Second-class citizens in their own land -- that has been the lot of Quebec's French-speaking majority, the Quebecois, since the 1759 British victory over the French on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec City.
Now the residents of Canada's largest province, who are one-third of Canada's population, confront an opportunity to establish a separate national state. Amid a groundswell of support for sovereignty, provincial First Minister Jacques Parizeau has put forward a referendum on the issue for October 30.
Parizeau's Parti Quebecois represents the interest of Quebec's business owners, not its workers and Native First Nations. Once Quebec is self-governing, however, the same economic and social dissatisfactions that are prompting the Quebecois to embrace independence will inevitably sour them on "their own" capitalist class and its politicians.
Wars over Canada between France and England ended soon after the French defeat in 1759. In 1867, Britain brought the provinces together into a new federation with the formal right of self-government. It hoped thereby to block U.S. annexation of Canada, assimilate the still-rebellious French-speaking population (francophones), and exterminate the Native bands.
Indians, francophones, and Metis (people of mixed Native and European ancestry) all mounted challenges to the new state. Their protests were put down, but the struggle of Canada's national minorities for self-determination was far from over.
The Quebecois are a historically developed community sharing a common language, culture, territory, and economic life -- in other words, a nation and one that is three times the size of France and rich in resources. Seventy to 80 percent of their industry, however, is owned by the U.S. or English Canada.
Francophones have endured the worst of what Canada has to offer: the lowest wages, hardest jobs, highest unemployment, dirtiest slums, most inferior schools -- and, above all, persecution of their language.
Quebekers have responded by becoming Canada's most militant and anti-imperialist subjects. They overwhelmingly refused to fight in both world wars. They are the most highly unionized workforce in North America, at over 40 percent. They led the Canadian struggle for the eight-hour day, initiated its abortion-rights campaign, and won the first provincial legalization of homosexuality.
Quebec labour is in the forefront of the push for independence. Also favouring sovereignty are Quebec's progressive activists, most of its Left, and a minority of its capitalists. Opposing separation are the federal government, the federal New Democratic Party, the ultra-right Reform Party, most of the English-speaking Left, the U.S. establishment, and the capitalist majority both inside and outside Quebec.
Native bands, many of whom are anglophone (English-speaking), tend to be suspicious of independence because its "official" champion, the Parti Quebecois, does not want to grant indigenous peoples the same right to self-determination that the PQ itself seeks.
Polls show Quebec as a whole divided in half over separation. No wonder Quebekers are hesitant: each time the question arises, Canada bombards them with warnings of political, economic, and even military retaliation.
If Quebekers choose autonomy, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Cretien and his associates threaten to deny them jobs in English Canada and destroy their economy by forcing the new nation to make payments on Canada's debt.
Most anglophone left groups acknowledge Quebec's status as a nation, but refuse to support independence. They rationalize this capitulation to "greater Canada" chauvinism by invoking the urgent necessity for maximum workingclass unity to combat the government's relentless austerity drive.
Cohesion is certainly needed. But it is Canada's exploitative ruling class, backed by the federal government, that divides ordinary Canadians, not the independence movement.
Unity is possible only among equals. Solidarity can be realized only when leftists of the oppressor nation -- Canada -- break with their government to support Quebec's national liberation.
Independence would shake the Canadian and U.S. capitalists to the core, inspire other workers and strugglers for indigenous rights throughout the hemisphere, and embolden the Quebecois to reach new heights in their uninterrupted quest for justice.
If the referendum wins, Quebekers can begin immediately to wrest the fruits of independence -- industry, land, and resources -- from Parizeau and his crowd.
How? One way would be to demand formation of a constituent assembly with broad authority, made up of elected delegates from the labour, left, and mass movements, with representation from Native nations. This body could propose a draft constitution, settle Native land claims fairly, nationalize banking and industry, and supervise negotiations with Canada.
Another would be for labour and its allies to hold their OWN convention to develop and push for a workingclass program for new Quebec.
Whatever path they take, Quebec's workers and First Nations will not be truly independent until they rid themselves of foreign AND domestic profiteers. But precisely BECAUSE independence by itself will not solve their problems, they will not stop there. With increased confidence, they will fight on until they achieve a decent life for all.
Thanks to eibie Weizfeld in Quebec for contributing to this report.
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