[Documents menu] Documents menu

Quebec's referendum: acid test for the left. Break the grip of national chauvinism - independence for Quebec!

Workers Vanguard, 3 November 1995

On October 30, the population of Quebec voted narrowly against secession from Canada in a referendum organized by the separatist Parti Québecois (PQ) government. The No side eked out its victory by a razor-thin 50.6 to 49.4 percent in an extremely heavy turnout. About 60 percent of French-speaking Québecois cast Yes ballots for "sovereignty," while the English-speaking and immigrant minorities, both concentrated in Montréal, overwhelmingly voted No.

When polls showed support for the separatist forces surging in the final week of the campaign, the capitalist money markets spoke out loudly in favor of "Canadian unity." The Canadian dollar went into free fall, and the Toronto Stock Exchange had its biggest one-day drop in six years. Airline companies and the government-owned Via Rail slashed fares by up to 90 percent to bring thousands of people from English Canada to a flag-waving "unity" rally in Montréal on October 27.

In the run-up to the referendum, federal prime minister Jean Chrétien warned that the government would not recognize the legitimacy of a narrow Yes majority. But now, with the No side having won by the slimmest of margins, Ottawa insists that the result is definitive and that Quebec's place in Canada is effectively resolved.

In fact, the referendum has resolved nothing. The outcome has only deepened and exacerbated the poisonous national division in Canadian society. There will be a further chauvinist backlash against Quebec from English Canada, especially in the West. Meanwhile, Quebec itself is deeply and bitterly polarized. In Montréal, crowds of No and Yes supporters threw stones and traded punches as they chanted "Canada, Canada" or "Québec, Québec." Immediately after the vote, PQ premier Jacques Parizeau launched a vicious attack on immigrants, telling his followers they had been beaten "by money and the ethnic vote." Promising to win "next time," Quebec's bourgeois-nationalist leaders will now seize on their narrow loss to scapegoat minorities and increase pressures aimed at pushing out anyone who is not white and francophone (French-speaking).

All this underlines the necessity for Marxists to advocate the independence of Quebec as the means to cut through the national divide which sets worker against worker along national lines and poisons the prospects for anti-capitalist class struggle (see "Independence for Quebec!" WV No. 629, 22 September). We print below a leaflet issued on October 25 by the Trotskyist League/Ligue Trotskyste, Canadian section of the International Communist League.

On October 30, the population of Quebec will vote for or against sovereignty. In the present circumstances, this is a clear referendum on independence. The oppression of the Qu b cois, who form a separate nation with their own distinct language and culture, is a cornerstone of capitalist rule in Canada. From the British Conquest of 1759, to the crushing of the Patriote rebellion in 1837, to the War Measures Act of 1970 and repeated threats to "use the sword" against any move to independence, the Anglo-chauvinist rulers have kept Quebec forcibly confined in a "united," and necessarily oppressive, federal state.

The government in Ottawa has made clear it is not about to agree to any amicable new "partnership" with Quebec. Liberal prime minister Chrétien, who sat in the Trudeau cabinet when Ottawa sent the army to occupy Montréal in 1970, threatens to refuse to recognize a majority Yes vote as a mandate for independence. And the New Democratic Party (NDP) provincial premiers Romanow and Harcourt (and ex-premier Rae in Ontario) have joined the Liberals, Tories (Conservatives) and Preston Manning's viciously anti-Quebec Reform Party in a grotesque chauvinist front against Quebec's national rights.

The prospects for anti-capitalist class struggle in Canada today are deeply poisoned by nationalist bigotry. Spawned by the oppression of the Québecois under the heel of the unitary Canadian state, and fueled by the bourgeois nationalists of the Parti Quebecois (PQ) and Bloc Quebecois (BQ) who seek to be exploiters of their "own" working class, these animosities have bitterly divided the working class of English Canada and Quebec. As revolutionary internationalists who seek to clear the road for common struggle by the workers of both nations against their common capitalist enemy, the Trotskyist League/Ligue Trotskyste calls for an independent Quebec. Thus we believe that class- conscious workers in Quebec should vote Yes in the coming referendum.

Since the triumph of the "Quiet Revolution" in the 1960s and '70s, the development of Quebec society has been sharply away from assimilation into English-dominated Canada and toward separation. The late 1980s/early '90s saw a vicious chauvinist uproar in English Canada against the Meech Lake Accord's simple affirmation that Quebec is a "distinct society." This was followed by another surge in separatist sentiment in Quebec, leading to a massive vote for Bouchard's ind pendantiste BQ in the 1993 federal election. In the same election, workers in whole regions of English Canada backed the anti-Quebec bigots of Manning's Reform Party.

National chauvinism has divided the workers, undermining class struggle in the face of ever more sweeping attacks on wages, jobs and social programs from both Ottawa and the provincial governments. The union movement is increasingly riven: today not only all three Quebec labor federations but even the Quebec wings of countrywide unions like the Auto and Postal Workers support independence. We advocate independence for Quebec as the means to break down national and chauvinist antagonisms. Only through separation into two independent states can it be made clear to the workers of both nations that their real enemy is not "the French" or "les Anglais," but their "own" capitalist rulers.

Defend Quebec's Rights, Defend Native Rights!

While Chrétien and his lieutenants brandish the sword of "Canadian unity," nationalist leaders Bouchard and Parizeau want independence in order to more fully exploit the workers of Quebec, and lord it over Native peoples and other minorities. Bouchard's grotesque comment about the need for more children "of the white races" in Quebec speaks volumes about the racist mindset of these bourgeois nationalists, mirroring the anti- immigrant and anti-Native hysteria fanned by the rulers in English Canada.

Aboriginal people in particular are in the racist rulers' crosshairs. The PQ's draft sovereignty bill pledges to uphold Quebec's "territorial integrity." These are code words for denial of the rights of the Cree, Inuit and other Native peoples who make up the overwhelming population of northern Quebec and have made clear that they do not want to be part of an independent Quebec. The capitalists in both Quebec and English Canada are determined to hold onto this resource-rich region, whose rivers feed the hydroelectric power stations that are the mainstay of the modern Quebec economy.

The labor movement must defend Native rights against today's all-sided racist offensive. In particular, that means upholding the right of the aboriginal populations of the north to regional autonomy and to decide their own fate, whether that be in Quebec or a rump Canada. But we emphasize that, in either case, the capitalist ruling class will continue to oppress and brutalize the Native peoples. We fight for an egalitarian socialist society which can alone redress the centuries-long oppression of the aboriginal populations.

Quebec and the Left

A correct stance toward the national question in the Canadian state today is decisive for those who would fight for working-class unity and a socialist future. But in both English Canada and Quebec, most of the left is in thrall to either Quebec nationalism or--far worse --to Anglo chauvinism.

The NDP, right-wing social democrats who seek to manage capitalism on behalf of Bay Street, are by no means alone in appealing to prop up the oppressive federal state. The Communist Party, for example, has stayed true to form in calling for a No vote, issuing yet another "urgent appeal for a united Canada" which calls for a "new, equal and democratic union."

Then there are the International Socialists (I.S.), who in 1992 called to vote in favor of (then prime minister) Mulroney's Charlottetown referendum, which aimed to reinforce the chauvinist status quo of a "united" capitalist Canada. On 20 September, Socialist Worker came out for a Yes vote in Quebec's sovereignty referendum, albeit with spurious arguments which attempted to dodge the question of independence. Then the I.S. did a 180 degree about-face. In the next issue (4 October) they wrote:

"We have to let them [Quebec workers] know that they are welcome in Canada. We need them in our struggles...."We must demand that our government negotiate with Quebec in good faith. We must demand that [federal finance minister] Martin and Chrétien abandon all threats and agree to a new economic and political association."

The fact that self-proclaimed socialists could portray the Anglo-chauvinist capitalist rulers in Ottawa as "our" government says just about all there is to say about where the I.S. is coming from. Their plea for Chrétien to "negotiate" a new "economic and political association" is simply a call to refurbish the existing, necessarily oppressive capitalist state.

A small Maoist group in Montréal, Action Socialiste (A.S.), raises the call to "Don't Vote Yes!"--which, they explain, means you should vote No, abstain, boycott, or whatever else you want. A.S. claims that this is the way to "rebel against the capitalists" of Quebec. But beyond the fact that most Quebecois capitalists currently oppose independence, A.S. willfully ignores the reality of national oppression in Quebec--and that this oppression has produced deepgoing national divisions which sharply undercut prospects for proletarian struggle in both nations. Behind their left rhetoric stands de facto support to the oppressive federal status quo.

Even worse, a leaflet issued by the tiny Bolshevik Tendency in Toronto calls for a No vote while nowhere mentioning--much less opposing--the national oppression of Quebec. Three years ago, the BT refused to vote No to Mulroney's Charlottetown gambit. Their statement calling for abstention failed even to defend Quebec's right to independence. Now they are quick to say No to Quebec separation, claiming, in the face of all reality, that English Canadian and Québecois workers show a "considerable desire for unity."

The BT flatly denies that there has been an upsurge of chauvinism in English Canada over recent years, or that the national divide has served to stifle working-class struggle throughout the Canadian state. Instead they conjure up a fantasy world where Québecois workers retain the militancy of the 1960s and early '70s--militancy which was in fact spawned in large part by opposition to national oppression--and continue to spark joint class struggle across Canada. The BT's position isn't so much self-delusional as an expression of their disdain for any kind of struggle against special oppression. In the real world, their call for a No vote puts them in a united front with the chauvinist Canadian ruling class.

Despite ritual genuflection to the right of self-determination and appeals to the Quebec working class to "unite and fight," from the Communist Party on down these organizations end up capitulating to the Anglo-chauvinist status quo. As we wrote in the latest issue of Spartacist Canada (No. 105, September/October 1995), "Only by standing forthrightly against the nationalism of an oppressor nation can the proletarian vanguard claim the moral authority to call on workers of the oppressed nation to fight their `own' nationalist leaders, who seek to solidify their place among the exploiters and oppressors."

Toward Socialist Revolution

Our advocacy of Quebec independence has nothing in common with that of the various "left" apologists for nationalism. While calling for a Yes vote, organizations like the Communist League and the Gauche Socialiste group (Quebec supporters of the fake- Trotskyist United Secretariat) provide a left cover for the bourgeois nationalists of the PQ and BQ.

Rejecting the elementary proposition that there should be equal language rights for all, including francophones (French speakers) in English Canada and anglophones in Quebec, these groups support restrictive and undemocratic legislation like the PQ's French-unilingualist Bill 101. Far from fighting for a revolutionary working-class alternative to the nationalists, three years ago Gauche Socialiste even tried to form a joint youth group with the PQ. Meanwhile their co-thinkers in English Canada, Socialist Challenge, support the NDP, who are ferocious enemies of Quebec's national rights!

The task of Marxist revolutionaries is not to ignore or minimize the realities of national and racial oppression--the stock-in-trade of the social democrats and most fake-leftists-- but to put forward a revolutionary program and perspective which can overcome them. Through advocating independence for Quebec, we seek to get the national question "off the agenda": to lay a basis for redirecting the workers' consciousness and struggle against their "own" capitalists, whether in Ottawa and Toronto's Bay Street financial district or Quebec City and Montréal's Rue St-Jacques. Our fight is for a revolutionary workers party which can rally the multiracial, binational working class against all forms of capitalist exploitation and oppression, in the struggle for international socialist revolution.