First Published: In Struggle! No. 209, June 17, 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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The movement to defend Quebec’s right to self-determination has taken root across Canada over the past six months. It has taken the anti-Quebec great nation chauvinist views, which the capitalist establishment promotes everywhere, head on. There have been many public meetings, information pickets, press conferences, media interviews, and resolutions put forward in unions. One of the key reasons why so much has been accomplished is that unity of action was attained between a broad cross-section of democratic, progressive and revolutionary forces. The time has come to draw the lessons of what, has been a very positive experience.
From the first moment that we got involved, in December, our Organization put a lot of stress on building the broadest possible unity. We figured that unity of this scope would make it possible to engage in activities in defence of Quebec’s rights on a much greater scale than any of the groups, parties, organizations or groupings could singly. Those who were ready to uphold the right of Quebec to self-determination had to be brought together. A united movement had to be organized which could have the maximum impact on public opinion. It was quite a tall order.
Two IN STRUGGLE! members, Normand Bissonnette and Mordecai Briemberg, visited Vancouver, Regina, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Moncton and Halifax in December and January. They met with more than 50 people active in various different milieux: the trade unions, women’s liberation, legal rights, university circles, progressive art, student organizations and national communities (Ukrainian, Acadian, recent immigrants, Native, francophones outside Quebec).
Our goal was decidely not to get these people working in connection with our Organization as so many mini-planets to our sun. The objective was to persuade as many people as possible of how urgently necessary it was to carry out imaginative and united activities across Canada to fight anti-Quebec chauvinism. We put forward concrete proposals for structures and actions that might possibly be organized in order to stimulate others to develop their initiative. In doing so, we were also able to get feedback that helped us comprehend better what had to be done to unite all those people who recognized Quebec’s right to self-determination. We looked at the pros and cons of various possible actions together with these progressives to figure out which ones would have maximum impact on public opinion in each area.
We pressed upon people that if they were truly of the opinion that the cause was a just one they should take the first step themselves and do something in their city, area or organizations in which they were active. They shouldn’t wait around for someone else to make the first move. Even a very simple low-level action like publicly condemning the People to People petition or selling the “Defend Quebec’s Right to Self-Determination” buttons could get a movement going. We were ready to work with anyone who wanted to get involved in such actions, to join in creating action committees and help get people in touch with one another to coordinate their activities in the initial stages. And that is what we did.
During the visits we advanced a tentative platform as a possible basis of unity. However, we did not say that the specific draft that we had put together was “it” and that it must be adopted word for word as the official programme around which committees were to be formed. The important thing was that the three main points in the proposed document be agreed upon: 1) Quebec is the homeland of a nation and not just a province like the others; 2) it is an oppressed nation; 3) Quebec has the right to choose its own political status, up to and including independence. Those were the only points we insisted on.
Throughout we have held to the view that the committees must not become “fronts” controlled by some political organization. Further, they must operate democratically. We pointed to the example of the Toronto committee to show others that such a thing was possible. We did our best to employ methods of work ourselves that served to build committees of that nature. Thus, for example, when we met with people we always told them about all the other initiatives we had taken in other cities and the ones we were planning to take in future both in and outside their own region. As a result, many people were put in touch with others and were able to combine their energies to carry off actions and set up committees.
After finishing the tour of these cities, we sent a full report to all those with whom we had met. The hope was that by providing all this information to the people who were independent from us politically that they would have the necessary data to function in a genuinely autonomous fashion. If we had proceeded otherwise the chances are that the committees’ autonomy, their broad-based nature and democratic functioning would have been compromised from day one. And without those prerequisites, it would have been well nigh impossible to draw in people into public actions on anywhere near as broad a scale.
Our Organization put a lot of time and energy into working with other individuals and groups to set up committees in many English-Canadian towns. We have been active in the committees in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Prince George, Saskatoon, Regina, Halifax, Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa and Montreal. We have made all sorts of specific proposals, not for the shoddy purpose of “taking over” but to build up a stronger movement.
We have done our best to plan our own activities in such a way that they would not compete with those of the committees. We of course have continued to be active on this issue as always, getting people to sign the Declaration for the Absolute Equality of Languages and Nations, presenting resolutions upholding national rights to union conventions, selling the booklet Quebec has the right to choose and so on.
It is thus our own judgment that on balance our own role within the committees has been basically a positive one, particularly insofar as we have acted as a force for unity among democratic, progressive and revolutionary elements. That does not mean that we did not make some errors. We did goof on occasion but the faults were not major ones and they were acknowledged and dealt with forthwith.
Unfortunately, that is not the whole story. From the very beginning we have had to cope with one attack and lie after another promoted by the Workers Communist Party (WCP). We have refrained from responding to those provocations. We did not want to turn the committees into jousting grounds where debates between political groups went on and on. But the time has come to counter all those distortions and lay out the facts as they really went down.
The one thing that is consistent in everything the WCP has done is its effort to get the maximum number of feathers to put in its cap. It clearly got involved in the committees because they had a potential – if only the WCP could take them over. The desire to be in the driver’s seat led them to be just as systematic in opposing everything and anything associated with IN STRUGGLE!. To top things off, they didn’t spare any of the horses in carrying on with their traditional fairytale that IN STRUGGLE! was doing nothing “concrete” to defend Quebec’s national rights.
The WCP was never motivated by a recognition of the importance of unity or even by the cause itself. What got the juices flowing for them was the fact that the accursed IN STRUGGLE! was on the scene. In Vancouver, the WCP came to the first meetings aimed at creating a committee for the express purpose of saying that it was a “paper committee” that was nothing more than a “front for IN STRUGGLE!”. Having made that stirling contribution to the defence of Quebec’s rights, the WCP rep did a theatrical exit, slamming the door behind him.
The next logical step (logical if you share the WCP’s perspective on things)was to create a parallel committee, which was done. They tried to turn a grouping which had come together to protest the sending out of People to People petitions along with the bimonthly B.C. Hydro bill into a committee to defend the right of Quebec to self-determination. The manoeuvre failed because the people involved in the Hydro action rejected the WCP’s kind offer.
Meanwhile about twenty people had indicated their support for the creation of a committee. The WCP had second thoughts. Maybe that “paper committee” wasn’t so bad after all. They climbed aboard. Never missed a bandwagon yet.
But something still burned our champions of unity: the platform which had been voted by the Vancouver grouping was based on the one which the two IN STRUGGLE! members had been circulating since December (as was the basis of unity adopted by several others). Quite upsetting, especially when the yardstick you use to measure everything is opposing IN STRUGGLE!. The solution: pass around a rival platform. No sooner thought than done. The WCP suggested that the Vancouver committee adopt the Toronto committee platform.
Of course we were not opposed to that in principle. We were never at anytime hell bent on getting all the committees to adopt our perfect platform. Furthermore we agreed with the Toronto platform which says basically the same thing anyway. However, for the WCP these little details are of the utmost importance. The most important detail of all is to come out the winner in a childish competition that it itself creates.
The all-encompassing mission of opposing whatever IN STRUGGLE! is for led the WCP to set up what amounted to a paper committee in Halifax when there was already one in existence. It then went about “negotiating” a “fusion” of the two committees, no doubt so it could boast later about its concern for unity. But it takes two to tango and as many to fuse. This “fusion” was based on false pretences. The infamous committee created by the WCP turned out to have been made up of the grand sum of two people.
In Hamilton, they tried to set up their own committee too and for the same reason, so they wouldn’t have to work with IN STRUGGLE!. But it fell through. They then got involved with everyone else only to complain loudly that there were too many leftists in the committee, hence, we should hold off officially forming it.
The WCP’s sectarianism knows no bounds. In some cases, it literally had to censor things to cover up the fact that IN STRUGGLE! was involved in the same movement. Thus The Forge article on the Vancouver press conference announcing the May Day message to the Quebec people from English-Canadian trade unionists goes through all sorts of contortions to avoid mentioning the name of one of the main organizers. Why? Because he is an IN STRUGGLE! supporter.
The purpose of engaging in common action with others is to have the biggest impact you can. People are organized with the idea in mind of making the thing as broad-based as possible. An elementary corollary to that approach is that your own organization should refrain from any activities that might compete with and take away from those of the committees. The WCP has never accepted or practiced that principle.
The Halifax committee decided one time to picket the convention of the Canadian Council of Unity. Every participating. group was to mobilize its members and contacts. Not the WCP! They had a better idea. Why not organize our own picket line at the same place the day before the committee picket? Why not indeed. Anyone who is the least bit familiar with how the bourgeois press works, and the WCP is a whole lot familiar, knows that they never cover the same type of story two days running.The WCP quite consciously was out to “steal the headlines” for itself away from the committee. Adding insult to injury, they did not get as many of their people out to the committee action the following day as they had mobilized for their own.
The same script was acted out in Ottawa and Hamilton. In Ottawa, the WCP held its own public meeting on May 14 when the meeting which the committee was to organize didn’t come off. Strangely enough the WCP had taken on the job of contacting the Quebec trade unionists that were the indispensable ingredient in the planned committee event. They gave up their efforts after trying two people and the committee meeting had to be cancelled. Then, in a remarkable display of getting second wind, the WCP found all the time and energy required to put together its own meeting at about the same time that the committee one was originally scheduled for.
In Hamilton, the WCP was just too busy to get the postering done and it held up the issuing of the press release about a committee picket line. However, it was not too busy to organize its own picketting on May 5 without bothering to inform the committee.
The WCP of course hid behind the cloak of its right to decide on its own political actions in order to cast aside all the criticisms that were made of such actions. Certainly there is no formal rule written down anywhere obliging any organizations to inform the committees of their activities ahead of time so that any conflict that smacks of political competition and might undermine committee activities can be avoided. But there comes a point when the now-we’re-with-you-now-we’re-not double shuffle becomes more than just annoying. It becomes a systematic campaign to reduce the impact of the committees and to boost the prestige of the WCP. And all the fancy explanations in the world are but so many figleafs to cover a not-so-innocent opportunism.
The WCP has tried incessantly to push others aside so it can get all the limelight. It has shamelessly used the committees time and again to boost itself. Thus one WCPer boasted that “the setting up of many committees across Canada” was another of the famous “concrete” contributions of the Party to the defence of the right of Quebec to self-determination. To see what the WCP newspaper tells its readers about the movement you need only look at pretty well any issue of The Forge in the last 6 months. Strangely enough, the WCP comes across as the organization to which all credit for forward movement is due.
Another example: in Moncton, the first press conference organized by the committee was immediately followed by a second where the WCP announced that it was involved in the committee. And this is the same WCP that liked to lecture others in committees elsewhere about how important it was not to reveal the presence of communists in the committee!
But that’s not all the WCP has done in the opportunism department. One thing you have to give them credit for, they don’t confine themselves to just one or two ways of being opportunist. They took very different stances as often as not in different parts of the country. They would swear the king had no clothes in Halifax one day while declaring him a natty dresser the next in Vancouver. They never tired of spreading malicious gossip about the dastardly deeds of IN STRUGGLE! in other cities, comfortable in the knowledge that the people they spoke to had no way of verifying the accusations.
In Halifax, the WCP waxed eloquent about the importance of keeping the number of people brought into the committee down to a bare minimum to “simplify our internal workings”. Meanwhile in Sudbury the WCP helped stop a committee from being formally established with the argument that it had to have lots of people before it was worth forming. And in Toronto and Vancouver where the committees are relatively large the whole idea of having small, compact committees was never raised by our “small is beautiful” advocates. In fact, the WCP was known for its proposals for very elaborate and complicated internal structures.
To make sure that its chickens would have a better chance of ruling the roost, the WCP also opposed any and all ideas that would lead to co-ordinating the action of different committees. Its opposition is not because it is unaware of the advantages that would come from country-wide co-ordination by the committees themselves. Co-ordination would not only have made it possible to extend the movement into new areas where it is not yet active. It would also break the monopoly of the information about what is going on that inevitably is the preserve of the individuals belonging to political organizations that do function on a national level. Once the monopoly on information goes, the chances to control and manipulate the committees diminish considerably.
The WCP has made frequent insinuations that IN STRUGGLE! was trying to manipulate the committees. Thus WCPers in Moncton and Halifax were strongly opposed to having the committees sell the green button supporting Quebec’s right to self-determination on the grounds that it was identified with IN STRUGGLE!. It is certainly true that we produced that button. However, there is not a mark on it which indicates anything about our Organization and we have taken care not to claim any connection precisely because we want the committees to be able to use them as their buttons. Furthermore, the buttons were donated so that the committees could have all the proceeds from their sale as funds to help pay committee bills.
The WCP position was indefensible. They had to beat a retreat. And they did so in style. One fine day a WCPer came sauntering into the Halifax-Dartmouth committee meeting with a bright green button adorning his lapel. Incredulous, other committee members asked “Why are you wearing an IN STRUGGLE! button?”. Now, that was one helluva question to ask of a feller. But never daunted, our fearless WCPer shot back, “Oh, IN STRUGGLE! didn’t produce this button, it was done by the committee in Toronto.”
Another example: in Vancouver, the WCP also raised a hue and cry about the very idea of letting a musical group associated with IN STRUGGLE! take part in the cultural programme of the committee. “The committee would get identified with IN STRUGGLE!” they shrieked in horror. Meanwhile, in Regina, the WCP brought a “working woman from Bell” into town to participate in a committee public meeting. A fine contribution except for one small fact they conveniently forgot ever to mention to the committee: the average worker was in fact a member of the WCP. The same thing happened in Halifax where the WCP suggested bringing in a “progressive” professor from the University of Quebec who is in fact a well-known member of the WCP. A case of the thief crying thief.
There is more than one way to manipulate. One way is to hide your true colours so you can worm your way up into a leadership position. Hence, the WCP consistently opposed having individuals identify their political affiliation within the committees. In most cases, the committees rejected this approach. So that tack did not work.
All these examples show what the real principles are which guide the WCP in its work. We feel that it is an opportunist line which has nothing in common with the methods which communists must use in intervening in a struggle.
The movement to defend Quebec’s right to self-determination has been a success. This is due to the work done by those who got actively involved and who respected the elementary rules of carrying out a common action with others.
The practice of the WCP can teach us many lessons about how NOT to build unity of action.
If you take any one of these moves by the WCP by itself it may not seem like much. If you ignore how each piece fits into an overall pattern, each little example may appear innocent enough. Put them side by side and you have a very clear picture of the utterly opportunistic motives which have driven the WCP and been the basis of its basic tactic. Don’t take us at our word. We have given you a number of examples of the practice we are criticizing. They are all facts which can be verified by the people who belong to those committees. That is one reason why we suggest that each committee should take the time to sum up its work. If possible, all the committees together should do a single overall evaluation for the movement as a whole.
We belive that one thing that will come out of any objective assessment of the work will be that the WCP did its utmost to reduce the impact of the movement to defend Quebec’s rights. They constantly put their partial interests as an organization above the interests of the whole. The WCP’s childish dedication to oppose everything IN STRUGGLE! does was more important to it than serving the cause it claims to uphold. On all too many occasions, it tried to use the movement to boost its own political image in ways that hurt the committees. Its actions repeatedly undermined the unity and internal life of the committees.