First Published: In Struggle! No. 187, January 15, 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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On December 20 the Parti Quebecois finally revealed the wording of the question it intends to put to a referendum in June. It was the last act in a rather elaborate play which the PQ has been carrying off since it came to power. The question confirmed what had already been evident for quite a while: the PQ referendum, billed as the great day of reckoning for the Quebec nation, is likely to be a hollow mockery. It is but another feather in the cap of a party which has plucked the Quebec national movement clean ever since it began using it to its own ends. It is yet another manoeuvre by a party working to make the national movement serve a handful of francophone capitalists who see that their strength lies in their ability to obtain complete control over State power on the territory of Quebec.
First there was Bill 92, setting the rules for citizen participation in the referendum debate: it forces the people of Quebec to join one of two committees run respectively by the Parti Quebecois and the Quebec Liberals as they are today. And now there is the question which In today’s conditions seems likely to make the referendum little more than just another chapter in the centuries-long saga of petty quarrels between professional politicians in Ottawa and Quebec City. Such squabbles have gone on more or less continuously from Mercier vs. Macdonald through Mackenzie King vs. Duplessis to Levesque vs. Trudeau.
The question reads as follows:
The government of Quebec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations;
This agreement would enable Quebec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, administer its taxes and establish relations abroad – in other words sovereignty – and at the same time, to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency;
Any change in political status resulting from these negotiations will be submitted to the people through a referendum;
On these terms, do you agree to give the government of Quebec the mandate to negotiate the proposed agreement between Quebec and Canada? Yes or No. (official government English translation).
The question as worded by the PQ does not offer the people of Quebec a real choice. It does not permit the choice of a definite political system in place of another. The PC’s question restricts the choice open to Quebecois to granting the government a blank cheque to negotiate a “new deal”. What kind of formula will Ottawa and Quebec City end up agreeing on or disagreeing over? No one knows. But not to worry, there will be a second referendum. That’s when the real decision will be made.
At least, that’s what the PQ is pretending this week. Next year might be different. After all, up until the 1975 PQ convention there was no mention at all of any referendum in the PQ programme. Up to that point, electing the PQ meant opting unambiguously for sovereignty. But in 1975 the tactic of holding a referendum after being elected was added to “The process of acceding to independence”. Now there is a second float in that parade: a second referendum is guaranteed. Between now and the second referendum there will be at least one provincial election, since negotiations are likely to be strung out over several years – as the PQ itself has admitted. Furthermore, the PQ has shown Itself perfectly capable of saying one thing one month and something quite different the next.
Thus the final question is in contradiction with what the PQ committed itself to in its White Paper barely two months ago: “A YES vote by Quebecers would thus be, in fact, a mandate given the Quebec government to make this new agreement a reality through negotiations.” (page 77)
In short, the PQ is leading us all down an endless path going nowhere in particular from referendum to referendum, from one set of negotiations to the next. The PQ is not proposing a solution to national oppression. It is calling for the perpetual postponement of a solution... That is what all the Quebec nationalist leaders have done for at least a century now. These patriotic gentlemen find the national question altogether too useful a tool to have in their hands for them to give it up. Let the problem drag on by all means. It comes in mighty handy as a mechanism to put the pressure on their rivals.
The Mouvement Souveraineté Association (MSA) was created in 1967 and set up the Parti Quebecois a year later. It was still a time when progressive ideas held sway in the Quebec nationalist movement; indeed they were the predominant trend within it. The base of this trend was youth, workers, the women’s movement, the anti-imperialist movement and other progressive forces. The nationalist movement was trying to win the Quebec people over, to get them to endorse its programme of national and social liberation. It did so by supporting workers’ strikes as well as by engaging in struggles around strictly national issues.
The PQ does not come out of this popular movement. It is one section of the Liberal regime of Jean Lesage which held power from 1960 to 1966. It disagreed with the Lesage bloc about the path to follow in what they called the Quiet Revolution: how to quietly go about making the capitalists in Quebec “mattres chez nous” (masters in their own house). They had two difficult tasks before them: first, to convince the bourgeois, the senior managers throughout Quebec, of the advantages of sovereignty-association (it shouldn’t be forgotten that in 1968 the numbers of bourgeois supporting that option didn’t exactly constitute a formidable army); second, the PQ had the delicate mission of keeping alive the hopes and dreams of the former members of the RIN and the rest of the nationalist left who believed that independence was simply the means to the end of freedom for the workers and working people of Quebec. René Lévesque, PQ leader from day one, was the right man for the job. Not only had he the fortune to have led the strike of French CBC producers against a reactionary management and the anti-Quebec Diefenbaker government. He was also the main architect of the nationalization of hydro-electric power in Quebec. Thus he was the father of the largest State-owned monopoly in the country, and a francophone monopoly at that!
Lévesque’s party succeeded In pulling off the trick of winning the hearts of a growing number of bourgeois while holding on to enough popular support to win the 1976 election. That coup persuaded many more capitalists that nationalism could be a profitable venture after all: businessmen, industrialists and bankers have seen their’ companies prosper significantly since 1960. During that same period, the workers have been treated to impassioned ballads about how to love their nation. Sometimes the signing was rudely interrupted with the crack of a billy club on the head. The latest blow to be struck was in the recent struggle of the public sector Common front where Lévesque himself gave the orders. There are a lot more people unemployed today than there were in 1960. Inflation is much greater. The poor are just that much poorer. The facts speak for themselves. The increasing disaffection with the PQ among the people is a direct result of those facts.
The source of the PQ’s “step by step” approach of endless referendums and negotiations is this necessity of playing a double game: to prove themselves to the capitalists while at the same time keeping a hold on a sufficiently broad popular base of support. Up to now it has worked. But the popular support is slipping away with every passing month as one anti-worker action follows another. The PQ continues to lose its electoral strength also, as all the by-elections since 1976 have shown. If and when Ryan gets elected in the next provincial election, sovereignty-association will be dead and burled to all intents and purposes. The nationalists will have played out their role once again: to sidetrack the people’s rebellion while simultaneously using it as a pressure tactic to advance the interests of a section of the bourgeoisie. The PQ’s clever stratagems are not really all that clever. They are the crass manoeuvres of a gang of opportunists. The way they have acted in office and their frequent about-faces on aspects of their programme are making this clearer to more and more people every day.
The time for manoeuvring, about-faces and dilly-dallying around is over. As we have seen, the PQ s referendum doesn’t present the Quebec people with a real choice. To say YES to the PQ means to confide one’s future to a handful of opportunists whose sole aim is to strengthen the position of a group of Quebec capitalists while dangling before the people’s eyes one illusory promise after another subject to perpetual negotiations, To say NO to the PO means, in the present context and whether we like it or not, to indicate support for the status quo. It means taking the side of the chauvinist federalists who have recently demonstrated yet again just how categorically they refuse and will always refuse to accept even the slightest democratic change, including the most basic democratic right the recognition of Quebec’s right to self-determination up to and including separation.
The “constitutional proposals” waved about by Ryan and Clark, like those of Trudeau before them, are of a kind with those made by the PQ. They are just window-dressing to make the Quebec people believe that they really intend to eliminate the injustices of the present federal arrangement. Everyone of these proposals comes down to the same thing: the redivision of powers between the provinces and the federal government. This has got nothing to do whatsoever with recognizing the genuine national rights of Quebec: the right to work and live in one’s mother tongue-in Quebec and throughout Canada; the right to have access to the same services as other Canadians in that language; etc. Those who want to haggle over a division of powers – the PQ along with all the rest of them – most certainly do not conceive of national rights as including the rights of the Indian peoples, the Inuit, Acadian or various other minorities in Canada which often suffer even more acute oppression than many Quebecois.
To say NO to the question, the way the rules of the referendum game have been set up, means endorsing a specific option. It means endorsing the option defined in the statement fo be drafted by the NO umbrella committee run by Claude Ryan himself. To may YES or NO to the PQ’s referendum means to be complicit in a fundamentally opportunist manoeuvre, a manoeuvre mapped out with all eyes on the election polls, a manoeuvre designed to salvage whatever prestige the PQ still has and,to keep it in power. Saying YES or NO means sanctioning a process set out in Bill 92 which is undemocratic on many, many counts. That process ensures that the referendum debate will be strictly confined to the bourgeois parties. The people will be kept on the sidelines watching the parade until the time comes to vote.
This is why IN STRUGGLE! is calling upon the people of Quebec to say load and clear that this game of manoeuvres has gone on long enough. The question of Quebec’s status and Its political future has been clearly defined and laid out In the past twenty years. That is reason enough for the people to be finally given the opportunity to choose. That is why we are raising the demand that the coming referendum clearly put forward the question of the political sovereignty of Quebec. That is the only first step that makes any sense. If that question is not put forward, then there is only one way to respond to the PQ’s referendum as long as the rules and question remain the same: spoil your ballot. Show by that act that you will not allow yourself to be taken in by the current set of nationalist demagogues, the Parti Quebecois. Show that you will not be bamboozled by the chauvinists who are willing to do anything to preserve the status quo of national oppression either.
The national oppression which Quebecois are subject to cannot be separated from the other forms of oppression that the Quebecois workers and masses are victim of. Nor can all this be looked at apart from all the other forms of national oppression familiar to the many nations and national minorities in Canada, including in Quebec. After all, the PQ’s “national plan” is no different from that of the Canadian bourgeoisie when it comes to denying the rights of the Native peoples. Canadian and Quebecois members of the bourgeoisie have in common their frenzied search for hydro-electric resources and minerals in the Far North as a way of solving the capitalist crisis. In comparison, Native rights fade, and disappear, in importance. The James Bay Agreement imposed on Indians by Hydro-Quebec is considered as one of the worst colonial treaty ever signed. The agreement has become a model for the big Canadian monopolies and the federal State in their conquest of the Far North.
That is why IN STRUGGLE! is as much against the,independence of Quebec as it is against sovereignty-association, or the status quo, renewed or otherwise. While we uphold the right of the Quebec nation to self-determination, our Organization advocates the establishment in Canada of genuine equality of languages and nations. We are fighting to have the principle of the equality of languages and nations included as part of the country’s constitution, and have undertaken to fight for this throughout Canada.
In practical terms, we want the Canadian constitution to include the right to self-determination of all nations, and the outlawing of all forms of discrimination against nations and minorities. We also want practical guarantees to enforce these rights. This struggle means that laws and measures must be adopted at all levels of government in Canada. In Quebec, that means the recognition of Native and Inuit rights, an end to the discrimination and repression against them and an and to all privileges for the anglophone minority. The equality of nations and languages is the only democratic solution to national problems.
But it doesn’t take long to realize that such a demand puts into question everything the Canadian State has been since its inception. The bourgeois State has never offered democratic solutions. Instead, it has served up oppression, racism, discrimination and suppression of elementary rights.
The history of bourgeois power in Canada is full of heinous acts whose only purpose was to increase the power of a handful of capitalists – from the bloody suppression of Louis Riel and the Metis Rebellion in 1885, to the century-old refusal to allow Quebec to choose its own future, and the obligation placed on Native peoples to live on reserves. The struggle for a democratic solution to national problems can only come about through attacking this Canadian bourgeois power.
There is one conclusion to be drawn from this: Quebecois workers will succeed in overthrowing the bourgeois regime which is at the source of its national oppression, by uniting with all Canadian workers.
Again, it doesn’t take long to realize that such a struggle is intimately linked to the struggle for socialism. And it is through the struggle of the masses against discrimination and for equality, the struggle to recognize this right in the Canadian constitution and to make equality a reality, that we will create the most favourable conditions for weakening Canadian imperialism. We will also create the conditions for uniting the working class in the revolutionary struggle.
Winning on this score would mean dealing a heavy blow to bourgeois power and markedly improving the living conditions of millions of Canadians of various nationalities. But just as winning the right to free speech and the right of free association does not in itself end the fight against the capitalists, so the establishment of genuine democracy in regard to national questions will not end the revolutionary struggle for socialism. But it would be something the proletariat could use as a base to develop even broader attacks against bourgeois power and thus unite more and more people around it.
The history of the 20th century, both here and abroad, demonstrates that only socialism can offer practical guarantees of, genuine equality of nations and national minorities. Article 6 of the political Programme of our Organization stipulates without any ambiguity: “Socialist construction requires the greatest possible unity of the proletariat and working people of the entire country. Unity, however, is impossible without equality. Therefore, the principle of the absolute equality of languages and nations will be fully applied. There will be no discrimination in work, In education, or in daily life against members of any nation or national minority. Nations will have the inalienable right to decide for and by themselves on their political status, including the right to form an independent State.”
IN STRUGGLE! has no intention of letting things go along as they are right now. It is important to act before it is too late. The stakes in the referendum go far beyond the petty quarrels between Ryan and Lévesque over which one of them will get to run the province. It goes beyond the eternal negotiations between technocrats so favoured by the PQ, the Liberals and the other chauvinist parties. That’s why the struggle must be undertaken without delay to modify both the referendum question and the rules of the referendum as contained in Bill 92. There are many people in Quebec – in unions, community groups, nationalist organizations and even within the PQ – who disagree with the question posed by the Parti Quebecois. There are also many people In Quebec who disagree with the basic elements in Bill 92, in particular the way it flatly denies democratic rights with its two umbrella committees, outside of which no viewpoints can legally be promoted.
Democratic forces In Quebec should unite and demand that the debate on the referendum question in the National Assembly be preceded by a parliamentary inquiry with public hearings to listen to all interested organizations, groups and individuals,on the wording of the question and on aspects of Bill 92 that violate basic democracy.
IN STRUGGLE! holds that the PQ make the question deal directly with the question of Quebec’s sovereignty. We demand respect for the twenty-year old struggle against national oppression. As well, it is completely illogical to ask the people of Quebec to vote on sovereignty-association en bloc, because the association between Quebec and Canada advocated by the PQ Is not a formula which depends only on the people of Quebec. Of course, It’s not impossible to imagine that a sovereign Quebec would form a partnership with Canada. But that would be as a result of an agreement between two States, Quebec and Canada. And to reach that point, the people of Quebec would first have to declare their political Independence.
In addition, Bill 92 should be amended so that all positions on the constitutional future of Quebec can be defended during the referendum campaign. It is true the PQ offers an option – or at least it claims to. But it is important to distinguish between two different things: on the one hand, there’s the interests of the Quebec people as seen by different social classes; and, on the other hand, there’s the PQ’s viewpoint on these same interests. It is impossible to envisage a referendum on a particular option without having those who don’t agree being allowed to present their own option. Legislation which forbids this is clearly undemocratic. The law asks people to examine their political future bit by bit until the option supported by the majority is finally submitted to a vote. If you look at it from this point of view, the total lack of logic in the PQ’s position becomes clear. As well, the PQ referendum is only a form of consultation. It doesn’t mean the government is obliged to apply the wishes of the majority. In other words, a majority of voters could vote yes to sovereignty-association and then see that decision shelved a few months later by Ryan and the Liberals, or by the PQ leaders themselves. But if the idea is really to have the people decide, then the results of a referendum which yields the will of the people must be binding on the government of Quebec, whatever political party is in power.
The bourgeoisie has always manoeuvred to make the national question serve its interests. The PQ is following that tradition. So far, it has succeeded in assuming the leadership of the progressive forces at the source of the national movement over the post twenty years. This goes against the interests of the working class and masses. All organizations, groups and persons really concerned about making the interests of the majority prevail in the coming period should unreservedly get involved in the struggle to see that the spring referendum allows the people of Quebec to make a real choice.
The Political Bureau of the MLOC IN STRUGGLE!
January 14, 1980.