Support for Quebec’s right to self-determination is very much alive in English Canada

First Published: Proletarian Unity No. 22 (Vol. 4, No. 4) October-November-December 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.

In the past few months, the MLOC IN STRUGGLE! has centred its political work in English Canada on the defence of the right of Quebec to self-determination and the idea of the equality of languages and nations. In practical terms, we tried to fight big-nation chauvinism and promote the democratic viewpoint by getting involved in setting up committees and organizing activities aimed at defending the Quebec nation’s most basic democratic rights. What follows is an evaluation of that work.

The assessment made here also includes details on the results of the work carried out by the many committees created in all the major cities and on the movement created around them. However, this is not an evaluation by the committees as such of their work. It is our viewpoint, as a political formation actively involved in the creation of the committees and in their subsequent activities, on the practice of the committees. We put forward below the facts and figures that we have been able to gather. In a number of cases it was not possible to be all that precise. We have done our best to cite real uninflated figures and unromanticized events which do justice to the main features and highlights of this important political struggle.

The ground for our participation in this political campaign had been cleared by several years of fighting battles on the issue of national rights in Canada. Since the election of the Parti Quebecois in 1976, we have made the struggle against national oppression a major theme in our political work. We started to promote bur viewpoint widely in 1977 with the decision to circulate the Declaration for the Absolute Equality of Languages and Nations, which obtained more than 60,000 signatures across Canada.

The scheduling of the Quebec referendum made it clear that Quebec would occupy centre stage in the country’s politics. We would fight for the democratic rights of the Quebec nation. The attention of Canadian workers would be attracted to the Quebec national question. The case of Quebec would be a starting point for spreading the democratic view of the absolute equality of languages and nations and a terrain for combating chauvinism. All of this could only have very positive effects on the struggle of workers of all oppressed nations and national minorities in Canada.

A number of facts were clear from the outset. The chauvinists were taking advantage of the referendum to go on the offensive. Quebec had divided workers in the past. And finally, struggles around this issue had previously led to repression in Quebec. There could be no thought whatever of letting the bourgeoisie have a free hand on this issue. The challenge before us was to make the referendum an occasion for strengthening the unity of the people’s forces. That unity, based on mutual respect for one another’s rights, is critical for workers. To achieve it required mobilizing all democratic forces possible in Canada, especially the labour movement.

Unite all who can be united

In the space of a few months, sixteen committees to defend Quebec’s right to self-determination were established in as many Canadian towns: Vancouver, Prince George (B.C.), Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto (where the committee already existed well before December 1979), Ottawa, Hamilton, St. Catherines, Sudbury, Hurst, Montreal, Halifax and Moncton. The committees’ activities spilled over beyond the strict boundaries of the cities they were based in. At least 24 cities were affected by their activities. All parts of the country were affected except for Newfoundland, P.E.I, and the Northwest Territories.

The committees were autonomous. They were not organizational extensions of any political party or organization. Membership was on an individual basis. The total number of people directly involved was about 130. Many more did concrete things to promote the cause championed by the committees, although they were not members. Our estimate is that about 1,000 people gave direct support to the work of the committees. Activities included the circulation and signing of public statements, sale of buttons supporting self-determination, participation in meetings, demonstrations, picket lines, writing letters to newspapers and to magazines and so on. The support that existed for the committees beyond such work directly linked to committee initiatives is impossible to quantify.

There were a lot of people involved and they came from a very broad cross-section of backgrounds. Committee members included people from the New Democratic Party (NDP), Communist Party of Canada (CP), Revolutionary Workers League (RWL) and ex-RWL members, the Socialist Workers’ League (SWL), the Socialist Organizing Committee (SOC), the International Socialists, the Workers Communist Party (WCP), the Marxist-Leninist Organization of Canada IN STRUGGLE!, the Ottawa Committee for Labour Action (OCLA), some anarchists, some Christian activists and progressives with no ties to any political formation as well as trade unionists.

All the committees had similar platforms, centred on three points: Quebec is a nation, not just a province; it is an oppressed nation; it has the right to self-determination, a right which must be recognized and upheld.

It turned out to be the most important action by a broad and united country-wide movement that has been carried out for a number of years. The labour movement got involved, although the CLC leadership did not. You could see it very clearly at the CLC convention: 450 delegates sported the button declaring “Defend Quebec’s right to self-determination”. The labour bosses were unable to defend their chauvinist policy on Quebec in such an atmosphere.

The experience of broad-based unity of action contains a number of important lessons which are worth noting.

* * *

In the class struggle, building unity between democratic, popular and working-class forces is always on the agenda. But that unity does not exist by itself and for itself. Nor is it something that is created one day and then lasts forever in the same form. Each battle requires a unity which is in line with its relative political importance and with the character of the countries in which the battle takes place. It depends on what social forces are involved, what demands are raised and the people who are ready to unite to carry out the particular struggle. In other words, unity can only be built in the real world if you take full account of the concrete situation and the prevailing political situation in an all-round way.

The struggle to defend Quebec’s right to choose its own political destiny is a democratic struggle. It is thus inherently the kind of fight that could potentially interest all consistent democrats. Thus unity in this case could be a very broad array of forces coming from different class backgrounds and even, up to a point, comprising people of opposing political and ideological views. The forces that could be reached around the issue of Quebec had shown in the past that they were able to get together around major immediate struggles.

Country-wide unity was a practical prospect because the issue directly concerned all regions of Canada. Quebec, and its political destiny, directly and immediately affect the political future of the whole country. Unity of action was also possible to attain because it was evidently what was needed to draw out all the forces that could potentially be mobilized at the time. But it could not, the situation being what it is at present in Canada, be accomplished in the form of a coalition of organizations. The committees had to be independent gatherings of individuals who were ready to act. The unity was all the more solid because it was around one single thing: the defence of Quebec’s right to choose its political status. There was no attempt to extend this political basis to include other points, and this contributed to making the committees and the over-all movement pretty homogenous.

Dealing with the here and now

Unity of action had to be as broad as possible if interventions were to have an impact on current events. All means had to be explored to get the democratic message out to the public. Work had to be done to stimulate public expressions of views which favoured Quebec’s rights in all parts of the society. Just how extensive the work of the committees and the broader movement was is apparent from the following facts:

Use of the media: there were 23 press conferences and press releases, 34 radio and TV appearances, 44 articles, letters and so on in newspapers and magazines.
Public actions: There were 8 picket lines and 17 meetings which drew about 500 people. There were 31 interventions in public events others than those organized by the Committees (literature tables, distribution of leaflets and statments etc.).
Distribution of written literature: All of the committees distributed a statement of their own which explained their goals. The extent of such distribution varied from committee to committee and we do not have exact figures on how many were given out or how many signatures were collected indicating support for the views expressed in them. The Toronto committee put together a Dossier on Quebec which was distributed by just about all committees. We ourselves distributed over 2,500 copies of our pamphlet, Quebec has the Right to Choose. Films on Quebec, Les ordres and Action, both about the October 1970 crisis, were shown on five occasions. About 3,000 self-determination buttons were sold.
May Day Message to workers of Quebec: it was published in the Montreal daily, La Presse, and signed by 350 people, three-quarters of whom were trade unionists. Some $2,820.00 was donated to pay to run the ad in La Presse.
Letter on October 1970: published in five newspapers, including Montreal’s Le Devoir.
Open letters: The Toronto committee sent a letter to 30 Ontario municipalities to protest the use of public funds to promote the People to People Petition. Questionnaires were sent to candidates of all parties in Ontario during the last federal election. There were many other open letters produced which denounced the People to People petition, notably in British Columbia, Ontario and the Maritimes.

Statistics tell part of the tale about how extensive the impact of the committees was. A look at the different social groupings affected by these activities tells more.

The unions: Members and officers from at least 30 different unions got involved in the movement. A good proportion of these were from Canadian unions in the public and semi-public sector. The universities: This was the main base for the committees in many places. The women’s movement: at least five women’s organizations got involved. In addition there were people from the anti-nuke movement, the injured workers’ movement, students and members of national and ethnic minorities (Ukrainians, francophones, Palestinians, Chileans, Chinese, Blacks, Native Indians), and members of the artistic world, such as Rock against Racism and the Cultural Workers Alliance.

Hence the committees were created and managed to organize a large number of activities throughout the country in the short space of a few months. It was not a mass movement. It would have been simple pipe-dreaming to have set that as an objective. But the results are real and appreciable. One can imagine how much the trade-union movement could have done if it had taken the lead. However, as long as labour is chained to the NDP election machine, it will not play the role it could and should in the important political battles like the one around the referendum.

Chauvinism is driven back a step

The main country-wide chauvinist movement took the form of the People to People petition. The idea was to use it to win over public opinion. The come on was soft sell: advice to the fellow members of our one big Canadian family, we love you, let’s keep our wonderful democratic country together. That brand of chauvinism was likely to be swallowed more easily by a larger part of the Canadian population. The People to People campaign was also more active in Quebec than were the other chauvinist forces.

The movement to defend Quebec’s right definitely hurt the People to People campaign. It didn’t stop the petition altogether. But the anti-chauvinist work succeeded in tarnishing the phoney “we love you” image among many sectors of the population.

The protests against the use of public funds to promote the petition cast a bit of a dark shadow on the whole image of an expression of pure-minded a-political sentiments by groups of disinterested concerned citizens. The Ontario People to People committee felt obliged to issue a press release to try to brush up its reputation again. Protests led a number of store chains to change their minds and decide not to distribute the petition. In Nova Scotia, the premier himself wrote to the Halifax-Dartmouth Committee to say that the government would not be circulating it.

In Quebec, the would-be hoopla and high profile ceremony to present the petition from the “Canadian people” to the “Quebec people” turned into what at best was a grotesque farce with demonstrators from the MLOC IN STRUGGLE! and the WCP on the scene. Even the bourgeois media responded by taking shots at the People to People ceremony. Last but not least, the active and visible anti-chauvinist movement was a key factor in stopping the leaders of the trade-union movement from endorsing the People to People Petition. This constituted the biggest victory in the fight against chauvinism in the early going. Because if the movement had not been around there can be doubt that the labour movement would have backed the petition. After all, some of the main people in the organization distributing the petition were well-known NDPers. And the higher-ups in the NDP in some places, notably in Ontario, got a little cheesed off with the development of the movement against the petition.

The media were also criticized when they pushed chauvinism openly and especially when they blacked out all information on the pro-Quebec movement. The Vancouver Sun was one such target when it refused to publish letters to the editor defending Quebec. It backed down and published some letters. The CBC in Vancouver was also hit for the same reasons. In Toronto, people protested the CBC’s firing of an employee for the crime of defending Quebec’s right to self-determination and the rights of Franco-Ontarians.

Chauvinist politicians were also in the line of fire. The committees went into action at Queen’s Park in Toronto throughout the whole week of the debate which resulted in unanimous adoption (with NDP support) of a motion opposing sovereignty-association and rejecting negotiations with Quebec if the Quebec people had the temerity to vote “yes”. Protests were raised in Vancouver against a similar stance by Premier Bill Bennett. In Saskatchewan, the visit by NDP premier Blakeney to Quebec to express ”we won’t negotiate” sentiments was condemned as outside interference. Despite these actions, the movement was not all that strong in counter-attacking on this front. And the threats and harangues by the provincial premiers and legislatures were a trump card played by the chauvinist forces in the final weeks of the referendum campaign.

The facts we have just summarized do, however, show that it is possible to organize an effective campaign against the forces that work to divide workers. Public opinion can be alerted even with little money and resources and limited manpower. The forces that falsely pretend to be democratic can have their image tarnished and lose some of their influence. If we dare to attack them we can expose them.

Making this movement known in Quebec

The work done in English Canada by the committees had a certain impact in Quebec. Newspapers like IN STRUGGLE! and The Forge gave regular coverage. The Montreal committee helped set up two press conferences to publicize the activities being carried out by the committees. The creation of some committees like the ones in Edmonton and Ottawa were noted in the Montreal press. The May Day Message was run as an ad in the Montreal daily La Presse. The Montreal Le Devoir carried the Letter on the 1970 October Crisis. A number of Quebec workers and trade unionists spoke in meetings outside Quebec and were able to report back to their own unions and workplaces on the reception they got. IN STRUGGLE! organized some such forays, including one by a Quebec student in the Maritimes. The May Day Message was widely distributed as a leaflet at the June CNTU convention in June.

There was certainly some impact felt in Quebec, but it didn’t go that far. The existence of an anti-chauvinist movement in English Canada could have been much better publicized than it was. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons for this (not in any particular order of importance).

The narrow nationalism of the union leaders in Quebec was certainly a factor. They were not exactly in a big hurry to link up with workers in English Canada who supported Quebec’s right to self-determination. Thus, for example, when someone from Vancouver approached Quebec union leaders to suggest that the May Day Message be presented as part of the May Day programme in Quebec City, no one found it to be an idea important enough to follow through on. Meanwhile, the capitalists were spending millions of dollars to fly in chauvinist personalities to spout their line across the province. The Quebec unions couldn’t find enough spare cash to bus in a single anti-chauvinist from English Canada to explain that some people in English Canada did not agree and supported Quebec’s right to self-determination.

The Parti Quebecois obviously had no interest in Quebec voters finding out about the anti-chauvinist movement in English Canada. The nationalists had no time for anything else but attacking the federal government. Very few of them thought twice much less did anything about publicizing the existence of significant forces, including within the labour movement, that supported Quebec’s right to choose its political destiny. The Quebec Federation of Labour even manoeuvred so that the last CLC convention would not take a clear-cut position of support for Quebec’s right to self-determination.

It is also a fact that the committees themselves were not united on this question. Some were reticent about intervening in Quebec. They thought that any intervention would be interpreted as interference. But this is a matter of failing to distinguish fish from fowl. Those people who prance into Quebec to say “You do not have the right to separate”, or “We will not negotiate with you and you will be all alone” and “If you separate you won’t be getting any more Albertan oil” are clearly interfering. They are making threats and trying to pressure Quebec voters. That kind of intervention is completely different from people coming to Quebec to say quietly and firmly “It is up to you to choose and whatever that decision is we will respect it”.

The delay in setting up a viable committee in Montreal was another significant factor. We believe that our Organization made an error in not acting more rapidly in this regard. We underestimated the importance of a strong Montreal committee at the beginning of the campaign.

Finally, the fact that the committees never managed to co-ordinate information and activities on a country-wide basis did not help either. If such coordination had developed, say for example if there had been a national coordinating committee of sorts, it could have been an invaluable instrument in getting the news of what was going on to the people of Quebec. It would have produced a greater impact on both the media and the unions. In the absence of any co-ordination, the initiative was left to local committees in isolation from the others and the effect of their work was correspondingly less.

IN STRUGGLE’S work in the anti-chauvinist movement

It is no secret that, starting in December 1979, two members of IN STRUGGLE! travelled across the country to promote the creation of groups to defend Quebec’s rights and fight chauvinism during the referendum. All the committees did not owe their creation to this initiative by any means, but in many cases it provided the extra push that was needed to get things moving and to bring people together for united action. Subsequently, IN STRUGGLE! comrades got involved in just about all the committees. We mobilized our people and resources to give support to the activities undertaken by the committees.

The newspaper IN STRUGGLE! provided regular and substantial coverage of the movement’s activities right up to the referendum voting day on May 20. We also produced and distributed the pamphlet on Quebec.

We were aware from the start, when we adopted the basic policy which was to guide our work throughout the campaign, that it could create problems we would have to face and solve. We had to maintain our ideological and organizational independence and keep up our own activities without at any point competing with the committees. We avoided using the committee actions to promote our own organization such as would have been done had we, for example, organized our own picketing the night before a committee picket in the same place. Another way we could have exploited the committees would have been by planning a meeting in the same city and on the same evening as a meeting had originally been scheduled by the committee. These two examples are not plucked out of thin air. They actually happened. The WCP did both those things and they stand as examples of what not to do.

On the whole, we managed to get actively involved in the movement without competing with the committees or giving up our own independence of action. We continued to get signatures on the Declaration for the Absolute Equality of Languages and Nations (9,400 people signed between January and May). We distributed our newspaper and Quebec has the right to choose. We organized demonstrations such as the one in the Ontario Legislature and the one against the People to People Petition presentation ceremony in Montreal. We also intervened in a considerable number of union conventions, including those of the CLC, CNTU, New Brunswick Federation of Labour, Canadian Union of Public Employees, Canadian Union of Postal Workers in Saskatchewan and the British Columbia Teachers Federation.

Within the committees, we avoided aggravating contradictions with other political formations. We were very well aware that if the committees were turned into a battleground for polemics between organizations, the progressives would quit and the committees would lose their credibility. We implemented this policy right up to the referendum, despite the many provocations by the WCP and numerous actions and attitudes on their part that warranted condemnation.

After the referendum, we made our criticisms of the WCP known in an article in the newspaper IN STRUGGLE!. We continue to hold that these criticisms are well-founded in fact and that it was correct to publish them. However, we did more than that. We also sent copies of the article to all the committees in the form of an open letter. We now consider that this was an error. The open letter formally invited the committees to take stands on the criticisms which were in fact difficult for them to substantiate on their own, given the absence of co-ordination of information among the committees. We were in effect asking the committees to judge the validity of criticisms where this was simply not possible for them to do.

But this error does not invalidate the contribution we made to the anti-chauvinist movement, which remained correct and consistent throughout. We certainly spoke strongly in favour of increasing the amount of country-wide and regional co-ordination. We called repeatedly for organizing at a minimum a national conference where information and experiences could be exchanged and planning of joint actions could be carried out. Although some people liked to fill everyone’s ears with talk about how this was all a design to control the movement, it was not. On the contrary, if the committees themselves had managed to attain a greater level of co-ordination and had regularly exchanged information, it would have made them a good deal more effective and autonomous in practice. If the committees had been in regular communication and had coordinated things based on common information, it would have been a lot harder for some forces to employ manipulative tactics and spread rumours in the hallways. It is obvious that without this coordination and resulting autonomy, the organizations which did have centralized country-wide structures were in a position to have a better detailed knowledge of what was going on in the movement than the committees themselves.

There is another lesson to be drawn from the past few months about the work of communist organizations. It is possible to concentrate our energies for a certain time on a specific aspect of the communist programme, even on a major democratic demand, without having to stop doing communist work or shelving the revolutionary programme. Some of us though at first that work in the committees was not communist work and that all the communist work would be done outside the committees. That approach proved to be wrong. If the political situation puts a democratic issue at the top of our agenda and becomes the centre of our work for a time, the work around that remains communist work and in line with our programme. If we have analysed the current situation correctly and are working as we should, then the issue will become the best battleground to fight on to bring people even closer to the over-all communist programme.

We did communist work by making our views known as widely as possible by distributing our newspaper and the pamphlet, by intervening in unions and in a number of union conventions and by participating in a number of public debates. We were able to link the immediate interests of workers to the fundamental struggle for socialism because we explained the causes of national oppression and the way to get rid of it.

The experience of people working together in unity in most parts of the country also taught us much about the progressive trends and how to work with a broad cross-section of forces. The experience certainly helped us break with the sectarianism which had sometimes been present in our work in the past.

The fight for the equality of languages and nations progressed

The cause of equality of languages and nations was advanced as a result of the anti-chauvinist campaign. Chauvinism was given a few licks and many thousands more people are now more conscious of the importance of national rights in this country. There is a lot more talk these days about Quebec’s right to self-determination. The PQ itself has decided to make it a rallying cry after having decried it throughout the pre-referendum period as an “out of date” demand. The movement in English Canada certainly has had something to do with this turn of events.

We must nevertheless draw attention to a number of weak points in our work in the pre-referendum period. We could well have explained more fully and more widely why we were counselling Quebec voters to spoil their ballots in the referendum. We did not take advantage of all the opportunities that presented themselves to discuss this issue, which we found was of great interest to a lot of the people we worked with in English Canada. Second, we now consider that it was a mistake to continue on with the campaign to get people to sign the Declaration. It drained a lot of our manpower off when it was needed elsewhere. It is always a mistake to spread out your forces all over the place in a major action. We could easily have kept up our work to promote the idea of the equality of languages and nations while dropping the petition-signing.

Important progress was made in uniting the revolutionary, progressive and democratic forces. Mind you, the earth was not remade in five months. The unity of action that was attained had a lot to do also with the fact that conditions conducive to such unity had been fostered beforehand. Those conditions are still in the process of developing.

There is a real need for unity which is evident in other major struggles against racism and nuclear development, for women’s liberation, on the artistic front, etc. The fact that this need for unity and desire to realize it have been translated into independent and autonomous groupings is directly related to the fact that the two major “left-wing” parties, the Communist Party of Canada (CP) and the NDP, are unable to provide satisfactory leadership to the many forces that are looking for thorough-going and radical changes in the status quo. That bankruptcy of leadership, if we are to judge from the experience of the movement to defend Quebec’s rights, also extends to the former organized left of the NDP, the “Wafflers”, who steered their way clear of the committees. They were paralyzed by a sectarian mentality.

The CP was relatively inactive except in two committees. The NDPers that got involved were mostly people who are not all that active in the NDP itself, although a number of the better-known members of the NDP’s left did play a role. Their contribution moreover was greatly appreciated. But it should be noted that they were acting against NDP policy, which was in practice working alongside the most notorious chauvinists to “save Canada”. That expression of dissidence is a good thing and hopefully the trend will get stronger. We hope that the campaign to uphold Quebec’s rights contributed to strengthening it.

In the immediate future, the constitutional debate will be attracting most of the attention and will provide us with opportunities to demonstrate that unity again. For the time being, it provides the best focus for carrying through with struggles that can unite the working-class forces and the various democratic and progressive trends. If, on the other hand, everyone stays in their own bailiwick – if the workers’ movement confines itself to pushing the NDP electo-rally and the oppressed nations and national minorities remain on their own instead of uniting their voices in a single chorus – then the likes of Trudeau, Clark, Lougheed, Bennett and Davis will be calling all the shots. We will come out of the constitutional debate period weaker and more isolated. We should use the lessons and the experience of the referendum battle to force the leaders of the union movement to put the enormous potential power of the workers’ movement to use in backing all those who are fighting oppression in whatever form across Canada.