First Published: The Worker, Vol 12, No 7, June, 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.
MONTREAL – The 10,000 devoted militants who cheered Parti Quebecois leader Rene Levesque to the echo on May 20 had a message to deliver: “We are the future.” They refused to let him speak until they had convinced themselves, and Levesque, that there would be no admission of defeat. It was a classic lesson in democracy: the masses leading “the leader.” Later in the evening, 4,000 marched defiantly through the streets of Montreal. And the OUI signs are still up throughout the working class neighbourhoods of Montreal.
On the other side of town, in a half-empty arena Liberal leader Claude Ryan and Co. huddled like a pack of thieves. Too joyous a celebration would have given away the fraud. Dirty tricks, illegal propaganda, malicious rumour mongering, and a hard core 20% vote by Quebec’s piedsnoirs, who only wanted to crush Quebec, enabled Ryan and Trudeau to steal a victory. But they reminded us of Ian Smith’s smug satisfaction after he had elected Abel Muzorewa president of Rhodesia.
The 40% OUI spoke for a massive commitment to an autonomous Quebec. Roughly half of French-speaking Quebecois are now dedicated to their national liberation. Even had the question been much harder – for independence, pure and simple – the results would likely have been much the same. The OUI victory in the Lac Saint Jean and North Shore areas was not a “regional” vote so much as a class vote. These areas are the most industrialized in Quebec – its Turin, its Ruhr Valley, its Detroit. There is little middle ground between workers and capitalists. We know the ridings as Jonquiere, Roberval and Duplessis, but we might just as well refer to them as Alcan, Abitibi-Price and Iron Ore Company.
The five Montreal-area ridings where the OUI won are among the city’s most proletarian. But throughout the Montreal region, including Laval and the South Shore, a strong majority of Francophones voted OUI. Five West Island ridings were the only exception.
Above all, it was the working class that provided the backbone for the OUI. This conclusion was predicted by Maurce Pinard’s accurate poll, and borne out by Pierre Drouilly’s post-referndum analysis in La Presse. The Quebecois working class not only suffers the most from national oppression in all its forms, but it is also the class with the most determination and fearlessness. As Marx said, “it has nothing to lose but its chains.” The middle classes – intellectuals, farmers and petty-bourgeoisie – were torn. The pollsters called them the “undecideds,” and on May 20 they leaned to the NON. Terrified by Ottawa’s campaign of fear, and uninspired by the relatively inactive working class, these wavering elements turned their backs on Quebec. Strong leadership from the proletariat might have swayed them, but instead all they got was an exho of their own fears from Levesque. The large scale capitalists – or big bourgoisie – campaigned and voted for the NON virtually without exception.
The strong working class support for the OUI was evident from the start. Levesque’s daily visits to factories stamped the OUI with its proletarian character. For example, 3,500 out of 5,000 workers at Alcan in Arvida signed the OUI petition. And there were similar declarations at General Motors, Reed Paper and the James Bay Development Corporation. They followed a pattern: the workers would line up squarely with the OUI, while the boss would be named NON committee chairman. Ryan was terrified of factories, and stuck to the neutral ground of shopping centres. When Levesque went to LG2 (a hydro-electric power project), he was greeted enthusiastically by thousands. When Ryan and Bourassa tried to follow him there, they were received by a chilly crowd of 100.
It wouldn’t be out of character for Parti Quebecois theorist Claude Morin to start blaming the defeat on these factory visits. The PQ leadership has always preferred to keep the working class on the sidelines, out of fear of frightening the petty-bourgeoisie. This time Levesque may have reluctantly concluded that he had no other choice. Anyway, the visits were well behaved, and Levesque made sure to keep the union organization out of sight.
The referendum was a profoundly undemocratic exercise, and more and more Quebecois justly believe that they were cheated. The blatant abuses of Bill 92 (which controls election spending) by the federal government went unpunished. (Imagine if the National Assembly had threatened to suspend the campaign until federalist flouting of the law came to a halt.) Despite the OUI’s wide popular base, the capitalist press lined up solidly for the NON. Not one major newspaper, radio station or TV network came out in clear support of the OUI. Considering all this, 40% is an amazing success. And when we take into account the 20% bloc vote of Anglophones and immigrants, the odds against a victory become almost insurmountable.
The virtually unanimous NON from the English and immigrants was spiteful and reactionary. It wasn’t only their 96% unanimity, but their personal and financial participation in the campaign. The English behaved like archetypal colonialists, the infamous “Westmount Rhodesians”. (Westmount is the English bourgeois suburb of Montreal.) We always sympathize with the immigrants, for they too are victims of racism, but we cannot excuse their alliance with the oppressors. Chauvinism cloaked as “multiculturalism” was stirred up in the immigrant communities – by admirers of Mussolini, by fanatic backers of the Greek colonels, by Eastern European war criminals, and by pro-US Saigon officers. The Zionists played a particularly odious role in the NON campaign. Levesque was intimidated into silence about this treacherous “fifth column”, that had doomed the OUI from the beginning. He displayed a naive, heroic tolerance – and the people of Quebec have paid the price.
The trade union movement should have played a paramount role in effectively mobilizing the workers. FTQ (Quebec Federation of Labour) leader Laberge was the least disappointing. He shone, by comparison with Confederation of National Trade Unions leader Rodrigue and teachers union leader Gaulin, as he marched to the grave of Louis Riel (a nationalist martyr), and when he creamed Brian Mulroney in a TV debate. But Laberge performed best in Winnipeg or on English TV. Among Quebec’s Steelworkers and Autoworkers, his message was “behave yourself”. He helped Levesque and Morin keep the working class in the background.
After a year of hesitation, the CSN (Confederation of National Trade Unions) came out for the OUI with an impressive 97% vote. The result might have been closer had the idea of actively campaigning been seriously entertained. The Montreal May Day demonstration, for example, in which CSN forces predominated, virtually ignored the national question. And Gerald Larose, leader of the Conseil Central de Montreal (CSN’s Montreal section), hurt the campaign when he appeared at a meeting organized by the agent provocateurs of En Lutte (a Maoist group). Unlike Laberge, Larose and Rodrigue don’t take their lead from Levesque. Rather, the indifference of the CSN leaders is the result of their syndicalist ideology, which puts unions above and apart from the political arena.
The CEQ (teachers union) hardly rates a mention. The most militant in rhetoric, it is also the most timid in battle. Last summer the CEQ rushed ahead of the other centrals, and, before the referendum question had even been announced, said it would abstain. Its leaders grew more and more embarrassed by their inactivity as the campaign went on, but they had already tied their own hands.
An active, dynamic role by the trade union movement would have greatly strengthened the OUI. The mere threat that the unions might respond to federalist provocations with a demonstration or a strike would have helped to rally the “undecideds”.
With the exception of our own organization, the Canadian Party of Labour, virtually every left-wing political party sided with either the NON or its slimy blood-brother, “annulation”. The enthusiasm with which these opportunist groups condemned the OUI reminds us of Marx’s words: “The sect sees the justification for its existence and its point of honour not in what it has in common with the class movement, but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the movement.” (Marx to Schweitzer, Oct 13 1868.)
The Communist Party of Canada (pro-Moscow) did an eleventh-hour about face, fearful of complete isolation after it had failed in its efforts to convince the CSN and the FTQ to abstain. But this last-minute switch to the OUI was fraudulent, for the CP had changed nothing else in its English-Canadian nationalist line. It justified its OUI as a vote for “national equality” and for a “made-in-Canada constitution”. The CP continues to maintain that the Quebec independence movement objectively favors US imperialism.
The most notorious was En Lutte, which invested tens of thousands of dollars (we still can only speculate about its financial supporters) in the “j’annule” (spoil your ballot) campaign. En Lutte had already made similar efforts in an anti-Bill 101 campaign. It had also shown its willingness to co-operate with the Liberals (Liberal leader Jean-Noel Lavoie gladly presented En Lutte’s anti-Bill 92 petition to the National Assembly). After the referendum, En Lutte announced that “the workers” had voted against “the PQ and sovereignty association” and “for Canada”. It cynically neglected to comment on the “success” of its annulation campaign.
In En Lutte’s wake were several other parties with the same despicable position, and the same sterile strategy, but lacking the extraordinary arrogance of En Lutte leader Charles Gagnon and his friends. The Forge preferred to demagogically profess its abstract opposition to national oppression, and to bury its concrete support for national oppression (“annulation” and “Canadian unity”) in the last paragraph of long articles. Like the CP, it was unnerved by the complete isolation of its reactionary position. Locked in by Peking’s pro-Canada position, The Forge figured the less said the better. Like En Lutte and the CP, it had already done its dirty work in an unsuccessful campaign to stop the CSN from supporting the OUI.
The Trotskyites characteristically attacked from the “left”, explaining that because the OUI was not for pure independence, that they too would have to abstain. They passed their time with dishonest public attacks on the dedicated militants of MeOUI (Mouvement etudiant pour le OUI – a student nationalist group).
Only one group dared to say openly the NON that the others had only dreamed. The CPC(ML) of Hardial Bains had had its political nerve-ends so numbed by years of sectarianism, that it had no trouble pronouncing itself on the side of Ryan and Trudeau. Though it purports to loyally follow the line of Enver Hoxha, just as it did Mao for ten years previously, CPC(ML) completely violates the spirit of Hoxha’s writings.
Despite this abysmal chauvinism from the established parties of the Quebec left, and the indifference of the trade union movement, the referendum was the occassion for a remarkable flowering of a genuine left, a left which counts the national liberation of Quebec among its tasks. We date the emergence of this movement to the late-December, when the just-formed student group called MeOUI publically burned the BNA Act in response to the Supreme Court’s rejection of Bill 101. From the start, MeOUI operated on the left of the PQ – and opted for a political line and militant tactics that had been obscured since the early 1970s. MeOUI organized militant street demonstrations. Its newspaper published Marxist analyses that were well received by the readership. The forces put in motion by MeOUI were ready to take action on the night of May 20, and they provided what leadership existed to the angry crowd of 4,000 that stormed through Montreal’s streets chanting “SOS-FLQ” and “Trudeau, salaud, Quebec aura to peau”. (“Dirty Trudeau, Quebec will have your skin”).
Meanwhile, in the midst of the campaign, and despite the dissatisfaction of the PQ brass, the Committee d’ Information des Prisoniers Politiques organized two successful evenings of support for the five political prisoners: Rose, Geoffroy, Hudon, Simard, and Lanctot. When famous performers Gilles Vigneault, Yvon Deschamps and Pauline Julien shared the stage with liberated FLQ member Jacques Rose, even if the PQ frowned, the widespread popular sympathy with the fighters of 1970 was evident.
And we cannot speak of a resurgence of the left without mentioning the remarkable popularity of Pierre Bourgault. His dissatisfaction with the referendum tactic was well-known; also, his history as a militant independentiste and opponent of Levesque’s within the movement. Still, he remained a sought-after orator throughout the campaign.
Finally, we humbly include our own Party in this reviving Quebec left. Our strength is modest, however we were the only political party besides the PQ to consistently back the OUI. Our newspaper, l’Ouvrier, delivered a painful wound to one of Quebec’s most hated chauvinist voices, the English newspaper The Gazette, when we published a secret internal memo exposing that newspaper’s campaign of fear. Together with our friends and comrades in other anti-imperialist, workers’ and nationalist movements, we organized the only contingent in the Montreal May Day march to carry the slogan “Vive le Quebec Libre”.
The reviving nationalist left, which is committed to an independent, anti-imperialist and ultimately a socialist Quebec must now create new political forms. It is absolutely essential, for the very survival of the national liberation movement, that the working class independentiste forces start to play a distinct political role.
From the standpoint of tactics, the referendum has been a bitter experience. The deck was stacked from the outset. The possibility that Quebec could achieve its liberation by the ballot box is remote if not altogether impossible. The continued intransigence of the English Canadian capitalists, and their support by US imperialism, points with ever greater certainty towards an armed conflict. Our job must be not to shy away from this prospect, but to prepare for it.
The celebrated Puerto Rican revolutionary, Juan Antonio Corretjer, remarked following the referendum that with 40% of the vote and the paving stones of Quebec City, Quebec can have its independence. The growing revolutionary climate in the nation is exciting and full of great potential. But the post-referendum political situation is extremely dangerous.
The “promise” of “meaningful negotiations for a renewed federalism” was a sop: the English-Canadian capitalists have in mind just the opposite. Now they will take the referendum defeat, and attempt to “solve” the Quebec question once and for all. And they have in mind “solving” it not in the spirit of Pepin-Robarts (a government report of 1971, ignored by Trudeau) so much as in the spirit of Lord Durham (English colonialist of 1840 who recommended destruction of the French nation). Even Trudeau and Chretien may find their political careers at an end. Like twentieth century Georges-Etienne Cartiers (token French supporter of Confederation in 1867), they too have fulfilled their mission for the English.
It appears this “resolution” of the Quebec question will include a general centralization of powers. But the knife aimed at Quebec’s heart will be the attack on the minimal language rights that are already enshrined in Bill 101. The English-Canadian capitalists won the frantic loyalty of Quebec’s chauvinist 20% with the promise to “fix” Bill 101. The Supreme Court has already carved one slice off the Charter of the French Language. Trudeau’s made-in-Canada constitution will gobble up the rest. Genocide is not too strong a word, for they have in mind setting Quebec back on the same path as the French-speaking peoples of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, Ontario and New Brunswick, who are disappearing.
Accompanying this political counter-attack, we anticipate a renewal of RCMP terrorism and the threat of a military invasion, like in 1970. Let us remember that we are dealing with the same violent ruling class that hung the Patriotes (in the 1837 rebellion), murdered Louis Riel and gunned down anti-conscriptionists in both wars.
Unfortunately, Levesque’s willingness to accept defeat and to “respect the majority” is an invitation to repression. Ryan and Trudeau don’t believe in “fair play”, but rather the “kick a man when he’s down” tradition of English colonialism. That’s why Levesque’s weakness the night of May 20, and after, was so dangerous, and why the optimistic message of the cheering Paul Sauve arena crowd was so essential. Militant demonstrations and political strikes take on an important defensive role, and are the best warning to Trudeau to keep his hands off Quebec. At the same time, they prepare the stage for a renewed offensive, one in which revolutionary tactics promise the victory that eluded Levesque and his demoralizing bourgeois parliamentarism.