Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mulcair’s victory: A new direction for the NDP?

There is a lot of speculation going the rounds about whether or to what degree Thomas Mulcair will change the direction of the federal New Democratic Party. Mulcair, as everyone who pays attention to Canadian politics knows by now, emerged the winner in the NDP’s contest to replace deceased leader Jack Layton. In the fourth and final vote at the March 24 convention in Toronto, Mulcair scored 57% against runner-up Brian Topp’s 43 percent. The election of the party’s most prominent Quebec MP was no big surprise, especially in Quebec where it was widely considered the logical outcome to the NDP’s upset gains in last year’s federal election when the party won 59 of the province’s 75 MPs — 60% of the NDP’s parliamentary caucus, making the party the Official Opposition and thus a credible contender for government for the first time in its history. But what does the election of this former Liberal mean for the future of the NDP? The answer is not entirely clear, although clues abound.


Mulcair himself revealed little of his particular agenda during the leadership contest, nor was he strongly challenged to do so by the competing candidates, all of whom were promising to pursue “Layton’s legacy.” Mulcair spoke vaguely of “modernizing” the party, of ditching old rhetoric about “working people,” and of the need to demonstrate the NDP’s competence in “managing the economy.” But there was enough evidence on the record to arouse concerns about his commitment to social justice issues long championed by the NDP. Columnist Murray Dobbin, an NDP sympathizer, noted some of these during the campaign, describing him as a “big ‘L’ Liberal at heart, who is barely out of synch with the one per cent the occupiers have targeted.”

Dobbin pointed to Mulcair’s support of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, anathema to the labour movement and environmentalists. “The NAFTA,” Mulcair said in a recent interview, “is the first international agreement that had provisions dealing with the environment. You can’t throw out the baby with the bath water.” Dobbin commented:

“The FTA and NAFTA were the single most damaging political acts the country has ever had to endure — unleashing two decades of suppression of wages, the rapid depletion of natural resources, falling productivity, the loss of several hundred thousand of the best jobs in the country, and despite Mulcair’s naïve declaration, the virtual end to any new environmental legislation by the federal government (after it lost two NAFTA challenges).”

But the NDP long ago abandoned any pretence of opposing NAFTA. Nor has it campaigned against the pending free-trade agreement with the European Union, currently being negotiated in secret. As for Mulcair’s concern for environmental issues

“In 2007, Kady O’Malley interviewed Mulcair and asked him to describe himself as a politician. He replied: ‘Above and beyond anything else, I’m a public administrator and a manager. I chaired Quebec’s largest regulatory agency [the Office des Professions] and reduced staff there and brought in management schemes to make things more effective…. When I was minister of the environment, I reduced by 15 per cent the budget of the ministry.’…”

Palestinian solidarity activists are understandably alarmed at Mulcair’s unconditional support for Israel. His campaign co-chair was former MP Lorne Nystrom, now a director of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the Israel lobby’s main pressure group. While co-deputy leader of the federal NDP, Mulcair publicly humiliated the other deputy leader, Vancouver MP Libby Davies, forcing her (with Layton’s complicity) to recant in Parliament her historically accurate statement that Israel has been occupying Palestinian land since 1948.

Although he may not have solicited their support, Mulcair appeared to be favoured for leader by some elements not known for their NDP sympathies.

Journalist and activist Derrick O’Keefe, examining the lists of donors to the NDP leadership campaign on the Elections Canada website, found that among those contributing to Mulcair’s candidacy were billionaire financier Gerald Schwartz, the CEO of Onex Corporation and a co-founder of CanWest Global Communications. Schwartz and his wife, book chain magnate Heather Reisman, founded the Heseg Foundation for Lone Soldiers, which provides money to cover tuition and living expenses for non-Israelis who serve in the Israeli army. “In 2006,” O’Keefe noted, “the couple made headlines by abandoning their traditional support for the Liberals in favour of the Conservatives after Stephen Harper had given full-throated support to Israel’s operation against Lebanon.”

Contributing to Mulcair’s leadership campaign as well was another Onex director, Anthony Munk, who is also a director of Barrick Gold Corporation, the Canadian mining giant founded by his father Peter Munk. Barrick is a prime target of environmentalists and indigenous struggling in many countries against its pillage of local communities and natural resources.

Also noteworthy was the especially sympathetic coverage given to Mulcair’s campaign in the journals of Canada’s major newspaper chains, Postmedia (successor to CanWest) and Groupe Gesca, a subsidiary of the Desmarais family’s Power Corporation.

What about the Liberals?

However, there was no indication of major policy differences among the candidates during the five public debates the party held.[1] In fact, the one question that attracted the most media attention was whether the NDP would or should now orient toward formal alliance or even merger with the federal Liberals. This speculation has increased now that Liberal interim leader Bob Rae, the former NDP premier of Ontario, shares the Opposition front benches with ex-Liberal Mulcair in the federal parliament.

Although Mulcair may, as alleged by many, be keen to remake the NDP into some version of Tony Blair’s “New Labour,” and thus an appropriate candidate to replace or merge with the Liberals, the NDP is determined at this point to firm up its position as a “government in waiting,” hoping to replace Stephen Harper’s Tory majority government in the next election three years from now. And the Liberals are still struggling to recover their historic position as Canada’s “natural governing party.” But there is no secret about NDP readiness to ally with Liberals if that will help ease their way into government.

In 2008, Layton signed a formal coalition agreement with the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to defeat the Tory minority government. Such an arrangement has no traction at present, when there is no prospect of defeating the Tory majority in a parliamentary vote. However, among the membership of the NDP there is no substantial opposition in principle to closer ties with the Liberals. This was revealed in the leadership vote, in which every member of the party was entitled to cast a ballot, listing the candidates in their order of preference. About half the party membership of 131,000 voted on the first ballot, the only one with all the candidates listed. Thus it was a fair indication of the sentiments of the party activists.

On this first ballot, the top three candidates, accounting for two-thirds of the total vote (Mulcair 30%, Topp 21% and Nathan Cullen 16%), were those most closely associated with collaboration with the Liberals. Brian Topp, for instance, was a primary architect of the 2008 coalition agreement and has even written a book about it.[2] Cullen’s most notable contribution to the debates was his proposal that the NDP hold joint nomination meetings with the Liberals in future to try to come up with common candidates. Mulcair’s Liberal connections are well documented. No wonder MP Pat Martin did not have to carry out his promise (threat?) to run himself if no candidate promoted eventual merger with the Liberals!

And Quebec?

And then there is the Quebec question, historically the NDP’s Achilles heel. On this, too, there was no real discussion during the leadership candidates’ debates because none of them differ with the party’s firm defense of the federal regime. And least of all Thomas Mulcair. Although he was a long-time Liberal, and reportedly once considered joining the Conservatives, there is one constant in his political career: hostility to “separatism,” the movement for Quebec independence that is supported by the vast majority of progressive opinion in Quebec. Mulcair is a former director of legal affairs at Alliance Quebec, the federally-funded Anglophone lobby that has fought repeated court battles against Quebec’s Charter of the French Language (Law 101).

No one in Quebec expects the NDP to support Quebec independence. In 2011, however, the party managed to win the support of most of those voters in Quebec who were looking for some alternative to the Harper Tories in Ottawa, and it did this simply by indicating greater openness than other federalist parties to Québécois language concerns and tipping its hat to the right of self-determination — promising to recognize a majority vote for sovereignty in a Quebec referendum. Mulcair was not the author of these positions, which are set out in a document now known as the Sherbrooke Declaration, adopted prior to his transition to the NDP. However, he was one of the architects of the 2008 coalition agreement with the Liberals. That agreement was contingent on a promise by the Bloc Québécois not to vote with the Tories to defeat a Liberal-NDP minority government for at least six months. The NDP’s success in bringing the pro-independence Bloc onside at that time — even behind a coalition agreement that would have made Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, author of the hated Clarity Bill, the prime minister — may have fostered the image in Quebec of Layton’s NDP as a federalist party that was relatively sympathetic to Quebec. In fact, the Tories reinforced this perception by attacking the accord primarily on these grounds.

Will these positions be sufficient to consolidate and build the NDP’s shaky Quebec structure? During the leadership contest, the party managed to increase its membership in the province to just over 12,000, less than 10% of the total party membership in Canada, and a far cry from Mulcair’s hope of recruiting at least 20,000 new members. Since its electoral rout in 2011 the Bloc Québécois has regained support, and in a recent poll was neck-and-neck with the NDP. The Bloc boasts three times the membership of the NDP, and enjoys the collaboration of the formidable Parti québécois election machine.

The BQ’s new leader Daniel Paillé acknowledges that an NDP with Mulcair as leader will be a major challenge for his party, but argues, with justice, that the NDP will soon reveal its true colours by defending “Canadian” interests against those of Quebec. Le Devoir columnist Michel David perceptively notes, however, that Mulcair has “an argument that the Bloc Québécois cannot use: he is a position to replace the Harper government.” How this plays out in the next period will depend very much on whether the Quebec nationalist movement manages to overcome its current crisis of perspectives and resume its forward march — in which case the NDP, focused as it now is on winning parliamentary seats in English Canada, will be faced with some major political dilemmas.

There was a foretaste of these tensions in one of the leadership debates. When candidate Peggy Nash suggested that federal enforcement of the Canada Health Act (an umbrella law imposing medicare funding conditions on the provinces, which have jurisdiction over health care) might have to be adjusted to accommodate Quebec concerns, the other candidates quickly dissociated themselves from her comment. That was the closest the debates came to addressing “the Quebec difference.” Nash, a former official in the Canadian Auto Workers union, probably had in mind the readiness of the Canadian unions to accommodate their Quebec affiliates, according them a large degree of autonomy. The NDP has never displayed similar flexibility to its Quebec membership.

Marginalization of labour

This leadership convention registered the further marginalization of labour in the NDP. In the last leadership convention, which elected Layton in 2003, the affiliated trade unions were allocated 25% of the votes; this was consistent with a series of provisions in the party constitution and practices historically that had given the unions a weighted presence in party leadership bodies. Following that convention, however, the party removed this provision and moved toward a full one-member-one-vote (OMOV) system for choosing a leader. The move was motivated in part by changes in federal party financing laws in 2003 and 2006 (with NDP support) which banned union donations to federal parties. In return the NDP, like the other parties, gained access to new state subsidies. In addition, individual donors are allowed tax deductions of up to 75% of the amount of their contributions to party finances, a “tax expenditure” that constitutes in effect another form of state funding. The NDP is now dependent on such funding for the bulk of its activities.

As Murray Cooke has noted, these changes in funding, and the adoption of OMOV, resulted in “a relative marginalization of the federal [parliamentary] caucus, the powerful provincial wings, unions and local party activists.” And he adds:

“Firmly in control of the party, Layton was able to moderate, simplify and carefully package the NDP message. He simply ditched many controversial policies. During the 2004 election, he single-handedly dismissed the NDP's longstanding support for pulling Canada out of NATO.[3] With each campaign, Layton would focus on a small number of modest reforms. Increasingly, the NDP would speak for “middle-class” Canadians. By the 2011 election, the NDP was proposing to reduce the small business tax to reward “job creators.” Certainly, the 2011 platform was a more moderate program than anything ever offered under any previous federal NDP leader….”

The marginalization of the party’s labour base did not start with Layton, of course. In the neoliberal phase of capitalism of recent decades, many unions have loosened their ties with the NDP, and not just at the NDP’s behest. A notable example has been the flirtation with the Liberals of leaders of the Canadian Auto Workers, a union that in past years was respected by militants as a foremost fighter against bosses’ pressure for concessions in union contracts. These trends reflected a more general shift to the right in Canadian politics under the neoliberal onslaught on wages, working conditions and social programs.

Of the nine candidates who ran for NDP leader this year (two dropped out during the campaign), only one — Peggy Nash, a former CAW leader, and one of only two women candidates — came from the union milieu. It is worth noting, however, that she was the first ever candidate for the party leadership from trade union ranks. Notwithstanding, Nash lacked support from some major union leaders in the party, and in the end finished in fourth place with 12% support on the first ballot.

An alternative approach?

Perhaps most ominously, while union ties to the NDP have slackened they have not been replaced by closer collaboration between the party and grassroots organizations in the front lines of the fight against the capitalist offensive. Among the leadership candidates, only Niki Ashton (5.7% on the first ballot) alluded (indirectly) to the Quebec students’ inspiring upsurge for greater access to education.

The NDP can at times be a useful asset for militants in the extra-parliamentary arena. Last June the party’s newly-elected MPs mounted a parliamentary filibuster in opposition to the Harper government’s suppression of the postal workers’ right to strike; some MPs participated in public solidarity rallies. These actions helped to publicize the workers’ cause and the party’s standing rose still further in the polls.

Governments in Ottawa and across the country are now targeting public sector unions and services, as well as the poorest and most vulnerable in society — from welfare moms to pensioners — in pursuit of a shared agenda of tightening austerity and cutbacks. The NDP faces mounting challenges in the period ahead — on the economic, social, constitutional and international fronts — but with Mulcair at the helm the signs point to a continuing shift of the party to the right.

Overall, the NDP emerges from this leadership convention poorly armed to confront the crisis. Its leaders are clearly hoping to ride into government in three years on a program that differs only modestly from the right-wing Tory agenda. True, it might prove sufficient in electoral terms. But it will not do much to build the mass movements that are needed to oppose and overcome the neoliberal assault.

[1] See, for example, Roger Annis, “NDP Leadership Candidates Debate Foreign Policy, Or Not.”

[2] For a critical summary of the book’s argument, see Murray Cooke, “The Canadian Parliamentary Crisis of 2008-09: Searching for a Left Response,” Socialist Studies/Études socialistes, 7(1/2) Spring/Fall 2011, p. 318.

[3] In fact, although party membership conventions had voted for withdrawal from NATO, the party leadership never campaigned or spoke against NATO, and in the 1990s supported NATO’s assault on Yugoslavia.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Quebec students show the way forward with massive Montréal protest

Yesterday’s demonstration in Montréal against the Quebec government’s hike in tuition fees may have been the largest in Quebec and Canadian history, rivalled in size only by the 2003 protests against the Iraq war. It was held just two days after Quebec finance minister Raymond Bachand tabled a budget that completely ignored student demands to drop the fees increase. The following article, which I have translated from today’s Le Devoir, gives a flavour of the demonstration and its political message. I follow it with an interesting article by Pierre Dubuc, editor of the publication L’aut’journal, which describes the broad economic and social context of the current political upsurge that is developing in Quebec, even though I differ sharply with his ultimate conclusion. – Richard Fidler

* * *


Le Devoir

200,000 voices: “Listen to us!”

By Lisa-Marie Gervais, with assistance from Mélissa Guillemette and Louis Chaput-Richard

Support from profs, parents and high school students, and a day of near-miraculous heat in an exceptional spring. The students could not have hoped for better for their huge national demonstration, one of the largest Montréal has seen, which proceeded in exemplary fashion yesterday afternoon. In this immense appeal to be heard, there were 200,000 shouting No to the increase in education fees. “The government’s stubbornness explains why the debate is taking place in the street,” proclaimed a representative of Profs contre la hausse,[1] to the high-charged crowd at the post-march speeches.

When the movement has reached 300,000 students on strike, disrupted traffic, blocked the port, and carried out a multitude of imaginative actions, above all a monster demonstration that will go down in history, what more is there to do? Yet the movement is apparently refusing to run out of steam.

“Ce-n’est-qu’un-début, conti-nuons-le-com-bat!”[2] Chanted by the pumped up students, the slogan resonated at length from the stone and concrete walls of the Vieux-Port, at the conclusion of the protest. “The strike begins today,” read a huge banner.

The lack of new thinking in the Bachand budget seems to have rekindled the anger of many. “I think this is a beginning, especially after the release of the budget, which completely ignored the students. It is worse than an insult,” said Marie-Frédérique Gagnon, a student in philosophy from Laval University. “But we certainly have the sense that things are polarizing.”

“We don’t know what lies ahead, but it doesn’t seem at this point to be declining,” added her friend Isabeau Legendre. He noted that a number of student associations have already extended their strike vote to April 3. Some associations, such as UQAM’s,[3] have also adopted a resolution not to hold another vote on the strike unless the Minister of Education tables a satisfactory offer.

“Some people have stayed home since the outset and are finding it tiresome. Of course we would like to return to class,” Perrine Leblan, a student in literary and film creation, acknowledged. “But we will probably propose to renew the strike until the government agrees to listen to us.”

Everyone was indeed against the increase. But the message was much greater in scope, a sort of generalized discontent. “We’re here in solidarity against the Liberal government and the Harper government. It’s been months, years, that we’ve been waiting for this demonstration!” exclaimed Michel Lopez, saying he was expressing an exasperation that went beyond the student demands.

According to the Québec solidaire spokesman Amir Khadir, the Charest government cannot hold firm for much longer. “They seem worried to me. They won’t show it… but they’re in a fix. Politically, I don’t see how they can look into the cameras and say everything is going well. There are 200,000 people in the street, with support coming in from everywhere,” he noted.

An exemplary demonstration

Around noon, some high school students began to pour into Philips Square. One by one, the delegations were greeted triumphantly by applause and shouts of jubilation. Some had even defied their principals and risked detention in order to be at the protest. “We were stopped. It was forbidden to come,” said Arnaud Valade, a pupil in the Jean XXIII school. “We’ll go on detention with the others, out of solidarity,” he promised. Marie-Hélène Vallière was “excited” to be in attendance. “In my family there are five children and four of us will be going to University. That’s a really big expense for my parents,” said this 16-year-old girl, who attends the Pierre-Laporte school.

Shortly afterward, by 1 o’clock, the Place du Canada was black — rather, red[4] — with people, filled by passengers from 90 buses from the regions and thousands of university and college students and other demonstrators who had come in support. It was some time before the crowd got going. When the demonstrators at the head of the march were walking along Berri street, some were still waiting at the Place du Canada.

The NDP member of parliament from Rosemont-Petite-Patrie, Alexandre Boulerice, encountered at the beginning of the march, was impressed. “It’s like the huge demos I have seen in the past,” he noted, mentioning the one in 2003 against the war in Iraq. It’s the people of the left who are rising up.”

Full of enthusiasm, this human wave swept along for more than four hours, coming to an end in Vieux-Montréal. The demonstrators dispersed peacefully, without the least jot of violence. It had been feared that the demonstration would split in two, but apart from small groups that momentarily tried to stray from the main route, nothing happened. The only disruption yesterday was the blocking of the port of Montréal, in the morning.

However, despite appearances, there was a feeling that the three major student groups — the Fédération étudiante collégiale (FECQ), the Fédération étudiante universitaire (FEUQ) and the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE), were not pulling in exactly the same direction. “Let’s not get hijacked. The FECQ and the FEUQ do not represent us,” read a huge banner noticed at a bend in the road. Behind the scenes, some sharp discussions broke out between members of the two federations and those of the CLASSE, who wanted to be the only ones to speak at the end. For how much time will the unity hold?

For now, the students are saying this is the time for action. They are promising some economic disruptions, and in Liberal ridings. “Students, trade unions and Opposition parties are going to be working in close collaboration during the coming weeks, to put the necessary pressure on the Charest government in order to find a solution to this strike,” promised Léo Bureau-Blouin, president of the FECQ. And, for as long as possible, to make the spring last.

Le Devoir, March 23

* * *

Ottawa and Québec: a joint anti-union offensive

By Pierre Dubuc

After the adoption of special legislation at Canada Post and Air Canada, the Harper government is endorsing the shutdown of Aveos and the dismissal of at least 2,400 workers. The message is clear: Employees whose jobs are governed by the Canada Labour Code — one tenth of Quebec’s labour force — no longer have the right to strike and the federal government will support the dismantling of their unions.

The Charest government is not to be left behind. Clément Gignac [Minister of Natural Resources] has publicly sided with Rio Tinto Alcan, which wants to shift all “non-strategic” jobs — that is, not pertaining to the “core business” — to sub-contracting, as it is allowed to do by the amendments made to section 45 of the Quebec Labour Code in 2003.

Moreover, with the recent changes in the construction union hiring hall, the Liberal government is in a strong position to exclude the unions from the major infrastructure work in the Plan Nord [the Charest government’s northern development project].

The public sector is not immune. The coming budget of [Finance Minister] Flaherty in Ottawa is hanging like a sword of Damocles over the federal public service. In Québec, the approach of elections has temporarily cooled the government’s fervour, but it should be noted that article number 1 of the Coalition Avenir Québec of Charles Sirois and François Legault advocates the reopening of collective agreements in education to introduce merit pay.

This planned and highly orchestrated anti-union offensive is part of an economic restructuring, with the relocation in North America of a number of firms that had moved their operations to Asia. These decisions reflect the higher transportation costs due to increased fuel prices and the ongoing increase in the wages of Chinese workers (13% a year). This movement could be welcome were it not that the firms are coming back with the wage and anti-union practices they experimented with in Asia in their baggage.

However, this redeployment does not mean that these companies will be setting up in Canada or Quebec. On the contrary, the strength of the Canadian dollar, boosted by oil exports from Western Canada, is scaring manufacturing firms toward the United States, as we have seen in the case of Electrolux, Mabe and now Aveos.

Recently, at the conference of Canadian first ministers, Jean Charest complained that there were two economies in Canada: that of the West, based on oil, gas and potassium, and that of the rest of the country.

He could have added that the Western economy is increasingly turned toward Asia, and that the Harper government’s priority is Canada’s participation in the Trans-Pacific free trade area. If this develops, it will not be inconsequential for Quebec, for Australia, New Zealand but also the United States make Canada’s membership conditional on abandonment of supply management of dairy and poultry products, a pillar of Quebec agriculture.

Although the question is ignored in the Francophone media, the Fraser Institute and the Anglophone media are currently campaigning for Canada to yield to the demands of its future partners in the Pacific area. In a recent article, John Ibbitson, a featured reporter in The Globe and Mail who is generally well informed, wrote that cows and chickens would not weigh heavily in Stephen Harper’s decision.

After noting the existence of two economies, what solution does Jean Charest propose for Quebec? We know he has made himself the promoter of a free-trade treaty with Europe, but the positive spin-offs for Quebec are far from obvious, especially since the abandonment of supply management in agriculture would likewise be subject to negotiation.

The Charest model looks like a copy and paste of the Western Canada model, with the eventual mining of shale gas and oil from the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Gaspésie, Anticosti and Old Harry) and of mining resources in the Plan Nord. But, in contrast to Western Canada, without any support from the federal government.

After witnessing without a trace of reaction the abandonment by Ottawa of the Quebec forest products industry, the “overlooking” of the Lévis shipyard in the allocation of the fantastic $35 billion ship construction contract, and now the beginning of the dismantlement of Montréal’s aerospace industry, the Charest government is proving that Quebec now lacks any power relationship with the federal government.

With its majority obtained without Quebec support — and the addition of about 30 new ridings in English Canada — the members of the Harper government can even allow themselves not to return calls from Charest government ministers, as Le Devoir recently revealed.

The Bachand budget confirms the Charest government’s neoliberal orientation, even if some editorial writers were ecstatic over the limited state involvement in the Plan Nord. This “turn” in no way amounts to a challenge to neoliberalism. It was, in some ways, announced in the January 21 issue of The Economist, the world bible of neoliberalism, the title page of which featured a montage of Lenin holding a cigar, with the title: “The Rise of State Capitalism; the Emerging World New Model.”

The neoliberal approach of the Bachand budget is splendidly illustrated by his policies at the two extremities of life, education and retirement. The hike in education fees is justified by the presentation of education as an extremely profitable “personal investment” although the average income of most university graduates barely surpasses that of the middle class.

The new Régime volontaire d’épargne retraite [Voluntary retirement savings plan] is similar in nature. To meet the needs of 50% of the workers who have no private pension plan and the 75% who are too poor to contribute to an RRSP, the government should have demanded repatriation to Québec of the federal Old Age Security program, improved it and integrated it with the Quebec Pension Plan, to provide a collective remedy instead of a new individual solution.

So, nothing for the youth and the retired, but programs made to measure for the bankers, who will be called on to manage them.

Nevertheless, one feels, one hears and one sees emerging in the active circles of society a quite different social agenda, centered on a robust intervention of the state, with a comprehensive and coherent industrial policy, such as one favouring electrified public transportation. (The Charest government instead plans to build an 800 km. railway from Sept-Îles to the Labrador Trough for the mining companies.)

If this agenda is to be transformed into a political program that can attract enthusiastic popular support, activists and progressives will have to dispel the neoliberal fog that for decades has blanketed Quebec’s ideological and political landscape.

The more this agenda takes form — and this is needed to ensure the economic foundation for the renewal of social democracy — the clearer the blockages and obstacles of the federal regime, and the greater the need for national independence.

However, to overcome these blockages and obstacles we need a force of great political strength. Its platform can only be the trade union movement, the principal organized force in our society, provided however that its emerges onto the political scene. It is to prevent this that the Harper and Charest governments are trying to muzzle, bind and paralyze the unions.

The Quebec student movement is now giving us some lessons in determination, imagination and political courage. In terms of engagement on the political terrain, the example to follow comes to us from the unions in Wisconsin and their fight for the recall of anti-union laws with the deposition of the Republican governor Scott Walker and his replacement by a Democratic governor favourable to the world of labour. We will come back to this.

L’aut’journal, March 23

[In my view Dubuc, a leader of SPQ Libre [Syndicalistes et progressistes pour un Québec Libre[5]], makes some valuable observations about the current actions and aims of the Harper and Charest governments, which are of course shared by other provincial governments in Canada. In his concluding paragraph, he aptly notes the exemplary role of the Quebec student movement in showing the way forward for the victims of neoliberal restructuring. But he then totally contradicts this point by suggesting that unions in Wisconsin displayed similar astuteness in their effort to replace Republican Scott Walker with “a Democratic governor favourable to the world of labour.” This endorsement of futile subordination to the machinations of capitalist politicians is sad evidence that Dubuc, normally one of the most perceptive analysts on the Quebec left, remains trapped in his group’s hopeless perspective of politically supporting the capitalist Parti québécois — even though the latter has provided ample proof over the years that it cannot lead the struggle for independence, let alone one for fundamental social change, and drove that point home by expelling SPQ Libre some two years ago. – Richard.]

[1] Some 2,100 professors have now signed an appeal in support of the students and in opposition to the fee hike.

[2] “It’s only a beginning, let’s continue the fight!”

[3] UQAM – Université du Québec, Montréal campus.

[4] The symbol of the student protest is a red square flash, worn on the lapel, and many students and their supporters wear red to the demonstrations.

[5] The name translates as Trade unionists and progressives for a Free Quebec.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Massive demonstrations support Quebec students striking against fee hikes


Photo by Marc Bonhomme

Tens of thousands of students and their supporters marched in major Quebec cities yesterday, March 18, in opposition to the Charest government’s promise to impose a 75% increase in post-secondary education fees over the next five years. In Montréal some 30,000 “former, present and future university students” responded to the call of the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE).[1] The march stretched for more than 1.5 kilometres, according to Le Devoir. Thousands more marched in Quebec City, Sherbrooke and Alma.

This week, more than 200,000 university and college students will be striking throughout Quebec, and their ranks continue to swell. The strike began four weeks ago on some campuses. While the main demand is of course to stop the proposed hike in fees, many of the students support the demand of the CLASSE, which is spearheading the strike movement, for free post-secondary education.

This message — that education is an integral right of Quebec society, and must be accessible to all — has struck a responsive chord among broad layers of the population. In recent days, the students’ demands have inspired strong messages of solidarity from their professors, more than 1,600 of whom have signed a powerful statement against neoliberal “commodification” of education and the privatization of university funding. (The professors’ statement is translated, below.)

Thousands of parents are now organizing through Facebook in support of the students, and many participated with their children in the marches yesterday. High school students are joining in, with strikes planned in several schools this week. The major trade-union centrals have issued calls for solidarity with the striking students.

The government continues to stonewall the student demands, and Finance Minister Raymond Bachand is expected to confirm the increase in his budget speech tomorrow. The increase will boost student fees by $325 a year for five years. Yesterday’s demonstrations were a prelude to even bigger student protests planned for March 22. And the organizers are already planning further actions in weeks ahead.

In recent weeks, student demonstrators have faced violent attacks by police using tear gas, sound percussion guns and rubber bullets, and hundreds have been arrested. In one such attack, a Montréal student was hit in the face and may lose sight in one eye. But this repression has, if anything, aroused mass indignation and public expressions of support for the students.

As the business media never cease to remind us, Quebec university fees are the lowest in Canada. But that is because Quebec students have mobilized repeatedly against attempts to raise them. As Chantal Sundaram notes in Socialist Worker:

“From 1968 to 1990, tuition fees in Quebec were frozen at $500 a year. After a hike of about 150 per cent from 1990 to 1993, a PQ government introduced a new freeze in 1994. But that same government opened the door to a new increase in the name of deficit cutting in 1996. It faced a Quebec-wide student strike with mass street protests and gave up that idea. Fees have also increased by $100 a year over the past five years under the Charest government.

“Today’s strike comes only seven years after the last one. In 2005, an unlimited student strike shut down nearly every post-secondary institution in Quebec to protest the cutting of $103 million from bursaries to convert them into loans. The students won, forcing the government to backtrack on a policy it had already passed. That strike received massive public support and was the source of the ‘red square’ badge, worn by thousands of students and supporters, which is also in use today.”

The strike has been organized faculty by faculty through mass assemblies and democratic votes of the students; it began in mid-February when the CLASSE threshold of a pro-strike vote of 20,000 students in at least seven student unions was met. At first, Education Minister Line Beauchamp dismissed it, claiming the movement represented only 2% of the province’s 495,000 post-secondary students. But already move than 40% of the total student population are on strike.

And now other student organizations, traditionally less militant than the CLASSE, are planning their own actions to protest the fee increase. For example, the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ) has announced it will hold a sit-in at the National Assembly on March 20 when the finance minister tables his budget.

The 2005 student strike ended with serious divisions in the movement; the CLASSE predecessor was sidelined and in the end the government negotiated only with the FECQ and a rival organization, the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ). At the outset of this year’s strike movement, the CLASSE had only 40,000 members, while the FEUQ boasted 125,000 and the FECQ 80,000. However, the relationship of forces within the student population may be changing rapidly in the current mobilizations.

“There is something in the air,” 21-year-old CLASSE leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois told Le Devoir. “There is momentum. The Arab Spring, the indignés, the Occupy movement…. There is an entire discourse being advanced about the interests the governments serve. They do not work for the majority. And the question of the increased education fees is a stunning demonstration of this.”

According to another CLASSE spokesperson, Jeanne Reynolds, “It is a whole vision of education that is changing. That’s why people are mobilizing so much.”

And indeed, an important feature of the movement is the attractive appeal of the CLASSE demand not only for a freeze on fees, but for free university education as a right of society. Other organizations have advanced similar demands for treating social services as a public right, not an opportunity for private profit. In a statement coinciding with yesterday’s marches, the Coalition opposée à la tarification et à la privatisation des services publics[2] called for public participation in the students’ actions and opposition to the Charest government’s increase in electricity rates and its tax on medicare services. “Although the Charest government is so far showing its rigidity, it is our impression that the relationship of forces is increasingly in the students’ camp,” Coalition spokesman François Saillant told the media. Saillant is also a leading member of Québec solidaire, Quebec’s party of the left.

* * *

‘We are all students.’ Quebec profs issue call

for unlimited general strike of campuses

This appeal by Quebec post-secondary teachers, signed initially by 21 professors, has now been signed by more than 1,600 others in support of their students.

As professors who strive to bequeath knowledge to all those who seek an education, we support the students striking in democratic defense of accessibility to university education and in justified opposition to the commodification of education. We say to these student youth who are standing firm that they are not alone.

Beyond the legitimate demands linked to the precariousness of student status, it is the future of education and Quebec society that is at stake in the conflict between the students and the government. This strike is an extension of the numerous struggles that have emerged in recent years challenging the subordination of the public good to private interests with the help of a scandalously obliging government.

An increase that impoverishes education

The most immediate issue in the current conflict is of course the increase in education fees. This 75% increase, we note, follows the 30% increase imposed since 2008. These increases are draconian, and they fit within a logic of privatization of the funding of our public services. Among its most obvious consequences, we can anticipate a substantial increase in student indebtedness, as we see in the rest of Canada and in the Anglo-Saxon world as a whole, as well as a significant decrease in accessibility to education.

This privatization of university funding, based on a neoliberal premise, treats students as customers. To profit from their investment, they will be tempted to choose their area of study in terms of its financial yield and potential for employment. The logic of indebtedness regiments the students de facto in the world of finance, and subordinates their decisions to the bankers. The student thereby becomes an agent of reproduction of the social order, instead of a citizen participating fully in the evolution of his or her society. Academic freedom and the entire critical dimension of university education would appear to be threatened with obsolescence.

The discourse of the Liberals, the ADQ/CAQistes[3] and the university administrations claims that the increase will help solve the problem of “under-funding” of Quebec universities. But we should instead be talking about “malfunding,” considering the huge transfer of funds once devoted to education and basic research to investments in real estate, private research, advertising and the financing of a powerful bureaucracy. In this sense, the central issue is less the under-funding than what we choose to fund in our universities. To what degree are we prepared to sacrifice courses considered unprofitable, to reduce accessibility to studies in order to feed the endless appetite of the boards of directors?

From one revolution to another

Underlying the debate over the increase in education fees is a conflict between different models of education. Finance Minister Raymond Bachand evokes a “cultural revolution” when he attacks the achievements of the Quiet Revolution by returning education fees to what they were prior to 1968, when the university was essentially reserved to a male elite. The creation of a more egalitarian system of education, such as we enjoyed until the 1990s, was the end result of a broad collective debate expressed, for example, through the Parent Commission[4] and the vitality of the student movement of that time.

We note today that the conservative revolution being implemented by the Liberal government is not the product of any debate and is presented to us as an inevitability. Symptomatic in this regard is the Agreement to lift the lid on student fees (Pacte sur le dégel des droits de scolarité) announced in 2010. It was based on a sham consensus featuring the representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, the Conseil du Patronat and neoliberal think tanks (IEDM, CIRANO), organized of course under the leadership of the bard of the lucides, Lucien Bouchard[5] himself. The denial of any form of opposition or dialogue opened the way to Raymond Bachand’s budgets, just as the injunctions of the “banksters” [English in original] have imposed austerity policies here and elsewhere in the world.

As a result, we have to consider the student movement and its demands as a voice of resistance. For several years now, the students have been presenting an intelligent analysis of the issues related to post-secondary education, and calling for a public debate, a débat de société on the future of education. This demand has been met by a dogmatic refusal to open the dialogue and recognize the students as legitimate interlocutors. This stiff resistance explains the fact that the debate is now being expressed in the streets. The violent police repression of the students is the material expression of the contempt for those who struggle, often imaginatively, to defend what they know is precious to each of us: education as a public good.

Everyone united against the increase

Considering that the increase in education fees masks an ongoing privatization of funding of the universities, that it challenges universality as a model of accessibility to post-secondary studies, and that it furthers the transformation of institutions of learning into mere market organizations, we think the unlimited general strike is a justified method in the circumstances and that the students’ demands for a freeze on student fees and free education are legitimate.

The students are inviting us to build a new political way of thinking (imaginaire) that can revive the democratic and modern foundations of the educational system and of Quebec society as a whole. Within this perspective, we greet their call to general mobilization as an invitation to defend the right not only to higher education but also to the civilizing implications of the university. As professors, we respond: We are all students!


Benoit Guilmain, Collège Édouard-Montpetit; Anne-Marie Le Saux, Collège de Maisonneuve; Stéphane Thellen, Cégep du Vieux Montréal


Normand Baillargeon, Université du Québec à Montréal; Mario Beauchemin, Président de la FEC-CSQ; Claire Fortier, Collège Édouard-Montpetit; Isabelle Fortier, École nationale d’administration publique; Gilles Gagné, Université Laval; Frédéric Julien, Collège Édouard-Montpetit; Anna Kruzynski, Université Concordia; Benoit Lacoursière, Collège de Maisonneuve; Diane Lamoureux, Université Laval; Georges Leroux, Université du Québec à Montréal; Karim-Mathieu Lapierre, Cégep de St-Jérôme; Michèle Nevert, Université du Québec à Montréal, présidente du SPUQ; Jacques Pelletier, Université du Québec à Montréal; Martin Petitclerc, Université du Québec à Montréal; Guy Rocher, Université de Montréal; Cécile Sabourin, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières; Jean Trudelle, Collège Ahuntsic, président de la FNEEQ-CSN; Louise Vandelac, Université du Québec à Montréal

[1] An English translation: “Broad coalition of the Association for student union solidarity.”

[2] In English, Coalition against fee-for-service and the privatization of public services.

[3] A reference to the Coalition Avenir Québec, a new right-wing party led by François Legault, a former Parti Québécois minister. The CAQ recently absorbed the right-wing Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ).

[4] The report of the Parent Commission in the early 1960s launched a far-reaching educational reform that ended church control of education and led to the founding of a province-wide network of public universities and community colleges.

[5] Bourchard, a former Parti Québécois premier, authored a right-wing manifesto a decade ago that was issued by prominent right-wing ideologues who called themselves “lucides,” the clear-eyed realists. It provoked the publication of an alternative manifesto from leading progressives who called themselves the “solidaires,” those promoting solidarity of the oppressed and exploited. The name was subsequently adopted by Québec solidaire.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The NDP: New wine in an old jar?


First, apologies to subscribers to this blog for my recent silence. I was studying in Mexico for a couple of months and only now am I catching up on current events in Canada. A lot has happened recently, most notably the revival in the fortunes and prospects for the Quebec independence movement, which I will comment on before long.

But the immediate item of note is the federal NDP leadership race, which will come to a close on March 24 at a convention in Toronto. There, the postal votes of the pan-Canadian membership will be tallied and the new leader will be selected by delegates, probably after more than one elimination ballot since it appears that none of the seven remaining candidates enjoys clear majority support.

It has been, on the whole, a lacklustre campaign with no candidate proposing any new ideas that would make the party much more than the electoral machine that it now is, dedicated to proving its readiness to govern the country as a kinder, gentler version of neoliberal politics. Even the trilingual indigenous candidate Romeo Saganash, who in the past has written cogently on the national question from both an indigenous and Québécois perspective, seemed unable to offer any message that demarked him from the other candidates, all committed to pursuing “Jack Layton’s legacy.” Saganash eventually dropped out of the race. So what is there to say?

Last year I accepted an invitation to join a collective based at the University of Ottawa that is associated with the excellent Quebec journal Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme. In one of our initial discussions, on the topic of the NDP after the May 2, 2011 election, I was asked to lead off with a discussion addressed to four specific questions. My written presentation, dated December 1, is translated below. Far from attempting a comprehensive analysis of the NDP, it does address some questions that are in the minds of many serious left activists, including no doubt some of those voting this month in the leadership election. I have added a few notes in the translated version to update it and identify some acronyms for English-speaking readers. A postcript recounts a few key episodes in NDP history with particular reference to the Quebec question. At some point I hope to write about others, such as the left-wing “Waffle” and the New Politics Initiative.

These notes are offered in the hope that they can help initiate further discussion by others.

– Richard Fidler

* * *

1. Is the Quebec breakthrough conjunctural or is it something more substantial?

Since its founding the NDP has defined itself as a federalist party, opposed to Quebec independence. The party’s historic approach to the “Quebec question” is well documented in two books: Roch Denis, Luttes de classes et question nationale au Québec, 1948-1968 (Presses socialistes internationalistes, 1979); and André Lamoureux, Le NPD et le Québec, 1958-1985 (Éditions du Parc, 1985). I attach, at the end of these notes, a brief update of Lamoureux’s account. See also François Cyr & Pierre Beaudet, “Le NPD et la question québécoise: continuités et ruptures.”

The vast majority of NDP members and sympathizers are committed federalists. The party operates in Quebec as a party that seeks to “make federalism work.” This orientation is integral to its DNA, as is its acceptance of the framework of the capitalist state and the institutions of global imperialism.

The NDP’s May 2 breakthrough was not due to any change in its approach to Quebec (it campaigned in 2006 and 2008 elections on virtually the same positions); it reflected primarily popular disaffection with the Bloc québécois and the BQ’s inability to pose a pan-Canadian alternative to a Conservative majority government, while the NDP presented a certain openness to Québécois demands on a number of questions, including language rights. As long as Quebec is part of the federal system, the NDP can retain significant electoral support in the province, but only as a “lesser evil” than the Bloc and other federal parties.

The NDP’s future in Quebec is closely linked to that of the Quebec national question. Is the national consciousness of the Québécois destined to disappear? All indications are, to the contrary, that Quebec’s alienation from the federal regime will continue to deepen and intensify, albeit unevenly, and that the national movement will in the long run orient increasingly toward the conquest of political independence.

The current decline in electoral support to the federal Liberals and Conservatives is accompanied by a deepening of the crisis of the bourgeois sovereigntist parties, the Parti québécois and the BQ, which have generally exhausted popular illusions by squandering their progressive potential. The national and social movements are now in the early stages of a process of recomposition that offers the left independentist party Québec solidaire the possibility of weaving some important links with the unions and social movements as the party of “the other Quebec” as a democratic, eco-friendly, feminist, pluralist and grassroots-based party. The NDP’s federalism places it largely outside this process.

Notwithstanding its electoral breakthrough and the current leadership contest, the NDP has so far not recruited more than about 3,000 new members in Quebec, for a total membership of 5,000 — compared with close to 100,000 individual members of the party in Canada.[1] (The figures for members affiliated to the party through their unions are not readily available, but in any event the party has few affiliated members in Quebec, where the BQ and PQ are supported by the FTQ and explicitly or implicitly endorsed by the CSN and the CSQ.)[2]

The federal electoral breakthrough has not generated corresponding gains for the NDP in the other provinces. In the last five provincial general elections this year, the NDP’s vote has generally remained firm (except in Saskatchewan, where its legislative representation was almost wiped out). In Ontario, the NDP remains the third party, although it won more seats in the October provincial election.

2. What are the prospects for a change in the federal NDP’s policies and strategy?

Up to now there has been no sign of a change. The NDP members in Canada congratulate themselves for achieving an electoral breakthrough in Quebec, but there is no indication of any questioning of the party’s position on the national question, even when the media draw attention to contradictions in the Sherbrooke Declaration, which expresses the party’s proposals on the Quebec question. The Declaration accepts that a referendum on Quebec sovereignty would carry with a 50% + 1 majority. But at the same time, it accepts the Supreme Court of Canada judgment on the Secession Reference, which held that negotiations based on recognition of the result would be commenced only if the referendum produced a “clear majority” to a “clear question” — “clarity” being determined in both cases by the federal Parliament and the other provinces. The Sherbrooke Declaration and my critique of it are referenced at the end of these notes.

There have been, reportedly, a few differences expressed behind closed doors within the parliamentary caucus, for example when the party initially supported the government’s appointment of a unilingual Anglophone judge to the Supreme Court, or when the federal government failed to allocate a share of the military ship-building contract to the Davie Shipyard [in Lévis] — a decision the party’s spokesman hailed as “a great day for Canada”. But these differences were not made public. The NPD will continue to be torn by its ambiguities on the Quebec question.

Since the defeat of the 1980 referendum, the decline in the Quebec radicalization of earlier years, the PQ’s rightward turn and its acceptance of neoliberalism, the left in Canada has shown little interest in Quebec, which it no longer considers the leader or vanguard of social change that it was in the Sixties and Seventies. Even during this previous period there was little understanding of the national question, as Serge Denis documented in his book, Le long malentendu: Le Québec vu par les intellectuels progressistes au Canada anglais, 1970-1991 (Boréal, 1992). Insofar as the Canadian left solidarized with the left in Quebec (for example, the left-wing Waffle tendency in the NDP in the early 1970s), it was usually in the hope of building a common alliance in opposition to American imperialism, and not against the Canadian state. For the Canadian left — and not only within the NDP — Canadian nationalism has consistently trumped solidarity with the national struggle of the Québécois.

Nor have we seen any sign of attempts by the new Quebec MPs of the NDP to reorient the party’s thinking on Quebec. It is a weak caucus. These MPs were recruited as candidates from a small membership (1700 in all) at the time the election was called. Most are federalists. There are many non-Francophones. Several are young but for the most part they are not known for their involvement in the social movements. The most experienced parliamentarians, Thomas Mulcair and Françoise Boivin, are former Liberals. The few trade-unionists among the NDP’s Quebec MPs worked primarily in pan-Canadian unions (Steelworkers, CAW, CUPE, PSAC)[3] and not in the CSN or the CSQ. Almost none were active in the nationalist movement. In the Parliament, these MPs are under immense pressure from the federalist media, the government and the Liberals to declare their support of the federal system; only the four MPs of the Bloc québécois are committed to defend “the interests of Quebec.” It may be too early to gauge the impact on Quebec public opinion of the NDP’s slippages on the national question. But it is certain that a new rise in the Quebec national movement will further expose the contradictions and ambiguities of the NDP. Stay tuned....

3. Will the NDP go to the “right” (merger with the federal Liberals) or will it go to the “left” (closer to the social movements)?

My short answer: Neither, nor! Neither to the right nor the left, at least in the short term.

Having achieved the status of Official Opposition, the NDP can now present itself as the “government in waiting.” This certainly increases the pressure on the party to demonstrate its “reliability” to the Canadian and international bourgeoisie. But the NDP has always done that, and never more than under the leadership of Jack Layton, who moved the party a bit further to the right to occupy the “centre” of the political spectrum. See Murray Cooke, “Layton’s Legacy and the NDP Leadership Race.” 

The NDP has aimed since its founding to replace the Liberal party, just as the British Labour Party did in England in the 1920s. For 50 years the NDP has not managed to do this. And I think this is unlikely to happen in the near future. Bob Rae’s Liberals are finding it hard to recover their status as the natural governing party. But there is no evidence that the ruling class has abandoned the Liberals, their preferred party of alternance. Should mass social agitation threaten to destabilize Canadian politics, the elite might turn to the NDP as a means of deflecting that possibility. But at this point the capitalist media are pressuring the NDP to dissociate itself from the “separatists” (the Turmel affair[4]) and break its remaining links with the unions — links already seriously frayed by legislative restrictions on party funding by unions and the establishment of a system of state funding of parties, now the NDP’s principal source of income.

In the current leadership race, no candidate advocates fusion with the Liberals, although none of them excludes it for all time. Some, such as Nathan Cullen, advocate closer collaboration with the Liberal MPs in Parliament on specific issues, instead of an adversarial relationship. There are some tensions and informal divisions within the NDP membership between those who advocate rapprochement with the Liberals and those — generally closer to the party’s electoral base in the working class and social movements — who would prefer a more militant response to the Harper government’s agenda.

However, the social movements in Canada are politically quite weak, the unions continue to retreat in the face of the neoliberal offensive, and there is little real pressure on the NDP to move further to the “left.” And up to now the NDP leadership race has not produced the hoped-for “battle of ideas.”

A major problem for all left opposition currents in the NDP — and this is a direct product of the party’s electoralism, its parliamentarism and the resulting opportunism — is the lack of democracy within the NDP. Generally speaking, the party is an electoral machine that provides little space, even in local membership bodies, for political debate or education of its members. The bureaucratic structures and the total absence of internal or external party communications media guarantee the marginalization of any present or potential left wing tendency. The existing “Socialist Caucus” is completely marginal. It received the support of less than 1% of the membership for its candidate in the last leadership race (2003).[5]

4. What are the various options now facing the social movements and the left in Quebec and in Canada?

First of all, a comment about some particular features of the post-May 2 political context.

The NDP faces a major dilemma. It is, dogmatically, a parliamentary party. It seeks above all to “make Parliament work for Canadian families” (Layton). But the Harper government is using its new-found parliamentary majority to avoid debate and impose its program without regard for the Opposition. NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice’s heartfelt protest in Le Devoir clearly expressed the frustration of the NDP caucus. Will that force the NDP to align itself more directly with the opposition in “the street”? Far from certain, at this stage. Generally, however, there is an inverse relationship between the NDP’s extra-parliamentary activism and its immediate prospects of electoral victory or accession to government.

It is possible that new opportunities will develop for the social movements to involve NDP members and leaders in their mobilizations as a means of helping to advance those movements. However, at this point the social movements in Canada are still reeling from the Conservative electoral victory and lack any perspective of parliamentary victories, still less governmental power, in the foreseeable future.

What about the unions and their (often problematic) relations with the NDP? The federal NDP’s enhanced status in Parliament could stall some tendencies to dissociate from the party (e.g. in the CAW), and might even bring some unions traditionally cool to the NDP closer to the party (e.g. the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), whose members were favourably impressed by the NDP’s filibuster of the back-to-work legislation in June). But a section of the union bureaucracy might simply see the party’s gains as an additional incentive to leave politics to the NDP. At this point the unions do not appear to be under much pressure to alter this approach. It should be noted, however, that Canadian unions, unlike the NDP, have displayed relatively greater sympathy for Quebec nationalism and have adjusted to demands for autonomy by Quebec unions. As [former CUPW leader] Jean-Claude Parrot has put it, the relationship between the FTQ and the CLC can be described as the union equivalent of “sovereignty-association.”

Historically, the Canadian left has been unable to formulate a clear strategic perspective for power in the Canadian state, largely because the Quebec struggle since the Sixties has oriented toward power in Quebec and national independence. While a stronger NDP presence in Ottawa (as a “government in waiting,” with a majority-Québécois caucus) seems to offer an alternative perspective, the underlying dilemma will reappear in new forms to the degree that the national movement in Quebec regains its initiative.

In the past, Canadian nationalism proved to be a major obstacle to the establishment of durable links between progressives in Quebec and Canada. Furthermore, entire layers of the Canadian left lost their sympathies for Quebec with the rightward turn of the PQ after the defeat of the 1980 referendum and its abandonment of any credible claim to be fighting for independence, which also demobilized and demoralized a sizeable section of the Quebec left. We saw the results in 2000 when the Chrétien-Dion Clarity Bill aroused very little obvious opposition in either Quebec or Canada. Even the massive mobilizations in Quebec in 2003, which played a decisive role in the Canadian government’s decision to stand aside from the war against Iraq, did not have a major impact in the rest of Canada.

There are some reasons to think the situation is evolving now, however. For one thing, as noted earlier, the Quebec social movements — in particular, the women’s and student movements, and the environmental movement — remain relatively stronger, and this encourages activists in Canada and stimulates the prospects for collaboration with the Québécois. Especially because the Canadian state and the policies of the central government continue to constitute a common enemy.

Furthermore, the global justice (altermondialiste) movement — for example, in solidarity with the indigenous and anticapitalist movements in Latin America, and the antiwar mobilizations — mobilizes and radicalizes young people in both Quebec and Canada and provides a new basis for popularizing the concept of self-determination. The looming ecological catastrophe poses the need for global and globalizing solutions, and Canada’s role as a major polluting country tends to reduce the attraction of Canadian nationalist ideology. Indigenous militants are beginning to play a much more important role in the movement against climate change. These movements have a common attraction for militants in both Canada and Quebec, and tend to reinforce each other.

Thus, while it is still difficult to envisage the possibilities for adoption of a common strategy for the conquest of governmental power (!), there are some favourable openings for increased collaboration in the next period between militants in Quebec and Canada — not as a comprehensive coalition to “defeat the right” but rather around specific issues and campaigns.

Finally, let us note that any rise in protest movements may well generate tensions among the members and supporters of the NDP, and result in challenges to a number of positions long held by the party leadership. Among the contradictions between the NDP program and the social and progressive movements:

  • Popular opposition to imperialist war (especially in Quebec), vs. the NDP’s support to the “responsibility to protect” doctrine and military alliances like NATO and NORAD.
  • Popular sympathy for Palestine vs. the support of numerous NDP leaders to the Israeli state and Zionism.
  • The environmental movement: the growing opposition to the development of petroleum extraction in Alberta’s tar sands vs. the NDP’s lukewarm support to such development provided the dirty oil is refined in Canada.
  • Opposition to capitalist trade and investment deals such as NAFTA vs. the support to these agreements by many NDP leaders (and Mulcair in particular).
  • Crime laws and prison expansion: while Quebec leads the opposition, the Manitoba NDP government supports many of the Harper government’s measures, such as jailing teen-agers.

Last but not least, there is the issue that reflects the principal line of cleavage in the Canadian state: the fundamental contradiction between the independentist movement in Quebec and the NDP’s federalism. The Canadian state was founded on the national oppression of the Québécois and the indigenous peoples. The divisions between progressives in Quebec and Canada have always weakened the left and reinforced the hegemony of the capitalist ruling class. Thus any durable alliance between progressives in Quebec and Canada must include, as a basic principle, the recognition and defense by the Canadian left of Quebec’s right to self-determination in all its expressions, including language rights.

Further reading:

The Sherbrooke Declaration and my criticism of it: The federal NDP’s electoral breakthrough in Quebec: A challenge to progressives in Canada; Layton chooses Supreme Court, Clarity Act over NDP’s Sherbrooke Declaration

Pierre Beaudet, La gauche et le NPD; La consternante performance du NPD; (with François Cyr), Le NPD et la question québécoise : continuités et ruptures

André Frappier, Quelle attitude face aux néodémocrates

Richard Fidler, Labour parties, the Comintern debates and the durability of Social Democracy (This document, written in 2002, was part of a discussion on the Marxmail web list. It responds in part to the comments of participants in other countries that have mass Social-Democratic or labour parties.)


A note on some episodes in NDP history

[Le NPD et le Québec, 1958-1985, by André Lamoureux, is an important book, unfortunately never translated into English. Here are excerpts from some comments I made last year, based on this book, on an email discussion list. They are slightly edited for coherence.]

At the new party’s founding convention in 1961, the draft program referred to “the Canadian nation” and the draft statutes used the word “national” throughout in reference to the various party structures. However, the Quebec new party members defended the idea that Confederation was a “pact between two nations” — an historically dubious thesis, but since the late 19th century the prevailing myth about the events in 1867 that was developed by traditional Québécois nationalists in their attempt to interpret the constitution in a way that would allow the “French-Canadian nation” some autonomy.

In the Quebec provincial committee, prior to the party’s founding, Jean-Marie Bédard, representing the International Woodworkers of America, proposed that the new party’s founding documents recognize Quebec’s right to self-determination including secession. But he withdrew his amendment when persuaded that the recognition of the principle of two nations included ipso facto the right to self-determination.

Michel Chartrand then moved that the party replace the words “national” and “nation” by “federal” or “Canadian” and recognize that “the French Canadians [the common designation at that time] constitute a distinct nation.” This enraged some other delegates, including Eugene Forsey, who was research director of the Canadian Labour Congress and, as it happens, a constitutional scholar who had fashioned a career through his frequent articles contesting the “pact” theory of Confederation. (Marxist historian Stanley Ryerson challenges Forsey’s views in a Postcript to his book Unequal Union.) Forsey denounced the amendment and, when it was adopted, announced he was leaving the party. (Trudeau later made him a Liberal Senator.) But Chartrand’s amendment passed. As Lamoureux notes, for the Quebec delegates this was an “important and promising victory.”

The party leadership then got the convention to define Canada as a “bicultural nation,” hoping thereby to dilute the impact of the two nations position. The differences within the NDP were over the implications of that position. While the Québécois members thought it implicitly included the right to self-determination, the Douglas leadership saw it as a device to press for patriating the Canadian constitution (then an act of the British parliament) and to adopt a constitution that would clarify the federal government’s pre-eminent powers, for example, in social policy — which Quebec had historically resisted.

The Quebec wing of the NDP split in 1962, in part over differing interpretations of federal-provincial constitutional relations, although the split was also over the issue of autonomy for the Quebec section. The majority then went on to found in 1963 the Parti socialiste du Québec, an independent party with Chartrand as its first leader (later succeeded by Bédard). The NDP continued as a federal party only in Quebec.

These were huge debates at the time, and not only within the NDP. Recall Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s bitter opposition to any, even verbal recognition of Quebec as a “nation,” one of the things that eventually led to his removal as leader of the Progressive Conservative party. Yet another story...

Lamoureux’s book ends in 1985, when it was published. After the defeat of the PQ government that year, and the signing of the Meech Lake Accord in 1987, former Toronto NDP MP John Harney moved to Quebec and, as “Jean-Paul Harney,” re-established and led a provincial Quebec NDP, which in 1988-89 attracted a membership of some 18,000 and was instrumental in electing the federal NDP’s first Quebec MP, automobile “lemon-aid” consumer advocate Phil Edmundston, in a by-election. (He was defeated in the subsequent general election.)

Harney’s version of the Quebec NDP explicitly defended the right of self-determination of Quebec; many if not most of its members were former Parti québécois members or supporters who opposed PQ leader Pierre-Marc Johnson’s watered-down substitution of “national affirmation” in place of that party’s defining support for “sovereigntÿ.” The NPD-Québec, by the way, initially criticized the Meech Lake Accord because it failed to recognize Quebec as a nation, although it later stifled its public criticism when federal leader Ed Broadbent supported the Accord.

But the Quebec NDP collapsed when Jacques Parizeau took over the leadership of the Parti Québécois and set it resolutely on the road toward another referendum on sovereignty. The thousands of former péquistes who had joined the NDP left to rejoin the PQ. The Quebec party, much reduced, adopted a pro-sovereignty position in the early 1990s under the leadership of ex-FLQ leader Paul Rose. It dropped its relationship to the federal NDP and later participated in the process that led to the founding in 2002 of the Union des forces progressistes and later Québec solidaire.

As for the Sherbrooke Declaration, it was adopted by the Quebec Council of the NDP in 2005, and endorsed by the federal NDP in 2006. I do not know what discussion went into it, or whether there was much debate on it in either the (then) tiny Quebec NDP or the federal party.

[1] By mid-February 2012 (the cutoff date for members eligible to vote for the leadership), these numbers had risen to 128,351 in Canada as a whole, an increase of more than 40 percent from October 2011. Quebec membership was 12,266. Other provinces: British Columbia 38,735; Ontario 36,760; Manitoba 12,056; Saskatchewan 11,264; Alberta 10,249; Nova Scotia 3,844; Newfoundland/Labrador 1,030; New Brunswick 955; Territories 924; Prince Edward Island 268.

[2] FTQ, Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec [Quebec labour federation, the Quebec affiliate of the Canadian Labour Congress]; CSN, Confédération des syndicats nationaux [National trade-union confederation]; CSQ, Centrale des syndicats du Québec [Quebec trade-union central]. Under Quebec law, trade unions are prohibited from affiliating to a registered Quebec-based party.

[3] CAW, Canadian Auto Workers; CUPE, Canadian Union of Public Employees; PSAC, Public Service Alliance of Canada.

[4] See “Nycole Turmel’s induction in the federalists’ wonderland” and “Some Québécois reactions to the Turmel affair.”

[5] However, it is worth noting that the New Party Initiative (NPI), a short-lived caucus calling for a more progressive NDP, failing which it would initiate the formation of a new party, received the votes of about 40 percent of the delegates at the NDP’s 2002 federal convention. The NPI dissolved soon after its leadership, without consulting their members, endorsed Jack Layton in the 2003 leadership contest.