The Canadian media are now forced to devote some attention to figuring out how the NDP happened to win major support in Quebec, as recent opinion polls suggest. Among the more perceptive accounts is this one by William Johnson, a former president of the Anglophone "rights" lobby Alliance Quebec. He underscores a point that socialists in the Rest of Canada should absorb: that the NDP's apparent surge in Quebec does not by any means put paid to the importance of the Québécois national question in Canadian politics. On the contrary. A lot of expectations will be riding on the NDP in the next period, not least in Quebec.
The apparent surge in NDP support in English Canada is not unrelated to the initial surge in Quebec. As some of us have long maintained, the NDP's credibility as a party of government at the federal level has always been largely contingent on its ability to pose as a credible alternative in Quebec. In this election, at least, the party seems to have managed to make major strides in responding to that challenge, partly because Québécois hopes for meaningful change in their constitutional status within Canada are admittedly quite limited by now.
The Bloc's decline -- in the last analysis, it was never more than Quebec's "insurance policy" in the hostile federal environment -- has been developing for more than a decade, staved off until now only by the popular response to the Liberals' sponsorship scandal and the widespread antipathy to Harper's Tory agenda. In all but the national question, the Bloc and NDP don't differ radically, although the NDP has managed to appear more consistently antiwar; that too, is undoubtedly a factor in its progress.
It remains to be seen how popular support for the NDP will translate into parliamentary seats on May 2, under the undemocratic "first past the post" system. But, whatever the result, my Socialist Project comrades will have to ponder an important implication: that as far as the NDP is concerned, "the party is [NOT] over”... yet.
Ottawa Citizen, 28 Apr 2011
How Jack Layton courted Bloc voters
By William Johnson
William Johnson is the author of the biography, Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada.
The game-changer of the 2011 election campaign is the New Democratic Party’s surge in Quebec while the Bloc Québécois declined.
None had predicted it. It took all by surprise. But was it an entirely unaccountable phenomenon? Hardly.
From the time he won the NDP leadership in 2003, Jack Layton manoeuvred to build his party in Quebec from the ground up by courting the nationalist clientele of the Bloc Québécois. His strategy followed that of Brian Mulroney when the Progressive Conservative party was defunct in la belle province. The Tory leader built support in Quebec by recruiting separatists like Marcel Masse and Lucien Bouchard, then launching nationalist messages like treating the 1982 patriation of the Constitution as an infamy.
In his first election campaign as leader in 2004, Layton sent out two messages targeting Bloc supporters, as reported in The Globe and Mail on May 29 by Steven Chase. “NDP Leader Jack Layton, trying against tough odds to win the first Quebec seat for his party in 14 years, said yesterday he would repeal Ottawa’s 2000 Clarity Act on secession.”
On that same occasion, Layton repudiated the 1998 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada on the secession of Quebec, which said that secession was not a right, it could only be accomplished legitimately with the consent of the other provinces and the Parliament of Canada, and that it would require a number of conditions, such as determining the new borders of an independent Quebec.
As Steven Chase reported, “Mr. Layton also said the NDP would recognize a unilateral declaration of independence by Quebec after a referendum vote.”
To understand what is happening now in Quebec, one should consult a 2,782-word portrait of Layton published in the July 1, 2003 issue of l’Actualité magazine. There, the new leader of the NDP revealed himself and his intentions to an ultra-nationalist journalist, the late Michel Vastel. The title was significant: “The left, Quebec and Jack Layton.” More significant was the subtitle: “We will see Jack Layton a lot this summer because, to revivify the NDP, Jack Layton has undertaken to court the supporters of the Bloc Québécois.”
As Layton described himself, he had always supported Quebec nationalist causes. He was a student at McGill University in 1969 when a huge demonstration was held under the slogan, “McGill français.” Some 10,000 people marched to have McGill transformed into a French-language university. Vastel wrote: “During an agitated demonstration in 1969, Jack Layton found himself at the sides of turbulent personalities like union leader Michel Chartrand, as well as Robert Lemieux, official lawyer for the Front de libération du Québec bomb placers, and the separatist professor Stanley Grey who had invited him to the event.”
Layton revealed that he had been a pacifist who joined demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. He said he converted to the NDP when he heard Tommy Douglas denounce the invocation of the War Measures Act during the 1970 October Crisis.
He described with approval how his father, Robert Layton, broke with the Liberal party: “He left the Liberal Party when Pierre Elliott Trudeau pushed through a new Constitution in 1982 without the consent of Quebec. ‘ He thought that Trudeau had committed a grave mistake, and had acted arrogantly besides,’ the son recalled.”
Already, in 2003, Layton was anticipating supplanting the Liberals and evoking the possibility of a coalition: “Our program and the list of our candidates will be such as to convince people that we are ready for everything,” he promised, “to govern, to form the official opposition or to participate in a coalition.”
In the years since 2003, Layton has consistently taken positions dear to Quebec nationalists. He is for conferring special status or distinct society status on Quebec, which is what he calls “asymmetric federalism.” He is for applying to federally regulated industries in Quebec — such as banks or VIA Rail — the restrictions on the use of English contained in the Charter of the French Language. He favours a law that would prevent the appointment of any judge to the Supreme Court of Canada who was not fluently bilingual. And he opposes the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision that would allow some students who have studied long enough in unsubsidized private schools to acquire a right to public English schooling.
Finally, in pacifist Quebec, he has called constantly for the immediate withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan.
On December 5, 2005, during the federal election campaign, Jack Layton stated: “If you are absolutely convinced that there is no place for you in Canada and you don’t see your future within the Canadian federation, then you will vote for the Bloc.” He later explained away those words, just as he had later withdrawn his promise to rescind the Clarity Act. But a message had been sent.
Layton’s pitch, fundamentally, is that Quebecers are wasting their vote on the Bloc when they can get exactly the same policies from a Canada-wide party that can hope some day to form the government or be part of a governing coalition.