First Published: In Struggle! No. 207, June 3, 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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Partial results so far indicate that between 600 and 1,000 voters spoiled their ballots in each of a number of working-class ridings. In at least one riding, there were more than 1,000 spoiled ballots. On the average, this corresponds to between 2% and 3.5% of the total number of ballots.
Although our goal was 5%, these results should be considered a success in the context of the rules of the referendum. The effect of the Referendum Act (Bill 92) was to polarize the debate between the ’yes’ and the ’no’ camps and to hinder the expression of all other opinions.
It should also be noted that the turnout at the polls was lowest in the working-class ridings. As well, a number of Native nations abstained from voting as a way of expressing their opposition to both the ’yes’ and the ’no’ positions.
All this indicates that the “spoil-your-ballot’ position had a real impact on public opinion. This was not due to the work of IN STRUGGLE! alone, but it must be recognized that IN STRUGGLE! was the organization that put forward this position the most actively. It was also the only organization that invested as much time and effort to encourage broad discussion and debate among workers and progressive people on what the interests of the working class were in relation to the referendum.
IN STRUGGLE! campaigned on a number of fronts. It distributed publications and did agitational work at the doors of political rallies for the ’yes’ and ’no’ positions, in schools and factories, in working-class neighbourhoods, in shopping centres and at subway stations. The 20,000 copies of the pamphlet No to renewed federalism! No to sovereignty-association! were nearly all distributed. Of this number, more than half were sold – a percentage that reflected the orientation established at the beginning of the campaign. The pamphlet definitely had an impact. For example, comrades in St. Hyacinthe reported that a worker there contributed $2.00 for one issue of the newspaper after reading the pamphlet. In another case, a fellow-worker of someone active in the campaign decided to spoil his ballot after reading the pamphlet.
Posters and other forms of publicity were used in a variety of ways. Tens of thousands of posters, stickers and slogans went up on bridges, walls and sidewalks throughout Quebec to counter the ’yes’ and ’no’ camps advertising campaigns with a defence of the ’spoil-your-ballot’ position. Close to five thousand ’Spoil-your-ballot’ buttons were sold in the space of four weeks. Wearing the button was a sure way to spark people’s interest and start a discussion on the subject.
Work during the final week of the referendum campaign culminated with car parades in a number of cities and a public, open-air meeting in Montreal. Close to 35,000 copies of the newspaper were distributed in one week. A number of comrades suggested that we should have organized similar actions earlier in the campaign, because it proved to be a very effective way of contacting thousands of workers curious about our position.
IN STRUGGLE! also gave high priority to encouraging and helping to organize debates on the referendum among broad sectors of the population. Its goal was to encourage the expression of all points of view on the referendum so as to bring out what was at stake for the workers. It was most successful in the student milieu: approximately fifteen debates were held in CEGEP; and universities. The open-minded attitude of a number of student supporters of the ’yes’ vote (members’of the MEOUI) should be pointed out: on several occasions they even obliged PQ members of the national assembly to debate with spokespersons for IN STRUGGLE!.
The work was less fruitful in the popular and labour movement. The CNTU and the Quebec Federation of Labour decided in favour of a’yes’ vote without any serious broad debate in the local unions. In a number of local unions, IN STRUGGLE! supporters suggested that debates be organized so as to present workers with the various positions put forward on the question, even if these debates were not to lead to taking official stands. In most cases, various pretexts were invoked for not taking up these proposals.
Nonetheless, and partly as a result of our work, some popular organizations in Montreal, and notably some anti-imperialist groups, organized debates for their members. Many of those who participated supported the ’spoil-your-ballot’ position. The theatre troupe Theatre A L’OUVRAGE also played a very active role in the campaign. It presented its play “Une’histoire sur not’dos” 44 times in localities throughout Quebec and northern Ontario. Five thousand students and ’working-class people saw the play.
IN STRUGGLE!’s goal was to make the campaign as broad-based as possible. It therefore encouraged the creation of a coalition of all those who supported the ’spoil-your-ballot’ position on the basis of a platform that rejected Bill 92 and the ’yes’ and ’no’ positions and defended the rights of the Quebec nation and the unity of popular forces in the battle against national oppression.
It helped set up a committee that concentrated its work on organizing the May 10 Teach-in on “Workers and the Referendum”. Generally speaking, the debates at the teach-in enabled participants to understand more clearly the basic issues at stake and the implications of the call to “spoil your ballot”. However, some of the speakers from the floor who defended the ’spoil-your-ballot’ position intervened in an overly-sectarian way, especially with respect to the ’critical support for the yes’ position. While it is important to demarcate the political positions involved, this does not mean that we should reject as “agents of the PQ” all those who are still influenced by nationalism but who nevertheless have substantial disagreements with the PQ and what it does. it will also oe necessary to intensify the debate in the labour movement and among progressives on the question of independence for Quebec. The teach-in was a first step in this direction, and we should be attentive to the lessons to be drawn from it.
’Spoil-your-ballot’ committees were also set up in a number of CEGEPs and universities and some students became actively involved in their work. At the CEGEP Maisonneuve, for example, the committee distributed three leaflets massively, manned a booth at the ANEQ (Quebec student organization) convention, arranged for the Theatre A L’OUVRAGE! to play to an audience of 100 people, published five articles in the student newspaper and took part in a debate between student supporters of the ’yes’, ’no’ and ’spoil-your-ballot’ positions that drew another 100 people.
Another positive aspect of the campaign was that it got a number of people actively involved in the work who previously had been interested but inactive in the Organization. Small conferences and kitchen meetings were ways of involving many new people in discussion of our positions. In St. Jerome, 43 people agreed to publish an ad supporting the ’spoil-your-ballot’ position in a local newspaper. In a factory in St. Hyacinthe, four workers signed a leaflet calling on others to spoil their ballots. And these are only two of the many examples that could be given.
The movement to challenge Bill 92 led to the creation of a committee of jurists against Bill 92 – a very positive development that has raised the possibility of creating a more permanent coalition or organization of progressive lawyers and legal workers.
The ’spoil-your-ballot’ campaign won another important victory when its supporters successfully defended their right to distribute at rallies for the ’yes’ vote by publicly denouncing the Chevalier de l’independance who were harassing them and organizing practical, effective ways of countering their provocations.
Some had perhaps feared that the’spoil-your-ballot’ campaign would isolate us from thr masses. In practice, however, it had exactly the opposite effect. The campaign enabled us to broaden our political presence in Quebec, work with new sectors of the population and in new regions, and develop our influence among progressive people and class-consciou workers. Thousands of people supported the ’spoil-your-ballot’ position and it commanded the interest and respect of further thousands. Of particular significance was the increase in the sales of the newspaper IN STRUGGLE! in a number of places after the referendum, because people wanted to know how we analysed the results.
Political events and developments since the referendum have confirmed the analysis of the situation that we put forward and defended during the referendum campaign. The seed we sowed was good, and should allow us to reap even better results in the coming months.