By Richard Fidler
From Socialist Voice, January 8, 2006
Editors’ Note: The following is the first of a two-part analysis, by Richard Fidler, of the federal elections in Quebec. The second part, “Federalist NDP No Alternative in Quebec,” is published in Socialist Voice #62. –Roger Annis and John Riddell
The pro-sovereignty Bloc Québécois is poised to win its fifth consecutive majority of seats in Quebec in Canada’s January 23 federal election. The party is on track to win almost all of the ridings with a French-speaking majority, and possibly more than 50% of the popular vote — an electoral first for a party promoting Quebec independence.
With few seats in Quebec, neither the governing Liberals nor the rightist Conservative Party may be able to form a government with a parliamentary majority.
In Quebec, the Liberals and Conservatives are fighting over what remains of the federalist vote. The Tories are serving up former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s “flexible federalism” (although outside Quebec their slogan is “Stand Up for Canada”). The Liberals warn that a Tory minority government will ally with the Bloc and help break up Canada.
A minority government without significant representation in Quebec is an unsettling prospect for Canada’s ruling elite. Quebec is headed toward an election in 2007 that is widely expected to result in a victory for the sovereigntist Parti québécois (PQ) followed by a referendum that may well produce a majority vote for secession from Canada. Adding to these destabilizing trends is the ongoing social ferment in Quebec as unions and students continue to mobilize in militant opposition to the Quebec Liberal government’s austerity policies.
Dress rehearsal for the next referendum
This federal election is in fact shaping up as a pre-referendum. The Bloc, which held 54 of Quebec’s 75 seats in the last Parliament, clearly has the political initiative. It is campaigning as the party of all Quebecers around a program that condemns the corruption and mismanagement of the federal Liberal government and attempts — as BQ leader Gilles Duceppe puts it in his introduction to the party’s published platform — to “show what a sovereign Quebec might look like”. (See Plateforme électorale, Campagne 2005-2006, www.blocquebecois.org).
The Bloc’s slate of candidates reflects the changing demographic face of Quebec. A half-dozen or so candidates are from the “cultural communities”. The “children of Bill 101”, educated in the French-language public school system, are now much more integrated within Quebec society than previous generations of immigrants, and many view themselves as primarily Québécois, not Canadians. The Bloc’s parliamentary contingent has already included MPs of African, Chinese and Chilean origin. An aboriginal Bloc MP, Bernard Cleary, is up for re-election in Québec City.
The Bloc has the support of the Quebec Federation of Labour. Luc Desnoyers, Quebec director of the Canadian Auto Workers, has put the union’s jacket on Duceppe. A number of Bloc candidates are members of trade unions or the UPA, the farmer’s union.
At its origins in the early 1990s, the Bloc saw itself as little more than a watchdog in Ottawa for the Parti québécois (PQ), in anticipation of a successful Quebec referendum. Today, it campaigns around a detailed 250-page platform that could be implemented by the National Assembly of an independent Quebec.
While the PQ has historically advocated some form of “association” between a sovereign Quebec and Canada, the Bloc’s platform avoids any such reference. It does not mention the divisions between the PQ and the Quebec Liberal government of Jean Charest, but purports to represent the interests of Quebec, full stop. The platform indicts the federal regime’s policies and priorities and, in doing so, indicates how a sovereign Quebec would perform differently.
What Quebec wants, and does not want, according to the Bloc
The Bloc platform restates themes long voiced by Quebec nationalists. A focal point is its critique of the “fiscal imbalance” — Ottawa’s use of its taxation powers to pile up huge budget surpluses while starving Quebec and the other provinces of the funds they need to manage social policy and other programs within their jurisdiction. “Half of the taxes paid by Quebecers are controlled by a government that refuses to recognize the Quebec nation,” it says. “The federal government uses these taxes to multiply intrusions, weaken the Quebec state and impose Canada’s choices. A viable and effective democracy cannot exist in these conditions.”
The Bloc cites federal cutbacks in areas crucial to regional development and redressing income inequality. A notorious example is the changes in Employment Insurance. Ottawa’s tightening of eligibility means that only 46% of workers paying into it can get benefits when they lose their jobs. And the federal government continues to manage the surpluses in the EI fund — now totaling $46.2 billion — as its own money, to spend in areas not under its jurisdiction.
Federal transfers under shared-cost programs, which once covered 50% of post-secondary education, are now down to 18% while costs have increased exponentially. Meanwhile, Ottawa initiated the Millennium Scholarship fund for individual students as a means of raising the federal profile, although education is not a federal responsibility.
It was the fiscal imbalance, the Bloc says, that forced Quebec to raise the cost of its exemplary childcare plan, a key component of its family policy, from $5 to $7 a day per family. When Ottawa finally introduced its own program — which, unlike Quebec’s, is not universal and is much less generous — it took a further 16 months to concede full and unconditional financial compensation to Quebec for declining to participate.
Ottawa’s spending priorities are seriously skewed, the Bloc charges. For example, Quebec’s energy resources — a key environmental concern — are hydroelectricity and, increasingly, wind power. However, over the last 30 years Ottawa has spent $66 billion in direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industries (coal, natural gas and oil) and only $329 million to renewable energy. Similarly, it has given billions to the Ontario automobile industry. The taxpayers are being used to prop up the most polluting industries in Canada, says the Bloc.
The Bloc program cites many instances of federal mismanagement of its authority over major Quebec industries, such as its failure to prevent the destruction of fish stocks along the Atlantic coast caused by overfishing. It castigates Ottawa for failing to mount an adequate defense of the farm supply management system (including Quebec’s huge dairy industry) at the World Trade Organization talks.
While Quebec, since 1985, has recognized the existence of a dozen aboriginal nations on its territory and has negotiated a number of treaties — most recently, the Paix des Braves with the Grand Council of the Crees — Ottawa has yet to negotiate similar agreements with the Crees under its jurisdiction, the Bloc notes.
Twenty-five years after Quebec adopted anti-scab legislation, Ottawa has yet to enact similar provisions in the Canada Labour Code. They could have been of decisive assistance recently to the striking workers at Videotron, Radio Canada and Secur, all of whom are under federal jurisdiction, says the Bloc.
The now-notorious sponsorship program is of course a prime target for the Bloc. As the recent inquiry by Justice John Gomery documented, Ottawa spent $332 million on this patronage-plagued effort to raise the federal profile in Quebec. Forty-four percent of that money went to ad agencies, which then kicked a portion of the funds back to the federal Liberal party. The Bloc platform points out that the party raised questions about the sponsorship program for years before the federal Auditor General got around to examining it.
The Bloc’s election platform repeatedly identifies Quebec’s lack of national status under Canada’s constitution as the basic problem underlying all others. For example, Quebec assigns great importance to its ability to attract and integrate immigrants as a means of countering the relative decline and ageing of its population. Fifteen years ago it managed to get the federal government to allow it to select about half of its immigrants. But the federal government continues to impose restrictions on family class and refugee applicants. Quebec’s low visibility abroad (it has little consular representation) means many immigrants are unaware of its potential as a place of residence.
Quebec has developed a concept of citizenship focused on French as the common language of public life. But the status of the French language — always fragile in the North American context — is constantly subject to challenge under Canada’s constitution, especially since the 1982 patriation amendments that Quebec’s National Assembly unanimously refused to ratify.
What the Bloc wants
While socialists can sympathize with the Bloc’s positions on these and many other issues, other planks in the Bloc platform — and some silences — underscore the party’s pro-capitalist nature.
Most notable is its international policy. At its November convention, the Bloc endorsed membership of a sovereign Quebec in the NATO and NORAD military alliances. Although the election platform does not mention that decision, it does laud the NATO invasion and Canadian troops’ occupation of Afghanistan.
The Bloc supported Canada’s participation in the overthrow of the Aristide government in Haiti, and the platform calls for a priority “long-term commitment… to participating in the United Nations mission” in Haiti.
The Bloc platform misleadingly states, more than once, that Canada “has no foreign policy”. In reality, the Bloc’s foreign policy is fundamentally indistinguishable from that of the Liberals and Tories.
Missing entirely from the platform is any expression of solidarity with other movements for national sovereignty in countries oppressed by imperialism. In Latin America, the Bloc endorses the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), not the rival and increasingly popular Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean (ALBA) proposed by the revolutionary nationalist Venezuelan government.
Like the PQ, the Bloc is an enthusiastic supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement and advocates a similar trade and investment deal with the European Union. Its support of free trade in lumber exports will alienate ecologists who have campaigned against irresponsible timber exploitation, the “erreur boréale” publicized by musician and film-maker Richard Desjardins.
The Bloc health care platform is silent on private health insurance, a key issue in Quebec in the wake of the Supreme Court Chaoulli decision. Similarly, it fails to address the danger to medicare from escalating patent drug prices, probably because of the cozy relationship between the Quebec government and the pharmaceutical giants based in the province.
On Canada’s participation in the “war on terror”, the Bloc advocates “balancing” civil liberties against security concerns, but does not call for repeal of the repressive anti-terrorist laws.
Overall, the Bloc’s “sovereign” Quebec is little more than a Quebec-centered replica of Canada as we know it: a “normal” state, as the Bloc says, that would essentially substitute Quebec jurisdictions for Canada’s but does not indicate a major new departure toward a more just and egalitarian society, let alone socialism.
Quebec, not Ottawa, looked to for social change
Yet the popular appeal of the Bloc, it should be clear, lies not in its “normality” but in the promise it holds out that an independent Quebec can do better. When the Bloc inveighs against cuts in federal transfers for health care and education or when it protests cutbacks in employment insurance and other federal policies that harm workers, farmers, fishers and aboriginal peoples, it is addressing problems facing all who inhabit Quebec, regardless of ethnic origin, skin colour, religion or even mother tongue — in short, the Quebec nation. And for a growing number of Québécois, the solutions to those problems are conceived in a Quebec, not Canadian context. The Canadian state is no longer seen to be the most appropriate framework for working out the solutions to these problems. In fact, it is increasingly viewed as an obstacle to their solution.
As the Bloc’s mixed ethnic and class composition and support indicates, this party — initiated in 1990 by Tory and Liberal MPs disillusioned by English Canada’s rejection of the Meech Lake Accord — now attracts support from a wide cross-section of Quebec’s population. It is a manifestation in the federal electoral and parliamentary arena of the new Quebec nation that has been forged over the last four decades, a Quebec that is less divided linguistically and culturally than ever before even as it is more class-divided and ethnically diverse.
However, the Bloc is also the antechamber for the Parti québécois, Quebec’s dominant sovereigntist party, which does not contest federal elections. The PQ, during its 18 years in office, enacted some progressive reforms, most notably in the area of legislation to protect and enforce French-language rights. But it also implemented capitalist austerity programs, attacked the unions, rolled back wages of public sector workers (in one instance, by 20%) and failed to lead mass extra-parliamentary struggles even in support of its own rather modest complaints about the limitations of existing fiscal and jurisdictional arrangements.
PQ governments in recent years enforced federal spending cutbacks by applying a “zero deficit” policy that devastated many social programs and further impoverished low-income workers, the unemployed and welfare recipients.
The PQ’s support of capitalist trade and investment deals has alienated many activists in the labour movement and disoriented many in English Canada who had been sympathetic to Quebec’s national demands in an earlier period.
In fact, it is the consistently procapitalist and pro-imperialist outlook and policies of both the PQ and the Bloc that most decisively demark them from the national liberation movements in the “third world” countries subordinated to U.S. and world imperialism.
As often as not, the PQ has proved to be an obstacle to building a mass movement for national affirmation and political independence. Its record in office has produced great ambivalence about the party and even the independence project itself among many workers.
Quebec workers party yet to be built
Neither the PQ nor the Bloc can be looked to for leadership in the fight to build a Quebec governed by and in the interests of its working people.
In early February, activists from the women’s movement, the antiglobalization movement, the student movement, unions and grassroots community groups will gather in Montreal to found a new left party. Initiated by the fledgling Union des forces progressistes and Option citoyenne, which are now merging, the new party will have an initial membership of three to four thousand who will attempt to build a mass progressive sovereigntist party independent of the capitalist parties that now dominate the political landscape in Quebec.
However, neither the UFP nor Option citoyenne is running candidates in the present federal election. There is no party in this election that advances a distinct working-class agenda. The federal New Democratic Party has nominated candidates in all 75 Quebec ridings. But the NDP, instead of championing Quebec rights and forging an alliance with Quebec supporters of sovereignty, is competing with the Liberals and Tories for its share of the declining federalist vote. Its hostility to Quebec self-determination precludes the party from consideration as a major contender.
A mass workers party has yet to be built in Quebec. But the Bloc’s current hegemony in working-class constituencies is a further reminder that the path to independent working-class political action in Quebec is inseparable from defense of the right to self-determination.
Richard Fidler edited Canada, Adieu? – Quebec Debates its Future (Oolichan Books and Institute for Research on Public Policy, 1991, 328 pages), a commentary on and translated excerpts from briefs to the Bélanger-Campeau Commission on the Political and Constitutional Future of Quebec.