Quebec After the Referendum

Against the Current, No. 60, January/February 1996

Michel Lafitte

THE NARROW VICTORY of the federalist forces–50.47% to 49.53%–in the October 30 referendum on Quebec sovereignty is seen by all the social movements as one more bitter defeat. For the moment depression prevails, whether in the trade unions, feminist movement, or popular movement in Quebec.

We know very well that this defeat for the spirited forces of our small Quebecois nation of seven million brings the strong risk of opening the floodgate to the neoliberal offensive, something the big Canadian bourgeoisie wants very badly. [The Liberal Party federal government has severely cut social spending, particularly welfare and unemployment; even more savage cuts are being imposed by several provincial governments, especially the right-wing Conservative government of Ontario–ed.]

Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau immediately blamed the defeat on the millions of dollars illegally spent by the federalist forces, and the votes from the non-francophone communities in Quebec. And he isn’t completely wrong, even if this analysis is very superficial and can open the pandora’s box of populist nationalism, but this time from a right-wing, anti-immigrant perspective. [Parizeau, leader of the pro-sovereigntist Parti Quebecois, resigned as the party and government leader the next day, after his anti-ethnic statements were repudiated by many of his own supporters–ed.]

From the very start of the referendum campaign, the federalists mustered the totality of “actually existing” bourgeois forces in Canada and in Quebec. And everything that was reactionary and chauvinist was dragged in behind them. All the pestilence of Egypt was attributed to the awful “separatists” in Quebec: the deficit, high interest rates, the fall of the Canadian dollar, unemployment, the need for draconian cuts in social welfare, and so on ad nauseam.

During the weeks before the voting, dozens of companies announced their intention to leave Quebec if the “yes” (pro-sovereignty) side won. Thousands from the middle class transferred their savings and their bank accounts out of Quebec.

The Quebec law on popular consultations provides for very strict mechanisms of control over spending during a referendum. Both sides must have equal funds at their disposal. But the spending by the federal government in Ottawa escaped all Quebec control, and Ottawa spent as much money for publicity as did the official Quebec “no” forces.

The Friday before the referendum, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s Liberal Party of Canada organized a rally in Montreal attended by tens of thousands of English Canadians, subsidized by the big transport companies. A round-trip airline ticket Vancouver-Montreal,which normally costs more than $1,000 Canadian, only cost $99 to go to the rally. Municipal employees from several cities and schools in the neighboring anglophone (English-speaking) province of Ontario got a paid vacation day to go to Montreal.

Threats and Persuasion

The Sunday evening before the voting, when all campaigning was legally supposed to be suspended, the social democratic governments of two provinces in western Canada ordered their telephone companies to offer free calling to Quebec for groups that wanted to push for the “no” vote.

To all this should be added the direct interventions by U.S. President Clinton and his Secretary of State Warren Christopher in favor of Canadian unity, and their threats of economic isolation in the event of separation. Tens of thousands of Quebecois spend their winter vacations in Cuba, so people are familiar with the effects of this type of “isolation.”

In spite of all this, and despite a timid and maneuverist campaign by the official leadership for “yes,” the nationalist bourgeois Parti Quebecois and the Bloc Quebecois, more than 60% of francophones (people whose first language is French–ed.) in Quebec voted in favor of the declaration of Quebec’s sovereignty.

The margin of less than 55,000 votes among five million electors in favor of “no” is basically numerically due to the bloc voting for “no” in certain non-francophone communities. The big anglophone bloc (between 8-10% of the population) voted 95% for “no,” with only 3% voting “yes.” In the sizable Ashkenazi Jewish community (100,000), the “no” vote rose to 99.5%! In the equally important Greek community, the “no” reached nearly 98%.

There were similar results in most of the other communities, with the possible exception of the Haitian, Latin American and Arab populations. Even there, the “yes” vote was never more than 30%, especially after Haitian President Aristide’s intervention in favor of Canadian unity.

This division between the francophone majority and the anglophones and allophones (people whose first language is neither French nor English–ed.) in Quebec is the historic product of a conscious decision in 1840 made by the anglophone bourgeoisie. An immigration that could be assimilated to the anglophones was encouraged in order to drown out what is termed here “the French fact” in North America.

Up until the 1960s, the ultra-reactionary Catholic Church was handed total control over education in French. The successive waves of immigration to Quebec were not used to constitute a layer of unskilled workers ready to accept the jobs rejected by the indigenous working class; this layer had already been created through mass migration to the cities of destitute francophone peasants.

Even today, francophones and Quebec’s native peoples are the groups with the least income, lagging behind groups of recent immigrants.

To this should be added the recent division between the native peoples of the Great North and the francophone population. To a large extent, this division is explained by an undeniable historical fact. It was only after the federal government transferred control of the North to the government in Quebec that the “blessings” of “white” civilization arrived there: deculturation and acculturation, alcoholism, drugs, suicides, destruction of nature, sexual violence and all the rest.

In face of these divisions, the bourgeois nationalists limited themselves to very liberal statements about the desire to integrate immigrants and native peoples, and to respect individual rights and multiculturalism. These divisions serve the interests of the French-language bourgeoisie as much as the parties seeking to cultivate and strengthen them.

A policy that ignores the socio-economic causes for why the newly arrived communities were won over en bloc to the dominant nation cannot counter the impact of the anglophone media propaganda campaign, which asserts that all modern independentism can only be racist, ethnicist and anti-immigrant. For them, only the political borders drawn by imperialism in the course of the 19th century are valid and are not based on ethnicity or race!

Up to now, the extreme right has not been able to break through in Quebec, though several groups have tried their luck–the French fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, the U.S. Ku Klux Klan, the crypto-nazis of the English Canadian Heritage Front. But these are all federalist, completely pro-Canada, and that cuts them off from their potential base among young, unemployed francophones.

Unemployment has not been less than 12% in Quebec since 1979. For fifteen years, real unemployment among youth (18 to 30 years old) has fluctuated between 25% and 40%. Finally, the policy of fairly massive cuts in health and education, despite the fact that they have been negotiated with the unions and accepted by their leaderships as a lesser evil, has seriously demoralized the working class, especially organized teachers, in Montreal, where 13% of the Quebec population resides.

Montreal has been almost totally de-industrialized since the 1981-82 recession. It was among francophones of east and north Montreal where the majority for “yes” was the weakest.

Already last March, the Party of Socialist Democracy (within which members of the section of the Fourth International in Quebec are active) had warned that without class content, without a plan for a society that explicitly struggles against all forms of exclusion and dualization in Quebec, without explicit and unconditional recognition of the right to self-determination of the native peoples, it was almost impossible to win a victory in the referendum.

This was not the project of the major bourgeois nationalist parties, which unfortunately were seen as the leadership of the national movement, including by the entire leadership of the Quebec trade unions.

The unfolding of the referendum campaign showed that we of the PSD were correct. In September and the first two weeks of October, the bourgeois nationalists carried out the campaign in the name of “Quebecois entrepreneurship.” Yet no component of the bourgeoisie, not even from the francophone sector, came out in support of them.

The polls at the beginning of October showed the “no” winning with 60%. So the nationalists made a left turn, explaining sovereignty was the only way to escape the horrors of savage neoliberalism, the only road to a better future for the Quebecois masses. Though too little, too late, and not very believable, this approach did manage to get the “yes” vote up close to the winning point.

It was fear of a popular outpouring, as much as dread of a “yes” victory, that caused the panic in the federalist camp and the financial markets during the final days of the campaign.

We did not restrict our activities to having the correct analysis. We intervened in our unions, in our popular, women’s, youth and international solidarity groups, and among other currents of the social and political left to try and put together a regroupment of independentist, anti-capitalist forces called the Popular Network for a “Yes.”

Unfortunately we have limited influence, and we ran up against overt opposition from the official trade-union leadership, which wanted to keep everything in the framework of class collaboration with the bourgeois nationalists. Nonetheless, we succeeded in building the Network in nearly all the regions of Quebec. During the final three weeks, a number of activists criss-crossed Quebec in an ancient, patched-up bus called “the Caravan of a Quebec for Everybody.”

All political forces–the Canadian bourgeoisie, the Quebec bourgeois nationalists, the trade-union leadership, and ourselves–are going to have to take a couple days, if not a few weeks, to figure out what to do next in a Quebec that is split in two. But one thing is already certain: Nothing is settled.

The day after the voting, Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau announced he was resigning. The federalist forces would really like to go back to “business as usual,” but with nearly 50% for sovereignty, is this possible?

The national struggle in Quebec will not disappear as long as national oppression continues. And the class struggle, which is so closely linked to this national struggle, can only intensify. But the big question remains: in the interests of which class? For our part, we intend to continue to fight to take the leadership of the national movement out of the hands of those perpetual big-time losers, the bourgeois nationalists.

ATC 60, January-February 1996