility that the "Yes" forces may indeed win the referendum, the federalist forces are giving out contradictory messages about whether the outcome of this democratic choice will be respected. Chrtien has openly cast doubt on whether the federal government would negotiate the terms of separation - and any possible new political and economic arrangement - with the Parizeau government following a "Yes" vote, claiming that he was not elected with a mandate to "oversee the dismantling of Canada," while his Labour Minister and Quebec "lieutenant" for the referendum campaign, Lucienne Robillard, stated recently that the result of the vote "will be respected."
  14. Some federal strategists have even floated ideas of holding a second referendum in Quebec or in the rest of Canada should the "Yes" side win. There is open speculation about "playing the aboriginal card" in Quebec as a way to undermine Quebec's territorial integrity should it opt for independence. Furthermore, the recent aggressive, para-military response to native occupations, showing that the Canadian state is quite prepared to use force to "resolve" other national disputes, aims to intimidate the people of Quebec as well. Note should also be taken of statements by Reformers and other ultra-right sympathizers about "punishing" Quebec if it attempts to leave Confederation. All this points to serious dangers that the Canadian State will attempt to thwart Quebec's democratic right to self-determination.
  15. As the debate intensifies, rhetoric on both sides is escalating and all sorts of plots and provocations are possible in the run-up to the referendum. Both camps are using fear tactics - predicting calamity for the people of Quebec should their side lose - in a desperate scramble for support. For each side, it's "My way or the highway," with little or no consideration given to a democratic solution to the crisis.

Based on the above considerations, the Central Committee draws the following conclusions and proposes the following course of action:

Regardless of the outcome on October 30, 1995, the crisis of confederation will continue to sharpen unless a lasting, equal and voluntary democratic solution is achieved.

Centrifugal national and regional forces appear to be gaining the upper hand in some parts of the country. The separation of Quebec will accelerate this process, weakening the sovereignty and political integrity of Canada and potentially stimulating "defections" in other regions, opening the very real possibility of political absorption of part or all of Canada [including Quebec] by U.S. imperialism.

In light of the above, a "Yes" result would be the worst political outcome in the October 30 referendum. It would set back the interests of the working class in both Quebec and English- speaking Canada in their struggle to combat the assault by domestic and transnational capital on the social, economic and democratic rights and conditions of workers and the people as a whole. It would exacerbate national relations throughout the country as a whole, including the situation of the francophone minority outside Quebec, and it would undermine the sovereignty and integrity of the country as a whole.

It is, however, not good enough to say "No" to the separatist option; the status quo, in the absence of any movement to democratic constitutional change, will cause the constitutional crisis to continue to deepen.

It is therefore crucial, in the weeks leading up to the referendum date, to build broad labour and democratic support for a democratic solution to the crisis, and to demand a democratically-elected Constituent Assembly and the drafting of a new constitution based on the recognition of the full equality of the Quebec and English-speaking Canadian nations, together with the full recognition of the rights of the First Nations to control over their land, for a just settlement of all outstanding claims, and for meaningful self-government. The main considerations of the left and progressive forces must be to fight to preserve the maximum unity of the working class, to defend the democratic national rights of Quebec, and to defend Canadian sovereignty vis a vis U.S. imperialism.

Therefore, in the period leading up to the referendum, the Party has several key tasks, especially in its mass work in the working class in English-speaking Canada:

  1. to defend unreservedly the democratic right of Quebec to self-determination, within its established borders, and for the people of Quebec to decide their future through democratic choice in a referendum, free from the threat of force;
  2. to demand that, regardless of the outcome, the federal government respect that decision; and
  3. to step up public efforts to win support in the labour and democratic movements for a democratic solution to the crisis, based on the convening of a democratically-elected Constituent Assembly, and the formulation of a new, equal and voluntary partnership of both Quebec and English-speaking Canada, together with the full recognition of the rights of the First Nations.

Accordingly, the Central Committee agrees:

  1. to publish [in both official languages] a party statement "Convene a Constituent Assembly for a New Deal," publicizing our position; further, to circulate this Statement, together with our "Urgent Appeal", to activists in the labour and mass democratic movements, and to the press throughout the country;
  2. to call upon all party organizations, clubs and committees to publicize the party's position as widely as possible by, amongst other initiatives, (a) holding club and public educationals on the issue to inform and mobilize members and close supporters; (b) convening public meetings in as many areas as possible; (c) seeking press and media exposure for the party's positions wherever possible; and (d) assisting and coordinating the work of all party members in raising the issue in trade union and other mass organizations.
  3. to be prepared to convene a special meeting of the Central Committee following the October 30th referendum to assess the results and to chart future party action on the issue.

In general, the Central Committee anticipates the following main courses of action:

  1. In the event of a "Yes" result in the referendum, the Party must campaign throughout English-speaking Canada to demand that the federal and provincial governments immediately enter into sincere and constructive negotiations with Quebec to develop all-sided voluntary political and economic arrangements, based on complete equality between Quebec and the rest of Canada.
  2. In such circumstances, the Party must also work within the labour movement to establish a new basis of unity with working class organizations in Quebec and strive for joint, coordinated action around all matters of shared social and economic concern.
  3. In the event of a "No" result in the referendum, the Party will need to counter the tendency to consider the national question as having been "settled", and should continue to campaign throughout English-speaking Canada for the convening of a democratically-elected Constituent Assembly, and for a democratic, just and lasting solution to the ongoing crisis of Confederation.

For more information on this or other policies of the Communist Party of Canada, write to: CPC, 290A Danforth Ave., Toronto, Ontario M4K 1N6; tel: [416] 469-2446; fax: [416] 469-4063; e-mail: pvoice@web.apc.org