Friday, August 5, 2011

Some Québécois reactions to the Turmel affair

“L’affaire Turmel”[1] continues to make waves, and not just in English Canada. But unfortunately, the NDP has so far failed to mount a defense of its interim federal leader Nycole Turmel.

The disclosure that Turmel had until very recently held memberships in two parties (Bloc Québécois and Québec Solidaire) that support Quebec sovereignty at first attracted little attention in Quebec. After all, as columnist Michael Taube, a former speech-writer for Stephen Harper, notes in today’s Ottawa Citizen, “Many Quebecers have freely shifted their votes from the BQ to NDP because of the two parties’ similar social democratic values and likeminded policy proposals.”

But Canadian politicians were quick to echo the media attacks on Turmel. Taube’s old boss, the Prime Minister: “It’s very disappointing.... I think Canadians expect that any political party that wants to govern the country be unequivocally committed to this country.” Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, himself an ex-New Democrat: “According to her own admission, she’s still in agreement with the Bloc’s policies. Someone has some explaining to do.”

Not to be outdone, former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion — author of the infamous Clarity Bill (which says the federal Parliament alone has the right to determine the legitimacy of any Quebec decision on secession), asks in an op-ed piece in today’s Le Devoir: “How many NDP members of parliament were, or still are, members of sovereigntist parties? Will they be staying? How many would vote for independence if a referendum was held?” Dion is quick to add, of course, that he is not — oh no, heaven forbid! — contributing to any witch-hunt.

Other commentators in Quebec, noting the virulent reactions in English Canada, have now turned to the issue.

To the surprise of many, former Parti Québécois premier Bernard Landry is now calling for Turmel’s resignation as interim NDP leader. “It is seldom that I am in harmony with English Canada,” he told Le Devoir, “but I think they are right.” Referring to Turmel’s former membership in the Bloc Québécois and Québec Solidaire, Landry opines: “To have totally opposite convictions in two independentist parties, to be active in a federalist party and then become leader of the official opposition in Canada, there is something not quite right. This is a very bad example for the youth.”

Landry, understandably, does not want the NDP to offer even the image of sympathy for Quebec’s national aspirations. That might help to make it a serious long-term contender for the votes of Québécois looking for a progressive alternative to the neoliberal BQ and PQ. Those parties prefer an NDP that is resolutely and unequivocally federalist, the same party whose MPs voted in 2000 to support the Clarity Bill. Nycole Turmel — and how many other newly-elected NDP MPs from Quebec? — don’t quite fit that profile, they fear.

A very different reaction, however, comes from Pierre Beaudet and François Cyr, writing in the webzine Nouveaux Cahiers du socialisme.[2] Both are members of Québec Solidaire (Cyr was president of the QS predecessor, the Union des forces progressistes), although QS itself has made no public statement on the Turmel affair.

Beaudet and Cyr begin by noting that the attacks on Nycole Turmel are a continuing manifestation of the hostility with which the “Canadian elites” have always viewed Quebec nationalism. They express dismay at the NDP’s vacillation in the face of these attacks: “Some ‘deny’ having ‘really’ been sovereigntists. Others conceal their past.” But “in reality, many newly-elected NDP members have been associated with the sovereigntist cause, as members of various independentist parties, or in the context of their involvement in the social movement (trade unions, popular or student movement, etc.).

“This defensive or shame-faced attitude is probably not the best way to handle things,” they write with studied understatement, “even if the NDP leadership is busy demanding these denials out of fear of being accused in the English-Canadian media of being a “traitor to the (Canadian) nation.” And they continue with some insightful explanations that deserve translation:

But the reality is quite simple in Quebec. The cause of social justice has almost always been associated with that of national emancipation. The majority of left-wing supporters has been and remains sovereigntist, whether as members of sovereigntist parties or as activists in most of the left parties that have populated the political landscape in Quebec for 50 years.

The NDP in Quebec was itself on two occasions ‘converted’ to the cause of national emancipation, and this earned it ostracization by the federalist Anglo-Canadian leadership.[3] The other left parties (other than the Canadian Communist Party and various so-called Marxist-Leninists in the 1970s) linked the struggle for social transformation to that of popular and progressive independence.

The reasons for this reality have nothing to do with a “deviation” or a nationalist ‘obsession.’ The Canadian state, a product of the ruling classes, was built on the oppression of the Quebec nation as well as that of the aboriginal nations. The exploitation of the popular classes has been based on and expressed in the domination of these nations. Until the development of Québécois nationalism in the 1960s, the peoples of Quebec were, as Pierre Vallières put it, the ‘White niggers of America.’ The struggle against that exploitation could not help but be interlinked with the struggle for national emancipation.

Eventually, Quebec nationalism soared through a vast social alliance dominated by a developing Québécois elite but including the majority of the urban and rural popular classes. For most of the left at the time (including NDP members in Quebec), the creation of an independent Quebec state would facilitate a genuine overturn to the benefit of the popular classes. After its election in 1976, the PQ for some time responded concretely to their expectations by working within a generally social-democratic perspective. The fact that this project failed in the face of the stubborn resistance of the Canadian elites, and that it led to the PQ’s rightward turn after [the defeat of the referendum in] 1980 did not alter this situation, overall.

During the last decade the popular movement in Quebec has continued its struggles both nationally and socially. The demarcation with the PQ has sharpened in the wake of the party’s alignment with an aggressive neoliberalism imposed by the Canadian and Quebec elites via their tools and mechanisms, which advocate submission to the established ‘order,’ that is, to unfettered capitalism and the federal state. From these hard-fought battles new political projects are emerging — including Québec Solidaire.

Thus national emancipation is part of a social agenda [un projet de société], and is explicitly integrated within a program for refounding the state, the society and the economy. In this context, it is completely normal and legitimate that many left militants, including within the NDP, have enrolled in this project and have even viewed their political action at both the federal and provincial levels as complementary to it.

Apart from the hatred expressed by the Canadian elites, this ‘affair’ reveals other major divisions. The federal leadership of the NDP, the various provincial sections of the NDP, generally speaking the dominant sectors of this social-democratic party, have always been hostile to the Québécois national project, hence their repeated difficulties with their own supporters in Quebec. This hostility reflects a capitulationist posture in relation to the Canadian elites, and a profound lack of understanding of the popular struggles in Quebec within the social-democratic formations.

Notwithstanding some recent statements, the NDP has not crossed the ‘red line.’ It has not spoken out clearly for the right of self-determination of the Quebec people. It has not seriously fought the threats of the Canadian elite against the Quebec nation (as we saw a few years ago when the NDP supported the so-called ‘Clarity’ Act to hobble the sovereigntist process in Quebec).

In reality, this attitude reflects some ambiguities and weaknesses. The NDP need not carry the ‘banner’ of the Canadian state as historically constituted. It need not defend the interests of the elites on the pretext of some bogus ‘patriotism.’ It need not barter positions of principle for a short-sighted electoralism. It must, resolutely and systematically, fight for social justice — which includes fighting for the rights of the Québécois and indigenous peoples, even if it means working hard to convince voters in the popular classes of certain regions of Canada that have been contaminated by the hostility to Quebec that sometimes borders on racism.

Beaudet and Cyr conclude with an appeal specifically addressed to the NDP’s Quebec caucus:

Nycole Turmel, Alexandre Boulerice and many other NDP MPs who come from the Quebec social movement (obviously, we are not speaking about Thomas Mulcair and a hard-core federalist minority) should say it clearly and proudly. Fighting to alter the federal state is not contradictory with involvement in the Québécois social and national movement, on the contrary. Progressive parties like the NDP, the Bloc and Québec Solidaire have an interest in working together, including in an uncompromising struggle for the fundamental rights of the Quebec people....

This is a call that should resonate within the trade unions, the social movements and the NDP in English Canada. However, the reactions to date are not encouraging. This attack on the NDP, and Quebec itself, has been met with silence in the unions and other mass organizations. Ominously, the NDP leadership have been less than forthright in their own defense. A Google search turns up only a couple of newspaper reports quoting members of the federal NDP caucus: two MPs from Windsor, Ontario, and a brief comment from Libby Davies, a Vancouver MP and a deputy leader of the party. (To my knowledge, the other deputy leader, Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair, is keeping mum.)

Davies is quoted as saying “To me it’s just a blip.” Like the Windsor MPs, she simply reiterates Turmel’s tortured explanations of her ambivalent positions and emphasizes her professions of federalist commitment. But this won’t do. The NDP can no longer evade the long overdue debate on the Quebec national question and the party’s relation to it. It may run, but it can’t hide. The capitalist media and politicians are already making that perfectly clear. The only way to counter their attacks is to develop a strong democratic defense of Quebec’s rights, including its right to self-determination — and an understanding of what this means for progressives in Canada.

The party leadership should open up a discussion within the membership — and why not the much broader ranks of its supporters, as well? — on how to relate to progressive opinion in Quebec. A sharp change in course is imperative, if the party is to hope for any credibility on these questions.

Richard Fidler, August 5, 2011.

[1] See “Nycole Turmel’s induction in the federalists’ wonderland.” Also available at Canadian Dimension and Socialist Project.

[2] The article is also published as an op-ed piece in today’s Le Devoir.

[3] The authors are presumably referring to (1) the support for Quebec autonomy among the initial NDP forces in Quebec, in 1962-63, and the resulting split in the party that led to the formation of the Parti Socialiste du Québec; and (2) the support for Quebec’s right to self-determination by the Quebec NDP in the early 1970s. As well, the Quebec NDP under the leadership of Jean-Paul Harney was sympathetic to Quebec sovereignty during the late 1980s, but was rebuffed by the Broadbent leadership of the federal party and largely collapsed in the early ’90s.

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