MONTREAL - Meeting here September 24, the Central Committee of the Communist League in Canada issued a call for workers, farmers, and youth to cast a "yes" vote in the upcoming referendum on Quebec sovereignty.
"All working people in this country should reject the Federal government's chauvinist campaign against the Quebecois and support the demand for greater autonomy for Quebec," explained garment worker and Central Committee member Michel Dugre' in a report adopted at the meeting. "That is the real content of the referendum question.
"This demand embodies the long-standing and legitimate aspirations of the French-speaking majority in this province for equality and justice. Backing Quebec's right to self- determination is crucial for the entire labor movement in making it possible to unite working people across Canada against the capitalist rulers' attacks on our unions, our social services, and our rights.
"In the five weeks leading up to the referendum," explained Dugre', "communist workers and youth will join in the discussions among working people throughout the country on how to advance the fight for Quebec national rights and the struggles of workers and farmers across Canada."
On October 30 people in this province will vote on the question: "Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership...?" The referendum reflects the continuing desire of working people and youth across Quebec to end the discrimination and injustices they face as a nationality.
Eighty percent of Quebec's 7 million inhabitants constitute a French-speaking oppressed nationality. And the current crisis of the international capitalist system deepens the oppression and discrimination of Quebecois. French speakers face higher unemployment, earn less, and have fewer opportunities to advance their education.
In the last year alone there have been three strikes in the Montreal area where workers have made one of their demands the right to work in French.
If a majority vote yes in the referendum, the bill sets a deadline of one year for the Quebec government to come to an agreement on a new partnership with the rest of Canada, after which the National Assembly will have the power to proclaim Quebec a sovereign country.
The capitalist Parti Quebecois (PQ) government, which is sponsoring the referendum, hopes to gain some leverage through the vote against its rivals in English-speaking Canada. The Bloc Quebecois (BQ) and the Democratic Action in Quebec (ADQ) are also part of the leadership of the "yes" campaign. The BQ is the official opposition in the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa. Quebec's three main labor federations are also calling for a yes vote.
While unable to prevent the Quebec government from holding the referendum, federal authorities have denounced it as illegal. "There is nothing in the Canadian constitution that allows a province to separate itself from the rest of the country," said Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien.
Both Ottawa and the Liberal Party of Quebec, which is heading up the "no" campaign here, argue that the referendum will lead to the split-up of Canada, and have launched a scare campaign about the economic and political "disaster" that would be precipitated by a "yes" majority.
In the week leading up to the referendum campaign, Prime Minister Chrétien stated that he would not recognize a "yes" victory in the referendum unless it is "a clearly expressed majority." Polls indicate that the "yes" and "no" are running neck-and-neck, with the "no" slightly ahead.
Ottawa's antidemocratic stance is reinforced by the positions taken by all provincial premiers outside Quebec, who say they will refuse to take part in any negotiations with the Quebec government in the event of a "yes" victory. "Quebeckers should simply know that if they vote yes for this, they are voting for sovereignty and that there is no mandate to negotiate thereafter," said Saskatchewan New Democratic Party leader Roy Romanow.
In the midst of the referendum campaign workers and students in Quebec have staged a series of protests against cuts in social services by the Canadian and Quebec governments.
Up to 20,000 students took to the streets across the province September 20 to denounce plans by the federal government to cut CAN$650 million (CAN$1=US$.76) in post- secondary education in 1996 and 1997, including CAN$150 million in Quebec alone. As a result of the proposed government measures, tuition fees could increase to CAN$3,330 a year from the current average of $1,700 - a raise of 94 percent.
In Montreal, some 5,000 students from more than 20 colleges and universities participated in a lively and colorful demonstration that day, holding aloft hundreds of placards denouncing the cuts. Many also carried Quebec's blue and white national flag, a symbol of support for sovereignty.
A roar of "Yes! Yes! Yes!" rang from the crowd when Patricio Salgado, president of the main student association at University of Quebec in Montreal, said, "We don't want Jean Chrétien's cuts, we don't want any more of his interference in the lives of us Quebecois."
"I see this as a march for sovereignty," said Carole Tremblay, who was handing out "Yes" buttons to the demonstrators. She said, "The cuts are the federal government's fault, not the Parizeau government's."
But other students in the march didn't agree with her view. "I think that [Quebec premier Jacques] Parizeau is also responsible for the cutbacks," said Julien Lajeunesse, a student activist at De Maisonneuve college.
While there is widespread support for Quebecois rights throughout the province, the referendum campaign is not translating into a similar level of backing for the PQ government or its policies.
At the September 13 demonstration of some 10,000 workers and supporters against the closing of Queen Elizabeth Hospital hundreds of marchers carried signs saying "No, no Parizeau; yes, yes Queen Elizabeth." It was the largest of many protests since last spring against the PQ government's intention to close seven hospitals in this city.
The day after, 26 of the province's 47 community colleges (CEGEPs) were closed in a one-day strike by 8,000 members of the National Federation of Quebec Teachers (FNEEQ-CSN) who were protesting proposed cuts of CAN$48 million to the college system. These would result in the loss of 1,200 teaching jobs.
These cuts are part of a new collective agreement tentatively concluded in the second week of September between the PQ government and officials of the public workers unions, which represent some 350,000 workers. The accord includes concessions of up to half a billion dollars.
Michelle Rolland, a professor at CEGEP du Vieux-Montreal, joined the one-day strike at her campus. "I am told," she said, "that the referendum vote is not a vote for the government in power, but a vote for a new constitutional arrangement. But I am not so sure. I'm very angry at this government for the cuts and deterioration of education, health care, and other services."
On September 17, some 2,000 primary and high school teachers from the public Catholic Network in Montreal rejected the cuts of $150 million initially agreed to by the officialdom of the Quebec Teachers Federation (CEQ). Hundreds of them held picket lines in front of their schools September 21 early in the morning and at lunch time. A few days later, the CEQ leadership signed a new tentative agreement with the Quebec government containing concessions of CAN$100 million.
Meanwhile, workers in the plants are discussing the meaning of the referendum. According to the polls, workers who are Quebecois are evenly divided between the yes and no sides. Some are still undecided. By contrast, the majority of English-speaking and immigrant workers support the no. One important feature that marks the debate is the openness and civil tone of the discussion. Workers are freely expressing their opinions.
Richard, a Quebecois worker at the MacMillan Bathurst cardboard plant organized by the Communication, Energy and Paper Workers Union, said it would be good to have Quebec as a separate country because he wouldn't have to pay taxes to the federal government - a view expressed by many workers.
At Canadair, an aerospace plant organized by the International Association Machinists union, some workers have started wearing "Oui" (yes) buttons. Many are PQ supporters. Gilles, however, explained that when he votes yes, "It won't be a yes for the Parti Quebecois. It's not a vote for Parizeau. It's a yes for autonomy for Quebec."
Separation "would cause a lot of economic confusion," said Danny Lynch, an English-speaking fitter at the Rolls- Royce aerospace plant. In many factories, workers who say they plan to vote no point to the drop of the Canadian dollar, which lost two cents to the U.S. dollar in the days following the call for the referendum.
"I think Quebec should have more autonomy and should be treated as first-class and not second-class," explained Mike Codogan, a progress controller at Rolls-Royce. "But I don't want to see the country split up.... English will cease to exist in Quebec as a result of government decisions."
At Jack Victor, a garment plant organized by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), the majority of workers are immigrants, many of whom say they plan to vote no in the referendum. These workers have been deeply affected by the chauvinist statements of some bourgeois leaders of the Quebec sovereignty campaign.
"If the yes wins," said Judith during a lunch discussion, "the Quebecois won't like the immigrants because they have their own country."
The question of Native rights has become an important aspect of the referendum discussion.
The referendum stipulates that Quebec's new constitution will recognize "the right of aboriginal nations to self- government on lands over which they have full ownership." But Gyslain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Quebec and Labrador, explained that very few Natives in Quebec own their land.
On August 22, Inuit leaders announced that they will hold their own referendum on the political status of Inuit Natives in Quebec. Some Native leaders have decided to organize a boycott of Quebec's referendum.
Neither the Quebec nationalist forces nor the federal government recognize Native peoples' right to self- determination. Commenting on the Inuits' decision to hold their own referendum, Bloc Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard claimed, "There is a single state in Quebec, and it is the state of Quebec....There is only one single authoritative referendum: the one involving the overall population of Quebec."
Canada's Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin made clear in a policy paper released in August that Ottawa has no intention whatsoever of recognizing the Native peoples' demand for self-government. Hoping to undermine the struggle of the Quebecois, however, Irwin stated that he is willing to recognize the so-called right of Native people in Quebec to stay in Canada, with their territories, if the province "separates."
Roger Annis, Brigette Grouix, Katy LeRougetelle, Rose Marie Ray, and Jim Upton contributed to this article.
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