Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Why the Parti Québécois expelled SPQ Libre

A five-year long attempt to reform the Parti Québécois as an independentist and “social-democratic” party ended abruptly on March 13 when the PQ’s national executive decided not to renew recognition of its left-wing “political club” as an authorized grouping with the party. The decision, which effectively expelled Syndicalistes et Progressistes pour un Québec Libre (SPQ Libre)[1] from the party, was promptly approved by the PQ’s conference of constituency presidents.
The PQ leadership’s move coincided with a weekend symposium sponsored by the party on the theme of reorienting Québécois toward individual enrichment in place of collective enrichment — part of an ongoing campaign to win the hearts and votes of disaffected followers of Action Démocratique du Québec. The far-right ADQ, which the PQ replaced as Official Opposition in the December 2008 general election, has since slipped catastrophically in opinion polls and now ranks just below the left-wing party, Québec solidaire.
In 2005 the PQ had amended its statutes to allow SPQ Libre to join the party as an officially recognized “club”. Party leaders, including former Premier Bernard Landry, hoped to use SPQ Libre to forestall support for Québec solidaire, which was then being formed through a fusion of left-wing organizations. SPQ Libre member Monique Richard, former president of the CSQ, was elected President of the Parti Québécois and later elected as a PQ candidate to the National Assembly. Other prominent SPQ Libre members included Vivian Barbot, former president of the Quebec Women’s Federation (FFQ) and later a Bloc Québécois MP; former PQ minister Robert Dean; and Marc Laviolette, former president of the CSN (and current SPQ Libre president).
The PQ leadership’s surprise decision to expel SPQ Libre may have been provoked by the latter’s publication on the eve of the party symposium of a major document entitled (in translation) “To grow rich sustainably is to grow rich collectively”. It argued that Quebec’s enormous achievements toward overcoming its historic development lag within Canada had been achieved since the 1960s through state action in the interests of the Quebec nation collectively, and that this — not individual profit-seeking — should continue to be the trajectory and hallmark of a sovereign Quebec. The document said the only other option, which it described as “the federalist approach” — but was clearly the direction being mapped by PQ leader Pauline Marois and her executive — was to “lighten the tax burden of the better-off while crossing our fingers [in the hope] that the monies released would not go the path of tax havens but be reinvested in Quebec.”
The group’s expulsion sent a clear signal to the media, the ADQ, and the PQ membership and potential funding sources that such talk was no longer acceptable within the party.
Québec solidaire a lifeline?
But it also raised a new question as to where the now-homeless SPQ-Libre and its supporters might find a lodging. Québec solidaire was quick to respond with a statement issued March 14 by QS leaders Amir Khadir and Françoise David. They linked the expulsion of SPQ-Libre to the pressure on the PQ of the looming confrontation between the government and the Common Front of public-sector unions, whose contracts expire at the end of March. David noted that PQ leader Marois had recently criticized the Common Front wage demands as “somewhat high”. The PQ, said David, equated wealth creation with the abandonment of social justice, “the necessary ingredient of collective prosperity”.
“To defend the public sector union members, to press for recognition of the work done by health-care personnel and an end to their impoverishment, would displease our economic élite,” said Khadir. “The PQ desperately lacks the necessary political courage to stand up to these powerful interests.”
Journalist Paul Cliche, a QS member and long-time left activist — he led the Front d’Action Populaire, or FRAP, a municipal party that challenged the electoral machine of Montréal Mayor Jean Drapeau in the early 1970s — issued his own statement: SPQ Libre members could “console themselves, for there is another sovereigntist party, one resolutely progressive and turned toward the future, which is ready to welcome them — Welcome to Québec solidaire, comrades....” And indeed, the existence of SPQ Libre, with its orientation to working within the PQ, has been an ever-present reminder of the incomplete nature of the left regroupment process that gave birth to Québec solidaire.
SPQ Libre clings to PQ
However, a QS-SPQ Libre fusion, while it would help give Québec solidaire a stronger presence and influence within the labour movement, is not on the immediate agenda. In a statement issued March 18, SPQ Libre leaders declared their intention to continue working as individual members within the PQ and urged their supporters to get elected to PQ constituency executives and become delegates to the party’s next convention, in 2011. The statement holds out the hope that the party membership will somehow challenge and reverse the leadership’s rightward turn.
A parallel statement issued on the same date by SPQ Libre said that as an independent organization its “mandate” would expand, action within the PQ now being only one component. And in an act of pure hubris, it appealed “to independentists, progressives and trade unionists, whether members of the PQ or Québec solidaire or without a party” ... “to join our ranks”!
These statements, notwithstanding their defiant tone, confirm the hopelessness of the SPQ Libre strategy. As they relate, the group had complied with the PQ registration and filing requirements; its members had been “good soldiers”, running as PQ candidates in elections, publicly voting in favour of the party’s election platforms, loyally attempting to advance their positions within the party structures. Where they spoke out independently, as in newspaper articles published in their name, it had been to support strikes, oppose the war in Afghanistan, criticize cutbacks in healthcare, etc. — “current matters that are not contentious within the PQ, at least we hope so”.
In party debates, they had achieved “more victories than defeats” — winning party support for a resolution on nationalization of wind-power generation (soon disavowed by the party leader), another resolution to make French the sole language of instruction in the publicly funded junior colleges, proposals in favour of electrification of urban and inter-urban transportation, etc., while suffering defeat on such issues as ending government subsidies to private schools, or a proposal to allow a referendum on popular initiative, independently of government policy.[2]
But they had been accused of conducting their debates publicly instead of confining them to the party’s institutions. Fair enough, said SPQ Libre, but “it is hard to develop coherent thinking in two-minute interventions in the Constituency Presidents Council or the National Council, which meet only twice a year and where we had only one and two delegates, respectively.” And SPQ Libre was seldom invited to participate in party consultations. Furthermore, there was no attempt to use the new technologies to facilitate internal debate. “By new technologies, we don’t mean Twitter [which is offered on the PQ website]. Sorry, we’re willing to be concise, but 140 characters, that’s not enough for us!”
And now, despite all the efforts of SPQ Libre, the PQ seemed determined to “appease Capital”. Why was Pauline Marois questioning the wage demands of the Common Front? “We deplore the absence of any reference to the union movement in the new PQ discourse.... Any use of the words “ouvrier”, “travailleur” or “populaire” seems to be banished. Understandably, the existence of a political club including the word “syndicalistes” in its title could grate on some ears.”
More hope in the Bloc?
In short (although SPQ Libre does not say so), the Parti Québécois is what its left critics have long maintained: a bourgeois party, wholly committed to upholding capitalism, incapable of envisaging any reforms that might offer a perspective beyond the narrow horizon of neoliberalism. The PQ’s fundamental raison d’être is to use the resources of a “sovereign” state to enhance the standing and wealth of a narrow class of homespun Quebec capitalists who themselves are inextricably tied through investments and outlook to the economic and social system that oppresses the majority of Québécois. This party cannot be the vehicle for a truly independent and progressive Quebec.
It may be that many of SPQ Libre’s original members had already drawn that lesson. Although it boasted an initial membership of about 800, the group was down to some 400 or so by this year, and had just filed a list of 313 party members’ names with the PQ while promising a dozen more to follow. Québec solidaire already includes some former SPQ Libre members, and can hope for more in the future. Other members have simply been absorbed by the Parti Québécois; for example, Monique Richard, the former president of SPQ Libre and now a PQ MNA, did not oppose the club’s expulsion.
While continuing to hold individual memberships in the PQ, the SPQ Libre leadership seems to hold out greater hope for the federal Bloc Québécois, judging by a major article in the March issue of the monthly journal L’aut’journal. Pierre Dubuc, who doubles as the journal’s editor and SPQ Libre secretary, used the occasion of the Bloc’s 20th anniversary since its founding to score some points against the PQ leadership and to outline an optimistic perspective of a new rise in the Quebec independence movement in response to trends within the Canadian federal state. Dubuc praised the Bloc as a party more conscious of the federalist threat to Quebec than its sister party in Quebec City, the PQ, attributing this firmness in part to the presence of leading trade union figures in its parliamentary deputation. Dubuc is a talented journalist and a perceptive observer of Quebec and Canadian politics with a remarkable facility to articulate the historical perspective that informs the Quebec independence project, and his article, which I have translated below, merits careful reading.
There is one notable omission, however, in Dubuc’s comparison of the Bloc with the PQ. As I explained in a previous post, while the PQ is waging an Islamophobic campaign for a complete ban on public service employment and provision of government-funded services to anyone wearing conspicuous symbols of their religious faith (such as the hijab or Muslim headscarf), the Bloc supports what it terms “open secularism” and is more receptive to accommodation of public displays of the beliefs of religious and ethnic minorities. Dubuc’s L’aut’journal, however, has itself been conducting a retrograde Islamophobic campaign of its own. Louise Mailloux, a regular columnist in the journal, has written many articles not only attacking “reasonable accommodation” of minority religious beliefs, and in particular Muslims, but viciously attacking Québec solidaire leader Françoise David for her party’s support of “open secularism”.
Differences of this nature, on an important question of principle, could prove a major if not insuperable obstacle — at least in the short run — to a fusion between SPQ Libre and Québec solidaire.
-- Richard Fidler

Bloc Québécois celebrates 20 years of resistance
by Pierre Dubuc
“We are resisting Canada’s attempts to reduce Quebec to the rank of a province like the others. That’s what we are: resisters! That’s what a great Québécois, a great sovereigntist — Pierre Vadeboncoeur — said about the Bloc, and he was a thousand times right. For the time being, we are resisters. But yesterday’s resisters will be tomorrow’s winners.”
With these words Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the Bloc Québécois, closed the party’s General Council meeting held on the occasion of the Bloc’s 20th anniversary. It is the use of this beautiful expression, “resisters”, which admirably describes the role played by the Bloc in Ottawa, that has offended [Foreign Affairs Minister] Lawrence Cannon, [Opposition Liberal leader] Michael Ignatieff and other leading lights among the federalists.
The use of the word “resister” no doubt reminded them too much of these words — “Tonight, here and throughout my journey, I found myself in an atmosphere similar to that of the Liberation” — pronounced by General de Gaulle on the balcony of [Montreal’s] City Hall before his famous cry: “Vive le Quebec libre”, Long Live Free Quebec.
The then Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, and today’s politicians, do not like to be compared to an army of occupation. But they’re as thick as thieves when it comes to multiplying the legal and constitutional obstacles to Quebec’s accession to national independence.
What’s more, following the 1995 referendum, Stephen Harper tabled a bill advocating partition of Quebec’s territory in the event of a victory of the sovereigntist camp. As for Michael Ignatieff, he greeted the imposition of the War Measures Act by Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1970 and says the Québécois should rejoice at the British Conquest because it brought them democracy.
Who is naive enough to believe that these habitués of dirty tricks — the 1995 “love-in”, the sponsorship scandal, etc. — would not be tempted by a power grab should the Yes side win in a coming referendum? As the old adage goes, “It’s always the dominant class that puts the bayonet on the agenda.”
To prevent possible excesses along these lines, we have only one response: the broadest possible mass mobilization. And the only real organizational base in a position to orchestrate such a deployment is the trade-union movement. This was demonstrated anew on March 20, with the demonstration of 75,000 people of the Common Front in the streets of Montreal.
Is it the ongoing association with the hard-line federalists in Ottawa? Is it because they have a close view of the workings of the federal machine? Whatever it is, the Bloc Québécois seems to have a better grasp of this elementary fact in our liberation struggle than its sister party in Quebec City. Its trajectory since its founding 20 years ago is remarkable in this regard. From a nationalist coalition of Conservative MPs — remember, the Bloc is a split from the Progressive Conservative Party — it has evolved into a nationalist party in which the social-democratic forces are strongly represented.
The Bloc and its leader have woven some tight links with the trade-union movement, and a fair number of its MPs come from it — in addition to Gilles Duceppe himself, there are the likes of Pierre Paquette, Luc Desnoyers, Francine Lalonde and Yves Lessard. And it does not seem that this proximity with the union movement has been a millstone; the Bloc has won all six elections in which it has participated.

The Bloc’s presence in Ottawa has placed a log-jam in Canadian politics, preventing the formation of a majority government. For decades Liberals and Conservatives succeeded each other in office, the Conservatives allying with Quebec nationalists in order to succeed. It was only with the support of Maurice Duplessis that John Diefenbaker was able to form a majority government, and Brian Mulroney could not have been elected without the assistance of René Lévesque when he exchanged sovereignty for the “beau risque”.

Stephen Harper thought he could repeat the exploit with his recognition of the Québécois nation and granting Quebec a seat at UNESCO, but that was without taking into account the presence of the Bloc Québécois.
Today, Liberals and Conservatives alike know they can no longer hope to make enough gains in Quebec to form a majority government. So what is to be done? They think they have found the magic recipe in the overhaul of the electoral map. In the last three Throne speeches, Stephen Harper has promised legislation along these lines, but without ever following through. For now.
This week the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation, linked to the University of Toronto, published a study on the distortions of the electoral map that passed almost unnoticed in the Francophone press but attracted much comment in the Anglophone press.
Canada’s demographic evolution has produced serious distortions in the fundamental principle of any democracy, representation by population. The provinces of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, whose populations have grown rapidly over recent decades, are under-represented in the House of Commons. In fact, according to the Mowat Centre, 61% of the Canadian population are under-represented at Ottawa.
Since two provisions of the Canadian Constitution provide that a province cannot have fewer MPs than Senators or fewer seats than it had in 1985, the solution involves adding MPs in the provinces where the population has increased. According to the calculations of the Mowat Centre, to comply with the principle of representation by population it would be necessary to add 11 seats in Ontario, 4 in British Columbia and 3 in Alberta. Ontario has already demanded 21 additional seats on the basis of other calculations.
Irrespective of the exact number of additional MPs granted to these three provinces, it will be sufficient to allow the formation of a majority government without Quebec.
The overhaul of the electoral map has not yet taken place, but the Liberals, the Conservatives and the entire federalist political class are already functioning as if it was a fait accompli. Quebec was absent from the Throne speech and the budget speech, just as it was at the Olympic Games in Vancouver.
Once Quebec has become aware of its marginalization within Canada — the inevitable result of losing its demographic weight, which is irreversible in the short term — you can bet that this will provoke a shock wave as powerful as the one provoked in the late 1960s by the discovery of the decline of French in Quebec as a result of the fall in the Francophone birthrate and the anglicization of the Allophones that produced the riots in Saint-Léonard and the adoption of several language laws prior to the enactment of the Charter of the French Language!
Of course, some voices will be raised to beg for recognition of a special status for Quebec. The voices of those who have already forgotten the rejection of the minimum conditions in the Meech Lake Accord. The voices of those who will not understand that English Canada is no longer prepared to make concessions to Quebec.
After the Conquest, only our demographic weight obliged England to make concessions in the form of the Quebec Act of 1774, to prevent Quebec from joining in the American Revolution. Later, it was only our numerical weight that made Canada a federation instead of a unitary state. Now that this obstacle has been lifted in part, Canada can be built without and even against Quebec.
We have already had the proof of this in two votes on a matter of crucial importance: the extension of the mission in Afghanistan. Is there anything more important in politics than war and peace? Quebec, through its parliamentary representatives in Ottawa, voted in the majority against. But that did not prevent Canada from being at war, from sending its soldiers — including those from Quebec — into combat, from spending billions of dollars on weapons, almost a quarter of it from the pockets of the Québécois.
As Gilles Duceppe was saying, thanks to the Bloc Québécois Quebec resists Canada’s attempts to reduce Quebec to the rank of a province like the others. And we take this 20th anniversary as the occasion to pay tribute to the work accomplished by the Bloc and its leader. But it is obvious that nothing will stop the federal steamroller if we do not put the question of national independence on the agenda, as quickly as possible.
Translated from L’aut’journal, March 26, 2010

[1] The name translates freely as Trade-unionists and progressives for a Free Québec.
[2] An op-ed article in Le Devoir by Jean Baribeau, the SPQ Libre treasurer, however, presented a different balance sheet. The group, he said, had “sparked many debates, had some successes and suffered many defeats”.

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