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Defend Quebec's Right to Self-Determination!

From Socialist Challenge, Fall, 1995

The October 30 referendum in Quebec and the Ipperwash and Gustafsen Lake confrontations between aboriginal peoples and the Ontario Provincial Police and RCMP highlight the persistence and centrality of the resistance to national oppression.

Now, perhaps more than at any time in Canadian history, it is imperative to defend the right of national self-determination. This is the only road to a democratic and peaceful solution based on equality between peoples and nations. But although the need to defend this right is extremely urgent, there seems to be a profound lack of urgency within English Canada, even among activists and people on the left.

Despite the rapid approach of the Quebec referendum, a vast majority of people in English Canada remain (encouraged by the attitude of the likes of Jean Chretien) in a state of the most profound denial. They are unwilling to contemplate the real possibility that a majority of people in Quebec could in a democratic process vote for sovereignty on October 30. This profound lack of public understanding raises many uncertainties as to what would happen following a Yes vote on October 30.

Many, though not all, people in the rest of Canada do at some level accept the vague idea of self-determination. However, this right and its true scope and meaning are very poorly understood. This allows the major federalist political forces to try to have their cake and eat it, too. On paper they are in favour of the right to self-determination. But in practice they impose so many restrictions upon it and allow so many violations of this right, that they render it null and void.

Will the Canadian government accept the results of a Quebec referendum? Jean Chretien refuses to make any commitment.

Meanwhile, the Quebec government undercuts its otherwise very clear claim for self-determination by making it clear that it won't recognize the result of the separate referendum/consultation being organized by the Inuit and Cree of northern Quebec. Other provincial governments and the federal government, by their quick resort to police actions, have made it abundantly clear that they are totally opposed to recognizing the aboriginal peoples of Canada as sovereign nations and dealing with them on a nation-to-nation basis.

What is the right to self-determination?

The right of national self-determination is the fundamental and unconditional right of nations to determine their own future, free of any outside interference or coercion. This right includes the right of nations to form independent states if they so choose.

What constitutes a nation?

Many factors could be considered, including a common history, territory, culture, language and economy. But it is not simple a question of an objective checklist whereby if you meet all criteria, you pass and you are a nation; if you don't, you are not a nation. Becoming a nation is about subjective identity. As such, it can only be defined by the collective group involved. This means, and most especially in the case of historical national oppression and inequality of nations (the Quebecois and aboriginal peoples within the Canadian state), only the oppressed national grouping can decide whether they are a nation. To put it bluntly, no one in the rest of Canada has any right whatsoever to tell the people of Quebec whether or not they are a nation and whether they should form their own state. And no one in English Canada or Quebec has the right to tell aboriginal peoples they are not and cannot be nations.

Accepting the right to self-determination means accepting that the people of Quebec and the First Nations have the exclusive right to determine their own future. We in good faith must accept their decision without rancour and we must attempt to negotiate a peaceful solution based on a fundamental respect for their democratic will.

Violating self-determination

At one level, the fact that the Quebec referendum, whatever its limitations, will take place on October 30 is a victory for self-determination. But this victory is only partial. Although the referendum will take place and the people of Quebec will decide, it will not take place without outside interference.

The federalist forces, unable to come up with a remotely credible of offer of anything other than the failed status quo, are waging a campaign of fear to defeat the referendum.

This involves tactics such as refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the process in advance, threatening to refuse to negotiate after a Yes, threats of economic reprisals (BC Premier Mike Harcourt suggest BC might sever some trade and business links with an independent Quebec), the manipulations of financial markets to send the Canadian dollar plummeting and interest rates skyrocketing, warnings of economic ruin for an independent Quebec and even a hint of force in recent helicopter flights over the east end of Montreal.

This campaign is being waged jointly by forces in Quebec who have a legitimate stake and a say in the issue and the federal political parties, provincial premiers like Harcourt, Romanow and Klein, media, business groups and financial markets outside Quebec, who have no right to determine the destiny of Quebec.

For instance, although the federal NDP on paper supports the right of self-determination, it is devoting its entire energy to campaigning for national unity and for a No vote in Quebec. This is an outright violation of the right to self-determination.

From small violations to gross violations

The violations of self-determination in the referendum campaign may seem marginal. But these little violations could prepare the groundwork for much larger violation -- an outright refusal to recognize Quebec's right to independence and a series of actions aimed at blocking Quebec independence by whatever means.

The idea of using force against Quebec particularly in the event of a unilateral declaration of independence has been discussed in some circles. But, for the moment, public opinion in the rest of Canada appears very reluctant to contemplate such a drastic course of action. However, many believe the cry of so-called experts that Quebec independence is "unconstitutional" and "illegitimate." This, combined with a generalized climate of fear and hatred being whipped up against the likes of Jacques Parizeau and the entire Quebec independence movement, means that any attempts to deny the legitimacy of the referendum, ignore the results and refuse to negotiate could secure popular support in English Canada.

We need to be clear that this denial of the legitimate democratic will of the Quebec people would be a grave violation of the right to self-determination. So would punitive economic reprisals and sanctions, using threats of economic ruin as a means to coerce national unity.

The ultimate means of saying No to the right to self-determination is, of course, military force.

Police and military action were used to say No to First Nations sovereigntists at Oka in 1990, and now in the rest of Canada. This tactic should be strongly opposed.

Using force against the democratic will of the people of Quebec would, of course, be a much more drastic step.

The job of all those who support self-determination is to ensure that this option is never seriously considered. We need a clear and unequivocal commitment never to use force to suppress the right to self-determination. And we need to begin a campaign against the use of force in our own organizations and demand that the entire labour movement, the NDP, women's and community groups make this public commitment Now. This is the only road to help avert a possible tragedy and ensure trust and voluntary cooperation between nations.>

[This] article from the fall issue of Socialist Challenge's quarterly magazine of criticism and analysis. Socialist Challenge and Gauche Socialiste are the section of the Fourth International in the Canadian State. For information on Socialist Challenge and Gauche Socialiste, you can contact us by e-mail at haythorn@sfu.ca, check our WWW page at http://www.ualberta.ca/~rdaum/sc.html or mail us at: Box 4955, V6B 4A6, Vancouver, B.C. (in English Canada) or Box 52131, Stn. Fidele, Quebec, Quebec, G1L 5A4 (in Quebec.)