Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Scottish, Québécois reactions to Greenland’s vote for autonomy

On November 25, three out of four Greenlanders voted in a referendum in favour of increased autonomy from Denmark. This vote has naturally attracted some interest and sympathy among other nations and nationalities with substantial independence movements. The following articles present Scottish and Québécois perspectives on the movement toward an independent sovereign Greenland.

The first, by Ray Bell and entitled “Our Friends in the North”, first appeared in the Scotland-based on-line publication Bella Caledonia. It describes the background to the November vote and in particular the difficult transition Greenland is now making from a largely subsistence hunting and fishing economy to a modern one that is resource-based and export-oriented. Still a dependency of Denmark, Greenland is in danger of de facto re-colonization by the United States.

The article correctly, in my view, points to the particularly negative impact climate change will have on Greenland. (I am indebted to the excellent Australian publication Links for drawing my attention to this article.)

Writing in the December-January print issue of the Quebec newspaper L’aut’journal, André Binette adds a Québécois sovereigntist perspective on the Greenland vote, while taking a more positive — and in my view, more questionable — view of what climate change will mean for Greenland. Of particular interest are his observations on the parallels between the situation of Greenland and that of Nunavik, the Inuit territory of Quebec. Binette was co-chair of the Nunavik Commission on governmental autonomy, which issued its report in 2001. My translation from L’aut’journal.

For more information on the Nunavik commission, see “The Nunavik Commission and the Path to Self-Government in Arctic Quebec”, by Gary N. Wilson. Also by Wilson: “Nested Federalism in Arctic Quebec: A Comparative Perspective”.

— Richard Fidler

[from Bella Caledonia]

Our Friends in the North

by Ray Bell

December 1, 2008 — One of Scotland’s largest neighbours has just voted for independence. I don’t mean England, or Ireland, or Scandinavia, but a country which is bigger than all of these combined. And I use the term “neighbour” loosely, because it is a good few hundred miles across the Atlantic from us, and very few readers will have ever been there.

Greenlanders voted by 3-1 for almost total independence last week. I say “almost”, because while they don’t get control of defence or foreign policy, they get control of just about everything else. 32 areas of government will be handed over to them. Every political party, but one, in Greenland backed the “yes” vote. Who couldn’t sympathise with this statement that senior politician Hans Jakob Helms made?

“Home rule was a compromise, it’s a simple fact that home rule has reached its limit and there’s a need for more room for self-government.”

Applied to Scotland, it appears that even the majority of Unionists support this position. The result makes Greenlandic independence pretty much inevitable.

Greenland’s road to independence is a bizarre one. A colony of Denmark for three hundred years, its population is tiny — a mere 57,000 (less than Guernsey), but if it gains full independence, it will be the 13th largest state in the world. 80% of the place is covered in ice, and there is no road network to speak of. People get around by boats or planes. There are about a dozen settlements, mostly tiny, scattered around the island. Traditionally, some of them have had almost nothing to do with one another, just because of the sheer distances involved. It is the largest island in the world — if you don’t count Australia — at eight times the size of Great Britain. At one end, it is near the North Pole, and at the other, the same latitude as parts of Shetland — there are even some trees there. Technically part of North America, its size and remoteness make it almost a continent in its own right.

80% of the people who live in Greenland are Inuit (Eskimos), only 12% are Danes. Under the terms of the referendum, Greenlandic will replace Danish as the language of government. The native Greenlanders are an obviously non-European people, still tribal to an extent, and mainly nomadic in the recent past. The native Greenlanders have massive social problems including a degree of permanent unemployment, bad diet, alcoholism, drug abuse and even AIDS. The suicide rate is also extremely high. While the traditional Inuit lifestyle was a difficult and harsh one, the modern disillusionment and substance abuse are classic results of colonialism, and can be found in places as widely separated as Peru and Tibet, as well as parts of Australia and the USA. By voting “yes”, the Greenlanders have displayed the maturity and self-confidence that they require for a happier future. Greenlandic is now the only official language — even though it has fewer speakers than Scottish Gaelic.

However, Greenland already has some serious problems which are global in nature. One of these is climate change, something impossible to deal with at a purely local level. Greenland features prominently in Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth with good reason. If its ice cap melts, the sea level may rise by twenty five feet everywhere, drowning whole cities and nations. Another theory claims that if it melts, then the Gulf Stream will be set into reverse, and Europe will experience another Ice Age. Neither of these are theories that I’d like to see proven. Further oil drilling and mining will provide jobs and money for the Greenlandic economy, but they also threaten the hunting and fishing many Inuit still rely on, and poison the island’s fragile environment permanently. Greenland’s economy is much less diversified than Scotland’s, and subsidised to the tune of £400 million by Denmark, but the alternatives may prove simply too costly.

If it is not careful, Greenland also risks replacing Denmark with the USA. The island played a surprisingly strategic role in both WW2 and the Cold War. The Americans unsuccessfully tried to buy Greenland off the Danes for $100,000,000. In 1953, the Danes allowed them to set up the Thule base in the far north of the island. It was the most northerly American base anywhere, and allowed the US to monitor Soviet activity in the Arctic. With shades of Britain’s Diego Garcia — in 1999, the Danish High Court ruled that the base was on Inuit land, and that the inhabitants had been illegally evicted. Shortly after this ruling, it also emerged that a B52 had crashed near there in 1968. It had been carrying H-bombs, and an estimated 1,700 people were exposed to radiation. The base is still there. Some people argue that an independent Greenland would be unable to defend itself, but its relationship with the USA is going to be one sided from the outset.

But what Greenland has done is brave, and we should respect them for it. As one Welsh blog puts it:

“Now, if Greenland, a nation of 57,000 people, speaking what many of our fellow-country men would probably call ‘a silly language which nobody speaks’, has the confidence to have more power, what the hell is stopping Wales?”

When it comes to self-determination, the Nordic countries have a much better record than most. I suspect there are several reasons for this, one of them being that it is much easier for the likes of Greenland to deal with a nation of several million, than one of tens or hundreds of millions. Secondly, the remoteness of many parts of the Nordic countries meant that it was more practical for a number of decisions to be taken locally to begin with. Denmark’s other colonies, such as the now independent Norway and Iceland, or the nearly independent Faroe Islands, all neighbours of Scotland, have been given much fairer hearings by Copenhagen than they would have done from London. For example, since WWII, the population of the Faroe Islands has doubled, while that of the Shetland Islands has halved. It’s worth remembering that Greenland got its parliament in 1979, the very year that Scotland’s own vote for an assembly was sabotaged. Since then, Greenland has never looked back. Scotland, on the other hand, is only just getting over that defeat.

A Short History of Greenland

The first people arrived in Greenland over four thousand years ago, although it has not been continuously inhabited since then. It is thought that the ancestors of the Inuit arrived in about 1200.

Southern Greenland’s European connection goes as far back as 980, when it was discovered and settled by the Norse. Their numbers were never particularly great. By the 15th century, Greenland’s white population appears to have died out, due to worsening climate, unsuitable farming methods which eroded the thin soil, and conflict with Inuit who came in from the north. They did not leave much of a legacy, other than a few ruins, and a mere 5% of Greenlandic DNA.

The Europeans returned in the early 18th century with disastrous consequences. The missionary Hans Egede heard stories in Norway of the Norse settlement in Greenland, and decided to find out whether it still existed. He established Godthåb (Nuuk), the capital, and set about converting the natives and wrote down their language for the first time. He also translated the Bible — an incredible feat as Greenlandic lacked words for “bread”, “sheep”, “wine” and other important Christian imagery: his version of the Lord’s Prayer includes the surreal line “Give us today our harbour seal.”

Within a few years, a smallpox epidemic had wiped out large numbers of Inuit, and their shamans were being tried for witchcraft. The Europeans’ intensive hunting, fishing and whaling made it harder for the Inuit to obtain food, and some of them were also abducted or raped by sailors. By the end of the 18th Century, Greenland was an official Danish colony.

During the 19th century, the first newspaper in Greenlandic appeared, and the first district assemblies. In 1911, two regional assemblies were established, one for the north and one for the south. It was not until 1951 that they were merged. These assemblies were not a form of home rule — they were more like local councils, and all their business was conducted in Danish.

In the late 19th century, a Greenlander actually reached Scotland by kayak after being blown off course. He died soon afterwards, but his boat can still be seen in a museum.

In the early 20th century, the USA and Canada claimed parts of Greenland. In 1946, the USA attempted to buy all of it from Denmark, but the Danes refused. In the 1930s, Norway laid claim to a section of east Greenland, but the Permanent Court of International Justice ruled in Denmark’s favour. In 1951, Denmark and the US signed a defence treaty, and the Thule base was established two years later.

By 1953, Greenland was no longer officially a Danish colony, and was allowed to elect MPs to the Danish parliament. Proper welfare and medical programmes were initiated, and most of the population started to move into towns. Greenland’s integration with Denmark meant it became part of the EEC in 1973, even though 70% of Greenlanders voted against joining it in the referendum.

In 1978, Greenlanders voted for devolution, and a year later, a 31 seat parliament was set up. All Danish place names were replaced by their Greenlandic versions. In 1982, 53% of Greenlanders voted to leave the EEC, while Denmark itself stayed in. This put Greenland in a strange political position, but not a unique one — the Isle of Man, Bermuda, the Faroe Islands, Canary Islands and Madeira are amongst those nations currently outside the EU, but still controlled by members of it.

In 1985, Greenland’s flag was designed, and in 1996, the international Arctic Council, an environmental body, was established, with Greenland as a founder member.

In November, 2008, three quarters of Greenlanders voted “yes”…

[from L’aut’journal]

The future of Greenland

The more the ice melts, the closer is independence

75% of electorate vote for increased autonomy

by André Binette

On November 25, 2008, Greenland held a referendum — its most recent step toward independence. More than 75% of the electorate voted in favour of increased autonomy and sharing of natural resources revenues with the colonial power, Denmark. A new sovereign state is expected to appear in a few years in Quebec’s neighbourhood.

In a recent report on Greenland, one of the island’s political personalities summarized the situation by telling a journalist with the French daily Le Monde: “Vive le Québec libre!”

Greenland is one of the largest islands in the world. Its territory of more than two million square kilometres is larger than Quebec’s but its population is less than 60,000 persons, a large majority of them Inuit. Its land and its waters, up to now buried under ice, contain immense natural resources.

According to the American Geological Institute, the Arctic area contains unexplored reserves of 90 billion barrels of oil, not to mention natural gas — 22% of the world’s potential hydrocarbon reserves. Furthermore, Greenland has an abundance of minerals. No oil deposits have yet been confirmed, but some multinationals have begun drilling offshore.

Geographically, Greenland is part of North America. Culturally, it is part of the historic Inuit sphere that extends from Siberia around the North Pole. Politically, it is attached to western Europe.

The aboriginal peoples of North America, who call our continent Turtle Island, consider Greenland to be the turtle’s head. Visually, with a little imagination, you can find the image of this head on the maps. According to the aboriginal tradition, the mythical turtle’s legs are formed by Florida, Alaska and Baja California in Mexico. The Laurentians are part of its shell.

Greenland was once inhabited by the Vikings. They encountered the Inuit who had come from Asia, and ultimately they yielded the land to them after five centuries of difficult cohabitation. It became a Danish colony in the early 18th century. After the Second World War, Denmark decided to make it a Scandinavian-style welfare state. In 1979, it granted the island political autonomy while maintaining control over its foreign policy and defence.

Greenland exercised its autonomy in 1985 when it withdrew from the European Union, to which Denmark belongs. This is the only known case so far of withdrawal from the EU. However, Nuuk, the capital, continues to have relations with Brussels and other inter-governmental organizations, primarily the Arctic Council.

In that Council, Greenland sits alongside Denmark together with five other sovereign states, including Canada, and some aboriginal organizations. Greenland’s international personality is in some respects more established than Quebec’s.

The Greenland independentist movement is well known in northern Europe and in the Arctic region. The Icelandic singer Björk, recently expelled from China after expressing her support for the Tibetan cause during a concert in Shanghai, has produced a video showing identical support for the independence of Greenland.

Few people are aware that Canada shares a border with three other sovereign states: the United States, of course, but also France (at Saint-Pierre and Miquelon) and Denmark (at Greenland). There are no international waters between the waters of the Canadian Arctic and those of Greenland. The Canadian and Danish Armed Forces are required to collaborate regularly in this region.

The political system that now exists in Greenland resembles that of Quebec. The chief of state is the Queen of Denmark. The Danish High Commissioner symbolically represents the Danish Crown and plays a role comparable to that of the Governor General in Ottawa and the Lieutenant Governor in Quebec.

The Danish and Greenland parliamentary systems are close to the one we inherited from the United Kingdom. The parliament in Nuuk has 31 members. The prime minister of Greenland and his ministers are all Inuit, but many senior officials and deputy ministers who manage the public administration are of Danish origin. All adult inhabitants have the right to vote and are entitled to public services irrespective of their ethnic origin.

The standard of living is one of the highest in the Arctic region and compares favorably with that of the Inuit of Canada (in Nunavut) and Quebec (in Nunavik). Denmark provides close to 700 million dollars (US) annually in financial assistance (60% of Greenland’s GDP).

However, the Greenland independentist movement is very vigorous. The political parties differ mainly over their strategy for achieving independence. Since the Danish authorities announced several years ago that they would not oppose independence but that Copenhagen’s financial support would then come to an end, the debate has centered on the capacity of the future state to maintain the standard of living and social programs to which all the inhabitants are now accustomed. The November 25 referendum was a high point in this debate.

The natural resources revenue sharing agreement with Denmark essentially provides for equal shares up to the amount of Denmark’s annual financial assistance. Beyond that, all revenue will revert to Greenland. Understandably, the question of independence will then be definitively posed.

Greenland is one of the rare societies that rejoices in climate change. Geophysical research has shown that such changes have occurred naturally many times in the past.

As its name signifies, the Vikings maintained some fertile farms in Greenland during the natural warming around the year 1000. Greenlanders are not only happy to see the temperature become milder again and crops diversify once more, but they note that the melting of the ice will provide access to petroleum and mineral resources in their subsoil and surrounding waters. They will have the resources for independence, as they have long dreamed.

Everyone knows the strategic importance that the Arctic will have in the coming decades. Global warming will give it unprecedented importance in commercial, energy, environmental and military terms. Canadian sovereignty itself will probably be increasingly challenged in this region, even by our American friends who have never recognized this sovereignty over the waters surrounding the islands in the Canadian Far North.

The November 25 referendum was not only on the revenue-sharing agreement. The treaty signed with Denmark last spring and approved by the voters provided for a gradual repatriation of 32 areas of jurisdiction including public security and the coast guard. Natural resources will belong to Greenland and the island’s government will decide how and to whom development permits will be allocated.

Moreover, the treaty provides that Greenland may, on its own initiative, begin the process of accession to independence. And the treaty recognizes Greenlandic, which is very close to the Quebec Inuktitut, as the official language, and Greenlanders as a people within the meaning of international law.

Quebec is the only Arctic province of the Canadian federation, but it generally ignores this component of its identity. Under the Canadian constitution, a province’s territory stops at the water line, which means that many islands situated a few hundred meters or several kilometers away, and frequented since time immemorial by the Inuit of Nunavik, are not located in Quebec.

The Inuit have never ceased to frequent them, and consequently they hold aboriginal rights over some territories situated outside of Quebec.

However, there is no doubt that the maritime territory of a sovereign Quebec would be larger than that of the province of Quebec. International law would in theory give the new sovereign state a coastal strip of 12 nautical miles and major exclusive rights over an additional area of 188 nautical miles, for a total of 200 miles.

This would considerably up the ante in this region in terms of fishing, environmental protection and the development of natural resources, for example. A sovereign Quebec would be entitled to one half of Hudson Bay and some serious claims over the Strait of Ungava (not to mention the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but that’s another question).

Meanwhile, even if it is still not sovereign, Quebec could ask to sit on the Arctic Council with the same status as Greenland.

That would reaffirm its international personality after its more or less successful entry into UNESCO. The Arctic Council is used to the active presence of a non-sovereign state. The precedent was created long ago. The Canadian government would be severely criticized should it oppose this.

However, Quebec should be extremely careful in its ongoing negotiations over the autonomy of Nunavik. Reforming the institutions established under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement is fully justified and should have been done a long time ago, for they are too complicated and often non-functional for such a small population (10,000 people).

But any significant increase in Nunavik’s autonomy must now take into account the attractiveness of a future independent Greenland, especially if this new state were to become rich thanks to petrodollars.

On a more personal note, I had the exceptional privilege of visiting Greenland in 2000, at the invitation and expense of the Canadian government, while serving on the commission on governmental autonomy of Nunavik.

At the time I met with many of the island’s political personalities and discussed at length with them. Among these persons were the Danish High Commissioner, the speaker of the Parliament (who was the brother of the prime minister), an historic leader of the main independentist party (then the principal opposition party), and the deputy minister of external affairs.

These persons were well-informed about the Canada-Quebec constitutional question and the claims of the Inuit of Nunavik over Quebec territory during the referendum campaign in 1995.

These conversations convinced me of the generalized desire of the people of Greenland to proceed to independence within the near future notwithstanding the presence of a relatively enlightened colonizer state.

My discussions with a Canadian diplomat posted in Copenhagen also indicated to me that this question was preoccupying the Canadian government because of its possible attraction for the Inuit of Nunavut and Nunavik.

Moreover, in the public meetings that I co-chaired in a dozen or so villages of Quebec’s Nunavik and in my conversations with political leaders in that region it was soon evident that for many Quebec Inuit the dream of a single country composed of Greenland, Nunavut and Nunavik was quite substantial, and that the independence of Greenland, the creation of Nunavut in 1999, and the establishment of a future autonomous government in Nunavik were perceived as major steps in that direction.

These discussions aroused in me some concern about the territorial integrity of Quebec. I felt torn between my love for Inuit culture and spontaneous sympathy for a legitimate aspiration for autonomy, and the desire to avoid contributing to a future parcellization of Quebec’s territory.

To this day I remain convinced that the major challenge to the territorial unity of a sovereign Quebec will come from Nunavik. The events of recent years in Kosovo and elsewhere have reinforced that opinion.

My present practice in aboriginal law has shown me that there is no real desire for secession from Quebec or Canada among the other First Nations, notwithstanding the frequent use of sovereigntist vocabulary for the purpose of enforcing fundamental rights.

Finally, after much thinking, I decided not to sign the report of the Nunavik commission. This was the most difficult decision in my career. A Parti Québécois minister pressured me to change my opinion but he soon understood that no such thing would happen.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Québec solidaire scores major breakthrough in Quebec election

In the December 8 Québec general election, the Liberal government headed by Jean Charest was re-elected with 66 seats, turning its minority status before the election into a thin majority of seats in the National Assembly. The sovereigntist Parti québécois, benefiting from a late surge in the polls, was elected in 51 seats and replaced the right-wing Action Démocratique du Québec as Official Opposition. The ADQ elected only 7 members.

This was the second general election for Québec solidaire (QS), a left-wing party formed in 2006 by the fusion of the Union des forces progressistes (UFP) and Option citoyenne (OC). QS managed to elect one of its co-leaders, Amir Khadir, in Montréal’s Mercier riding. He got more than 38% of the vote. The other QS co-leader, Françoise David, was second in Gouin riding, with 32%. QS candidates scored over 10% of the vote in several other Montréal ridings and close to 10% in some other regions of the province. Both Khadir and David were running against sitting PQ members.

However, the party’s share of the overall votes — it contested 122 of Quebec’s 125 ridings — increased only slightly from its score in the last election, in March 2007, and remains just under 4%. And the total number of votes for the QS candidates actually declined by 21,000, in an election characterized by the lowest voter turnout since the 1920s.

The election of Khadir is a big step forward for QS. It gives the party a voice in the National Assembly, a primary arena for political debate, and guarantees media attention to the party on an ongoing basis. It was a success for the QS strategy in this campaign of prioritizing the election of one or both of its co-leaders — a major challenge in Quebec’s first-past-the-post electoral system. And indeed, Khadir was endorsed by a broad range of supporters, including the president of the Parti Vert (Greens), who urged a vote for Khadir in preference to the PV’s own candidate in Mercier riding.

There was also some surprising support. Robert Perrault, a former PQ minister who had once represented Mercier, publicly endorsed Khadir, as did Claude Béland, the former head of the giant Desjardins Movement of caisses populaires (credit unions), a major business figure who has worked with Khadir and the QS among others in the campaign for proportional representation.

QS platform

Québec solidaire has yet to hammer out a comprehensive program. It has proceeded cautiously since its founding, given the different political cultures of its original components; the UFP was an amalgam of anti-globalization activists and existing far-left organizations, while OC was based largely in the feminist and community activist milieu. At successive conventions and meetings of its leading bodies, QS has adopted incremental “platforms” based on draft proposals drawn up by party subcommittees.

This was the second general election for Québec solidaire since it was founded. Its 34-page platform in this election incorporated many of the demands advanced by various organizations in the women’s, student, ecology and trade union movements. It could generally be characterized as social-democratic, not anticapitalist. Its proposals, it said, were designed, overall, to be “concrete and achievable in the short term”. Québec solidaire does not identify itself as socialist.

A separate platform addressed to the “financial crisis”, published on the QS website during the campaign, gives a flavour of the party platform as a whole. It had four components.

The first, entitled “Take our pensions out of the hands of the speculators”, called for:

– raising allowable contributions to the government-run Quebec Pension Plan (QPP) to up to 13% of income, which would raise retirement benefits by an average of $140 a month.

– Limiting the ceiling on RRSP annual contributions to $10,000, to discourage the use of private financial market savings. (RRSPs are private pension funds; contributions to them are tax-deductible.)

– instructing the Caisse de dépôt et de placement, which administers QPP assets, to invest in “ecological and socially responsible businesses”.

A second component, entitled “Protect our economic development against unlimited greed for profit”, featured demands for locally oriented purchasing and development, worker co-operatives, and green and organic agriculture. Companies shutting down, it said, should be required to repay all government loans and special tax benefits they had received.

A third component, proposing environmentally friendly employment alternatives, called for injecting $1.2 billion into public transit, “investing massively in the social economy” (NGOs and not-for-profit businesses), construction of 50,000 units of social housing, nationalization and expansion of wind-power development, creation of a further 38,000 low-cost child-care positions, hiring of more teachers, etc.

The fourth component, “to reduce the effects of the rising cost of living on families”, opposed any increase in public service costs and called for increasing the list of goods exempt from sales tax and raising the minimum wage to $10.20 an hour.

This ostensible emergency program is notable for how limited it is. It contains:

– No protection for pensioners already hit by massive devaluations in their personal retirement funds, and no major proposal to provide adequate personal income for seniors through public pensions.

– No proposals for nationalization of industries other than wind-power, which currently accounts for one-tenth of one percent of Quebec’s energy consumption.

– An extremely modest increase in the minimum wage, just 70 cents an hour more than Ontario’s minimum wage as of March 31, 2009 and not enough to raise incomes above the poverty line.

Progressive proposals

Of course, in a longer term (in most cases undefined), QS proposes much more. For example, abolition of user fees in municipal transit; more subways and tramways; an end to public-private partnerships; 100% tax on capital gains; improved social assistance to cover all essential needs; protection for self-employed workers; abolition of Charest’s antilabour legislation and greater access to unionization including for farm workers; creation of a government-owned drug company (Pharma-Québec); expanded health insurance to include dental care; free university education and strengthening of the public secular education system; greater access to legal aid; affirmative action for women, immigrants and ethnic minorities; and stronger protection of the French language as “the common language of Quebec”. And much more. (The full platform of “engagements” (undertakings, or promises) can be viewed (in English, too) at

The effect is to break the QS platform into two: a primary group of proposals comprised of very modest emergency measures; and a secondary group, a “maximum” program for some longer duration. Yet there seems little connection between the concrete minimum short-term proposals and the more general longer-term objectives.

Programmatically, however, Québec solidaire is primarily distinguished from the federal social democrats, the New Democratic Party, by QS’s support for Quebec independence. And in this election the party put greater emphasis than before on its objective of a sovereign Quebec — referred to in the platform as “popular sovereignty”, to distinguish it from the neoliberal sovereignty promoted (intermittently) by the Parti québécois.

Québec solidaire’s social agenda, the platform said, is closely linked with its support of Quebec sovereignty. QS advocates a new constitution for a sovereign Quebec, to be drafted by an elected Constituent Assembly with equal male-female representation and representative of “the different components of Quebec society”. QS recognizes the right of self-determination of the indigenous nations living on Quebec territory; they would be invited “to define — with the popular sovereignty approach of their choosing — the relationships they will maintain with the Quebec nation, including within the process of defining our political institutions”.

QS also advocates electoral reform based on institution of a two-ballot system, one for direct election of constituency representatives in the National Assembly and another to ensure proportional representation of parties winning at least 2% of the overall popular vote. Steps would be taken to ensure equal representation of women and men.

International solidarity

A final section of Québec solidaire’s platform was addressed to “fostering solidarity among the peoples of the world”. It had three components. The first included promotion of “government-to-government relationships with the Aboriginal nations present on the Quebec territory”.

The second, solidarity with “other peoples”, called for “a political, social and diplomatic rapprochement” with “progressive governments, in particular on the American continent, by participating in common projects and events (cultural, economic and media)”; and “setting out to replace free-trade pacts such as NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement], FTAA [Free Trade Area of the Americas] or the SSP [Security and Prosperity Partnership between Canada and the United States], and proposing new international treaties based on individual and collective rights, respect for the environment and a widening of democracy (such as the ALBA [Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, the trade and services agreement currently involving Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia]).”

The third component, “promoting peace”, said QS would propose “a motion in the National Assembly to oppose any Canadian imperialist intervention in Afghanistan.” Presumably, this would include the current Canadian intervention. A curious aspect is the platform’s stated refusal of “direct or indirect involvement in imperialist aggression and occupation wars and in the rise of neo-conservatism and fundamentalism”; there is no explanation of why “fundamentalism” is lumped in this way with imperialism, leaving an unfortunate impression that QS is tainted somewhat by Islamophobia. Nor is there any mention of NATO or NORAD, the military alliances with the U.S., a surprising omission in the platform.

Challenges ahead

With the election behind it, Québec solidaire now turns its attention to completing its program. A convention in 2009 will debate and adopt proposals now being discussed by the membership around the theme of “achieving a democratic, pluralist and sovereign Quebec”. Non-members as well as members are invited to participate in “citizen’s circles”, each composed of at least three persons (one must be a QS member), and to prepare written perspectives and analysis texts for discussion in the party.

Another major challenge facing QS, now that the media spotlight will be focused on Amir Khadir’s intervention in the National Assembly, is to develop as well its extra-parliamentary actions. QS has always defined itself as a party of the ballot boxes and the streets, but the latter aspect — which involves far more than participating in demonstrations — has tended to be eclipsed by the party’s focus on electoral action. QS needs to develop a strategic conception of coherent intervention as a party in the unions and social movements whose concerns and interests it seeks to articulate and advance.

QS has only begun to plumb the possibilities in this area. In this election campaign it received important support from the Montreal central council of the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN), which endorsed the QS candidates in every one of the city’s ridings. “Their election to the National Assembly,” said Gaétan Châteauneuf, the council’s president, “would be significant because a breach would then be opened to enable the circulation and promotion of progressive ideas in the Quebec political arena. In the central council, we think this is a realistic objective that must be tackled at the earliest opportunity. The unity of the progressive forces is fundamental to achieving this goal.”

The council’s parent federation, the CSN, however, took a neutral stance in the election, while the largest trade union federation, the FTQ, supported the Parti québécois.

Amir Khadir’s election attracted wide attention among other forces in the left, and not least among the members and supporters of SPQ-Libre (Syndicalistes et progressistes pour un Québec Libre), a recognized “club” or interest group within the PQ that includes many prominent trade unionists. In the following article, Pierre Dubuc, the secretary of SPQ-Libre and editor of the popular monthly newspaper L’aut’journal, offers his view of the election result and holds out the perspective of a strategic alliance between the PQ and QS in the fight for a sovereign Quebec. My translation and notes. -- Richard Fidler

SPQ-Libre leader analyzes results

Election of 51 PQ MNAs and Amir Khadir

by Pierre Dubuc

L’aut’journal, December 11, 2008

It was foreseeable that the economic crisis would hit Quebec on December 9, the day after the elections. The bosses were kind enough not to inconvenience Jean Charest with layoffs during the election campaign. Now that it was over, the recreational products division of Bombardier gave the signal with the abolition of 1,000 jobs, close to half of them in Valcourt. The next day, the Rio Tinto mining group, which owns Alcan, announced the elimination of 14,000 jobs worldwide — the plants in Beauharnois and Shawinigan may be shut down — and the postponement of its modernization of the aluminum works in Saguenay Lac Saint-Jean. Further bad news is on the way.

Above all, the employers did not want a minority government, at the mercy of the opposition parties — and therefore the electorate — to deal with the crisis. It would have been forced to provide assistance to the unemployed, pensioners and economically devastated regions in order to ensure its re-election. The minority Charest was very kind, but the bosses know they will need the majority Charest, the champion of decrees and the parliamentary guillotine, to confront the crisis and the anger of the workers and popular classes.

Power Corporation lent its hand to ensure his re-election through its subsidiary Gesca, which controls the vast majority of daily newspapers in Quebec. Every evening, the Téléjournal displayed the result by presenting a table prepared by Influence Communications showing the relative weight accorded each party leader during the previous 48 hours. Jean Charest was generally way out in front with almost twice the media attention as [PQ leader] Pauline Marois or [ADQ leader] Mario Dumont. No one got upset, no one protested, no one demanded that this glaring imbalance be corrected.

Influence Communications openly acknowledged today on its Web site the direct link between the media coverage for each party and the election results: “The media attention given each of the parties from November 6 to December 8 was once again very representative of the final vote”! With a media weighting of 45% the Liberals got 42% of the votes. With 33% of media attention, the Parti Québécois got 35% of the votes and the ADQ got 16% of the votes with 17% of the media coverage.

Despite it all, Jean Charest is smiling out of only one side of his mouth. His victory is marred by the low participation rate. Barely one out of four registered voters voted Liberal. Moreover, the collapse of the ADQ will prevent that party from presenting itself as centrist and will clearly push it to the right of the political spectrum, where it really belongs.

But it was above all the surprising performance of the Parti Québécois that undermined the Liberal victory. Thanks to the political crisis in Ottawa, the national question, up to then kept in the dark, resurfaced. Drawing the lessons of his defeat in Quebec during the last federal election, Prime Minister Harper calculated that a majority government was possible without Quebec, especially if he campaigned in Canada against Quebec!

In his all-out attack against the Liberal-NDP Coalition supported by the Bloc Québécois, Stephen Harper targeted the “separatists” of the Bloc, proclaiming that the fracture between the sovereigntists and federalists was fundamental, more important even than the division between the left and the right.

In fact, Mr. Harper is using the national divide to impose his neoliberal solution in opposition to the Keynesian solution presented by the Coalition. Mr. Harper wants to come to the aid of the bankers and business leaders. The Coalition appeal was directed primarily to the unemployed, pensioners and regions devastated by company closures.

Curiously, Stephen Harper has a better reading of the link between the Quebec national question and progressive ideas than many Quebec sovereigntists and progressives.

From this perspective, one can only rejoice at the rebuff just suffered by those in the Parti Québécois who advocate putting the sovereigntist option and the so-called “modernization” of social-democracy on the back burner in order to win over the ADQ electorate.

The ADQ collapsed because its neoliberal ideology and its program of privatization and deregulation have just been swept aside by the economic crisis. Clearly, the ADQ’s success in the previous election was not the result of a sudden conversion of the voters to right-wing ideas, but a rejection of the first-term Charest and a refusal to support a Parti Québécois led by André Boisclair.

The other major event of the recent vote is the election of the first representative of Québec solidaire to the National Assembly. However, Amir Khadir’s election is largely a personal success. The Quebec-wide results of Québec solidaire are anemic, with a meagre 3.78% of the electorate voting for it. By dividing the sovereigntist and progressive vote, Québec solidaire can be held responsible for the defeat of four PQ candidates, including Dr. Réjean Hébert in the riding of Saint-François.

Amir Khadir is very media-savvy and an able politician. He will breathe new energy into Québec solidaire. It should be noted that this represents a victory of the sovereigntist wing of QS. During the last federal election, QS could not get beyond a denunciation of the Harper government. Paralyzed by its federalist wing — some prominent members of the party were NDP candidates — Québec solidaire was unable to openly support the Bloc Québécois. This fell short of the position of Toronto novelist Margaret Atwood and some Canadian CAW locals who called on the Québécois to vote for the Bloc in order to block Harper.

Dr. Amir Khadir personally supported the Bloc Québécois during the recent federal election[1] and, as a committed sovereigntist, has consistently defended the idea of an alliance with the Parti Québécois. But his view is not shared by Québec solidaire as a whole. For example, in a book that has just been published, Un certain espoir (Éditions Logiques), Jean-Marc Piotte, one of the mandarins of the Quebec left, writes, in a chapter entitled [translation] “Liberating ourselves from the sovereigntist fantasy”: “Québec solidaire says it prioritizes social demands over the national question. It should go further and liberate its program from its commitment to sovereignty. It could then free itself of the strategic voting advocated by the PQ members and go after the progressive vote in the west end of Montréal that has gone to the Greens for lack of anything better.”

It must be said that Jean-Marc Piotte — who prides himself for having been a founding member of Parti Pris[2] — states in the same book that [translation] “the people are no longer willing to fight for independence, because Quebec has succeeded marvellously in developing itself culturally, economically and politically within Canada and despite the federal connection.”

Amir Khadir’s election will strengthen the sovereigntist wing in Québec solidaire and that should be welcomed by the sovereigntists and progressives of the Parti Québécois.

The economic crisis is going to hit Quebec very hard and the situation will be terrible in many communities. To cite only one example, consider the Domtar workers at Lebel-sur-Quévillon who, after the closure of their factory because of a lock-out three years ago, were directed to be retrained as miners, since the mining industry was booming at the time. Now, having finished their retraining, they watch helplessly while the mines close as a result of dropping raw materials prices. What future do they and their families have?

Similar cases will occur over and over again in the coming months. And there will not be much help coming from Ottawa with a Conservative government — its priority remaining an ever-more-costly war in Afghanistan — more inclined to go to the rescue of provinces where it hopes to win a parliamentary majority to give it elbow room to help business leaders and demand concessions from workers.

Inevitably, in a context of social crisis, the question of Quebec’s sovereignty will be posed. This is the lever that we must grasp in order to destabilize the Canadian financial and military establishment and impose a progressive solution to the Canadian economic, political and constitutional crisis for the greater benefit of the Québécois nation but also for the workers of English Canada. It is up to the progressives and sovereigntists of the Parti Québécois and Québec solidaire to propose a program, a strategy and some appropriate steps to take!

Posted December 15, 2008

[1] Amir Khadir was a candidate for the Bloc Québécois in Outremont riding in the 2000 federal election, before the formation of Québec solidaire.

[2] One of the first major left-wing independentist magazines in Quebec, Parti Pris proclaimed its support for “a free, secular and socialist Quebec”. It published from 1963 to the end of that decade. Associated with the monthly magazine, beginning in 1964, was a publishing house, Éditions Parti pris, and an organization, the Club Parti pris (later the Mouvement de libération populaire).

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Coalition: Its Nature, Its Future and Our Perspectives

First published in English in Socialist Voice, December 12, 2008

By Bernard Rioux

An intolerable economic statement. The formation of a coalition of opposition parties claiming they want to bring down the government. A shuttered parliament, MPs flushed from it for two months at the prime minister’s whim. The House of Commons has been the setting for a parliamentary crisis the likes of which have never been seen in Canada. How should we analyze what has just happened and its consequences?

The Context

The world economic crisis is imposing its share of suffering on the people of Canada and Quebec: job losses, greater insecurity, household debt, decline in purchasing power, erosion of savings accumulated over the years by small investors, etc. And the most devastating effects of the crisis are just arriving at our doors.

Harper’s Conservative government with all its partisan and doctrinaire projects provoked a parliamentary crisis

Insensitive to the angst and difficulties of working people, the government gave priority to weakening the opposition and crushing the main opposition party, the Liberal party of Canada. Prime Minister Harper wanted to take advantage of the leadership crisis in the Official Opposition to force it to accept the unacceptable while cutting off its financial lifeline. So Finance Minister Flaherty’s economic statement proposed to put an end to public funding of political parties; it attacked pay equity for women; it prohibited the right to strike in the public service in coming years and proposed some economic measures characterized by the Conservative obsession with deficit-fighting. Flaherty announced cutbacks of four billion dollars in government spending that may further dampen economic activity and speed the onset of recession.

Opposition parties form a coalition

In an act of self-preservation, the opposition parties joined in a coalition — denouncing neoliberal rigidity, calling for a needed boost to the economy, and proposing themselves as an immediate alternative to the Harper government. Hoping to head off this possibility, the Conservatives retreated on party funding and the prohibition of the right to strike.

It was no use, for the perspective of overthrowing the Tories responded to a genuine democratic feeling among the Canadian people who, in their majority, did not vote for a Conservative government. They want to do away with a government that seeks to make working people pay for a crisis they did not create.

The Harper government used the State institutions to avoid being overthrown

But the government was not overthrown. Using some institutions of the Canadian state established to protect the governing party, Harper asked Governor General Michaële Jean to prorogue Parliament until the end of January 2009. In responding to the prime minister’s request, she was simply performing her institutional duties, [constitutional lawyer] Henri Brun argues. This meant there would be no non-confidence vote on the economic statement on December 8.

To legitimize this call to shut down the Canadian parliament for two months, the Tory leader launched a media campaign designed to undermine the legitimacy of the coalition, claiming that it included the Bloc Québécois. It was a horrifying prospect, he said, to give a coalition including a “separatist” party control of the Canadian government, even if that party would not be an actual part of the government. Harper’s campaign effectively whipped up hatred against Quebec in English Canada.

His objective was not only to delegitimize the Coalition and its proposed government but to divide it and make the Liberals in particular pay a high political price for this alliance with the “socialists” of the NDP and the “separatists” of the Bloc. He won some serious points on this score.

The Conservative operation was particularly cynical and . . . easy. Didn’t the opposition forces radically overestimate the depth of the political crisis? There was indeed a parliamentary crisis, but the legitimacy of a change in government was not rooted in the population as a whole, especially in English Canada, and nowhere did these sentiments give rise to a significant extraparliamentary mass movement. That is what explains the angle of attack taken by Prime Minister Harper, focusing on Canadian unity and his capacity to resist the parliamentary crisis, which will reoccur of course. Judging from opinion polls, he emerges a winner from the crisis.

The nature of this coalition and its program

The Liberals entered this coalition for self-preservation and out of opposition to Harper’s doctrinaire non-interventionism at a time when all other Western governments have already rejected this economic abstentionism.

The Liberals have imposed a program on this coalition that is fully consistent with the logic of the G-20 governments. “The new Government is committed to working with the international community, particularly with G-20 partners, in pursuit of an effective new global financial architecture.”[1] But the G-20 plans do not question the deregulation of the financial industry in any way whatsoever. The G-20 have assigned the job of extricating them from the present crisis to the IMF and the WTO, the promoters of an unjust and unviable model. The only proposed solutions defend the interests of the major creditors. Poor peoples and countries continue to be denied a say.

The Coalition’s common plan aims to “provide active stimulus for the economy over the next two years, with a shared commitment to return to surplus within four years.”[2] This is the principle of fiscal responsibility and it promises future attacks on existing gains of the people. Even the promised support to families is limited “as finances permit.” Not much, then.

The NDP and the Bloc are asking for measures to help people affected by the economic crisis, to protect pensions and employment insurance benefits, and to support cultural activities through cancellation of the budget cuts announced by the Conservative government. But there are very few clear and itemized commitments in the coalition’s founding agreement. That is understandable, as it is led by a party that cut back on unemployment insurance, attacked democratic freedoms through its anti-terrorist laws and initiated the disastrous intervention in Afghanistan.

And then there is what is not explicitly written. “In order to sign the coalition agreement with the Liberals, on Monday, NDP leader Jack Layton renounced his party’s call for the cancellation of a proposed reduction in corporate taxes.”[3] Even more serious: “The NDP’s deputy leader Thomas Mulcair stated Wednesday that the party would no longer oppose Canada’s war in Afghanistan while it was teamed with the Liberals. This was a significant concession for a party that was the standard-bearer of the country’s peace movement. Mr. Mulcair, the only New Democrat MP from Quebec, stated that ‘the NDP is setting aside the differences that have always existed with the Liberals on issues such as Afghanistan’.”[4]

This is a minimalist agreement given the scope of the crisis, and it essentially replicates, as its framework, the positions elaborated by the G-20 countries aimed at maintaining a development model that has led us to this crisis, adding to it an interventionism that is oriented entirely toward support to big business. It is an agreement that says not a word about the withdrawal of Canadian troops, the colossal sums that are being spent on them, and the unacceptable nature of that intervention.

Will this coalition hold together?

The federal Liberal party has a crisis of leadership. Stéphane Dion has been ejected from his position as leader. The Liberals have already decided not to develop an alternative budget to the one that the Conservatives will present next January 26. Will they participate in the budget preparation consultations being proposed by Stephen Harper? No doubt.

For the NDP, the coalition is still a governmental alternative, and if there are some good ideas in the Tory budget, they say, the Coalition should adopt them and include them in its own budget. Taking power as a coalition remains the party’s perspective. For the NDP, there is no going back.

The Bloc will be the only party to benefit from the Coalition episode. Its participation in building the coalition was not the expression of any confidence in the Liberals, but reflected its understanding that consistent opposition to the Conservatives is the source of its strength among the people of Quebec. Duceppe has clearly understood that all the manoeuvres designed to dislodge the Tories could only reinforce his own legitimacy and his base in Quebec. This does not mean he is setting out a clear strategy that can actually protect the people against the crisis. That’s another matter altogether.

The Coalition is already being torn by the contradictions among the Liberals, and the internal dynamics of the Liberal party will no doubt lead to its implosion.

Two scenarios that merge into one

Several scenarios are possible, but they lead to the same conclusion. The Coalition’s days are numbered.

  1. The Liberals vote for the budget and refuse to defeat the government. This theory is based on the fact that many Liberal supporters on Bay Street were not happy with the party’s alliance with Layton’s NDP and the separatists of the Bloc. This is reflected in the questioning of the coalition in the Liberal caucus, the scope of which is currently masked by party discipline. Voting for the budget would give the Liberals time to rebuild under a new leader. Also, recent polls indicate that Harper has to this point been the main beneficiary of the crisis in English Canada, with the Liberals far behind. Some Liberals are already arguing that the door is not completely closed to possible support to Harper’s budget even if, they say, he will have to make many concessions. In that case, the coalition will be over.
  2. If the Tories don’t shift much the government could be defeated and elections called. Would a coalition hold together in an election? The answer is clear. The Liberals could not accept an electoral agreement with the Bloc. The NDP likewise, given the national polarization that could be manifested during the next federal election campaign.

What coalition should be built to confront the crisis, the Conservatives, and all the federalist forces?

The unions have chosen to line up behind the coalition and ally with a party that has led a major offensive against the majority of the working population in recent years. The only perspective before working people and their organizations is not a coalition without a future, it is class independence and the unity of the workers and popular forces at the level of the Canadian state in a united struggle against the parties of big business. The NDP must stop tying its hands to the Bay Street Party and assist in the organization of this coalition of workers and popular forces. Only repeated mass actions can block the attacks being prepared to make the people pay for the economic crisis of the capitalist system. It is important that the unions and the popular, feminist and ecologist forces retain their freedom of action and coalesce on their own bases.

We must build campaigns to demand a complete revision of employment insurance in favour of the workers, the construction of social housing and a better public system of transport, strengthened public pensions, strict regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and the immediate withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan.

The parliamentary crisis in Ottawa has not produced a nationalist upsurge comparable to the one provoked by the rejection of the Meech Lake accord. But Harper’s campaign has been an unacceptable provocation for many Québécois. The independence perspective, however, will broaden only if it is rooted in a strategy that can articulate a social agenda capable of contending with the coming crisis. There are no shortcuts. The only way to do this is to develop a party that makes the link between the social and national struggles, in place of a party whose elitist leadership uses sovereigntist sentiments to monopolize provincial power, a party content with managing as the Parti québécois has been doing for a long time.

Bernard Rioux is a leader of Gauche socialiste, a collective within the left sovereigntist party Québec solidaire. QS won its first seat in the Québec National Assembly in the December 8 election. This article was published in the web journal Presse-toi-à-gauche, on December 9. Translation by Richard Fidler.


[1] A Policy Accord to Address the Present Economic Crisis, a Coalition document dated December 1, 2008.

[2] Idem.

[3] La Presse, December 3, 2008.

[4] Idem.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Political crisis exposes Canada’s national, class divisions

by Richard Fidler

OTTAWA – In a classic 19th century work, English journalist Walter Bagehot divided the Constitution into two parts. The “efficient” part — the executive (cabinet) and legislative — was responsible for the business of government. The “dignified” part, the Queen, was to put a human face on the capitalist state. Bagehot noted, however, that the Queen also had “a hundred” powers called Prerogatives, adding: “There is no authentic explicit information as to what the Queen can do….”[1]

On December 4 Canadians learned, many to their dismay, that those Prerogatives, borrowed from England in their Constitution,[2] included the power to shut down the elected Parliament. Using her discretionary authority, Governor General Michaëlle Jean, the Queen’s representative, allowed Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s request to “prorogue” or suspend the proceedings of Parliament until January 26. This enabled the minority Conservative government to avoid certain defeat in the House of Commons in a vote scheduled for December 8. At the same time, the Governor General rejected a formal request by opposition MPs from two parties to form a new government which, with the promised support of a third party, would have a clear majority in the House.

As one wit commented, Canada has now become a “pro-rogue state”. It is no laughing matter, however.

No recession?

The Parliamentary hiatus means that Canadians enter a deepening financial and economic crisis without even the promise of early government assistance that might provide emergency relief from mounting unemployment, vanishing credit and evaporating private pensions. Employment statistics released December 5 revealed the loss of 70,600 jobs in November alone, the biggest monthly job loss since the 1982 recession.

The economic crisis is now a political crisis — and threatens to become a “national unity” crisis — as government and opposition parties fan out across the country to rally public opinion behind their respective agendas.

The crisis was touched off two and a half weeks earlier when Parliament met for the first time since the October 14 general election. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty presented an economic statement that incredibly predicted that Canada would avoid a recession, projected a budget surplus, promised to privatize and sell off government buildings and other assets and imposed significant cuts in government spending. The government also announced it would drop pay equity measures for women in the federal public service, reduce the overall wage bill for federal government employees and ban their right to strike. And to add insult to injury, state funding of political parties was to be cut back sharply.

The Harper government had already earmarked $75 billion to take mortgages off the books of the banks and is providing tens of billions in other forms of support and liquidity to the financial industry, with few conditions.

It seemed the right-wing Tories had forgotten they were a minority. Less than two months earlier, they had been elected in only 143 seats, 12 short of a majority.

NDP beds down with Liberals

Flaherty’s statement caught the Opposition off guard, as the government had been hinting for weeks that it would propose economic pump-priming measures even at the cost of a budget deficit. Normally, so soon after an election, a defeated Opposition would be expected not to try to overturn the government. But to the government’s surprise, the two major Opposition parties now moved to defeat the Tories in a parliamentary vote and form a coalition government to replace them.

Within days, Liberal leader Stéphane Dion had cobbled together a deal with the New Democratic Party, Canada’s traditional social-democratic party. Dion and NDP leader Jack Layton agreed to form a joint government “built on a foundation of fiscal responsibility” to rule for at least three years. Liberals would hold the key positions of Prime Minister and Minister of Finance as well as 18 of the 24 cabinet posts, the other 6 going to the NDP. It began to look as if the NDP had rescued the Liberals, who only six weeks earlier had emerged from the election with their lowest voter support since Confederation in 1867.

Since the Liberals, with 77 seats, and the NDP, with 37, could not muster a majority, they got the pro-sovereignty Bloc Québécois, which holds 49 of Quebec’s 75 seats, to pledge not to support motions of non-confidence in the Government for at least 18 months. Voilà, a government with a working majority of 163 seats, to be led by outgoing Liberal leader Dion until May, when he was to be replaced by whoever won the scheduled Liberal leadership race.

The political content of the Liberal-NDP coalition agreement[3] was, to say the least, rather modest. It featured vague promises of increased spending on infrastructure investments, housing and aid to troubled manufacturing industries; easier eligibility for unemployment benefits; improved child benefits; pursuit of a “North American cap-and-trade market with absolute emission targets” and unspecified “Immigration Reform”.

Perhaps more significant were the things it did not contain — most notably, no reference to Canada’s military intervention in Afghanistan. The NDP’s promise to end Canada’s “combat mission” in that country was one of the major planks that distinguished it from the Liberals and other parties in the recent election.

Nor was there any reference to the North American Free Trade Agreement or other trade and investment deals that the NDP had previously opposed or pledged to reform in workers’ interests. There was nothing in the agreement that would in any way mark a Canadian departure from its close alignment with U.S. economic or foreign policy and military strategy.

Best case scenario?

The coalition proposal struck a responsive chord, however, among many trade union and social movement activists. On-line pro-coalition petitions were swiftly organized, attracting tens of thousands of signatures in support. Media talk shows and email discussion lists buzzed with favourable commentary.

Prominent left critics of neoliberalism volunteered their support. Naomi Klein, setting aside her autonomism for the moment, envisaged a “best case scenario”: “one, you get the coalition, and two, the NDP uses this moment to really launch a national discussion about why we need PR [proportional representation]….”[4]

Socialist Register editor Leo Panitch, while expressing reservations about the anticapitalist potential of the coalition, hailed the “courage” of the coalition proponents and saw some promise in the NDP’s role: “In Canada, as the New Democrats prepare themselves for federal office for the first time in their history, the prospect of turning banking into a public utility might be seen as laying the groundwork for the democratization of the economy that the party was originally committed to when it was founded….”[5]

Even some Marxists saw merit in the Coalition. The International Socialists, in a special supplement to their newspaper Socialist Worker, opposed giving a “blank cheque” to the Coalition, but said “The key question now is what demands we make on the Liberal-NDP Coalition and how we mobilize to win them.”

There were a few lonely dissenting voices. One that attracted some controversy in left circles was that of John Riddell, a co-editor of the web journal Socialist Voice.[6] Writing in Rabble, a popular web journal of “progressive” opinion, Riddell asked “Have the advocates of coalition forgotten that it was the last Liberal government that originated most of the hated ‘Harper’ policies, including the gutting of social services, attacks on civil liberties dressed up as ‘anti-terrorism’ and Canada's disastrous war in Afghanistan?” He went on:

“The aim of progressive policy must not be to enhance the power of capitalist governments but to increase that of working people….

“The only force we can depend on is the pressure of independent popular and labour movements. In a situation of social and economic crisis, these movements can become an irresistible force.

“And here is the fatal weakness of the coalition government scheme. Locked inside a Liberal-dominated coalition, the NDP would be unable to campaign against capitalist attacks. Accepting responsibility for the anti-labour measures of such a government could rapidly discredit the NDP and end its ability to continue as the bearer of popular hopes for social change.

“At the same time, labour leaders' current pledges of unconditional support to a coalition will undermine the unions' ability to act independently in defence of workers' rights and needs.

“Tying ourselves down in this manner is particularly dangerous in the midst of an economic crisis that is unprecedented, and shifting rapidly in unpredictable ways.” [7]

This warning rang like an echo of a period — not so long ago, in fact — when there was a workers movement that would have no truck or trade with bourgeois parties like the Liberals. The seeming unanimity of support for the Liberal-led coalition voiced by what passes today as Canada’s “left” was a sobering reminder of just how deeply the neoliberal TINA mantra (There Is No Alternative) has penetrated popular consciousness.

Labour campaigns for coalition

Among the leading propagandists for the coalition were political commentators Murray Dobbin and prominent feminist Judy Rebick, who had long fought for closer collaboration between anti-Conservative forces and especially during the recent federal election campaign. They were overjoyed that the NDP, which had previously resisted their pleas, had now come on board.

The organizational clout behind the campaign for coalition government, however, was provided by the Canadian Labour Congress and its major affiliated unions. Overnight, the CLC poured money and staff into organizing mass “Coalition Yes” rallies in major cities across the country. “The Liberal-NDP Accord would get Canada working again by providing immediate money for infrastructure projects, transit, clean energy, water, housing and retrofits,” proclaimed CLC literature and web sites.[8]

For weeks the CLC brass had been labouring over successive versions of a draft “Plan to Deal with the Economic Crisis”.[9] The Coalition Accord offered somewhat less than the CLC’s plan, of course, since its bottom line was what the Liberals were prepared to accept. But now, it seemed, the formation of a Liberal-led coalition held out the prospect of sufficient reforms to relieve the mounting pressure within labour’s ranks for effective action by the union leadership in defence of beleaguered workers.

Few doubts were expressed in the ranks of organized labour. For example, a convention of the British Columbia Federation of Labour voted nearly unanimously on November 27 to support the formation of a coalition government.

The Quebec unions, too, were quick to sign up. The major centrals (FTQ, CSN and CSQ) issued a joint statement in support of what it called “the Liberal-NDP-Bloc Québécois coalition” and urged members to join the Montréal pro-Coalition rally. “Let’s let the coalition, which has committed to implement a genuine plan of support to the economy, do the work,” the statement said.[10]

Impact in Quebec

The governmental crisis in Ottawa virtually eclipsed the final week of campaigning in Quebec’s general election, scheduled for December 8. The sovereigntist Parti québécois came out in support of the Coalition. “We have a sovereigntist party in Ottawa [the BQ] which has acted responsibly when faced with a Harper who crushes Quebec and denies that Quebec has needs”, said PQ leader Pauline Marois, adding that the political crisis showed that Canada does not function and that it is necessary to leave it. Liberal premier Jean Charest, in contrast, argued that the instability in Ottawa was cause to turn his minority government into a majority. The top leaders of the left sovereigntist Québec solidaire, Amir Khadir and Françoise David, issued a statement in support of the coalition. The only comment so far in the on-site journal Presse-toi-à-gauche, the nearest thing QS has to a media presence, has been an article by Pierre Beaudet and François Cyr along the same lines.[11]

Polls showed that the coalition proposal is very popular in Quebec, which voted heavily against Harper’s Tories in October. Despite hostility in the corporate media (the pro-sovereignty Le Devoir is the only newspaper to support it), the coalition attracted little criticism even in nationalist circles, although there was some grumbling about the fact that the coalition was led by Stéphane Dion, the chief architect of the Liberals’ Clarity Act of 2000 hamstringing Quebec’s right to determine its constitutional future.

Former labour leader Gérald Larose, now chair of the Conseil de la souveraineté du Québec, a non-partisan sovereigntist umbrella group, issued a statement entitled “A sovereigntist view on a coalition”.[12] It greeted the Liberal-NDP accord:

“In four pages, Quebec recovers the billion dollars that were to be cut in equalization payments (the Flaherty cuts), the millions that were cut to cultural funding (the Verner cuts), the cuts to regional economic development agencies (the Blackburn cuts), commitments for Quebec’s forestry industry, improved benefits for the unemployed, a program for elderly workers….

“Québec’s sovereignty is a political fight. Half of this politics is at Quebec City. The other is at Ottawa. The one in Québec is key. The one in Ottawa is strategic…. It is the Bloc that prevented the election of a dangerous majority Conservative government. It is the Bloc as well that allows the formation of an alternative coalition government, ensuring in the process that Quebec maximizes the achievement of a number of economic demands.”

Quebec support for the coalition was bolstered by Harper’s venomous attacks on the coalition as a capitulation to “separatists”, and Tory MPs’ characterization of the accord as a “deal with the devil” tantamount to “treason and sedition”. Harper even challenged the legitimacy of representation by the Bloc and Bloc voters (close to 40 percent of Quebec voters) in Canada’s parliament. The virulence of these attacks aroused some concern among leveller heads in the federalist camp, and led the editors of Canada’s leading newspaper The Globe & Mail, among others, to call for Harper’s resignation as Tory leader and prime minister: “Whether he contrives an exit from his immediate travails over the confidence vote, the Harper era appears to be approaching its end. But before that happens, there is danger Canadian unity will be harmed.”[13]

These concerns were reinforced by a surge in PQ support in the final days of the Quebec election, as “soft” nationalists rallied to the party. On election day the PQ won 51 seats with 35% of the vote, replacing the less nationalist right-wing party, the Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) as Official Opposition and coming within a few seats of the governing Liberals. (Another notable result was the election of Québec solidaire co-leader Amir Khadir as that party’s first member in the National Assembly.)

Real change?

The coalition accord is also attacked as “socialist”, and indeed the NDP (along with the Bloc) is widely perceived as the driving force behind it. This in part explains the enthusiasm for the coalition among many working people. They see the NDP as a fetter on the Liberals, a potential restraint on the latters’ predictable attempts to implement their own neoliberal program.

That is also a major reason why the corporate rulers on Toronto’s Bay Street oppose the coalition. They know the NDP poses no threat to their system, and they have had little difficulty accommodating to the provincial governments the NDP has administered from time to time. But they also understand that the NDP is the actually existing political expression of the trade union movement and thus, in that sense, it is a destabilizing influence in Canada’s politics. They prefer to keep it at one remove from the corridors of power. They don’t see the need at present to call on the NDP as a direct partner in preserving their system.

Above all, however, the popular support of the coalition is a manifestation of how low expectations are among working people after close to three decades of neoliberal assault during which real wages (adjusted for inflation) have stagnated overall and even declined for many. The pro-coalition enthusiasm has expressed a real craving for some kind of change, any change, at the top in government. For many, the modest improvements in the coalition platform over Harper’s agenda are sufficient to constitute change they can believe in.

Tories fan anti-Quebec hatred

This is not Canada’s “Obama moment”, however. The pro-coalition rallies in the immediate wake of Parliament’s prorogation mobilized only a few thousand in Canada’s largest cities, while counter-rallies called by Tory operatives were in some cases almost comparable in size. Public opinion surveys indicate a country deeply divided on the coalition proposal, with a majority of those outside Quebec registering opposition. Mass media opposition has no doubt played a role in this.

Some of the pro-Harper counter-rallies staged in major cities were remarkable for their overt Canadian nationalist hostility to the Québécois. Media talk shows featured rants against the coalition as an undemocratic power grab by a cabal of opportunist socialists and separatists. According to polls, support for the NDP and Liberals has declined.

The Tories are mobilizing their supporters in the streets and church basements in high hopes of breaking Liberal support for the coalition. And indeed, the coalition looks quite shaky. On December 8, only four days after Parliament was prorogued, Liberal leader Dion, the putative PM in the coalition arrangement, agreed under party pressure to resign as soon as the Liberals could choose a new leader.

Although one major Liberal leadership contender, Bob Rae (a former NDP premier of Ontario) began campaigning actively for it, the major contender, Michael Ignatieff, is reported to have serious reservations. Ignatieff, known internationally for his support of Washington’s foreign policy as “Empire Lite”, has indicated he would be prepared to support a Harper budget that contained similar measures, but says the coalition is “the only tool that’s got us anywhere” in trying to force concessions from Harper. Call his position “Coalition lite”.

Quebec a destabilizing factor

At bottom, the current political crisis is an expression of the deepening dilemma posed to the Canadian political system by the rise of Quebec nationalism and its independence movement since the 1960s.

Until the mid-1980s, the federalist strategy epitomized by Pierre Trudeau of promoting French and English official bilingualism, coupled with occasional shows of force (as in the War Measures crisis of 1970), kept the “separatist” monster at bay. However, Quebec’s alienation from the federal state increased when Trudeau moved in the wake of the 1980 referendum defeat to unilaterally impose constitutional changes featuring an amending formula that seemed to rule out a constitutional path to Quebec sovereignty while imposing a “charter of rights” consciously designed to override popular legislation in Quebec to protect and promote French language rights.

The Conservative party under Brian Mulroney replaced the Liberals for a period by forging a delicate coalition of “soft” Quebec nationalists with Western provincial rights militants around support of “free trade” agreements with the United States. Most Quebec sovereigntists saw such agreements as a means of lessening Quebec’s dependence on the pan-Canadian market and undermining the economic influence of the Canadian state. However, pro-sovereignty sentiment mushroomed when Mulroney failed to get the other provinces’ agreement to constitutional recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society”. Nationalist Quebec Liberals and Tories, in collaboration with the PQ, formed the Bloc Québécois in the early 1990s, and since then the BQ has taken a majority of Quebec seats in the federal Parliament in six consecutive elections.

Following the extremely narrow defeat of the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty, the federal Liberals, back in office, moved to limit Quebec’s right to secede; Stéphane Dion was brought into the cabinet to pilot the “Clarity Act” through Parliament. The Bloc redefined itself; no longer an intermediary at the federal level to facilitate Quebec’s accession to independence, it now saw itself as simply a promoter of Quebec’s interests within the federal regime.

Although both the Bloc and the Parti québécois continue to enjoy mass support in Quebec, the sovereigntist project itself has languished since 1995, unable to win compelling majority support for Quebec independence.

The developing economic crisis has put an additional crimp on the neoliberal “sovereignty” promoted by both parties. “Québec Inc.”, the once-vaunted flourishing of Quebec firms and economic institutions owned and managed by Francophone entrepreneurs, has likewise suffered some hard blows in the financial crisis. For example, the Caisse de dépôt et de placement, a financial behemoth that manages Quebec’s public pension funds, is in difficulty today owing to heavy exposure to the meltdown in asset-backed commercial paper investments. With the federal state and its control of banking and money serving as the lender of last resort, it is no accident that the Bloc Québécois now proposes to become a surety for a Liberal-led government in Ottawa!

However, the national question continues to simmer, fueled above all by the weight of the language issue in a Francophone province that represents almost a quarter of Canada’s total population but only 2 percent of North America’s, as well as the constant tension with the centralizing dynamics of Canadian federalism.

Seemingly banal incidents can easily rekindle expressions of Québécois national sentiment. The federal Liberals discovered this in the 2006 election when their remaining support in Quebec was decimated by disclosures of massive illegal spending in the province through a program to “sponsor” federalism. Harper’s Conservatives now seem destined for a similar fate as they vent their anger at the Bloc (and their rejection by Quebec voters in the October election) in venomous attacks on the Québécois.

NDP shut out in Quebec

As for the NDP, it has historically proved incapable of relating positively to Quebec nationalism and as a result has never enjoyed mass support in Quebec. A social democratic party, the NDP favours a strong central state as the vehicle for income redistribution and the administration of social programs. It is uncomfortable with the regional dynamics of a robust, assertive Quebec nationalism, and the party has been reluctant even to accept special status for Quebec within federal programs.

Furthermore, the NDP has from the beginning been seen by its union sponsors as a vehicle for potential liberal-labour regroupment that would eventually replace the Liberals as the major federal alternative to the Conservatives. This orientation is not facilitated by any sympathy for Quebec self-determination; as the “natural governing party” in Canada for most of the 20th century, the Liberals are the party of centralist federalism par excellence.

Shunned by progressives in Quebec because of its identification with the federal regime, the NDP has been unable to build a base in that province, although its identification with social democracy has led some to favour it over the BQ.[14] The NDP’s only hope for federal office in Ottawa, then, lies in forging some alliance with the Liberals. Which it is now doing. Ironically, the present configuration of parliamentary seats means that the two parties cannot make a credible case for government without a pledge of neutrality from the Bloc Québécois! The BQ, for its part, could not join such a coalition without jeopardizing its role as a harbinger of Quebec independence.

The Bloc stands as Quebec’s continuing reproach to the rest of Canada for its failure to recognize the Quebec nation in reality — and not just in non-binding words, as did Harper’s motion two years ago to recognize the Québécois as a “nation within a united Canada”.

Coalition falters

It is likely that when Parliament resumes as scheduled, on January 26, the Liberals will be headed by Michael Ignatieff, and the coalition as a formal power-sharing agreement will be dead, at least for the time being.

Harper will likely bring in a budget that incorporates most of the proposals in the Coalition Accord, or at least enough to win Liberal support and ensure the survival of his government. But he will no doubt try to embarrass the Liberals and their Opposition allies with numerous “confidence” votes in the House. Unless the NDP or the Bloc vote with the Tories, the Liberals will be faced with a choice between voting down the government — almost certainly precipitating a general election, this time — and voting with the government or abstaining, a humiliating dilemma for the new Liberal leader. It is probably safe to predict another election in 2009.

Where does this leave the NDP — and, more importantly, the main body of its supporters in the unions and social movements?

The NDP clearly emerges much weakened from this episode. Just weeks ago, NDP leader Jack Layton claimed to be running to be “prime minister”, arguing that there was no fundamental difference between Liberals and Tories and that the NDP was the only party that offered real “change you can believe in”. Now that the NDP has demonstrated its willingness to cohabit in government under Liberal leadership, that claim looks pretty unconvincing. The party may even have trouble justifying a vote against a Harper budget based on the coalition proposals or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Since the NDP is the party of organized labour in English Canada, a weaker NDP lessens labour’s influence in the Parliament.

In any event, Harper’s budget, whatever its content, will not address the needs of working people in the economic crisis. Labour and its allies will have to go back to the drawing boards and hammer out a coherent and effective program of action, one that is not contingent on Liberal or Tory — or, for that matter, NDP — support but goes far beyond the extremely modest proposals in the coalition accord.

Critical balance-sheet needed

It is important, too, that militants press for a critical balance-sheet of the coalition episode. If the coalition were to hold together, labour would be mortgaging its ability to adopt an independent agenda and actions capable of advancing workers’ interests. The discussion within the mass movements needs to get outside the straitjacket of devising a parliamentary agenda acceptable to the Liberals.

Canadian labour has not been defeated in major industrial struggles. In a series of important confrontations in recent years, militants have demonstrated their willingness and capacity to resist attacks on their living standards and organizations. In British Columbia, a number of struggles have come close to turning into general strikes: health workers (2004), teachers and Telus workers (2005), forest workers in 2004 and 2007. In Quebec, workers fighting the Charest government’s antilabour legislation twice came to the verge of general strikes. Even the enthusiastic reception at pro-coalition rallies for speakers advocating more militant action is a promising sign of the mood in labour’s ranks.

Labour in English Canada will also have to find ways to construct a pan-Canadian alternative to the crisis that includes the Québécois. The solidarity expressed with BQ leader Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc at pro-coalition rallies may signal new openness in the labour movement to collaboration with the “separatists”. An anticapitalist coalition between grassroots activists in the two nations could pose a real challenge to Canada’s capitalists and their governments. A coalition with one of the traditional parties of big business points in the opposite direction.

December 8, 2008

[1] Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (Oxford, 1961), p. 52.

[2] The Preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867 (formerly the British North America Act) states that Canada has “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.”

[3] “A Policy Accord to Address the Present Economic Crisis”, See also the “Accord on a Cooperative Government”,

[4] Naomi Klein, “We Can’t Lose This Moment”, Rabble,

[5] Leo Panitch, “From the Global Crisis to Canada’s Crisis,” The Bullet, a Socialist Project e-bulletin, No. 164,


[7] “Coalition? Let's not give away the store”,

[8] CLC, “The Best Plan for Canada”,

[9] Successive versions have appeared on the web. Here is one of the more recent ones:

[10] “La FTQ, la CSN et la CSQ invitent la population à appuyer la coalition afin de faire face à la crise”,

[11] “Dehors les voyous”, An English version by Beaudet was published in Rabble, at

[12] Le Devoir, December 5, 2008,

[13] “Fanning anger toward Quebec”, December 4, 2008,

[14] See “Election 2008 — the Quebec left’s challenge to socialists in the Rest of Canada”, Socialist Voice,