VANCOUVER British Columbia - "Won't separation of Quebec weaken Canada?" was the question on the minds of Hannah Askew, Miranda Witherford, and Michelle Quigg at a recent Militant Labor Forum here. The three Sir Winston Churchill high school students were among 25 people on hand for a discussion of the October 30 referendum in Quebec.
"Canada is a prison house of nations- of Quebecois, of Acadiens, of Natives- who are all oppressed nationalities," answered Michel Prairie. "Unless the working class defends struggles of these oppressed nationalities for equality, including separation if they so decide, it won't be possible to build unity and defend our class interests in face of the capitalists' accelerating attacks against our rights, living conditions, and unions."
Prairie, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist League in Canada, was on a five day speaking tour of the Vancouver area to present a working-class perspective in the fight against the oppression of Quebecois and Natives in Canada.
The CL and Young Socialists are calling on workers and students across the country to support a "yes" vote in the upcoming referendum on the proposal by the Parti Quebecois government that Quebec become a sovereign country in the framework of a new economic and political partnership with the rest of Canada.
One goal of Prairie's trip was to learn first-hand what working people in this part of English-speaking Canada think about the coming referendum. His first stop was at the Storkcraft factory, a juvenile furniture making plant of 110 organized by the United Steelworkers of America in Richmond, near Vancouver.
At a lunch break gathering, one worker said that Quebecois are greedy and get higher wages than workers in British Columbia. The provinces of "Quebec and Ontario get all the government grants. Western Canada gets nothing," he said, echoing a common complaint by capitalists in this part of the country.
"Quebec is class-divided like the rest of Canada," answered Prairie. Quebec Prime Minister Jacques "Parizeau is no more speaking in the interest of working people in Quebec than Chre'tien is for workers in this part of Canada. Our starting point needs to be us, the workers; not them, the exploiters. And the reality is that the Quebecois are not privileged, they are oppressed."
At the Militant Labor Forum, Prairie explained this point more. "Incomes of French-speaking people in Canada, of whom 85 percent are living in Quebec, are 15 percent less than those who speak English. French speakers face higher unemployment, have poorer health care and fewer opportunities to advance their education. According to Ottawa's own figures, Quebec is the poorest province in Canada."
"Who will pay Canada's debt if Quebec separates?" asked Askew and Witherford at the forum.
"First," answered Prairie, "this is not `our' debt as working people. We as workers shouldn't take any responsability for it. But more than that, our starting point as workers can't be how much a legitimate demand for equality will cost but how can we overcome and fight any form of injustice and oppression and in so doing strengthen the unity of the working class."
"Should women stop fighting for equality because the ruling rich `can't afford' abortion, childcare or other services that we badly need? Should Blacks wait till society can 'afford it' before they fight for better jobs and housing? Should we stop fighting for decent health care and education because of the debt? The answer is no," said Prairie.
Askew, Witherford, and Quigg came to the Militant Labor Forum because they were seeking information on the "yes" side that they couldn't find anywhere in Vancouver.
"I know from my own experience, the media doesn't tell the truth," said Askew after the forum. "That's why I find this meeting interesting." Witherford added, "I've learned things that have never been explained to us."
"What can we do here?" asked Askew.
"Well, there is a lot that workers and youth in English- speaking Canada can do to join this fight," answered Prairie. "First, you can oppose the chauvinist and antidemocratic campaign of the federal government aimed at preventing workers in Quebec from freely deciding their own destiny.
"Second, you can explain the truth about the oppression of the Quebecois and why working people should support their struggle against language discrimination and for national rights," he concluded.
Ned Dmytryshyn is a member of the IAM lodge 692 in Vancouver. Joe Young, member of the USWA at Storkcraft, also contributed to this article.
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