The following is a slightly revised text of a presentation I made two years ago to a seminar in La Paz, Bolivia, sponsored by the Office of the Vice-President. The overall theme of the seminar was “Perspectives for Transformation of the State.” As one of the international participants, I was asked to speak about “Canada as a Plurinational State.”
This entailed explaining the nature of Canada to a Bolivian audience that presumably knew little about Canada, with particular emphasis on Canada’s internal national questions (Québécois and Indigenous) and how their constitutional status might compare or contrast with Bolivia’s new Political Constitution of the Plurinational State, adopted in 2009.
Necessarily, within the time limits of an oral presentation, I had to condense the discussion of many aspects (and omit some altogether), simply highlighting what in my view was most essential to our understanding of these complex issues. However, it struck me recently that the talk might be of interest to readers of this blog, many of you likewise unacquainted with the Canadian social formation.
A short note with accompanying photo following this text, below, provides further information about a major evening event that opened the seminar.
– Richard Fidler
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Quiero pedir disculpas por hablar en inglés. Aunque tengo un conocimiento del castellano escrito, siento que ustedes no se merecen soportar mi rudimentaria expresión oral, que yo espero mejorar durante los meses que pasaré en Bolivia.
[I must begin by apologizing for speaking in English. Although I have a good reading knowledge of Castillian, I feel you do not deserve to be afflicted with my still rudimentary oral expression, which I hope will improve during the months I am here in Bolivia.]
Canada is a country with several internal national questions. But constitutionally it is not a plurinational state. It could, in fact, with some exaggeration, be described — as Lenin described the Czarist empire — as a “prison house of nations.”
The Canadian state originated historically in the European expropriation of the lands of the Indigenous peoples, most of whom now refer to themselves as our “First Nations.” These nations include more than 600 communities of Indigenous peoples, with their 30 different languages, as well as the Inuit peoples of the Far North.
They are the survivors of genocidal colonial policies that for many decades herded most of the Indigenous into reservations and tore their children from them to be “de-Indianized” in mission schools.
Today, the one million Indigenous peoples represent barely 3 percent of the Canadian population although they are a majority in many of the sparsely-populated northern regions where their communities are increasingly threatened with destruction by massive resource exploitation projects. And more than one half of the Indigenous population now subsist in extreme poverty in the major cities of southern Canada.
Francophones: a majority in Quebec, a minority elsewhere
The French-speaking non-Indigenous population is much larger, constituting almost one quarter of the population of Canada. It is now largely confined to the province of Quebec, where more than 80 percent have French as their mother tongue. Another Francophone nation, the Acadians, make up about 30% of the population of the neighboring province of New Brunswick, and there is a substantial Francophone population in Ontario, the province adjoining Quebec on its west.
Like the Indigenous, the Québécois are not recognized as a nation in the Canadian constitution. A French-language enclave of eight million in a combined Canada-U.S. population of 350 million, the Québécois face a constant struggle to defend their language and culture, their primary characteristics as a nation.
In recent decades a powerful movement against national oppression and for national independence has developed in Quebec that challenges the very existence and structure of the Canadian state. It is the major source of political instability in the country.
Quebec is of enormous geopolitical importance to the Canadian state. It sits astride the St. Lawrence River, the main waterway between the Atlantic and central Canada, and separates the eastern provinces from Ontario, the manufacturing heartland. Quebec’s separation from Canada would provoke a profound political crisis and force a re-imagining of Canada with all that this could entail.
This prospect has enormous implications for socialist strategy both in Quebec and in the rest of Canada.
The oppression of the Québécois dates from the British conquest in 1760 of the early French empire in North America. In 1837 the English brutally suppressed an insurrection for self-rule by the French inhabitants of what is now Quebec, and then declared their aim to “assimilate” the French and eliminate them as a distinct nationality.
In 1867, in what is now termed Confederation, the British and their colonial politicians — including an accomodating Francophone elite in Quebec — joined Quebec with three English-speaking colonies to establish the “Dominion of Canada” under home rule.
The new federal constitution, an Act of the British Parliament, allowed Quebec its distinctive system of civil law, the privileged position of the Catholic Church in education, and recognition of French as well as English as the language of the courts and legislature, but otherwise treated Quebec as “a province like the others” with no recognition of its distinct national character.
By 1885, with the suppression of rebellions by the Métis (a French-Indigenous mestizo population), the French-speaking and Indigenous peoples in Western Canada were deprived of their land and language rights, their leaders executed or exiled.
Quebec’s national revolt
For almost a century following Confederation, Quebec was a conservative, largely rural, parish-based society, its provincial government closely allied with the Catholic Church. The Québécois fought to defend themselves against federal government intrusions on their language and culture. They resisted attempts to conscript them for overseas duty in both world wars.
Industrialization, as it developed, was largely the work of U.S. and Anglo-Canadian capital, much of it concentrated in mining production and electrical generation for export outside the province.
However, in the 1960s Quebec experienced a massive national upsurge, the so-called “Quiet Revolution.” With wide popular support from workers and farmers, a new Francophone professional middle class gained control of the province’s Liberal party and government and proceeded to nationalize electrical power generation, create a secularized public education system and a network of French-language universities, and establish universal health care and other social services. In some respects it was Quebec’s equivalent of Bolivia’s National Revolution just a decade earlier.
And the government used the huge sums accumulated to finance its new pension program for senior citizens to establish a public capital investment fund that in the years to come fostered the development of a Francophone bourgeoisie that became known as “Québec Inc.”
In 1968 the Liberal party fractured and a more nationalist wing founded the Parti Québécois to fight for Quebec independence. The PQ was not a socialist party but aimed to build a “sovereign” Quebec capitalist state through a “cold” non-revolutionary electoral process that might result in some form of supra-state “association” with the rest of Canada.
A divided proletariat
Because of its national oppression, the Quebec working class was an especially militant section of the Canadian proletariat in the post-WWII industrial struggles. In the 1960s Quebec unions grew exponentially with the expansion of the government bureaucracy and the education and healthcare systems. But although unions in English Canada had founded a Canadian labour party, the New Democratic Party, in the early 1960s, the NDP’s Canadian nationalism, its hostility to Quebec’s burgeoning national demands, alienated the Quebec unions; nationalist consciousness inclined them to tail politically the province’s Liberals and later the bourgeois PQ.
The result was a classic desencuentro, a missed encounter between the working classes in the two major national components of the Canadian social formation — an estrangement that has lasted, in one form or another, to this day.
The Canadian labour movement outside Quebec, with few exceptions, identifies its interests with the Canadian state and, while paying lip service to Quebec’s right to self-determination, is not inclined to support any movement that would jeopardize the territorial and political integrity of that state.
In this, of course, it simply echoes the stance of the Canadian bourgeoisie, a powerful imperialist ruling class with extensive global investments especially in resource exploitation and finance, as in Latin America. The Canadian ruling class bitterly opposes Quebec “separatism” as a threat to the integrity of its state, the protector of its class interests.
A movement for national independence
In 1976 the Parti Québécois was elected the government of Quebec. It enacted a number of reforms, enhancing the province’s welfare state, but its most popular measure was the adoption of the Charter of the French Language, under which French, now the province’s sole official language, was made the mandatory language of employment and service in public administration and in all major industries and undertakings.
In 1985, the Quebec National Assembly adopted a PQ government motion to recognize the existence of a dozen distinct Indigenous nations within Quebec. Quebec is the only province to have signed modern-day treaties with some Indigenous nations acknowledging their right to participate in development on their territories and to share in the resulting revenues.
But the PQ’s otherwise conventional record in office, over a total of 18 years, failed to elicit sufficient popular confidence in its leadership and program to win its two referendums on sovereignty, in 1980 and 1995.
From the beginning of Quebec’s nationalist upsurge, the Canadian bourgeoisie and its central government in Ottawa sought to trivialize, divert and defeat it. A number of strategies were deployed.
A policy of official “multiculturalism” was adopted that effectively treated Quebec as just one “culture” among many other immigrant cultures making up the Canadian “nation.”
A new policy of official “bilingualism” granted legally “equal” rights to French and English in areas of federal jurisdiction — while denying the need for special protection of French within Quebec itself.
Most notoriously, the federal government took advantage of a couple of kidnappings of officials in 1970 by small cells of a self-proclaimed Quebec Liberation Front to impose a military occupation of Quebec and arrest and jail hundreds of pro-independence militants.
In the wake of Quebec’s defeat in its 1980 referendum on sovereignty, the federal government under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau moved aggressively to produce for the first time a “made-in-Canada” constitution that would, it hoped, once and for all frustrate any further moves toward an independent Quebec.
The Anglophone provinces ultimately aligned with Ottawa to adopt, in 1982, a constitution with two major components directly aimed against Quebec.
An amending formula effectively precluded any legal secession of one province without the unanimous consent of the others -- a direct violation of the right of self-determination of Quebec, a nation still without recognition as such in the constitution.
And the new constitution included a “Charter of Rights and Freedoms” largely focused on abstract individual rights while empowering the courts to overthrow collective rights that might conflict with them. In the following years the Supreme Court of Canada has used the federal Charter to throw out many provisions of Quebec’s Charter of the French Language.
Major economic and demographic shifts
Over the last two decades, the economic and political centre of gravity in Canada has shifted westward as Canadian capitalism became increasingly dependent on exports of both renewable resources (e.g. wood products) and non-renewables, in the first place petroleum derived largely from the infamous Alberta tar sands.
Toronto finance coupled with Calgary-based petroleum interests now constitute the major axis of development, and the Quebec metropolis of Montréal has declined as a financial powerhouse. Major manufacturing industries in both Quebec and Ontario, once Canada’s industrial heartland, have suffered a sharp decline.
Bolivia’s dependency on resource extractivism can be and is criticized on many grounds, but there are some fundamental differences here from Canada’s extractivism. Your government aims to use the income derived from greatly increased resource royalties and taxes on industrialization, more equal redistribution of income, and strengthening of a sovereign state while respecting the country’s constitutionally recognized plurinationalism.
Canada’s petro-bourgeoisie, in contrast, are desperately seeking to export their oil and gas — via pipelines, railways, supertankers -- with little attention to balanced economic development and zero concern for the looming global climate catastrophe. Canada has quit the Kyoto accord and is now widely recognized as one of the world’s major climate criminals.
Indigenous rights get short shrift as an ad hoc “consultation” process that is largely entrusted to corporate developers and government tribunals is used to divide the affected communities against each other.
Meanwhile immigration, primarily from Asia, has concentrated in cities west of Quebec, and the latter’s relative demographic weight is declining within Canada. These trends contribute to the Québécois’ increasing sense of marginalization and exclusion as a nation within Canada.
Independence movement lacks adequate leadership
The 1982 constitutional “coup de force” against Quebec stimulated pro-independence feelings. In the 1995 referendum on sovereignty, the yes side almost won, polling 49.42% support. And even today, opinion polls register 40% or more support for independence.
This sentiment is all the more remarkable in that the Quebec nationalist movement has in recent years been almost bereft of leadership. During the last three decades the Parti Québécois has moved decisively to the right and virtually abandoned its quest for independence. There are many reasons for this.
The party always based its hopes for a successful “cold” independence process on the hope of support or at least neutrality of the United States. But Washington and Wall Street have repeatedly expressed their hostility to Quebec secession from Canada.
“Quebec Inc.,” the PQ’s anticipated corporate partner in its quest, is now firmly integrated within the interstices of Canadian — and global — capital and has no interest in a politically separate state.
Like governments everywhere in the imperialist countries, the PQ when in office has implemented the neoliberal agenda, imposing budget austerity, supporting “free trade” agreements, and making deep inroads into the welfare state of an earlier era.
Most recently, the PQ government elected in September 2012 has expressed its interest in accommodating Canadian petro-capital’s plans to pipe tar sands oil from Alberta to Quebec and further east. Environmentalists are enraged at this new receptiveness to a pan-Canadian “national strategy” for ecologically suicidal fossil fuel dependency.
Not least important, the two referendum defeats (albeit narrowly in the second) have demoralized the Parti Québécois leadership. In particular, they have lost confidence in their ability to win support for Quebec sovereignty among the population of immigrant origin or those without French as their mother tongue.
The PQ government no longer espouses an inclusive concept of citizenship that would recognize equal rights for everyone living on Quebec territory. Imitating the government of imperialist France, it is currently piloting a “charter of values” through the National Assembly that would ban “ostentatious” religious symbols and is targeted, for example, at Moslem women who wear the hijab.
This reactionary ethnic nationalism has aroused mass opposition within Quebec, and done much to discredit the PQ among feminists, students, trade union members and community activists.
A new left independentist party
The pro-independence movement is now fracturing, with the emergence of new parties.
A hopeful development is the appearance of Québec Solidaire, a pro-independence party founded during the last decade through a process of regroupment of militants in the global justice, community activist, feminist and socialist movements. The party polls between 6 and 10 percent and has elected two members to the Quebec National Assembly notwithstanding an undemocratic electoral system.
Many features of Québec Solidaire’s program are analogous with Bolivia’s approach to building an “integral state” — but with this difference: that the axis in Quebec, a minority nation within Canada, is to build a national state that is independent or autonomous of the existing Canadian state.
Québec Solidaire holds that a new relationship with the rest of Canada can only be negotiated once the Québécois have clearly established their intent and ability to form an independent state.
A refounding of the Canadian state is in my opinion strategically contingent on a prior “separation” of Quebec — following which, to echo Marx’s famous formulation with respect to Ireland’s independence from England, “may come federation” with the former oppressor state.
Québec Solidaire supports the right to self-determination of the Amerindian and Inuit peoples inhabiting Quebec territory and, while inviting them to join in the independence project, pledges to honour their exercise of that right — whether through self-government within a Quebec state or through their own independence as Indigenous nations. Bolivia’s Constitución Política del Estado contains many useful pointers on how such Indigenous self-government could be organized.
Québec Solidaire aims “to build a democratic, social and national alliance” — a popular bloc — “that will bring together all of the trade unions, popular movements, feminists, students, ecologists and sovereigntist parties” in support of “popular sovereignty concretized by the election of a Constituent Assembly.” Party propaganda describes parallel “inspiring experiences” in Bolivia and Ecuador. Como se dicen en Venezuela, “Nuestra norte es el Sur.”
Like the Bolivian constitution, in its articles 141 and 144, Québec Solidaire promotes an inclusive definition of citizenship. “Quebec nationality,” it states, “is essentially defined by living in the nation and participating in its life.”
The Quebec nation is “ethnically and culturally diversified, with French as the common language of use and factor of integration..., the Francophone community [being] transformed throughout its history by the successive integration of elements originating from the other communities who have been added to it.” This nation “is based not on ethnic origin but on voluntary membership in the Québécois political community.”
Québec Solidaire proposes a “model of secularism” that distinguishes between the need for state neutrality toward religious belief or lack of belief, and the freedom of individuals “to express their own convictions in a context that favours exchange and dialogue.” This position parallels article 4 of Bolivia’s constitution proclaiming the state’s independence of religion while guaranteeing freedom of religion and spiritual beliefs in accordance with their cosmovisions.
While not explicitly anti-capitalist or socialist, Québec Solidaire defines itself as a party “resolutely of the left, feminist, ecologist, altermondialiste, pacifist, democratic and sovereigntist.” This definition is not inconsistent with the values and ethical-moral principles set out in article 8 of the Bolivian constitution.
Like the Bolivian constitution (article 306), Québec Solidaire advocates a “plural economy” composed of communitarian, state, private and cooperative enterprises. However, QS is less clear about the importance of nationalization of strategically important industries to the functioning of the state economy as a whole.
New alliances on a global scale
Finally, it is worth noting that defence of the global ecology is now emerging as a key mobilizing issue not only in Quebec but in the rest of Canada. Here, the Indigenous peoples in both nations are playing a leading role in building popular opposition to irresponsible resource exploitation by capitalist enterprises and governments. New alliances are being forged in consequence.
Québec social movements have initiated plans for a pan-Canadian Social Forum, modeled on the international Social Forums of recent years, to be held in August 2014. This unprecedented gathering will bring together Québécois, Canadian and Indigenous activists and thinkers from throughout the Canadian state to exchange views and plan joint actions in the future. If a Bolivian delegation were to attend, I am sure we could all learn much from your experiences here in refounding the state in the interests of buen vivir.
Mis agradecimientos especiales a mi interprete Eric Gomez.[A special thank-you to my interpreter Eric Gomez.]
Hall Vicepresidencia, La Paz, November 28, 2013
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The weekend seminar was introduced the night before by a panel featuring Vice-President Álvaro García Linera and two other participants — Jorge Veraza of Mexico and Bruno Bosteels of the United States — critically examining interpretations of the Communist Manifesto. Among Veraza’s publications is a book published by the Bolivian government, Del Reencuentro de Marx con América Latina en la Época de la Degradación Civilizatoria Mundial, an anthology of texts by the author, whom García Linera says was instrumental to winning him to Marxism while he was doing postgraduate studies in mathematics in Mexico City during the 1980s. Bosteels is a translator of some of the texts by García Linera in the book Plebeian Power, recently published by Haymarket Books.
photo by Richard Fidler
Left to right: Álvaro García Linera, Jorge Veraza, Bruno Bosteels. The PowerPoint photos, to the left of the panel members in the central auditorium of Bolivia’s Central Bank, featured various revolutionary heroes, ranging from Indigenous leaders in the wars against the Spanish colonizers to leaders of Twentieth Century socialism including Lenin and Trotsky (pictured here).
 An exception is Pierre Karl Péladeau, a Quebec media mogul who became PQ leader in 2015. It was a further sign of the PQ’s shift rightward, but has not elicited any significant support for the party from other capitalists.
 In April 2014 the PQ was defeated in a general election. The successor Liberal government is even more receptive to the Canadian petro-bourgeoisie’s projects.
 QS elected its third MNA in April 2014.
 Literally, “As they say in Venezuela, ‘Our North is the South’.” This is a pun. El norte, in Spanish, not only refers to the earth’s magnetic north but is a synonym for “compass,” a directional indicator.
 Today I would invite the audience to the World Social Forum scheduled to be held in Montréal in August 2016 — the first time this annual gathering, which began a decade and a half ago in Brazil, will be held in a country of the global North.
 Buen vivir, Spanish for suma qamaña in Aymara and sumaj kawsay in Quechua, refers to the Andean Indigenous philosophy of “living well,” not necessarily “better” in an ecologically sustainable sense. It is incorporated as a guiding ethical and political principle in the new Constitutions of both Bolivia and Ecuador. For a discussion, see Atilio Boron, “‘Buen vivir’ and the dilemmas of the left governments in Latin America.”