Friday, May 31, 2013

Montréal conference debates strategy for Quebec independence

Québec solidaire poses need to link sovereignty with a progressive social agenda


A conference on “national convergence,” which met May 26-28 in Montréal, brought supporters of Quebec’s three pro-independence parties together to explore the possibility of common action that would help clear the way for the election of a pro-sovereignty majority in the National Assembly.

The conference was initiated by supporters of the Parti Québécois, hoping to find a way to restore the PQ’s hegemony over the sovereigntist movement, already fractured by the growth over the last year of the left-wing Québec solidaire and a new party, Option Nationale, founded by dissident PQ members.

The PQ, governing for eight months now with a minority of seats in the National Assembly, has not only failed to increase popular support for independence; it has undermined it by implementing a neoliberal austerity program that has frustrated and disappointed many of the party’s traditional supporters in the unions and social movements. Among those attending the conference were prominent leaders of Quebec’s major union centrals — the FTQ, CSN and CSQ — all of which are sympathetic not only to independence but to the PQ.

But the conference also attracted activists who are much more critical of the PQ. A featured speaker was Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a leader of the militant student strike of 2012, an anticapitalist and not a PQ member.

Québec solidaire, despite reservations, agreed to participate in the conference and sent an official delegation headed by the party’s new president, Andrés Fontecilla. And on the eve of the conference, QS deputy Amir Khadir published an “Open Letter to the Independentists” in his blog on the QS website, setting out the main lines of the party’s message to participants.

The following is my translation of Khadir’s open letter, followed by a report I have compiled from various sources on the conference proceedings and decisions. (I did not attend.) At a QS nomination meeting in Quebec City’s Jean-Lesage constituency, May 15, Khadir read the first half of his open letter.[1] And several paragraphs from it were read to the Montreal conference by Andrés Fontecilla in his official greetings on behalf of Québec solidaire.

– Richard Fidler

Open Letter to the Independentists

By Amir Khadir, Québec solidaire MNA for Mercier

Quebec employers have historically been the staunchest and most effective opponents of Quebec’s economic and political sovereignty. But many independence supporters continue to entertain the hope that a section of the economic elite will again some day, as in 1995, give the green light to those who, like the leadership of the Parti Québécois, await their authorization before calling the people to an appointment with their future.

It must be noted that things have indeed changed. The nationalist segment formed by certain barons of Québec Inc. tends to be increasingly reined in and isolated. During the last 15 years, the dominant economic elite in Quebec has been so closely integrated with the elites of Bay Street and Wall Street that it embraces all their major political schemes. In my opinion, no convergence is possible between this elite and the independentist project.[2]

The incredible compromises and political acrobatics of the Parti Québécois to help the Québecor media empire (Amphithéâtre, Hydro-Québec)[3] were no doubt conceived in the hope that this would make it a strategic ally in any future independentist initiative. But no matter how exceptional and disinterested this support may be (which of course remains to be proved or tested), Québecor represents a very small fraction of the Quebec employer class. The bulk of the organized forces of the private sector act consistently and constantly to keep Quebec within the present status quo, which suits them perfectly.

During the eight months it has now been in office, the PQ has subordinated its decisions to the wishes of the business elite, often in a caricatural way. The progressive independentists who for a great many years have given their support to the PQ are witnessing in discouragement this party’s inability to determine its orientations independently of business interests. This process has entailed many painful and controversial flip-flops for which the PQ is paying dearly in popular support. Many are now asking how the party expects to arouse people’s enthusiasm and obtain the support it needs to win a majority of seats, a necessary condition if it is to act decisively and jump-start the process leading to the independence of Quebec.

How indeed does the PQ expect to inspire, mobilize, convince the people to demonstrate the collective courage needed to achieve sovereignty when, once in office, it reneges on all of its most basic promises — repeal of the healthcare tax, increased mining royalties and taxes on the wealthy — out of fear of frightening off the business community?

How can it count on the support of the grassroots after cutting into the meagre incomes of social assistance recipients, in disregard for the contrary opinions of everyone except a few trash radio hosts? How can it attract the middle classes after cutting health care by hundreds of millions and pursuing in almost every respect the underhanded privatization of services and the PPPs initiated by the Liberals? How does the PQ expect to mobilize the most active and progressive sectors after appointing Pierre Karl Péladeau, a major opponent of social rights and social democracy if not the state itself, to head up the largest public undertaking — enough to make René Lévesque rage in his tomb at the shame of it all?[4]

How does it expect to rally the ecologists, with the distressing clientelism involved in bartering one of the jewels in Quebec’s natural heritage at Val Jalbert in order to keep the support of a few local caciques and barons of the engineering firms, at great cost to the taxpayers?[5] What signal does the PQ send to the vultures circling around our natural resources, and to the rest of the world, if it is not that the PQ is as “disposed” as Jean Charest’s Liberals were to selling off our resources at a giveaway price. And that it is not even capable of resisting the mining lobby, to keep a commitment as simple and easy as making 2025 the deadline for protecting 50% of the territory, and 2020 for protecting 20% of the North, reneging on our international undertakings at one fell blow.

Is that an inspiration for the people to whom we want to give the taste of liberty and independence?

How can the PQ hope to convince our people that sovereignty is for their own good after abusing its principles to the point that it goes after some of the worst off of the deprived by allowing alcohol at gaming tables and slot machines — in full knowledge of the great risk of pathological gambling this entails — something even the Liberals had not dared to do?

While the big corporations, with their billions in reported profits, pay only 2% of the effective taxation in Quebec, while some $90 billion belonging to the very wealthy and their companies is located in tax havens, the PQ, for lack of political courage and with a myopia worthy of [former PQ premier] Lucien Bouchard, has set its sights on achieving a zero deficit by cutting services and increasing the burden on ordinary citizens. Why, then, should people take the risk of following a party as insensitive and fearful as this in an adventure as engaging and “tumultuous” as the march toward independence?

Some lessons to be drawn from elsewhere

In an enlightening article on the results of the recent elections in Ecuador,[6] Atilio Boron, an Argentine political scientist and sociologist, purports to draw some lessons from the convincing victory of the socialist president Rafael Correa. They could serve us well. After six years in power, and notwithstanding the fierce opposition of the business elites, big media groups and even the National Assembly, the outgoing president Rafael Correa managed to increase his electoral support, winning 57% of the votes on the first round — an amazing feat! This seems all the more surprising in that Correa had obtained only 51% in 2009 and even less in the first round when he was elected at the outcome of the “Citizens Revolution” of 2006.

According to Boron, Correa’s convincing success proves that

“if a government obeys the popular mandate and implements public policies that benefit a majority of the citizens — which, after all, is what democracy means — the loyalty of the electorate can be considered assured. The manipulation of the media oligarchies, the conspiracy of the ruling classes, and the schemes of imperialism collide against the wall of the people’s loyalty.”

Correa’s triumph also demonstrates that “the conformist theory so widespread in conventional political thinking that ‘power erodes’ is applicable in a democracy only when the power is exercised on behalf of the wealthy minorities or when the processes of social transformation lose their substance, hesitate and end up being diluted.”

Commenting on his victory, the Ecuadorian president himself took pains to insist on the importance of acting with determination: “Either we change the country now or we’ll no longer change it… The project of creating a social order based on the sumak kawsay, the ‘buen vivir’ [living well] of our indigenous peoples requires that we act with speed and determination.” Unlike Correa, and despite the thousands of sympathizers ready to act, enthusiastic to begin mobilizing for independence, the PQ goes about timidly managing a province, often in the footsteps of the Liberals.

A large majority of the PQ members of the National Assembly are profoundly uneasy and must think, as we do, that we deserve better as a political horizon. A province is for the vanquished (pro vincia as defined by the imperialists). But for independence, we have to overcome the obstacles erected by the adversaries of sovereignty. Those who sincerely and in good faith continue to look to the PQ to achieve independence are faced with a question: In the present conditions of the acquiescence of the PQ leadership to business interests, how can this party perform the audacious acts that must accompany the march of the Quebec people toward their national independence?

The PQ is clearly waiting for a permission from the employers that will not come. For those of us who want independence without awaiting that permission, I point out, in all modesty mixed with enthusiasm, that there are other political choices. A choice that comes naturally when we draw up a clear-eyed balance sheet on the past and present of the Parti Québécois. That balance sheet has been drawn repeatedly since 1997, and it gave birth to the RAP, then the UFP and then to Québec solidaire.[7] That is how we developed a social agenda and a strategy to make Quebec a country.

A strategy for independence

The extraordinary ferment of the “Quebec spring” in 2012, like the citizen revolt in the St. Lawrence river valley against shale gas development in 2010, showed us that democratic practices of popular mobilization based on meetings, discussions around the kitchen table, demonstrations and public debates can produce growing support for a seminal idea that initially seemed to have little traction. The fight for national independence, which has all too often been reduced to the fear of threatening economic stability, can only recover the full force of its potential for social mobilization by being linked to an extensive democratic process, attracting broad rank and file participation. The strategy and objectives of accession to independence must be defined and based on this participation, and this constitutes an exercise in popular sovereignty.

The Constituent Assembly that Québec solidaire proposes as a strategy for achieving independence is the means by which the people of Quebec can freely regain control over their destiny, independently of the pressures of the National Assembly and the media oligarchies and business interests who defend the status quo. Independence will not come about through the action of the political class, even if it is supported by a marketing campaign or a two-day Summit — like the one on Education[8] — representing limited interests.

Citizen power, based on a universal suffrage that reflects the plural composition of Quebec society (equal representation of women and men, its historic communities, the diversity of its socio-economic and cultural communities), will define a collective project for a country, a project that can provide an impetus for change and the taste of freedom. This citizen power, invested with the means and powers conferred by the institution of the Constituent Assembly, can offer as well the prospect of an unimagined relationship of forces of a scope that has eluded the sovereigntist movement for the last 15 years — since the Committee hearings held across Quebec in 1995 by the partners behind the proposed referendum on sovereignty.

For 15 years now the federalist forces have been striving to “neutralize” the principal levers of the process of accession to independence (Caisse de dépôt, prominent business leaders, tacit support of France) and to clutter our route with several other obstacles, including the so-called referendum “Clarity Act.”

These manoeuvres at the summit, for the benefit of the federalists, explain to a large degree the unfortunate procrastination of those who have awaited illusory “winning conditions,” usually understood as the approval of the economic actors. The success of these manoeuvres at the summit also indicates that the response must be found in the rank and file and that from now on any new strategy for accession to independence can be based only on a relationship of forces that favours the people. The crucial question that must be addressed is what conditions must be assembled in order to build the broadest possible support of the popular classes?

The response to this question offered by the example of Rafael Correa in Ecuador is that “if a government obeys the popular mandate and implements public policies that benefit a majority of the citizens … the loyalty of the electorate can be considered assured.” The proof to the contrary of this statement is found in the PQ’s fate since its turn to neoliberalism of the last 15 years — a fate eloquently illustrated by the PQ’s collapse in popular support as a result of its major retreats on social policy since taking office.

The middle and lower classes constitute, after all, the ultimate ally that counts. Most, the majority, are the ally whose “x” on the ballot will be the most decisive on the day that really counts: the day when we decide on our independence.

The idea of independence is not limited to the defense of our economic interests (which are often those of a wealthy minority), or the glorification of our pride in our identity (the expression of which sometimes excludes the newly arrived and visible minorities). Independence is based on the collective will to build a world in common, in which our society can freely define its institutions, its values and its political future. That is precisely the meaning of the principle of self-determination of the Quebec people, at the foundation of the Constituent Assembly.

The political evolution of Ecuador is a good example of this promising dynamic. Correa’s success rests on the spaces of political freedom conquered by the Ecuadorian people, particularly thanks to the constituent process of 2008. It constitutes therefore positive proof of the strategic effectiveness of a constituent assembly in establishing a relationship of forces for the social and popular movements, to confront the power of the defenders of the status quo.

That is the most democratic, inclusive, effective and legitimate strategy for rallying all of the active and fighting forces in our society. These forces come most often from the ranks of the artists and the trade-union, popular, feminist, student, ecologist and independentist movements. Their convergence is the only one that is really necessary to the collective development of a new political dynamic that will favour the majority of the population, the only ultimate guarantor of our national independence.

– Amir Khadir, MNA (Québec solidaire)

* * *

Conference decisions highlight agreements, but also divisions

The “national convergence” conference attracted several hundred participants[9] not only from the sovereigntist parties and trade unions but also from a range of social movements, the so-called “civil society.” It was organized by the Nouveau Mouvement pour le Québec (NMQ), an organization founded in the summer of 2011 in the wake of the defection from the PQ legislature caucus at that time of several MNAs who criticized the party leadership for (among other things) its failure to advance a pro-independence agenda. Although it operates as a pressure group on the PQ, the NMQ seeks to rally non-péquistes behind this objective.

The NMQ’s stated goals include restoring independence as an organizing focus in Quebec politics, uniting independence supporters, and developing a role for citizens in the independence movement irrespective of party affiliation. Like Québec solidaire, the NMQ advocates the organization of a constituent assembly in which the Québécois can “themselves draw up a comprehensive national offer… for all Québécois, and not against Canada.” Its mission statement says that it mobilizes around national independence, democratic reform, the “fight against corruption” and for “energy independence,” but with a current focus on “the question of national independence.”

The conference heard speeches from some notable personalities, including former PQ premier Bernard Landry, then broke into five workshops to discuss referendum strategy, electoral reform, citizens’ mobilization, how to elect a pro-sovereignty majority government, and the possibility of adopting an electoral platform common to all sovereigntist parties.

Some of the key speeches and decisions taken by the conference participants illustrated the disarray of the Parti Québécois in face of mounting opposition from other independence supporters.

Opening speaker Guy Rocher, a leading sovereigntist intellectual, said that while in his view the various pro-sovereignty currents could cohabit within the same party, the PQ, “time has taken its toll, and a single party can no longer be the sole carrier of the independentist cause.”

Bernard Landry, while insisting that the independence he favours is “neither on the left nor the right,” acknowledged that the PQ could no longer monopolize the sovereigntist movement. “It’s obvious,” he told a post-conference press scrum. “There are other independentist parties than the PQ. What matters is that there be convergence so that the independentists support each other on the fundamental mission, which is independence.”

But the PQ leader and Quebec premier Pauline Marois took a less nuanced approach in comments to reporters the next day. The PQ, she insisted, is “the locomotive” of Quebec independence, and alliances between the party and Québec solidaire and Option Nationale are not necessary, since the job at hand is “to have a party that holds a majority at the head of the government.” Marois has often called on the other sovereigntist parties to scuttle themselves by joining the PQ.

But Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the student leader, spoke to the concerns of many participants when he told the conference: “As long as the national question and social justice are not frontally raised, we will have neither justice nor independence,” adding that “real” independence is possible only if we question our “productivist and energy-intensive regime.”

In contrast, Joseph Facal, a former PQ minister and now a right-wing columnist in the Québecor media, warned that “determination must not be confused with radicalization.

“The emphasis placed on ecologism, on the redistribution of wealth, has put the real engines of the national struggle — patriotism transcending social and economic divisions, collective pride, national identity, the desire to endure — on the back burner.”

Facal, writes former Québec solidaire interim president André Frappier, “managed to express the objective impasse of the idea of electoral agreements without a programmatic rapprochement.” The new QS president, Andrés Fontecilla, drove this point home in his address to the conference. “In our view,” he said, “it is essential to associate the country we propose with a progressive social agenda, to give it a social content.”

He quoted extensively from Amir Khadir’s “Open Letter,” adding that a major challenge before the independence movement was to win the support of “the newly arrived néo-Québécois.” Fontecilla is himself of Chilean origin. “I don’t have the impression there were many of them here this weekend. We have to remedy that…. We can only convince them by associating them in a project that will change their life. Independence at any price without such a project … will not convince them.”

And Fontecilla defended another major theme of Québec solidaire, the need to establish an electoral system based on some sort of proportional representation. The conference adopted that proposal, calling for a system of “proportional representation with a regional redistribution of votes” that would “reflect more closely the popular support of the parties and be consistent with political pluralism.”

However, conference participants also adopted a resolution calling for a study to explore the possibility of holding primary elections involving all three parties to select a common candidate in various ridings. Given the disparity in memberships — the PQ boasts 90,000 members, while QS has about 14,000 and ON about 8,000 — this would most likely favour the PQ everywhere. In fact, all three parties compete for much the same constituency: urban working-class voters. In east Montréal, where Québec solidaire candidates have polled more than 20% of the vote in a half-dozen or more ridings, their main competitor is usually the Parti Québécois.

The PQ’s preponderance was also evident in other debates. A proposal to address the question of defense of public services and the central role of the state was defeated in a workshop, some participants arguing that these were matters to be left until after independence.

Among the adopted resolutions was one urging the Conseil de la souveraineté, an umbrella body largely dominated by the PQ and the other sovereigntist parties, including QS and the federal Bloc Québécois, to give much greater weight in its structure to citizens’ organizations and reduce the parties to observer status in the Conseil.

And the conference also endorsed a proposal favoured by the NMQ and pioneered by Québec solidaire: that before a referendum is held on sovereignty, an independently elected constituent assembly be established to debate and adopt a draft constitution that would then be put to a popular vote in a referendum. As the NMQ summarizes it, this would mean two referendums, one on a constitution, the other on independence. And, it notes, the proposed assembly would “offer non-sovereigntists the opportunity to participate in a constitution-making process.”

The proposals for a constituent assembly and a greater citizens’ role in the Conseil de la souveraineté have both been endorsed by participants in the Estates-General on the sovereignty of Quebec, an ad hoc body composed of prominent pro-sovereignty activists, which has been holding public meetings throughout Quebec in recent months in an attempt to generate or increase support for independence.

The balance sheet of this conference is a clearly a mixed one. While some of the proposals adopted would, if implemented, reinforce the fractured PQ hegemony over the pro-independence movement, others could be used to broaden the national struggle to encompass other layers of Quebec society, to increase the weight of the social movements within the sovereigntist milieu, and to help mobilize public opinion around the concept of building “another,” progressive Quebec with the potential to mount a serious challenge to the neoliberal consensus in which the major parties, both Québécois and federal, are mired.

– Richard Fidler

[1] I have slightly amended the translation to conform with his oral presentation. See also a video of the candidate Sébastien Bouchard nominated at the meeting, where he presents QS as the party of the social movements, many of whose activists are in the hall. (In French, of course.)

[2] The italicized sentence was omitted in Khadir’s oral presentation.

[3] In May 2011 Parti Québécois MNA Agnès Maltais (now a minister) introduced a private member’s bill in the National Assembly that would immunize from legal challenge a controversial contract for construction of an arena (the Amphithéâtre) that was to be financed in part by Québecor. QS MNA Khadir forced debate on the bill by denying it unanimous consent for immediate adoption. This year the PQ government appointed Québecor CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau to head the board of directors of Hydro-Québec, the province’s public power utility. The Québecor media (including the Journal de Montréal and Journal de Québec) have traditionally been sympathetic to the PQ. In recent years both newspapers locked out their unionized journalists, who then published their own independent dailies.

[4] The PQ’s founding leader, René Lévesque was the Liberal minister who in 1962 nationalized private (and Anglophone-owned) power companies to create the Hydro-Québec energy complex.

[5] The PQ government recently gave the go-ahead to build a dam and electric generating station at a famously scenic waterfall in Val Jabert. Among the dam’s supporters was the chairman of the Union of Municipalities, a defeated PQ candidate. The decision has provoked widespread outrage among environmentalists and the local population.

[6] Apparently a reference to this: “Elecciones, cuatro lecciones.”

[7] See “Québec Solidaire: A Québécois Approach to Building a Broad Left Party (Part I).”

[8] A reference to the PQ government’s recent education summit that effectively ratified its rejection of free tuition and its decision to index post-secondary tuition fee increases.

[9] Close to 520 according to organizers. “Some 200,” according to André Frappier in Presse-toi à gauche.

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