The Quebec National Movement in the 1960s

First Published: Proletarian Unity, No. 20 (Vol. 4, No. 2) February-March 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: 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.

The PQ government is gearing up for the question that it will put to the Quebec people in a few months. After years of waiting, we finally know what the question will be. It will ask Quebecers to give the government a mandate to negotiate a sovereignty which is dependent on how far the federal government is willing to go in agreeing to an economic association with Quebec. And as if that was not enough, the PQ was careful to add that, in any event, the answer to the question could not be used to change Quebec’s political status. The people will only be able to vote on a substantive proposal after one has been agreed upon by the bourgeoisies of Quebec and English Canada after years of negotiation.

Many people are angry at the wording of the question and the wheeling and dealing that went on before it was decided upon. Federalists and even long-time separatists like Pierre Bourgault and Pierre Vallieres[1] have come out strongly against the gross political opportunism behind this manoeuvre. Quebec has never once had an opportunity to decide on its political future – on whether or not it wishes to be part of Canada – in the one hundred and thirteen years since Confederation. Now that the PQ Is in power, It too has opted to put off this choice until some later date.

The referendum question is, for many, the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. The actual question that has now been unveiled is, however, simply the logical conclusion of the way the PQ has evolved since its founding in 1968. Its subsequent evolution has dashed the hopes that it once raised in the population.

The progressive activists, students, women and workers who took to the streets throughout Quebec in the late ’60s to demonstrate their anger at national oppression are justified in feeling greatly let down. The PQ’s game has become unmistakably clear. It wants to use the vast movement against national oppression to further the interests of the Quebec francophone bourgeoisie. The Quebec people today see what it means for interests to be served as the national rights that they fought for are treated as just so many bargaining points.

The results of the past 20 years of struggle against national oppression in Quebec may look pretty grim to a lot of people. It is extremely important, however, to understand why the mass struggle against national oppression has become a simple electoral bargaining point. We must draw the lessons from this and ensure that history does not repeat itself.

That is the basic aim of this article. We will go back over the main events of the Quebec national movement in the sixties and look at the factors that allowed the PQ to become the undisputed leader of the struggle against national oppression in Quebec.

The PQ’s option began, as it so willingly admits, in the early sixties with what has become to known as the Quiet Revolution.

“Masters in our own house”

The Quiet Revolution refers to that period in Quebec history when the Duplessis Union Nationale regime was replaced by Jean Lesage’s Liberals and the “powerful team” (“equipe du tonnerre”).

The changes wrought by the Quiet Revolution have their origins in Canada’s economic development following the Second World War. Canadian capitalism escaped unscathed from the war. It even provided ”aid” to help Europe rebuild. Canada went through a period of rapid growth. This was the age of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the opening of mines in Shefferville, Gagnon and elsewhere in the Quebec northeast, the development of asbestos mining, etc. At the same time, there was a massive influx of U.S. capital into Canada. From 1950 to 1960, U.S. investment in Canada increased by 250%. The class structure in Quebec was modified substantially by these changes. The rural regions were gradually emptied as people moved to the cities. Agriculture lost its traditional dominant place to industry, mining and especially to the service sector. The Duplessis regime, whose traditional support had come mainly from the farmers, was gradually weakened as its clientele disappeared. This period of economic development raised new hopes amongst Quebec capitalists.’ At the same time, new strata of the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie appeared which were the main forces involved in bringing about the significant changes that took place in the sixties.

The early sixties not only saw a change in the party in power. During this period the bourgeois State also carried through the adaptation to the new needs of an expanding capitalism which had been begun as soon as the war was over. This was especially true for the provincial level of the State in Quebec. The Quebec State apparatus went through a tremendous period of modernization, particularly in the education, social affairs, economic and financial sectors.

The Lesage government’s reform in the economic sphere had the most long-term effects. In 1961, the Economic Council of Quebec was given the mandate of defining a plan for economic development. The plan it developed was reflected in the main economic reforms undertaken by the Liberal government between 1961 and 1966.

The centrepiece of the plan was the nationalization of the electric utilities in 1962. The main architect was Rene Levesque.

The nationalization of electricity gave the State control of a powerful lever of economic development. Hydro-Quebec is now the biggest State-owned monopoly in the country.

At the same time, the nationalization of electricity made an enormous amount of capital available for more profitable sectors. Francophones in the Quebec bourgeoisie were the beneficiaries of about one third of the spending by Hydro-Quebec in 1964.[2] The huge Power Corporation holding company acquired enough cash from these transactions to diversify its operations considerably.

The Quebec government created the Caisse de depots et de placements (an investment corporation) in 1965 to administer the funds collected by the pension and crap insurance fund. By the summer of 1969, one million dollar per working day was flowing into the Caisse.

These transformations, as well as the ones taking place in social services and education, increased substantially the number of people working for the State. There was simultaneously a growth in numbers and a proletarianization of the jobs in the civil service.

This short recap of the main achievements of the Quiet Revolution shows one thing clearly: the Quebec bourgeoisie started the sixties in a highly ambitious mood. Their plans continually came up against obstacles due to the federal structure. This was especially true at that time because the federal government was trying to broaden its jurisdiction into fields that had previously been reserved for the provinces. This happened in communications, natural resources, etc. The Lesage government had conflicts with the federal government over several questions. The Quebec pension scheme was created after Lesage refused to participate in the Canada Pension Plan. His government went through many rounds of constitutional negotiations in order to get more power for Quebec.

It is no accident that the PQ now says that Quebec must continue what was started with the Quiet Revolution. The Quebec bourgeoisie has seen the tremendous possibilities for economic development that political power would give them.

A more important aspect of these changes, however, is the unprecedented upsurge in all social, national and labour struggles that they engendered. Practically all classes became very active and put forward their demands. The struggle against national oppression gave birth to a vast national movement encompassing broad sectors of the labor movement, youth, women and the petty bourgeoisie. The movement reached a peak in the late sixties, but the Quebec nationalist movement had already begun to make itself felt in the beginning of the decade.

“A workers’ Quebec,” “Quebec for the Quebecois”

The two slogans, “A workers’ Quebec” and “Quebec for the Quebecois”, sum up the two main tendencies that characterized the movement and that increasingly came into conflict with one another. These slogans became the rallying cry for hundreds of thousands of workers, young people and women. They organized to demand an end to national oppression, for the right to speak French at work and for an end to chauvinism, discrimination and the privileges of the English-Canadian nation.

The national movement dovetailed with the growth in labour struggles against capitalist exploitation and for union rights. It also intersected with student struggles for the freedom of expression and against an educational system designed to produce unemployed people and docile workers. It merged with internationalist support the Indochinese people, Blacks in the United States, etc.

* * *

In November 1962, the then president of CN, Donald Gordon, stated that he had no use or need for francophones in the company. This chauvinist statement unleashed demonstrations throughout Quebec. The first FLQ wave occurred in 1963 with a few bombings of statues of the Queen and of Dollard des Ormeaux. When the Queen visited Quebec City in 1964, the police savagely attacked the crowd in what has come to be known as “billyclub Saturday”. The struggle against national oppression in Quebec was becoming sharper. The movement was restricted, however, to certain elements of the petty bourgeoisie at that time. The Queen and other symbols of anglophone domination were attacked, not the capitalists. The nationalist movement then had little interest in the struggle of the working class. On the contrary, the union leaderships were completely behind Lesage’s reforms and were highly suspicious of the nationalist movement which was associated in the popular mind with the stone age Duplessis regime.

The Ralliement pour I’independance nationale (RIN) was founded during this initial period in 1962. It was the first party in Quebec that openly called for independence. There was nothing revolutionary about its programme, however. It wanted to break all federal ties in order to ensure the development of a genuinely independent Quebec capitalism. The RIN had only minor influence (it only received 8% of the popular vote in the 1966 provincial election), and did not succeed in penetrating the labour movement. In fact, part of the labour movement (the Quebec Federation of Labour – QFL) backed the highly federalist NDP which had been created by the CCF and the CLC in 1960.

The independence movement had very little influence in the labour movement in the early sixties. That is why it never really got off the ground.

It was only later that the once marginal Quebec national movement gained real strength and won over broad sectors of the Quebec population. The movement was to become more radical. At the same time, it would claim that the nationl question was the key to solving all the contradictions within the labour movement and Quebec society as a whole.

* * *

The illusion of the Quiet Revolution had begun to fade fast by the mid-sixties. Economic recessiom came in 1966 and lasted until 1970. Unemployment rose from 4.7% to nearly 8% in those years and inflation rose above 3%. It was time for the Quebec government to put an end to its “reforms” and the Quebec people realized that they had been tricked once again.

The Laurendeau-Dunton Bilingualism and Biculturalism Royal Commission released data showing that francophone Quebecers were increasingly being discriminated against on the labour market and at work. Only Italian immigrants and Native peoples had lower incomes. English universities and colleges had disgusting financial privileges and forced assimilation was a real problem linked inexorably to the economic conditions. On top of all that, great preparations were underway to celebrate the centenary of the national oppression of Quebec.

Civil servants who won the right to strike in 1966 were met with back-to-work legislation, government-decreed settlements and injunctions whenever they tried to exercise their right to strike. Their leaders were even jailed. The parity committees (composed of union and government representatives) created during the Quiet Revolution did nothing to change the situation. Students and graduates were faced with unemployment, and while in school often had to live under economic conditions below the official poverty level. The collaboration between the Quebec student union (UGEQ – Union generale des etudiants du Quebec) and the Department of Education to improve the loan and bursary system did no good. Quebecers had been promised that they would become “masters in their own house”. In fact, the house belonged to the capitalists where they were very much the masters. Here again, the creation of Quebec State monopolies didn’t improve matters any.

Quebec workers and working people thus saw that the reformism of the Quiet Revolution was a failure. The realization was a hard blow. As a result, all the working-class and popular struggles related to the struggle against national oppression were radicalized.

Between 1966 and 1970, the number and impact of strikes grew steadily. The struggles in the public sector played a leading role in this movement.

At the St. Jean Baptiste Day celebrations in 1968 (June 24 is Quebec’s national holiday), hundreds of militant nationalists from the RIN and other organizations attacked the reviewing stand for the day’s parade with a hail of paving stones. Besides the usual local elite, guests on the reviewing stand included a much more notable target: Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, prime minister of Canada. For weeks, Trudeau had been fighting an election campaign on one main issue – his denial of the existence of the Quebec nation. The day after the St. Jean Baptiste Day confrontation, he won the general election. The year 1968 was also a year of student unrest, as occupations swept all the CEGEPs (community colleges) where the nationalist movement was very influential.

An event in the spring of 1968 illustrated best the turn taken by the national movement in these years. That spring, there was a huge demonstration in front of McGill, the English-language university in Montreal.

Thousands and thousands of people participated in the demonstration, which was originally organized by the Front de liberation populaire (FLP – popular liberation front), a self-styled socialist organization, around the theme of “McGill to the workers”. The FLP did all the basic work of mobilizing and organizing for the demonstration. It condemned the privileges of this institution in comparison to the French universities, and further denounced the fact that McGill was a centre of higher learning for the future leaders of the country and the future executives of Canadian and U.S. companies.

A few days before the date fixed for the demonstration, the leadership of the movement was taken over by the Ligue d’integration scolaire (LIS – League for integration of the schools), a reactionary nationalist organization that had made a name for itself in confrontations with Italian immigrants in the Montreal suburb of St. Leonard on the issue of French unilingualism. From that point on, the slogan of “McGill to the workers” was abandoned in favour of “McGill francais” (Make McGill French). The thousands of marchers who filled Sherbrooke St. in Montreal to demonstrate against a university that serves the capitalists and enjoys discriminatory privileges found themselves headed up by leaders who had nothing to do with the working-class movement and who had no interest in the struggle against capitalism. These leaders wanted to turn a struggle against privileges into a struggle to make McGill a strictly French university, in the name of the purity of the French language throughout the territory of Quebec. It was a good preview of the way the movement was to be co-opted and used in the coming years.

In 1969, the tens of thousands of demonstrators had becomes hundreds of thousands, demonstrating this time against Bill 63. Bill 63 gave the parents the choice of the language in which their children were to be educated. But in practice, it in no way affected the privileges attached to the English language in the field of education and economic life. In contrast to the previous period, the labour movement took part in these demonstrations and the various labour bodies took a stand against Bill 63.

In October, 1969, the Montreal municipal police went on strike. During the strike, the garages of Murray Hill, an English-Canadian monopoly, were ransacked by demonstrators from the Mouvement de liberation du taxi (Taxi liberation movement). The demonstration grew into a riot that overflowed into the surrounding neighbourhoods of the city. One demonstrator was killed.[3] Authorities were preparing to call in the army before the situation calmed down.

Events like these came to characterize the political struggle in Quebec more and more up until the crisis of October 1970. In its manifesto during the October crisis, the FLQ no longer attacked the Queen and her symbols. Instead, it attacked business leaders, the stock exchange and politicians. It received a sympathetic hearing from many Quebecers.

As this brief overview indicates, the people who fought against national oppression in the 1960s were not the parliamentary politicians nor the cabinet ministers and their negotiators at federal-provincial conferences. The battle against national oppression was fought by the people fighting in the streets. The victories against national discrimination were all won through struggle, and only through struggle. Workers at the General Motors plant in Ste. Therese (just outside Montreal) did not win the right to work in French thanks to some PQ members of the national assembly. They won it through struggle, by mobilizing the workers.

We do not often hear about these important events that marked the struggle against national oppression all through the 1960s. It is as if the hundreds and thousands of people who demonstrated and protested during this period have been forgotten, along with the repression the State used against them. The PQ’s White Paper on sovereignty-association, for instance, totally ignores this entire phase of the struggle against national oppression in Quebec. Instead, the White Paper plays up the epic struggles of the Bourassa government for “a new division of powers that would have given constitutional recognition to the Quebec nation and guaranteed it the means to satisfy its aspirations”.[4] The PQ has probably forgotten that the same Bourassa government called in the Canadian army to its rescue in 1970 and that its very own very Quebecois police violently suppressed the demonstrations of June 24, 1968, Murray Hill, etc. But what else is to be expected from a party whose historic role has been to sabotage all popular movements of struggle against national oppression? We will come back to this later on.

This history of this period also shows that in all the demonstrations, in all the occupations and other protests, the movement of struggle against national oppression came to be linked more and more closely to the workers’ struggles. In working-class struggles, the battle was for national rights and against U.S. and Canadian multinationals. In the battles against national oppression, the goal was to free the nation so that Quebec could belong to the workers. This was the outlook that lay behind the popular mobilization – the idea of the struggle for independence and socialism. This can be seen in the history of the RIN from 1966 on.

The history of the RIN is a history of splits. In the RIN, overtly bourgeois figures like Marcel Chaput rubbed shoulders with proponents of electoral tactics and “pragmatic” independence like Pierre Bourgault as well as with radical socialist “independantistes” who wanted to use the RIN to fight for the workers’ interests. They were the ones who organized the big demonstrations that often ended in confrontations with the forces of law and order, as was the case with the June 24 demonstration in 1968. The RIN was constantly torn between electoral tactics and more radical political action based on the belief that independence was simply one step towards putting an end to capitalism. Those who joined the RIN did so as much to promote the idea of independence for Quebec as to defend the working-class movement and fight against national oppression.

Up until then, the idea of independence had been defended by fervent reactionaries. Why, then, did it become an idea capable of mobilizing the working-class and progressive movement on a wide scale in the 1960’s? Why is it that in the 1960s the movement for independence came to be seen as the solution not only to national oppression but also to the exploitation of workers?

A New Trend Emerges: “Independence and Socialism”

On the eve of the Quiet Revolution, relatively few people defended the idea of political independence for Quebec apart from a handful nostalgic for France, the mother country, and the admiring disciples of f Canon Lionel Groulx.[5] The movement had no real social basis in Quebec society. It was limited to the narrow circle of those who read the journal Laurentie and the membership of the Alliance laurentienne, organized around Victor Barbeau. The Alliance laurentienne was made up of former supporters of Duplessis who were disappointed by Duplessis’ partial failure in his attempts to make all fiscal matters a purely Quebec jurisdiction. They saw the independence of Quebec as a powerful economic lever and as a way of achieving a national consensus – as the fascist Salazar had done in Portugal.

But the situation changed considerably in the 1960s. The old style of nationalism tended more and more to be associated with the struggle against capitalism and for socialism.

An initial factor in these changes was the influence in Quebec of the vast decolonization movement in Asia and Africa. Dozens of countries in these continents were aspiring to independence and rejecting the colonial yoke. Their methods often included armed struggle against imperialism. Their example had a profound effect on the young nationalists in Quebec, who at the time, were looking for a solution to the historic national oppression of Quebec. Indeed it was to varying degrees an inspiration for the youth movement all around the world. In the intellectual circles of the period, attempts were made to apply the theories that arose out of this revolutionary movement to the situation in Quebec. Quebec was compared to Algeria, and the government in Ottawa to French colonial domination. This was the source of the idea that Quebec is a colony of Canadian and U.S. imperialism, an idea that is still defended by some people today.

But the analogy-making wasn’t confined to Quebec. Similar parallels were drawn in the rest of the country, where Canada was often seen as a colony of the United States. The imperialist nature of the Canadian bourgeoisie (some of it French-speaking) was simply forgotten. In a later period, the movement of Blacks in the United States was also to have considerable influence on progressive Quebec organizations – take, for instance, the title of Pierre Vallieres’ well-known book, Negres blancs d’Amerique (White Niggers of America).

These were the formative influences on the first progressive militants in Quebec in the 1960s who were to have such a considerable impact on the national struggle and to found the first organizations calling themselves socialist. Another important factor was the absence of the Communist Party of Canada, a party that had never had much real influence in Quebec. By the 1960s the CP was already thoroughly nationalist and revisionist and had been for many years.

In 1960, Raoul Roy (a former member of the CP) pioneered by founding the Revue socialiste and Action socialiste pour l’independence du Quebec (Socialist action for the independence of Quebec). The immediate impact of Revue socialiste was very limited. Nonetheless, it formulated a thesis that has continued to have political influence until today. The Revue socialiste asserted that “the destiny of French-speaking workers is inseparably tied to the fate of the (French-)Canadian nation... In the capitalist system, Quebec will be gradually swamped and buried by waves of imperialist, expansionist, bourgeois colonization...”[6]

The thesis of the struggle for independence and socialism really began to exert influence among youth and in intellectual circles in Quebec with the founding of the journal Parti Pris.

Parti Pris appeared in October 1963. Its creation was a demarcation with another tendency that had influenced political circles opposed to the Duplessis regime – the group around the magazine Cite libre, which included Trudeau. Unlike Cite libre, Parti Pris openly affirmed the progressive nature of nationalism. It took a stand in favour a vaguely-defined socialism and the independence of Quebec. The new trend was beginning to take shape. More specifically, Parti Pris supported independence first, and eventually socialism, to be achieved through a process that was never very clear. The magazine’s stand launched the first round of a debate that is still a very real question in progressive circles: should independence be supported, even if it means supporting the bourgeoisie, in order to help advance the struggle for socialism?

In 1964, Pierre Vallieres and Charles Gagnon founded the journal Revolution quebecoise to demarcate from the group around Parti Pris. The journal quite correctly reproached Parti Pris for “believing that it would be easier to supplant the French-Canadian national bourgeoisie after separation”.[7] Although it continued to defend the need to fight simultaneously for independence and socialism, Revolution quebecoise was the first voice to refute the idea that it could be in the interests of the working-class movement to support a bourgeois party. This first, embryonic demarcation gave rise to two forms of political action.

Parti Pris spawned the Mouvement de liberation populaire (MLP – movement of popular liberation), whose entire existence was dedicated to trying to move the Parti socialiste du Quebec (PSQ)[8] and the Ralliement pour I’independence nationale (RIN) to the “left”. In the early 1970s, a number of people were to try the same tactic with the PQ, or at least to give it “critical” support. We will come back to the practical results of this point of view later on. (Note that some defenders of this point of view are today firmly installed in jobs with the PQ government.)

At the same time, however, various organizations gradually began to raise the question of a revolutionary organization for the working-class movement and try to demarcate from nationalism. In 1966, some activists joined the FLQ, which from that time on attacked symbols of the capitalist exploitation of Quebec. The Front de liberation populaire was created in 1968 and existed until 1970. It also posed the question of a political organization for the working-class movement.

The newspaper collective that founded IN STRUGGLE! (L’Equipe du journal EN LUTTE!) grew out of this political trend. It was founded in 1972, precisely on the basis of a demarcation from bourgeois nationalism and social democracy. It was not until its first congress, however, that IN STRUGGLE! rejected any kind of project for Quebec independence, even independence embellished with “socialism”, and undertook to build a communist party capable of uniting all the struggles of the entire Canadian proletariat.

Of course, all this did not happen without some confusion, setbacks and hesitations. But by the end of the 1960s, it was becoming clear that those who had banked on “critical support” for nationalism or social democracy had failed miserably. The PQ was to be the most striking example of this failure.

The Quiet Co-option

At the beginning of the 1960s, the Quebec Liberal Party personified and dominated the nationalist movement in Quebec with its slogan of “Masters in our own house”. But in the following years, the movement increasingly abandoned the parliamentary field and took up more radical forms of struggle. Neither Daniel Johnson (leader of the Union nationale and premier in the late 1960s) with his “Equality or independence” nor Robert Bourassa (Liberal premier in the early 1970s) with his “cultural sovereignty” were able to check it.

The Quiet Revolution had revealed the State apparatus’s immense possibilities for developing indigenous capital. In its historical and current form the federal link has always hindered the full and complete development of French-speaking capitalists in Quebec. What was needed was to modify the political structure to make it reflect the new developments of indigenous capital and enable it to achieve new successes. The Lesage government understood that, and undertook a whole series of constitutional negotiations for a new sharing of powers between Ottawa and Quebec City.

But the nationalist movement had no time to lose in negotiations. It put obvious pressure on the most nationalist members of the Lesage government. The national movement was a very powerful force, but it basically lacked any unified leadership. On the other hand, the constitutional negotiations held little promise of rapid, tangible results. As has often happened in the history of Quebec, bourgeois politicians realized that the popular movement could be used to exert very considerable pressure. They therefore set about acquiring the leadership of the movement to use it to satisfy their demands.

When Rene Levesque split with the Quebec Liberal Party, it was the first time a well-known bourgeois politician endorsed the thesis of Quebec independence – “sovereignty” – in the framework of an attempt to preserve the Canadian market – “association”. Levesque was indeed the perfect choice for the role: a journalist extremely popular with the people, he had supported the asbestos strikers in 1949 and played a leading part in the strike of the journalists at the French CBC network in 1959. But above all, he was known as the person who had nationalized hydro-electric power.

Rene Levesque published a manifesto, Option Quebec, and founded the Mouvement souverainete-association which was to become the PQ in 1968. At the time, very few bourgeois dared to associate with an independence movement that was much too closely identified with workers’ struggles and which furthermore called for a break with the Canadian market, which was essential to the development of these same bourgeois.

The PQ had its work cut out for it: its mission was to co-opt the vigorous popular movement by holding out the hope of workers’ liberation after independence and an end to national oppression through the acquisition of “political sovereignty”. By doing so, it would make it into a movement that was acceptable to the bourgeoisie. Those who signed Option Quebec said as much in a more complex way when they stated,

The social nourishes the national until the national appears to be the indispensable key to social well-being.[9]

Between 1968 and 1970, the PQ swallowed up all the nationalist forces in Quebec. The first to rally to it was the Ralliement national (RN), an independantiste party created as a result of a split in the Social Credit. It was soon followed by the RIN, whose radicalism displeased Levesque. The RIN was forced to dissolve and its members rallied to the PQ on an individual basis. Caught up in the trend, Parti Pris suspended publication in 1968. A number of the advocates of critical support for the RIN turned to critical support for the PQ. In 1970, the former FLQ militant Pierre Vallieres joined the PQ, invoking the “urgent need to choose”.

At the same time, the PQ took advantage of the internal dissension that was to lead to the dissolution of the FLP and the total disarray among progressive forces in the wake of the repression around October 1970. The PQ also began to establish links with high-level union brass. Jean Gerin-Lajoie and Theo Gagne of the Steelworkers and Emile Boudreau of the QFL were among the founders and leading supporters of the PQ.

To succeed in drawing all these people, the group of former Liberals around Rene Levesque had to make some concessions and perpetuate the illusion that the party could indeed put an end to national oppression in Quebec and bring about the liberation of the workers. The party was not yet in power, so it could allow itself the “luxury” of more democratic structures that attracted a more radical fringe with hopes of moving the party “left”.

The PQ’s programme basically repeated the theses of Option Quebec on the development of Quebecois capital, the Caisses populates Desjardins and State enterprises. But in order to appeal to an audience that for a number of years had been identifying independence with the rejection of capitalism, the PQ’s programme also had to reflect the pro-worker feelings and anti-imperialist aspirations of its new members.

Today, it is had to believe that the 1971 version of the PQ’s programme stated:

We salute the liberation struggles of the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America. We condemn the exploitation of the resources of the Third World by North American and European capitalists. We denounce the wheelers and dealers who, in the context of the French-language community, serve as agents of imperialism.[10]

This isn’t quite what Rene Levesque said two years ago when French head of State Giscard d’Estaing awarded him the Legion of honour.

The programme went on to list a whole series of promises that a sovereign and associated Quebec committed itself to carrying out: social justice; opposition to neocolonialism, withdrawal from NATO and NORAD.

In terms of labour’s rights, the programme reiterated the need to “eliminate the outdated restrictions that still hinder the growth of trade unionism”.[11]

The same period saw PQ members of the national assembly Robert Burns and Claude Charron brave the decision of the party’s national executive and take part in the demonstration to support the workers of La Presse (a Montreal daily) in 1971. The PQ reproached the Bourassa government with its intransigent attitude towards the Common Front and even participated in the May Day demonstration for 1973. And in the union bodies, people were taking stands in favour of “democratic socialism” in the CNTU and “Quebecois socialism” in the QFL.

But all this did not last long. After one or two programmes, the time the PQ needed to acquire the image of the leader of the entire struggle against national oppression in Quebec all such references disappeared, Rene Levesque has referred to this period as “that immaturity which inevitably affects a young party, and more especially a party for change”.[12] A very convenient “immaturity”, which ensured the PQ broad support among the popular masses. But it was still a handicap in winning the approval of the bourgeoisie.

It is a matter of history that the PQ soon acquired political “maturity”. The team of former Liberals surrounding Levesque rapidly decided that it was time to tighten up the operation and put an end to illusions.

The programme was gradually changed, especially on the question of achieving sovereignty. The idea of making a unilateral declaration of sovereignty as soon as the party took power was abandoned. Claude Morin (the PQ’s new strategist and another former member of the Lesage government) introduced the idea of a first referendum. It gained acceptance even before the party convention had an opportunity to take a stand on the idea. Party leaders wrote in 1973, “Today I am voting for the only group that it ready to form a real government. In 1975, I will decide the future of Quebec in a referendum. One step at a time.”[13] This was the position adopted by the party convention in 1975. In its White Paper published in November 1979, the PQ said, “A YES vote by Quebecers would thus be, in fact, a mandate given to the Quebec government to make this new agreement a reality through negotiations.”[14] Today, a second referendum is promised to really decide the political status of Quebec... if, of course, the PQ is re-elected in the meantime.

The illusions cultivated by the PQ lasted just long enough to tame the Quebec national movement and win the support of a large sector of the labour movement for the PQ. But to do so, it had to give the impression that it wanted to put an end to national oppression through political independence and promote the emancipation of the workers. The PQ thus sabotaged the development of the struggles against national oppression and made the movement respectable in the eyes of the bourgeoisie.

For today it has become clear that the PQ has no solution for the problem of national oppression apart from the continuation of the same constitutional negotiations that have been dragging on for 20 years now. Not only that: the PQ has in practice held back the entire movement of struggle against national oppression. It channeled all the dynamic forces of the 1960s into support for a bourgeois party. It replaced the force and power of numbers and mobilization with the ballot box. The result is that today, there are no more organized demonstrations against the manifestations of national oppression. Yet this national oppression is still very real – the PQ has not conjured it away.

In today’s context, it is much easier for the federal government to brandish the threat of a pan-Canadian referendum than it would have been in the 1960s. Privileges for the English-speaking in jobs, the denial of the right to work in one’s own language, the dual network of Catholic and Protestant schools that favours English schools – all this is still a part of the reality of Quebec, and it is important to remember it.

But some things have changed in Quebec. The Federation des caisses populaires Desjardins, for example now ranks seventh among all non-manufacturing businesses in Quebec. Hydro-Quebec is exporting technology abroad, and even to China. Vachon’s cookies and cakes are more and more popular. These things have changed, but that ii about the whole list.

Why was a movement that shook all the classes of Quebec society co-opted in this way? Why are most struggles against national oppression today almost entirely left up to PQ cabinet ministers and high ranking civil servants? These are questions that need to be answered.

Must History Repeat Itself?

It is easy – too easy – to explain the co-option of the Quebec national movement in the 1960s by the skilful manoeuvring of the PQ and its leaders. There is more to it than that. Otherwise, it would mean that with a bit of intelligence, someone who came along at the right point in history could sabotage any people’s struggle. No, the explanation must be sought in the very orientation that dominated the struggle against national oppression throughout these years.

It is true that the epic battles of the period 1967-1970 were not led by any political party. But it is also true that, despite the various trends and tendencies that were present or that clashed in that movement, it was dominated by one major tendency: the struggle for independence and socialism. All the groups that played a substantial role in these struggles agreed on at least one basic assumption: the need to achieve independence and socialism in Quebec.

At first, Parti Pris and others believed that it was necessary to achieve independence first, and then socialism. As a result, neither was achieved. This was the kind of argumentation that was used to channel the efforts of hundreds of progressive people into support for a bourgeois party. Socialism was always put off until “later”. It was never a struggle to be begun right away.

And even if the PQ or another party had really wanted to make independence a reality, it would not have been a change for the better in the conditions of the struggle for socialism. Once the bourgeoisie in Quebec headed up an independent State, it would be no more interested in proletarian revolution than was the bourgeoisie of Canada as a whole. It would be ready to suppress the struggle of the proletariat, just as the Canadian army did in October 1970.

The hollowness of the very idea is illustrated by what some of its most ardent defenders in the 1960s have become today. Pierre Maheu, a former leader of Parti Pris, wrote the first draft of the PQ’s White Paper in 1979. Gerald Godin, another member of the Parti Pris circle, is a PQ member of the national assembly. Andree Feretti, a former leader of the FLP, is still in the PQ, in its “left” wing. Claude Charron, a former leader of UGEQ (the Quebec student association) is the PQ’s parliamentary leader.

Today, fewer and fewer people still believe that independence is a step forward in the struggle for socialism, and the PQ is largely responsible for this evolution.

We are not alone in summing up and evaluating the past twenty years of the struggle against national oppression in Quebec. Others have been doing so as well, although they do not necessarily reach the same conclusions as we do. There are, for instance, the Trotskyist organizations, as well as the authors of the recent Appel pour un Quebec socialiste, democratique et Independent (Call for an independent democratic, socialist Quebec) signed by Yvon Charbonneau (former president of the Centrale des enseignants du Quebec – CEQ); Lucie Dagenais of the CNTU; Jacques Dofny and Alfred Dubuc, former members of the PSQ; G. Raymond Laliberte (another former president of the CEQ); and Marcel Pepin (formerly president of the CN-TU).

The authors of this call suggest the formation of a “political organization of Quebec workers”. They observe (quite rightly), Alongside the proponents of the constitutional status quo and those who advocate certain reforms in the federal system, we have a Quebec government which has already transformed into “association” a sovereignty that Quebec has not yet conquered.[15] They concluded: “Far from contradicting each other, as has often been suggested, these two dimensions of the same project (independence and socialism – ed. note) are intertwined. For we believe that while the Quebecois can only achieve socialism in the framework of the political independence of their national territory, it is also true that only a socialist political organization can establish the balance of forces necessary to fully liberate Quebec.”[16]

They propose to achieve independence and socialism simultaneously in Quebec. The idea is appealing, but it is just as un-historical and erroneous as the previous version.

The authors of this call have just reached the same conclusion that Revolution quebecoise came to – fifteen years ago. It took them twelve years of experience with the PQ, and the co-option of the popular movement of the 1960s, before they woke up. Today, the thesis they put forward has lost its audience in the working-class movement. Today, the current of unity within the Canadian proletariat in the struggle against capitalism has begun to be a force to be reckoned with. And now they are reviving a programme that is nothing new, a programme that the revolutionary movement discarded in the early 1970s.

History has proven that independence is not the objective interests of either the French-speaking bourgeoisie in Quebec or, more especially, the Quebec proletariat. Must history repeat itself to make them understand that the popular movement of the 1960s and 1970s has been confronted with the entire Canadian bourgeoisie, both English-speaking and French-speaking? That the cause of its numerous failures lies precisely in the fact that the Quebec working-class movement stood alone in its confrontation with a bourgeoisie that dominated the country from St. John’s to the Yukon? If the Quebecois fight for an independent, socialist Quebec, and the Dene nation for an independent and socialist Northwest Territories, and if the Acadians, the Inuit and other fight similar battles, who will benefit? The very class they are trying to fight.

This is not the way to make a “breach in the bourgeois Canadian State”.[17] This is not the way to put an end to national oppression, for national oppression is the result of the domination of a capitalist minority over the entire Canadian territory. The task of Canadian workers is to attack the root of the problem. The Canadian proletariat will not win victories in either the struggle against capitalism or the struggle against national oppression if it fights in dispersed formation against the same enemy. All it will do is make a “breach” in its own ranks.

The “independence and socialism” thesis must be judged on the basis of history, and not in purely theoretical terms. And history has shown that the struggle against national oppression has been victorious when the proletariat rejected all compromises, all proposals of alliances with its bourgeoisie for the sake of the unity of the nation. It is not the task of the Quebec proletariat to unite the nation around any kind of battle for independence whatsoever. The struggle against Quebec’s national oppression must be waged against the entire Canadian bourgeoisie, including its French-speaking component. It must be waged against those who have suppressed it for years and years. The Quebec proletariat will continue to carry out this task by rooting out the basic cause of national oppression – capitalism.

To do so, Quebec workers must unite with the only class whose interests lie unreservedly in eliminating both national oppression and capitalism – the multinational working class across Canada.


[1] Bourgault and Vallieres have been major figures in the Quebec national movement. Bourgault was the leader of the Ralliement pour I’Independence nationale (one of the first separatist parties) in the ’60s and later joined the PQ. Vailleres belonged to the FLQ and later joined the PQ.

[2] According to data in Carol Jobin’s book, Les enjeux economiques de la nationalisation de I’electricite, Ed. Albert Saint Martin, Montreal, 1978, p. 114.

[3] It was later discovered that this person was policeman who had infiltrated the ranks of the demonstrators.

[4] Quebec-Canada: A New Deal: the Quebec government proposal for a new partnership between equals: sovereignty-association, Editeur-official du Quebec, p. 39.

[5] A nationalist Quebec historian, Groulx wrote number of books, Including Notre maitre le passe (The past is our master). Politically, he was openly sympathetic to Salazar’s fascists in Portugal.

[6] Manifeste politique – programmatic proposals – in the Revue socialiste, no. 1, April 1959, pp. 14-15.

[7] Jean Rochefort, “Aux camarades de Parti Pris”, In Revolution quebecoise, Vol. 1, no. 3, November 1964, p. 13.

[8] A social-democratic party founded in 1963, after a split in the Quebec wing of the NDP.

[9] Jean Blais, preface to Option Quebec, Editions de I’homme, Montreal, 1968, p. 12.

[10] Le Programme officiel du Parti quebecois, Montreal, 1971, p. 28.

[11] Programme officiel du Parti quebecois, Montreal, 1968, p. 31.

[12] Rene Levesque, La passion du Quebec, Editions Quebec/Amerique, Montreal, 1978, p. 118.

[13] Quoted by Vera Murray in Le Parti quebecois: de la formation A la prise de pouvoir, Montreal, 1979, p. 2.

[14] Quebec-Canada: A New Deal, op. cit., p. 77.

[15] Y. Charbonneau, L. Dagenals, J. Dofny, A. Dubuc, G.R. Laliberte, M. Pepin, Appel pour un Quebec socialiste, dGmocratique, indGpendant, mimeographed text,, November 1979, p. 9.

[16] Ibid., p. 10.

[17] Ibid., p. 11.