First Published: In Struggle! No. 205, May 21, 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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The defeat of the ’yes’ option in the Quebec referendum disappointed many Quebec workers. The same response existed even among a sizeable number of progressives in English Canada. All of which goes to show that the Parti Quebecois, although it lost the vote, has succeeded in an important way in taking in a significant number of workers, especially young workers.
But any judgement about the referendum must be based on the facts as they are and not the seductive words and promises in the mouths of politicians. The simple fact is: a victory for the ’yes’ option would have been no better for the Quebec workers than the ’no’ victory is going to be. The referendum was not a fight between the progressive forces on one side and the reactionaries on, the other. It was merley a battle between two bourgeois camps, one of which made more promises about a few extra reforms.
The most conclusive proof of the validity of this interpretation is in the immediate reactions to the referendum results. Leaving aside Claude Ryan who is overwhelmed by his impatience to become Premier Ryan, all of the big Canadian capitalists reacted in the same way. From the Financial Post, to the number one representative of capital, Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, all bourgeois commentators called upon the P.Q. to abandon its option and to negotiate renewed federalism in good faith.
Premier Levesque is in no hurry to become opposition leader Levesque. Barely two days after the results were in, he announced that the P.Q. was ready to set aside, temporarily at least, its sovereignty-association option “to give federalism another chance”. MNA Gerald Godin indicated that the Quebec government might well put off the provincial election until the latest date permitted under law, namely November 1981!
The reactions of the businessmen and politicians have the merit at least of bringing the referendum results down to earth. However, the ’no’ victory must still be explained, especially the fact that the vote was massive and decisive, even among francophones.
Some of the explanations going the rounds are the predictable crude variety. The old favourite, namely blaming the English and other non-francophone minorities in Quebec doesn’t wash because the margin was bigger than that. The fall-back argument that the P.Q. and its friends have come up with is to blame the elderly, the timid and even the uneducated. Jean Garon, Quebec Minister of Agriculture, said publicly: “It was the most dynamic forces of society that supported the ’yes’ option. The ’no’ option got its support from older people and the less well-educated.”
The Pinard poll turned out to be the most accurate of all the voter surveys. It contends that its findings indicate that the ’yes’ option won majority support in only one age group: those between 18 and 25 years of age. Are we to understand from the P.Q.’s explanation that in order to be part of the dynamic forces of the nation, you must be under 25 and have at least your B.A.? The P.Q. and its camp followers have yet again allowed their fundamental contempt for the people to get in the way of a serious analysis of the referendum vote.
Another line of explanation is that the ’no’ victory is mainly due to the threats and campaign of fear waged by the federal government, the Quebec Liberals, and their partners in federalist camp. One can certainly explain the vote of many people in this way, such as a number of civil servants, pensioners, and welfare recipients who would be afraid of having their source of income cut off. However, any serious analysis would have to discard this as the main factor explaining the 60% ’no’ vote (54% among francophones). The people that use this argument must explain why these same government employees and person dependent on social assistance are willing to risk a lot more than the vague possibility of a lower cheque from Quebec City than Ottawa when they see that their interests are really at stake in some issue. We are talking here of course of the countless occasions when the poor, aged and uneducated that Garon so despises have openly protested against the government.
Finally, there are those who try to explain away the ’yes’ option defeat by blaming the type of campaign waged by the P.Q. The ’no’ side won according to the long-time nationalists because the P.Q. didn’t talk enough about sovereignty. It was Claude Morin’s “one-step-at-a-time” strategy that was at fault. Others, like QFL boss Louis Laberge and CNTU chief Norbert Rodrigue say the ’no’ won because the P.Q. leadership downplayed the social reform part of their programme too much.
This last explanation at least has the merit of being based on a political analysis and not just on biases about certain social groups. However, the argument has one major flaw. Both the long-time nationalists and social-reformists are asking the P.Q. to be something else than what it really is. Neither of these groupings obviously is willing or able to explain why the P.Q. is what it actually is instead. The critical supporters of the P.Q. are in fact putting forward an explanation which serves no other function than to maintain the worst illusions about the supposed progressive character of the P.Q.
The critical supporters say the P.Q.’s “one-step-at-a-time” approach is the personal view of Claude Morin alone. However, it has always received the support of Rene Levesque and his key advisors. It was also adopted by the P.Q. convention and that was hardly by accident or some stroke of fate. That approach is the party approach because it is the very essence of the P.Q. and what it stands for. Since it was founded by Levesque and others who left the Quebec Liberal Party, the P.Q. has been the party of those bourgeois elements who see the mounting popular struggles against national oppression as a handy lever which they can use to obtain a stronger Quebec State. Such a State would be more useful in carving out a bigger place for them in the Canada-wide capitalist market. And in fact, those monopolies which are “the children of the Quiet Revolution” have expanded considerably in the past few years: the Federation des Caisses populaires Desjardins, Culinar, Provigo, the National Bank, Hydro-Quebec...
But ay, there’s the rub. These monopolies or up-and-coming future monopolies do not want their access to the Canadian market and Canadian capital to be compromised by any form or shade of political independence. In other words, the option of straight political sovereignty does not have a broad enough support among Quebec capitalists for it to have any chance of being implemented, at least in the forseeable future.
This was already evident from the difficulties the ’yes’ forces ran into in gathering support from those Quebec capitalists, who nevertheless have repeatedly shown their appreciation of the P.Q’s “good, government”.
In fact, the main support for sovereignty-association is among intellectuals, small businessmen and professionals. For one thing, they do not have the same interests as the Quebecois industrialists and financiers in maintaining the Canadian State and market intact. For another, these strata have a considerable interest in building up a Quebec State which would be more generous in providing them with the hand-outs and privileges which they could never hope to get from Ottawa. From Day One, these petty-bourgeois strata have made up the bulk of the P.Q. membership. They have also been the strongest supporters of the ’yes’ option.
The working class saw the P.Q. as a way of protesting against the rotten anti-worker Bourassa regime, in power until 1976. But three years of P.Q. government have demonstrated pretty clearly that piecemeal social reforms mainly serve as a screen to gain acceptance for the same old anti-worker laws. Many workers are beginning to see this. Hence, workers did not vote all one way, but voted both ’yes’ and ’no’. Further, the P.Q. option lost out even in its stronghold ridings and their candidates have lost every by-election including in supposedly “safe” P.Q. constituencies.
In a long term sense, the option of political sovereignty for Quebec would change nothing as far as the status of the working class in society is concerned. Sovereignty has never had very deep roots of support in the working class.
The P.Q. is thus faced with a choice: it can give up governmental power and carry on lighting for sovereignty-association; or, it can hang on to power and progressively give up one-step-at-a-time if you prefer, sovereignty-association. The Levesque government has already made its choice, a bare two days after the referendum.
The time is well passed nigh for breaking with the harmful illusions which have kept the workers’ movement and many Quebec progressives tailing after the P.Q. During the referendum campaign, a significant number of union locals and community groups raised their criticisms of the P.Q. option. Some went as far as to refuse to support the ’yes’ option at all, even critically. Some advocated spoiling your ballot or at least a full and open debate in the working class and labour movement.
Breaking with those illusions is especially important because the next few years promise to be very difficult ones for the working class in Quebec and in Canada. Things are going to be tough in the economy and in terms of the denial of, democratic and national rights. Let there be no illusion on one point at least: the national oppression of the Quebec people did not end on November 15, 1976 or May 20, 1980.
History shows that the only lasting progress obtained by workers has been due to their own struggles: the struggle for the right to speak French on the job, the fight against plant shutdowns, the battles for the same wage levels in the different regions.
It is not struggles that workers lack in Canada these days, especially struggles for national rights. Native peoples in all parts of Canada continue to resist courageously against the oil and mining giants’ the latest campaign to steal their lands.
Racism against Blacks and Asians has reached frightening proportions in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and all the major Canadian urban centres. We call them “immigrants” but many of the victims of racism have been Canadian citizens for upwards of 40 years. But where there’is racism, there is resistance, and the popular movement to fight against racism has already made certain strides.
The economic crisis which is getting steadily worse brings with it more and more anti-worker repression. You cannot even count anymore the number of attacks on the right to strike and the right to unionize, not to mention all the attacks that accompany the stepped up preparations for another world war that are well under way.
That should be plenty enough reasons for most workers and progressives in Canada to see the need for a unified struggle against the whole bourgeoisie, instead of a continuation of the failed tactics of supporting one group of capitalists against another.
This lesson is all the more important to draw because the Quebec referendum result has stimulated a new wave of promises of constitutional reform. Pierre-Elliott Trudeau is conveniently forgetting his last twelve years in power. He is serving up the same old promises that he made in 1968: a new Canadian constitution which will be more just to all Canadians. On the evening of May 20, one could be forgiven for thinking for a moment that Trudeau’s speech was a replay of one of his old speeches promising a “Just Society”. You remember those speeches. They are the ones he made before giving us the War Measures Act in October 1970, the Wage Control Act in 1975 and the revelations about the RCMP in 1977. The NDP is ready and eager to give its full support to Trudeau and all the other statesmen who are working together to make Canada safe for Big Business. Mind you, it is true that this disinterested group of Canadian patriots has forgotten a few small details in its plans for constitutional reform. One of those details is the right of Quebec and Native nations to freely choose their own political status. Another forgotten detail is the right of all oppressed national minorities to full equality in law and in practice with all other Canadians. Those minorities have long been left forgotten, isolated off, in ghettos and low-paying jobs.
Who is going to change things for those forgotten people? Trudeau won’t, nor will Broadbent or Levesque or the bankers in Toronto, Montreal, or Edmonton. Not unless they are forced to.
Only the working class, and especially the organized labour movement, is capable of acting in such a way that the whole process will lead somewhere other than the dead end of strengthening the capitalists and patching up their system of oppression. Only the working class has the power and the will to win the fundamental rights that are spelled out in article 8 of the IN STRUGGLE! programme. Those rights include the equality of languages and nations, the equality between men and women, the right to strike,and complete freedom of association.
In the past few years, and particularly during the referendum campaign, a movement of support of very encouraging proportions for the Quebec people’s national rights has been developing in English Canada.
It is to this movement and the workers of other nationalities that Quebec workers and progressives must turn. They cannot rely on those who have already indicated their willingness to continue on supporting the P.Q. in whatever it does and, says, no matter how hypocritical. Neither must they throw critical support yet again to another gang of opportunists who promise to deliver the independence of Quebec.
Workers in Quebec have the same interests as every other worker in Canada. They face the same enemy, the capitalists of any and all nationalities. Our day-to-day struggles and everyday life prove this over and over. It is up to us to act accordingly.
The Political Bureau of MLOC IN STRUGGLE