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Issue 35, February 1999

Mixed message from Quebec poll

A FURTHER period of constitutional crisis faces Canada after the separatist Parti Québécois (PQ) government was re-elected in November's provincial elections. Despite calls by PQ hard-line nationalists for 'a country for 2000', PQ leader Lucien Bouchard is ambiguous on a timetable for independence.

The PQ won 75 seats compared with 48 for their main rivals, the federalist Quebec Liberal Party. However, the percentage support shows a much closer and complex result. In total the PQ won just 43% and the Liberals 44%. The outcome in seats is partly explained by the heavy concentration of the Liberals' traditional English-speaking support, in areas of Montreal and along the Ontario/Quebec border. Also, despite the outgoing PQ government's unpopular neo-liberal economic and social policies, the Liberals threatened even more drastic public spending cuts.

The election also indicates that the vast majority of French speakers (80% of Quebec's 7.4 million people) have little appetite for the right-wing nationalism of the PQ. The PQ won two assembly seats fewer than in the last provincial elections of 1994, and polls showed over two-thirds of people do not want another referendum on the constitutional future of the province. This is not because French speakers do not want more control over their own lives and affairs, but due to the PQ's narrow, big business agenda and the cynical manner in which they have played with the genuine national feelings of the majority.

The PQ emerged in the 1960s during a period of heightened class struggle and the rise of nationalism. The Québécois people were historically oppressed, first by British colonialism and then by the Canadian state that was set up in 1867 - through discrimination against the French language, the economic dominance of the Anglo-Canadian '200 families', and by the fact that Quebec was denied the democratic right to self-determination.

  The PQ reflected the desire by a section of the French-speaking elite and big business to secure markets, power and prestige. Although essentially right wing and nationalist, the PQ paraded itself as a semi-social democratic party. No referendum was held on the sovereignty issue until 1980 and even then the PQ did not propose real independence but 'sovereignty-association' - an attempt to negotiate a better position for the Quebec capitalists in relation to Anglo-Canadian capitalism. Workers' interests have never been on the agenda of the PQ.

The PQ could not meet the political and national aspirations of the Quebecois and subsequently lost the 1980 referendum. They were voted out of office in 1985 following recession and attacks on workers. Nationalism appeared to wane, and polls (like some polls today) suggested only a minority supported independence. It would be foolish, however, to underestimate the depth of national consciousness and the desire for control over their own affairs by the Québécois people.

The federal government has pursued all means to try and keep Quebec within Canada: imposing a state of emergency in the 1970s, conducting drawn-out negotiations, and, most recently, employing the courts to rule that even an overwhelming vote for separation would not automatically allow self-determination. The dominant Anglo-Canadian elite needs a strong central state to fight for its interests and are loath to lose a quarter of the country's population and a large chunk of its economy.

The failure of the federal government's compromise Lake Meech Accords of 1987 to be ratified by enough provinces polarised the national question. During this period support for independence rose from 20% in 1985 to 58%, and there were mass nationalist demonstrations between 1990-92. Elections in Quebec to the Federal parliament were won by the independentist Bloc Québécois, and the provincial elections were won narrowly by the PQ in 1994.

The PQ called a further 'sovereignty-association' referendum in 1996, seeking to use it to wrest maximum advantages for themselves in the framework of NAFTA, the new trading bloc of the US, Canada and Mexico. Again, the PQ feared raising the class aspirations of Quebec workers. Nevertheless, with 49.5% the separatists nearly managed to achieve a majority.

  Today there is something of a stalemate: Anglophone capitalism is unwilling to concede new powers to Quebec within the confederation, while Quebeckers, although unhappy with the status quo, are fed up with the PQ's empty 'neverendum referendums'. Lucien Bouchard for the moment is waiting for 'winning conditions' before using his poll weapon against the Anglo-Canadian elite.

By manipulating the national grievances of the masses, Bouchard aims to bargain with Ottawa in different ways. He now champions the 'social union pact' agreed by the ten provinces during summer 1998. This demands that Ottawa allows them to opt out of federal programmes, with financial compensation for areas under provincial jurisdiction. If Ottawa accepts, Quebec will opt out and gain more powers and federal taxes; if, as more likely, Ottawa refuses, Bouchard can argue independence is the only alternative. The national question can very quickly be put to the top of the agenda again, fuelled by a sense of inequality and political, social and economic crisis.

The Canadian economy experienced a slowdown in 1998 and is now seriously threatened by the world economic crisis and especially the oncoming US recession (85% of exports go to the US). Unemployment in Quebec stands at 10.2% (Canadian average is 8.1%) and will rise dramatically.

The PQ will opportunistically blame English-speakers for capitalist misery. But the true reactionary nature of the PQ is revealed by its attitude to minorities. French is now an imposed language in Quebec, and the oppressed native peoples, who inhabit vast and thinly-populated areas, are denied the right to self-determination. The Francophone capitalists want to fully exploit the mineral wealth and hydro-electric power in the native ancestral lands.

  The workers' movement needs its own clear programme to unite all workers across national divisions. The Canadian section of the CWI, Socialist Resistance, supports the right of Quebec to self-determination. Real sovereignty means creating an assembly that would have the power to take decisive economic and social decisions in favour of the working class. An independent socialist Quebec, as part of an equal and voluntary socialist federation of Quebec and Canada, would guarantee the rights of English speakers in Quebec and all immigrants. People should be allowed to speak the language of their own choosing. The cultural and national rights of the indigenous peoples must be defended, including their right to autonomy or to establish their own state, if they so wish.

Developing workers' solidarity and struggles, like last summer's strikes in the motor vehicle, construction and paper industries, and the creation of new mass socialist parties, are vital steps towards the above goals. Already, according to one poll (Le Devoir, 1 May 1998), 73% of Québécois felt "there should be a left-wing political party dedicated to the needs of workers and the underprivileged".

Neil Mullan

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