Friday, October 30, 2020

Quebec, Canada and the Indigenous Peoples: Toward Plurinational Alliances around a Decolonial Outlook?

Introduction

The latest issue of the Quebec journal Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme, published in September, revisits the Quebec national question in light of the mounting struggle against climate catastrophe, the growth of Indigenous resistance, and the crisis of Quebec’s national movement. A number of articles probe the potential for creation of the strategic class alliances and perspectives that are needed if we are to begin a fundamental social transformation that re-imagines not only the Quebec reality but its place in the creation of an ecosocialist society in the Canadian, North American and global context.

I publish below, in my translation, an article by NCS editor Pierre Beaudet introducing some of the key themes in this issue, followed by what I consider an outstanding contribution by Dalie Giroux that challenges the Quebec left to rethink national emancipation within a decolonial perspective that can help enlist Indigenous and international solidarity around a common project of rethinking the relationship between national and social emancipation.

Richard Fidler

* * *

Our friends in Canada

By Pierre Beaudet

Until the 1960s, the left in Canada and in Quebec was mainly Canadian and Anglophone. During Premier Maurice Duplessis’s “Grande Noirceur” (the great darkness), the provincial government drew heavily on the reactionary right wing of the Catholic church, making life very difficult for Quebec progressives. Some trade unionists and artists chose exile instead. In this period, as well, the Canadian left, from the Communist party to the social-democracy (later the NDP) held fast to the idea of a strong federal state as the vehicle for implementing the social changes sought by the popular classes, such as medicare, social welfare, etc.

Quebec demands for national emancipation were relegated to the sidelines, regarded as an abhorrence to be fought by all means. The CP denounced the “separatist threat” in terms not notably dissimilar from those used by Ottawa’s political establishment; a courageous exception, sometimes, was the party’s intellectual leader and historian Stanley Ryerson who defended the right to self-determination of the Quebec people. After much debate, the NDP shut the door on its Quebec branch, which went on to form the Parti Socialiste du Québec and called for constitutional protection of that right. Later, the NDP campaigned alongside the parties of reaction for the No side in the 1980 and 1995 referendums. However, while this effectively eliminated the Canadian left from Quebec it opened room for the creation and development of a pro-independence Quebec left.1 But the links between Canadian and Quebec progressives remained infrequent apart from the efforts of a few courageous trade unions that fought for social emancipation linked with national emancipation. Examples are the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

Some decades later

This non-dialogue had many perverse effects. In Canada, the left failed to wage a resolute fight against the post-colonial state structures, not even when the Constitution was “patriated” by Pierre Trudeau in 1982 in the face of intense opposition from Quebec’s National Assembly and public opinion. After the 1995 referendum, the NDP members of Parliament (with few exceptions) voted for the so-called “Clarity bill” which limited even the likelihood of a negotiated agreement with Canada following a Quebec vote for independence. In the short period during which he led that party, Jack Layton tried to shift the party’s position, but after his death the party under Thomas Mulcair’s leadership returned to its hard-line federalist alignment. Quebec’s attraction to the NDP was short-lived.

The non-dialogue did not help the cause of the left in either Quebec or Canada, and efforts to achieve coordination on inter-provincial issues were difficult and uncertain. During the Summit of the Peoples of the Americas, in Quebec City in April 2001, in opposition to the proposal of a hemispheric free-trade area of the Americas (FTAA), groups such as the Council of Canadians tried to impose the same Canadian perspective “from coast to coast.” Canadian unions more attuned to Quebec concerns supported the position of almost all Quebec participants that the fight against the FTAA was not tied to “strengthening” the Canadian state. A progressive magazine published in Winnipeg, Canadian Dimension, upheld this point (as it still does), providing Canadian progressives with information and analyses concerning Quebec’s popular movements and struggles.2

Subsequently, attempts at dialogue outside the framework of the formal organizations were initiated by André Frappier of Québec solidaire, who met over several years with various left-oriented groups in Toronto, Edmonton, Halifax and Vancouver.3 The basic idea was to meet and discuss the national questions in the Canadian state, in an effort to combat the substantial indifference on these issues in both the Quebec and Canadian left. Some progress was made with a small part of the Canadian left, but it can hardly be said that the fundamental idea in the Quebec left of combining anticapitalist struggle with a challenge to “made in Canada” colonialism is widely understood or accepted among Canadian progressives.4

This timid reopening to dialogue has been encouraged by political developments among the Indigenous peoples. Their reawakening and leadership of some mass movements targets the very essence of the Canadian state, built upon a persisting colonial dispossession and thus challenging the legitimacy of the federal government. As the Dené intellectual activist Glen Coulthard has said, the Indigenous struggle will go nowhere if it does not become a wider anticapitalist, anti-imperialist and anticolonial struggle.5

In recent years some Indigenous leaders like Roméo Saganash have voiced publicly what many Indigenous think, that their anticolonial struggle will be strengthened if it finds ways to interface with the struggle for Quebec emancipation. And this requires that the Québécois openly acknowledge the right to self-determination of the Indigenous peoples.6

The Quebec challenge

The struggle for Quebec emancipation will be conducted in Quebec, of course. However, we must be conscious of the balance of forces that exists between this project and its opponents. Those elites are politically organized around the federal state and its subaltern relays in the provinces. They have their counterparts in the Quebec bourgeoisie and its political expressions in the Quebec Liberal party and the Coalition Avenir Québec, now the government. They are supported overwhelmingly by U.S. imperialism, which our first sovereigntist premier René Lévesque failed to see when he tried to convince the big shots in New York and Washington that the sovereigntist project would be completely harmless in the North American context and that Quebec would remain a subaltern ally like Canada. This dream that Quebec’s independence could be negotiated peacefully misled the people, including in the two referendums. It is not hard to see that for U.S. imperialism, access to Canada’s rich resources, and the interests of continental defense against the Russian and Chinese “threat” are priorities, which means that it is imperative for the rulers in both Washington and Ottawa to keep Canada as it is. Long ago Pierre Vallières and Charles Gagnon, to mention only them, understood this very well, which is why they emphasized the need for connecting with the forces of change in the Americas.

Break down the wall

How are we going to breach this wall of indifference in English Canada? As Andrea Levy and André Frappier argue,

“it is necessary to define a strategy of common organized struggle to retake power in the Canadian state. The struggle must be common because in Quebec alone we cannot manage to create an egalitarian and independent society without confronting the Canadian state, and because an ecologist perspective cannot be implemented solely within our borders. Quebec needs the support and collaboration of the workers and popular groups in English Canada, and these cannot develop an emancipatory perspective without adhering to a strategy of common anticapitalist struggle with the progressive forces of Quebec.”7

That was in fact the message that was conveyed in 2014 with the Peoples Social Forum that brought together in Ottawa several hundred activists and thinkers from Quebec, Canada and the First Nations. With Québec solidaire and the social movements, we need to continue these efforts, engaging in manifestations of mutual support and solidarity.

* * *

Indigenous peoples and Quebec: Rethinking decolonization

By Dalie Giroux

Dalie Giroux teaches in the School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa. She has published, inter alia, many studies on the cultural and scientific relationships between the Indigenous peoples and state cultures within capitalist society.

My purpose here is to outline some thoughts that can assist in a reassessment of the question of Quebec independence in light of relations between Quebec and the Indigenous peoples. This entails in part undertaking a necessary albeit painful critique of the history of these relations since the election of the Parti québécois (PQ) in 1976. It also means proposing some principles that can guide us in a new development of Quebec anticolonialist thinking, which up to now has failed to question the British colonial regime from a truly inclusive standpoint, and without serious or sufficient consideration being given to the Indigenous presence on this continent for thousands of years.

Quebec’s colonial legacy, its obscure expression in law, its mentality, the form of its productive activity, was established in successive steps through the operation of a set of dispossession measures that we must inspect, understand, criticize and dismantle if we are to pursue a collective policy of fighting this dispossession. Approaching dispossession from a decolonial perspective based on the Quebec situation is not inspired by some patriotic necessity but rather expresses the need to confront a history that we did not choose but inherited, as we have inherited and cultivated the ethical tensions inscribed in our political life. This rethinking must address the following questions:

  • How can we escape, all of us, in the here and now, from the complex structure of dispossession that is the legacy of French and British colonialisms?

  • How are we to undermine and eliminate the measures of dispossession by accumulation that define that structure?

  • How, especially, can we combine all the mutual expressions of struggles for emancipation – decolonial, antiracist, feminist, pro-immigration, ecologist – within a materialist horizon, without eliminating the singular features of the places, affects, temporalities, and narratives that constitute, traverse and animate our specific common habitat?

Masters in our own house?

Let us begin by backtracking a bit. Modern Quebec arose at the turn of the 1960s around the proposal to become “Maîtres chez nous,” masters in our own house, and to take control of the whole of the provincial territory the limits of which had been fixed in 1912 by federal legislation. Retroactively, it must be observed that this Quebec, master of itself, had been built on the basis of a colonial-type state. Quebec’s exit from the Canadian constitutional fold, as set out in the sovereignty project put forward by the Quebec nationalist forces, was not an accomplished movement of decolonization, that is, of rupture with the structure of dispossession inherited from French and British colonialism. It rather involved giving the Québécois the privilege of acquiring the status of colonizer they had lost with the British Conquest. As Zebedee Nungak writes:

“No one would question the ‘masters’ part of the slogan if Quebec’s borders were confined to the locations in which Champlain’s descendants lived and farmed the land in order to maintain and sustain their distinct French identity, their language and culture as they wished. The problem lies in the part that reads ‘in our own house,’ which has come to encompass Eeyou Estchee (the Cri territory) and the Inuit nunangat, including large swathes of territory where there is not an ounce of French history, language or culture. These lands should never have been incorporated in the French ‘house.’ But that is exactly what happened when Quebec rushed headlong toward carrying out its James Bay hydroelectric project.”8

In reality, a major portion of the territories over which Quebec governments have exercised their power to the explicit benefit of the Francophone majority have never been surrendered within the meaning of the British Canadian colonial regime. Access to the territory north of the 49th parallel, and its occupation by the populations needed for colonization, exploitation and control over the groundwater, hydro-electric, forest, mineral, marine and tourist resources, have been defended both by the Canadian courts and successive Quebec governments as pertaining, in Canadian legal language, to “compelling and substantial governmental objectives.” Moreover, although the Canadian and Quebec governments have signed a series of treaties in the terms peculiar to modern treaties, the result has been the consolidation of the Crown’s sovereignty and the colonial enterprise of generalized extraction to the benefit of the owners of the means of production and the resulting rents. The jurisdictional and financial compensation negotiated between the Indigenous groups and the state, and the renunciation of the inherent right to the territory implied in almost all of the cases involving this type of treaty have constituted an irreparable loss of sovereignty for all of the Indigenous peoples and the consolidation of an extractive economy of dispossession.

The contradictions in the PQ project

The election of the Parti québécois in 1976 marked an important turning point in the march of the “Masters in our own house” and highlights the ambiguous political role of the Québécois within the British empire. An explicitly sovereigntist government was in place in Quebec City and held the reins of the provincial state. Today it is hard to imagine the power of that moment for the descendants of the “anciens Canadiens”: an illiterate, residual people with a bastardized language, had acceded to the institutional pinnacle of the state, through their own efforts and in opposition to the entire history of British Canada which had sought its tranquil submission and cultural assimilation. The people without a state proved to the English colonizer that it was worthy of a state and of power. It was a revenge and an exploit, promising a new world – a victory over themselves and over the adverse forces of history.

It was not long, however, before this enthusiasm came up against the Indigenous question. Rémi Savard, the anthropologist who studied this question for many years, himself a fervent independentist, asked himself whether the Indigenous policy of the first PQ government, headed by René Lévesque, could really challenge the colonial relationship between Quebec and the First Nations. Instead, he found that the Quebec of the PQ’s first term of office had positioned itself along the lines of British colonialism:

“In the spring of 1977 Bérubé, the minister, was proclaiming on Radio-Canada, without batting an eyelid, his government’s formal and definitive opposition to any recognition of the right of the Indigenous to self-determination, explaining that it was inconceivable since ‘we are the proprietors of the soil’.”9

Yves Bérubé was at the time minister of natural resources and lands and forests, and what he was defending against the sovereignty claims of the Indigenous peoples was also clear: the exploitation of natural resources is the foundation of Quebec’s strategy of mastery in its own house, through economic development in French and in our name. This mastery of resources was accompanied by a claim to “ownership of the soil” and referred to the public land held by the state. The unceded Indigenous territories of north-eastern Quebec were located, as it happens, almost entirely on these public lands, 90% of the territory of the Province of Quebec. The PQ minister’s statement was quite explicit about the nature of the mastery claimed by the Québécois through their “national” government: “we are the lords of the public lands, and no political claim over these lands is conceivable.” In the following year Gérald Godin, now the minister, repeated the PQ position, citing the right of conquest inherited from the British crown. Savard concluded that the sovereignty project was proclaiming explicitly the pursuit of the genocide anticipated by the Canadian government “and which has often targeted the Québécois people.”10

Some dissident approaches

While the sovereignty project has been unable to go beyond the colonial framework, there is no denying the transformative potential of Quebec’s struggle for national emancipation. This struggle, which to a large degree has ensured the passage from servitude to mastery, is one of the major political experiments of the 20th century. Moreover, some Quebec intellectual and political actors have indeed seen the need to integrate a global overcoming of colonialism within the liberatory dynamic. For example, Pierre Vallières stated that the Indigenous peoples were more oppressed than the French Canadians of Quebec. That led him to nurture a certain distrust toward the promotion of nationalism as the ultimate goal of Quebec struggles and to uphold the claims of Indigenous sovereignty.11 Charles Gagnon, too, thought it was necessary to integrate the anti-racism fight and the Indigenous struggles in his revolutionary project of anti-imperialist and anticapitalist struggle:

“This does not mean, and cannot mean, making Quebec a new Mexico, politically ‘independent’ but economically exploited, pillaged, dispossessed. It does not mean creating one or more Black or American Indian capitalist states subject to imperialism. It does mean destroying imperialism and racism; it means building in North America a new society in which the different races and ethnic populations cohabit in harmony because each has endowed itself with the structures and institutions it considers favourable to its fulfilment.”12

Rémi Savard, the anthropologist, through his research and his attempts to develop solidarity between the Quebec and Indigenous peoples, thought the opposition of the Québécois to Indigenous claims was linked to the fact that they themselves were wronged by the Canadian constitutional regime. He criticized the colonial posture of the first independentist government in Quebec’s history which, he said, while comprising an undeniable economic motivation, was based on an opportunist legal conservatism. This posture profoundly shaped the relations between the Quebec state and the Indigenous peoples on the territory that we have inherited, through its refusal to respect the minimal requirements of peoples’ justice that the Indigenous peoples were developing on the international level.

The missed encounters

Overall, the independentist movement failed to take the hand proferred to it by the Indigenous peoples, and this was a factor, as we know today, in its political marginalization and the failure of its project. Savard reports that in 1978, two years before the referendum on Quebec sovereignty, Noel Starblanket, then chief of the National Indian Brotherhood (which became the Assembly of First Nations in 1982), wrote to René Lévesque:

“We have studied your project of sovereignty-association. This political platform suits us because it coincides with the demands of the Indians throughout Canada who want to exercise the greatest possible power over their natural resources and establish normal relations with their neighbours. We are starting from a position the opposite of yours: you are in Confederation and want to put a foot outside of it, while we who have never been a confederative club want to set foot in it. In practice, however, we agree completely. Extend us your hand. Let us, together, put an end to the federal government’s colonial power over us. But to the benefit of our respective collectivities. Not to put the Indians under the rule of some other white power, in this instance that of Quebec and the other Canadian provinces.”13

As to the sovereignty-association proposed by the Parti québécois, the chief stated, on behalf of his organization, that “this political platform suits us.” The subaltern position of the Francophones in the Canadian regime, as well as their existence as a collective entity, were acknowledged outright. Starblanket went on to propose an alliance between Quebec and the First Nations, against the colonial power of the federal government. This alliance, he said, was conditional on the equality of the parties: Quebec, in its approach to independence, was not to replace the federal government as a colonizer. It would have to work for the concurrent liberation of the First Peoples. In short, to break up the post-British Canadian regime in the interests of the peoples, Francophone and Indigenous, who were minorities within it.

Like Noel Starblanket, another leading Indigenous leader, Georges Erasmus, openly called for an alliance between the Indigenous peoples and Quebec to counter Ottawa’s approach to patriating the Constitution without recognizing the national minorities.

“We the Indigenous, have been pushed, along with Quebec, under the rug of the country that Trudeau and his sidekicks of the English provinces have just constituted. I call on the government and people of Quebec, and on René Lévesque in particular, to make known their reaction to this and to express their feeling about the rights of the Indigenous populations to self-determination. I challenge the people of Quebec – if in fact this people believes in self-determination – now is the time to support the Indigenous people. It is not the time for us to remain separated and to lead ourselves individually to defeat. We must act now. This is the moment of our reckoning. We, the Indigenous, need Quebec’s support in the coming hours. We need the support of the Quebec people. The country is in a state of national emergency and this demands that the Indigenous and Québécois unite their forces.”14

Given these quite dramatic statements at the time, Savard was adamant as to the conditions of any possible Francophone political existence in America:

“As to the project of Quebec self-determination itself, I think there is no chance it will come about in the short, medium or long term unless it begins to articulate the pan-Amerindian dynamic. [...] The worst disservice we can render to our descendants is to underestimate the political meaning of Indigenous aspirations and the continental reach of the present immense political awakening.”15

He lamented the fact that this invitation to an alliance had remained a dead letter, testimony to the sovereigntist élite’s very poor understanding of the continental colonial situation at the time.

“The imprecise desires of the Indigenous peoples for political autonomy may very well unleash furious reactions among many citizens against the threat of creating so many de facto holes in our national territory. That’s the Canadian side, somewhat buccaneering I would say, of our nationalism. It is also what prevents us, to the great relief of the federalists, from grasping the historical perch now being tendered to us, as explicitly as can be, by the Indigenous peoples of Canada as a whole.”16

Rethinking the terms of emancipation

The history of decolonization experiences offers many examples of national emancipation carried out by the state and capital that produce the results we have experienced in Quebec: the self-dispossession of the peoples through the exercise of the privileges of a national-state within the framework of a globalized economy, and the renewal of the oppressions suffered by other, subaltern populations, other minorities.

That said, the Quebec republican resistance, which has taken the colonial institutions as its emancipation model, has helped to constitute within the continental colonial space a place of distinct power, Quebec, the existence of which has undeniable ethical, political and epistemological value. If we start from that reality, that place, it is possible for us today to rethink emancipation in a more complete and more inclusive form. But this reconsideration must be radical, and not make any commitment as to the continental, colonial, historical and economic situation of Quebec.

To reinterpret the spirit of independence that gave rise to “Masters in Our Own House,” it is truly and urgently necessary to rethink the relations between the peoples inhabiting the territory of the province, the ways in which they mutually conceive the frontiers of this territory, and the way in which we draw from this our subsistance and the powers of dispossession that we support (and that support us). The emancipatory policy of the 21st century, which will be conceived on the basis of Quebec’s situation, cannot elude this thinking, which necessarily challenges the life style of the majority and the legitimacy of the claim to mastery over the “national” territory, but has the merit that it invites us to escape the colonial political imagination and to begin to think about the alliance that remains to be formulated.

A second dimension that must be advanced if a decolonial tension is to be introduced in the Quebec emancipation current is that of the Indigenous presence in the territories placed under the jurisdiction of the Province of Quebec, 90% of which is classified as being property of the Quebec state – the Quebec equivalent of Crown lands.

The chain of solidarity that could begin to develop through a rethinking of independence within North America and the need for alliances that must inform it can only be developed or experienced not from the Quebec “majority” standpoint, but by and through a psycho-political and material process of dis-identification with the colonial state and the capitalist, extractive life of dispossession that this state imposes, supports, renews, generalizes and legitimates. Accordingly, we must in this context study the genealogy of the cognitive, material and political tools through which the populations involved in the colonization self-identified existentially with the structures of dispossession that were, for better or worse, the conditions of formation of the peoples of the New World. We have to revisit frankly our relations with the other peoples on this territory as well as the genesis and onto-juridical framework of our present relations.

The big challenge

This is a sizable challenge for a people whose existence is closely linked to the colonial undertaking, a motley people, intrinsically diasporic, without age-old tradition or inherent rights toward which to turn as the basis for its coherence and collective action, who do not and will not have the political aura of the European colonizer or the prestige of the white decolonizations of the 19th century, or the ethical presence of the present decolonial and antiracist forces today. For a people dismissed and removed from power over the territory, a people whose initial segment is a product of a remaining, residual, demobilized, rebellious population lacking in social mobility and the possibility of representation, this seems to me to be also an opportunity to think otherwise and directly the questions of possession and dispossession, to go counter to colonization, to invent other ways of living, and to constitute ourselves as a hybrid, perhaps in a hitherto unseen form of upstream humility and downstream hospitality.

The political issue for Quebec in the 21st century will not be to find the road to becoming masters in our own house – which would mean pursuing the European colonization of the Americas in our own name – but to think and act in terms of the real and urgent objective of abolishing, through a grand alliance, all relations of servitude that make up the French and British colonial forms of dispossession that we have inherited.

1 See Pierre Beaudet, “La gauche canadienne et le Québec. Les multiples dimensions d’un dialogue inachevé,” in Nouveaux Cahiers du socialisme, No. 24, Autumn 2020.

2 Canadian Dimension, https://canadiandimension.com/ Among the regular contributors to CD are Andrea Levy and André Frappier, members of the NCS Collectif d’analyse politique.

3 Frappier also attended the 2016 Socialist Scholars conference in Calgary, where he participated as a resource person in several workshops. -- R.F.

4 See “Le défi de lutter ensemble,” by André Frappier and Andrea Levy, NCS No. 24.

5 Glen Coulthard, “Marx et la grande tortue,” NCS No. 21 (Winter 2019).

6 Which Québec solidaire has done, unlike the other parties including the Parti québécois.

7 “Le défi de lutter ensemble,” NCS No. 24.

8 Zebedee Nungak, Contre le colonialisme dopé aux stéroïdes. Le combat des Inuits du Québec pour leurs terres ancestrales (Montréal, Boréal, 2019 [2017]), p. 42.

9 Rémi Savard, Destins d’Amérique. Les autochtones et nous (Montréal: L’Hexagone, 1979), p. 109.

10 Ibid., p. 110.

11 Daniel Samson-Legault, Dissident. Pierre Vallières (1938-1998). Au-delà des Nègres blancs d’Amérique (Montréal: Québec Amérique, 2018), p. 391.

12 Charles Gagnon, Feu sur l’Amérique. Écrits politiques, Vol. 1 (1966-1972) (Montréal: Lux, 2006), p. 117

13 Savard, op. cit., p. 145. [My retranslation from the French. - R.F.]

14 Quoted (and translated from the English) in Jean Morisset, Sur la piste du Canada errant (Montréal: Boréal, 2018). [My retranslation from the French – R.F.]

15 Savard, op. cit., p. 110.

16 Ibid., p. 154`

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Bolivia: The people defeat the coup

By Federico Fuentes*

October 22, 2020

Bolivians have overwhelmingly voted the left-wing Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) back into office in a resounding reversal of last year’s coup.

With almost 90% of the October 18 vote counted, MAS presidential candidate Luis Arce has won with 54.5%, thumping his nearest rival, Carlos Mesa (29.26%).

Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca, Bolivia’s newly elected President and Vice-President

Arce even managed to win more votes than former MAS president Evo Morales did in the October 2019 elections. While Morales won that election, opposition protests against supposed fraud culminated in a police-military coup that forced him into exile just weeks later.

Victory for peoples’ power

The vote for Arce, who was economy minister during most of Morales’ 14 years in power, represents a clear rejection of those who sought to trample on Bolivia’s democracy and the many achievements of the MAS government, in particular its empowerment of the country’s indigenous majority.

It also represents a defeat for those internationally, such as the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United States government, who backed the coup and subsequent illegitimate regime headed by right-wing senator Jeanine Áñez.

During her time in office, Áñez focused most of her attention on repressing protests, delaying elections and persecuting the MAS and the indigenous, campesino, worker and urban movements that make up its base, in the hope of blocking its return to power.

While her ministers enriched themselves through numerous cases of corruption, Bolivians were left to deal with a deep economic crisis, a sharp rise in poverty and one of the highest per capita COVID-19 death rates in the world.

Importantly, this rejection was not just expressed on election day, but in the mobilisations that took place immediately after the coup and since.

While largely focused in MAS’s rural heartlands and the largely indigenous city of El Alto, the initial protests marked a clear determination on the part of social movements to reject the racist violence unleashed by the coup and win back democracy through street mobilisation.

They did so while working in coordination with the MAS’s majority in the Plurinational Legislative Assembly.

The response of the regime was military and police repression, including massacres in Senkata, Sacaba and Yapacaní last November that left more than 30 dead, and attempts to circumvent parliament.

Nevertheless, the social movements persisted and expanded their reach, with nationwide mobilisations in August crucial to forcing elections to go ahead after they had been postponed three times.

Through these protests, social movements began a process of renewal and revitalisation, which enabled them to regain some of the strength and autonomy they had lost in recent years.

Some of the new leaders that emerged through this struggle have now been elected to the new parliament on the MAS ticket.

Regain broader support

The vote for Arce was also due to the MAS’s ability to regain support among certain sectors — particularly urban, middle class voters — that had turned their backs on the party.

The opposition aided this process, through the manner in which Áñez governed and their inability to present any coherent project beyond simply opposing the MAS.

But the MAS campaign was also crucial, starting with its decision to select Arce as the presidential candidate. This was despite MAS’ core rural base preferring former foreign minister David Choquehuanca, due to his close links to these movements.

The consensus decision to go with Arce — with Choquehuanca as his running mate — was based on the judgement that he was the best candidate to reach out to more moderate sectors and win back this broader support on the basis of the prestige he had from presiding over years of economic boom.

From this starting point — renewed social movements and Arce as candidate — the MAS set about campaigning hard, particularly in areas where their vote had dropped.

They did so by presenting a project for the country, with concrete solutions to the problems sectors were facing. At the same time, Arce and Choquehuanca publicly acknowledged some of the errors made during Morales’ time in government, demonstrating a willingness to listen and learn from mistakes.

Challenges ahead

The election result means the MAS have a clear mandate to continue building on the achievements of Morales' time in power, while working to fix errors.

Arce is not wasting time, having already indicated what his government’s first steps will be to deal with the impacts of the pandemic and economic crisis.

The day after the elections, Arce announced that distribution of a special hunger payment — already approved by parliament but blocked by Áñez — will begin within weeks, as part of helping ameliorate the effects of the crisis and stimulating internal demand.

Along with signalling his intention to introduce a wealth tax, Arce has said his government will seek to renegotiate its foreign debt with institutions such as the International Monetary Fund for the purpose of deferring or cancelling repayment, as a way to “to share the weight of the burden of the pandemic”.

There will no doubt be many challenges ahead.

Small violent protests by ultra-right forces rejecting the election result indicate they do not plan to go away without a fight. Nor will those foreign governments that have always opposed the MAS in power.

Seeking justice and reigning in the military will not be easy, given the military’s refusal to date to cooperate with the investigation into the massacres last November.

And figuring out how best to handle the complex relationship of being government and social movements at the same time — with the latter’s renewed sense of autonomy and immediate pressure for posts in the new administration — will require profound debate and reflection. As will working out what role Morales will play in this new period.

But for now, Bolivians will celebrate their defeat of a reactionary coup through the exercising of peoples’ power.

______________________

* Federico Fuentes, an Argentine-Australian, writes regularly on events in Latin America in Green Left Weekly, from which this article is reproduced with thanks. He was co-author with Marta Harnecker of the book MAS-IPSP de Bolivia: Instrumento político que surge de los movimientos sociales (Caracas: Centro Internacional Miranda, 2008).

Sunday, October 18, 2020

50 Years Ago: When Canada Suspended Civil Liberties

Introduction

This memoir by John Riddell, at the time a leading member of the League for Socialist Action (in Quebec the Ligue socialiste ouvrière), illustrates how a small revolutionary-minded organization responded to the repression unleashed by Ottawa in October 1970. John published his account on October 16 on his web site, from which it is reproduced with thanks. It centers on the response of our Montréal members, using their candidacy of Manon Léger for mayor and their support of the labor-based Front d’action politique (FRAP) candidates for city council to maintain a public profile while defying the marshall-law restraints.

The LSA/LSO had already established itself as protagonists in the fight for Quebec language rights and as leading participants in Quebec student struggles in the late 1960s. In 1964, as a university student in Montréal, I reported in our biweekly newspaper Workers Vanguard on a lengthy interview I had with André d’Allemagne, the founder of the pro-independence RIN (Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale), a forerunner of the Parti québécois.

But while a staunch defender of Quebec’s right to self-determination, the LSA/LSO had hesitated to declare its support for independence; still unclear to us was the path the Quebec working class would take in its fight against national oppression in the Canadian state. By 1970 the demonstrated failure of the NDP to engage with Quebec liberation, coupled with the escalating mass support for the newly-founded PQ, settled the question. Barely a month before the outbreak of the October crisis our pan-Canadian congress had voted overwhelmingly to adopt a programmatic statement, For an Independent and Socialist Quebec,1 following an unprecedented public discussion by party members in our English and French language newspapers.

Critical of the PQ for its separation of Quebec sovereignty from the needed program of social emancipation, the LSO was on the contrary quick to embrace the union-endorsed FRAP as the most promising expression to date of the labour movement’s search for a political course independent of the capitalist parties, including the PQ.

In the aftermath of the October crisis, our comrades were active in defending the remaining political prisoners – chief among them Pierre Vallières and Charles Gagnon (the political thinkers behind the FLQ), their lawyer Robert Lemieux, trade-union leader Michel Chartrand and Radio-Canada producer Jacques Larue-Langlois. Among other actions we organized a defense committee in Toronto that brought the last three, along with singer Pauline Julien (herself arrested in October) to address large crowds at the U of Toronto’s Convocation Hall. In the end all of the defendants were acquitted by jurors of seditious conspiracy or had their charges dropped.

And we worked with other supporters of democratic rights in English Canada to organize a citizens’ commission of inquiry into the War Measures, modelled on the Russell Tribunal in England to expose imperialist war crimes in Vietnam.2

-- Richard Fidler

* * *

Recollections of Montreal Under the War Measures Act

By John Riddell

It was October 16, 1970, fifty years ago today. Turning on CBC radio over breakfast that day, I was startled to learn that the War Measures Act had been decreed across the entire country. The Canadian equivalent of martial law, War Measures were invoked on the excuse that the country faced an “apprehended insurrection.”

During that night, hundreds in Quebec had been arrested. Secretly. No charges. No phone call. No right to a lawyer or court hearing. All civil liberties were suspended. Quebec was under military occupation. A few hours later, television news started showing photos of soldiers in battledress armed with assault rifles and of tanks in the streets of downtown Montreal.

Police Abductions

I got in touch with other members of the League for Socialist Action in Toronto, where I then lived. Our first concern was to contact our group in Montreal, which had several dozen active supporters. At first, no answer. Then news: the editor of our French-language newspaper, Art Young, had disappeared, along with another leading local comrade, Penny Simpson. Hundreds in Montreal had been jailed and arrests were continuing.

The federal government’s drastic attack on civil liberties did not come as a surprise. Only three days earlier, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, when asked how far he would go to “restore order” in Quebec, had quipped, “Well, just watch me.” He claimed that a “parallel power” had emerged that was challenging elected political authorities.

Earlier in October, a British diplomat, James Cross, and Quebec’s deputy premier, Pierre Laporte, had been kidnapped by cells of the FLQ (Quebec Liberation Front). Many Quebeckers, while often critical of the kidnappings, expressed support for the liberatory goals of the FLQ manifesto.

Radical Upsurge in Quebec

The previous decade had witnessed a tumultuous rise of labour and nationalist movements in Quebec, and of support for radical social reforms and political sovereignty. Quebec had seen massive student strikes and protests, an explosive rise of labour militancy, and deep-going structural reforms such as nationalization of its electric power industry and of the previously church-run educational system.

In addition, during the decade, a succession of small groups seeking to spark a colonial freedom struggle had carried out more than a hundred guerrilla-style attacks using the FLQ label.

My organization, the League for Socialist Action/Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière, contended that the real responsibility for this violence lay “with the monopolists, the exploiters who are repressing the Quebec nationalist movement.” While criticizing kidnappings as a method, we called for an end to attacks on civil liberties and freedom for political prisoners.

These events unrolled long before the Internet age. As socialists, we did not have access to daily papers, television, cellphones, or radio. We communicated with each other and the broader world in person, by phone, by letter mail, and by printing and distributing literature. But the War Measures seemed at first to have outlawed all public radical activity.

Emergency Office

The day after the War Measures decree I took the first train to Montreal. I located my Montreal comrades, who had gone underground. Expecting further arrests and a raid on our headquarters, they closed down our headquarters. They removed our most valued asset – our card file of contacts and subscribers – and took it out of Montreal for safekeeping. They buried it on the farm of a member’s friend. They set up a provisional office in a couple of motel rooms, equipped with two typewriters, paper, carbons, one telephone, and a list of phone numbers.

By that evening it seemed that the wave of arrests was ending. Already, there were signs of dissent regarding Trudeau’s drastic measures. Figuring that the government had overreached, we made plans to reassert our right to speak and help build the protest movement now beginning to take shape across the country.

We set out to help break down the gag law, step by step, by reopening our office, publishing and widely distributing our views, and doing all we could to help build resistance to the War Measures.

Utilizing an Election Campaign

We had a great asset. Montreal would be voting in a few days to choose its mayor, and we had a socialist candidate in the field: a young and dynamic activist, Manon Léger. Despite the mass arrests, guns, and tanks, the election was going forward.

We were supporting a promising new left political party, “FRAP” (Front d’action politique). They had no mayoralty candidate, so Manon, challenging the notoriously right-wing mayor Jean Drapeau, complemented their slate. Under War Measures, FRAP offices had been repeatedly raided, confidential files seized, and their lawyer interned. Drapeau slanderously associated the FRAP with the FLQ. Martial-law measures had dealt FRAP a crippling blow. Manon spoke out in their defense.

Under War Measures, printshops were closed to us. But back in Toronto, our headquarters housed our own small printshop – a rarity in those days – and it was effectively underground.

We in Montreal worked together with our comrades in Toronto to prepare articles for emergency underground editions of our newspapers in English and French. Travel between the two cities was still open, so we sent a comrade to Toronto with articles and then received, again by courier, a large press run for mass distribution.

We Take to the Streets

Three days after War Measures, we organized Montreal’s first street action against the crackdown. We planned it on a very small scale, aiming to show the scope for public protest without risking too much.

We sent out two squads. One crew, including Manon, went to the main subway station, Berry-De Montigny, with signs and leaflets building her campaign.

I was part of a second crew, which went to the Canadian Forces armouries at Bleury and Ontario streets, home of the Black Watch Regiment. It was a prominent spot, just a couple of blocks from the subway station. We started picketing and leafleting, right under the noses of the armed soldiers. “Withdraw federal troops!” we shouted, in French. “Free political prisoners! For a workers’ city hall!”

It took the authorities about an hour to decide what to do with us. Eventually, we were all arrested and hauled in to the local cop shop. There was a long wait while the cops tried to decide what to charge us with. Finally, they booked us for “sporting political insignia within a week of an election” and let us go. The charges were farcical. They revealed that the authorities did not dare invoke the draconian provisions of the War Measures Act. A clear victory for freedom of speech!

Getting Out the Word

Three more days; I was back in Toronto; and 11,000 copies of our emergency French-language newspaper reached our comrades in Montreal. They were distributed widely in campuses and workers’ districts. There were no arrests. This was a test of the relationship of forces. Activists took note: conditions were good for a revival of broad protest activities.

Manon got some media breaks. She picked up on a widespread sentiment that all Quebeckers were themselves hostages, members of a nation kidnapped 200 years before.

In the October 25 mayoralty election, Drapeau and his allies were victorious; FRAP candidates were defeated. Manon picked up 7,000 votes, a quarter of those voting against Drapeau.

By then, an impressive civil liberties campaign was under way, led by a new coalition, the Front Commun pour la Liberté.

The police never raided our Montreal headquarters, but they did descend on the farm where we had buried our precious records. Fortunately, they found nothing.

The Popular Movement Recovers

Most of those interned under War Measures, including Art Young and Penny Simpson of the LSA/LSO, were soon released without charges. Opposition to the War Measures gathered momentum, finding expression in the defense effort for those few detainees who faced formal charges. Within three months, the military occupation was over. Despite continuing repression and secret police disruption, the civil liberties enjoyed before the crisis were largely restored.

The labour and peoples’ movement in Quebec, recovering from brutal repression, was on the march once more.

Related documentation
This informal account is based in part on the extensive archive of LSA/LSO articles on the War Measures Act episode, available at the Socialist History Project (posted by Ian Angus).

See also Marc Bonhomme’s article in the Socialist Project Bullet: The Events of October 1970: From Yesterday to Today.

For a comprehensive assessment of the “October Crisis” and its impact on Quebec, see Richard Fidler’s “Life on the Left.”

1 Available with other relevant documentation on the Socialist History Project web site.

2 Our comrade Ernie Tate played a key role in founding the Russell Tribunal, which he describes in the second volume of his memoir, Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s (London: Resistance Books, 2014).

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Quebec’s October Crisis, 1970 – What today’s left learned from Ottawa’s turn to repression

See the source image

By Richard Fidler

Fifty years ago this month the federal government, invoking the War Measures Act – its first use in peacetime – occupied Quebec with 12,000 troops, arrested without a warrant almost 500 citizens, and carried out 36,000 police searches of homes, organizations and publications.

Of the 497 trade unionists, artists, lawyers and left activists jailed, 435 were subsequently freed without charges, and 44 of the 62 charged were acquitted or had their prosecutions stayed. But October 1970 marked a turning point in the federalist response to Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” and the rapidly growing popular mobilization in favour of making Quebec an independent state.

The immediate pretext for these draconian acts was the kidnapping of a British trade commissioner and a Quebec cabinet minister by the FLQ (the Front de libération du Québec), a small band of revolutionary-minded youth – even though the police involved in the hostage search said so many arrests simply complicated their task.1 This was soon followed by Ottawa’s fraudulent claims that it was actually suppressing an “apprehended insurrection” led by Parti Québécois leaders René Lévesque and Jacques Parizeau, along with Claude Ryan, then editor of Le Devoir, the only Quebec newspaper that opposed the war measures repression. Their crime: they had called on the federal government to negotiate the release of the hostages by their kidnappers.2

An immediate victim of the repression was the FRAP, the Front d’Action Politique, a municipal party founded by trade unions and community activists that was confronting Montréal mayor Jean Drapeau’s autocratic administration around a program of radical social reform and participatory democracy.3 The FRAP was polling up to 35% support leading up to the city election in November 1970. Drapeau joined with Quebec premier Robert Bourassa in asking for federal intervention. Although federal minister Jean Marchand described the FRAP as a “front” for the FLQ, the municipal party made clear that while it was sympathetic to the demands in the FLQ’s manifesto, it did not support its methods. In the election held under military occupation, the party did not elect any of its candidates although it still managed to poll an average 18% in the districts it contested.

But Ottawa and its provincial and municipal allies had bigger targets in mind. Chief of these was the PQ, which in the Quebec elections earlier that year had won 23% of the popular vote, although getting only seven seats, its leader René Lévesque being defeated. Founded in 1968, the PQ sought sovereignty for Quebec albeit in “association” with the Rest of Canada. Its strategy was in part shaped by the pattern of federal-Quebec relations throughout most of the 1960s, Ottawa responding with concessions at each stage to increasing Quebec demands for autonomy. Quebec desires for recognition going beyond its status as “a province like the others” were met with ongoing negotiations in search of constitutional adjustments (the Fulton-Favreau formula). When the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) was established, Quebec was allowed to constitute its own plan, the QPP, and to use the invested pension funds to build a Francophone bourgeoisie through the Caisse de Dépôt et Placements. A federal royal commission on “Bilingualism and Biculturalism” published detailed studies on the inferior ranking of Francophone Quebeckers in Canada’s economic and social order and proposed a reworking of Confederation to recognize the “equality of the two founding peoples.” Quebec was even given some representation in international diplomacy.

The PQ leaders hoped to push this further with their quest for sovereign status within a fundamentally reorganized pan-Canadian state that would afford them space in which to build an independent Francophone bourgeoisie, “Quebec Inc.,” looking primarily to the Quebec government to defend its interests.

However, with the election in 1968 of Pierre Trudeau as federal Liberal leader and prime minister, Ottawa’s approach veered sharply toward confrontation with Quebec. The Bi-Bi commission was shut down. And Trudeau seized on the FLQ’s actions to inflict some lasting political damage on the PQ and set the scene for strengthening the federal state in the face of the “separatist” threat. Successor legislation to the War Measures Act (introduced by the recently deceased John Turner, the Justice minister) reproduced most of its features and laid the basis for establishing a new security police force as recommended by the Royal Commission on Security in 1968.4 During the 1970s the RCMP’s Security Service engaged in break-ins, thefts of PQ membership lists and the files of left-wing publications, fingered left activists to employers and landlords, and even firebombed a barn frequented by left activists.5 The scandal-ridden Security Service was later replaced by an “independent” agency, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), which has recently added surveillance of Indigenous self-determination activists to its mandate.

A major step in Ottawa’s offensive was the 1982 “patriation” of Canada’s constitution, until then an Act of the British parliament. Overriding opposition from Quebec’s National Assembly, the new constitution included an amending formula that entrenched Quebec’s “equal” status as a province, not its reality as a nation, and imposed a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that was subsequently used by the courts to overrule key provisions of Quebec’s Charter of the French Language (Law 101). And the federal Liberals later helped to sabotage the Meech Lake Accord, designed to win Quebec’s assent to the new constitution, and still later, in the late 1990s and beyond, poured millions in federal funds into illegal campaigns to subvert Quebec nationalist expression (the “sponsorship scandal”).6

These “sticks” have of course been accompanied by the “carrot” of promoting major Quebec firms, especially in the engineering sector, through generous federal subsidies and legal protection to them in their many dubious transnational activities. Quebec Inc. is today characterized above all by its close interrelationship with Canadian, U.S. and other international capital. It can be relied on to oppose Quebec independence.

In 1998, the Supreme Court of Canada, responding to a request by the federal government for an opinion on Quebec’s right to “unilateral secession,” ruled (with little or no reference to previous jurisprudence) that while secession might be legal provided it was determined by a “clear majority” on a “clear question” (both terms undefined) in a referendum, this would entail an amendment to the existing Constitution the terms of which would have to be negotiated among “all parties to Confederation” – meaning Ottawa and the other provinces.7 This was followed by adoption of the Clarity Act, which established that the federal Parliament alone would determine the “clarity” of the question and a possible majority in a future Quebec referendum. Ottawa continues to hold the upper hand; when Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, a staunch federalist, attempted to discuss current constitutional arrangements, in 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was quick to dismiss any attempt “to re-open Canada’s constitution.”8

Both referendums held by PQ governments conditioned Quebec sovereignty implicitly on a negotiated agreement with the federal regime. In 1980, voters were asked to support a Quebec government “proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations.” In 1995, they were asked “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership....” Although it indicated that failure to achieve such an agreement within a year could trigger unilateral secession, the reality was that any such partnership or agreement remained purely hypothetical, and unlikely to say the least.

In effect, the Parti Québécois longstanding strategy of creating a new sovereign bourgeois state in symbiotic partnership with Canada has been decisively undermined, although the party’s discomfiture has not yet resulted in the alienation of its major institutional allies such as the Quebec union centrals. Many years have gone by since the last popular mobilizations for sovereignty provoked by the demise of both the Meech Lake Accord and its follow-up, the 1992 Charlottetown Accord. In this sense, the shift in federal strategy that began with such dramatic effect in October 1970 was successful. This blockage of the traditional sovereigntist movement has understandably chilled pro-independence sentiment among Quebec’s population.

The PQ, its membership once a quarter-million but reduced today to just over 35,000, has reverted in recent years to an identitarian ethnic nationalism that fails to recognize let alone accommodate the polyethnic reality of modern Quebec. In the party’s recent leadership contest, all four candidates supported additional limits on immigration, and the party – along with its federal counterpart the Bloc Québécois – supported the Legault government’s Bill 21, imposing dress codes on public sector employees, a measure aimed primarily at hijab-wearing Muslim women. As Québec solidaire activist Benoit Renaud says in his recent book, “This is a nationalism that is in fact content with the limited powers of a provincial state and is perfectly compatible with Quebec’s remaining in this Canadian state that consistently refuses to recognize us.”9

It is a quite different story on the left, however. As another QS leader François Saillant documents in his excellent new book, Brève Histoire de la Gauche Politique au Québec,10 since the 1960s, and particularly since the early 1980s, with the demise of the old Mao-Stalinist parties,11 the left in Quebec has tended to support Quebec independence largely because any progressive program of fundamental social change is unrealizeable within the current federal regime. This central state has exclusive jurisdiction over finance, banking, regulation of trade and commerce, issuance of currency, foreign affairs, the military, criminal law, the appointment of judges of the superior courts, etc. The provinces are generally limited to powers of a “merely local or private nature.” And Ottawa holds residual power over all matters not specifically allocated by the Constitution to the provinces, including Quebec. Thus it is a commonplace on the Quebec left to combine social emancipation with national emancipation.12

This is a lesson often lost on progressive opinion in English Canada, including by some Anglophone progressives in Quebec. Almost 20 years ago I attempted to explain this in replying to a critique of the Union des forces progressistes, a forerunner of today’s Québec solidaire. Although a bit dated on a few of its particulars, such as the level of popular support for independence, I think the substantive argument holds true today. It was first published in Canadian Dimension.13

* * *

In Defence of Quebec’s UFP

Eric Shragge and Andrea Levy (“The Union des forces progressistes in Quebec: Prospects and Pitfalls,” CD March-April 2003) cite a number of difficulties confronting the new left-wing political formation. Among these are lack of trade union support, diffidence by some activists in the “social left,” an “old-Left” style and rhetoric, etc.

But their main criticism of the UFP — that it is fundamentally wrong on the national question because it supports Quebec independence —  tells us more about the authors’ bias than it does about the UFP or the Quebec left.

Shragge and Levy argue that support for Quebec independence (1) curbs the UFP’s appeal to young activists, new immigrants and native peoples because (2) it fails to reflect the reality, that the Québécois are already “masters in their own house.” This error, they say, will be “decisive” to the UFP’s “political fate.”

Let’s begin with the second point. Yes, Quebec has made great strides in recent decades in enhancing the status and role of French and the Francophone majority within the province’s institutions and society as a whole. French is now the language of work. Income differentials between French and English have been sharply reduced. Quebec’s education and health systems now rank with the best in Canada. And all of this largely through the initiatives and efforts of Quebecers themselves, often in the face of resistance and even outright opposition by big business, the federal government and their courts.

These developments, themselves the product of a nationalist upsurge that began with the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, far from eliminating national consciousness, have redefined it and stimulated a powerful pride in the accomplishments and capacities of Quebec society. The change is reflected in the way Quebecers describe themselves: as Québécois and no longer as “French Canadians.” Although many Quebecers — a small majority — still favour being part of Canada, most Quebecers look to the government in Quebec City as their first line of defence of their language and culture, the key defining features of this distinct society, and most want to enhance its role along these lines.

Quebec, while only a province under Canada’s constitution, is sociologically a nation and is seen as such by the vast majority of its residents. This nation is more than its language and culture, its “ethnicity”; it is the product of a long historical evolution of the peoples who inhabit the territory of Quebec. This new nation is not narrowly ethnic. As the UFP platform says, it is “the human community residing in Quebec province, having French as its official language of institutional and working communication, sharing a single set of laws and social conventions, and rich in its cultural diversity.”

Shragge and Levy seem to have a reductionist view of Quebec nationalism that conflates nation with language and ethnicity alone. There is no longer a national question in Quebec, they argue: “French is the official language, the economic elite bears names like Desjardins, Tellier and Martin, as do the members of the bureaucracy that runs Quebec’s state institutions. These issues are settled....” It is simply the “memory of English domination that fuels the longing for independence.”

I think this is a fundamental misreading of the reality. What fuels Quebec independence sentiment today in Quebec is not some distant “memory” of English domination but a deeply felt awareness that Canada’s current constitution and political system do not recognize Quebec for what it is —  a modern, vibrant, progressive nation that is open to the world, and not just a “province like the others” — and a determination to put an end to the constant, politically debilitating conflicts with Ottawa that this entails in terms of jurisdictional bickering, duplication and overlapping of social programs, fiscal deficit offloading, etc. Far from being settled, these issues continue to nag. In the last two decades alone, Quebec has seen the addition to the Canadian constitution of an amending formula that virtually rules out any change in its status through the normal negotiating process; a Charter of Rights that directly targets Quebec’s popular language legislation; and [Parliament’s adoption of] a federal “Clarity Bill” that would effectively dictate the terms of any future Quebec referendum on sovereignty, to name only the most egregious assaults on Quebec’s right to self-determination.

The Shragge-Levy trivialization of these issues is of absolutely no use in helping us understand the challenges facing the UFP as it seeks to broaden its support. For example, the UFP’s support for Quebec independence does not isolate it from Quebec’s trade unions, most of which are on record in support of sovereignty. That is why the unions support the Parti québécois! The PQ’s independentism is what primarily distinguishes it from the other capitalist parties, the Liberals and the ADQ.14

Most activists in the social movements are likewise sympathetic to sovereignty. Support for Quebec sovereignty in recent years has remained over 40% in poll after poll, and is strongest among the working people and youth to whom the UFP addresses its message. As for recent immigrants and minorities, the UFP’s star candidates in the recent election included such people as Amir Khadir, Omar Aktouf, Jill Hanley and David Fennario. They have no problem with the UFP’s pro-sovereignty position. In the left milieu, in fact, support for sovereignty is simply taken for granted; for most activists, that “issue is settled.”

There are some issues of nation and nationalism that are not settled, of course. An important one is the relationship between Quebec sovereignty and aboriginal self-government. The UFP platform, cited by Shragge and Levy, confines itself to recognizing “the right to self-determination of the First Nations up to and including their independence.” Possible approaches might entail formal recognition of full or partial sovereignty of Native peoples in those parts of the province — geographically very extensive — in which they are the majority. It is worth noting that Quebec is the only province in Canada to recognize in law the existence of a dozen aboriginal “nations,” and it is the only province to be signing modern-day treaties with its native people.

The UFP is aware that these and many other issues need further debate, both within the left and within the population as a whole. That is why its platform states that “independence is not an end in itself: rather, it is a means of making our goal for society a reality. This sovereignty of the people will find its expression in the election of a Constituent Assembly, mandated to draw up and to propose to the population, via referendum, a Constitution for a progressive, republican, secular and democratic Quebec.”

Finally, like many readers, I am sure, I am struck by the weird contrast between Canadian Dimension’s chronic campaign for “Canadian sovereignty” and its equally chronic inability to identify with the only mass democratic and progressive movement for sovereignty within the Canadian state: that of the Québécois.

The UFP is by far the most advanced expression in North America of a worldwide process now under way of “rebuilding the left.” It needs our solidarity, not our misunderstandings.

1 Jean-François Lisée, Insurrection appréhendée: le grand mensonge d’October 1970.

2 Just this month, Justin Trudeau incredibly reaffirmed this allegation. Asked by a journalist if he would apologize for the hundreds of arrests in 1970, Trudeau denounced “these revolutionaries who wanted to overthrow the government.” (Le Devoir, 8 October, 2020). Ironically, Ryan was later leader of the Quebec Liberal party and led the federalist opponents of the PQ in the 1980 referendum.

3 The FRAP program (including a proposal for free public transit) was published in a 138-page book, Les Salariés au Pouvoir (not on-line).

4 See Robert Dumont, “Entire Left is Target of Bill.”

5 See Richard Fidler, “An anniversary that Ottawa would prefer not to celebrate.”

6 Michel David, “La première guerre,” Le Devoir 26 September, 2020.

7 Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 S.C.R. 217, clause 88.

8Canada's Quebec wants constitutional talks despite Trudeau opposition.”

9 Benoit Renaud, Un Peuple Libre: Indépendance, laïcité et inclusion (Ecosociété 2020), p. 182.

10 Ecosociété 2020.

11 Primarily En Lutte/In Struggle and the Parti communiste ouvrier/Workers Communist Party, both of which opposed Quebec independence as a “bourgeois project.”

12 For more on this, see “Quebec independence a key to building the left in Canada.”

13 July 2003, Vol. 37 (4), at p. 7. In fairness to Andrea Levy, it should be noted that she is now an active member of Québec solidaire. When a similar criticism was levied against Québec solidaire’s independentism in the U.S. magazine Jacobin during the 2018 Quebec election, Levy joined with André Frappier in asking me to consider writing a reply to it. I regret that I did not.

14 Action démocratique du Québec, a forerunner of today’s Coalition Avenir Québec, the party that now forms the Quebec government.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

The RWL/LOR experience: my explanation of a failed fusion

 By Richard Fidler

About two years ago John Riddell posted on his website a two-part article on the Revolutionary Workers League/Ligue Ouvrière Révolutionnaire with his explanation of what he termed “a failed fusion” experience. He focused on the “turn to industry” adopted by the League in the late 1970s, the aim of which was eventually defined as getting the overwhelming majority of its members into jobs organized by Canada’s major industrial unions. John cited convincing evidence that, as he puts it, “the industrial turn was based not on existing reality but on a prediction regarding future conditions. Such a future-based orientation is impervious to the test of experience.”

As he explains, the League was convinced that a workers’ radicalization would “occur in the near future. When the great uprising did not occur, its expected date of arrival was simply postponed. Lessons of experience thus had no authority in determining policy, which came to be based on belief rather than the test of reality.”

Like John, I was one of the main advocates in the League of the turn to industry as it was originally conceived, and I am in general agreement with John’s analysis. What follows below is intended to supplement what he says. I base my account here on what I wrote in a 2009 email exchange with U.S. socialist Barry Sheppard, who was working on the second volume of a memoir of his experience as a leader of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party.1 Barry had asked several of us who were veterans of the RWL/LOR, about (inter alia) our experiences with “the turn to industry and how it changed over time.” His question was prompted by knowledge that the SWP had been instrumental in persuading its northern comrades to emulate its own industrial turn.

Roger Annis was the first to reply. With his agreement, I quote what he wrote, in part, because I will refer to it in my own account.

“The turn to industry in Canada was factionalized from the beginning. Those who did not grasp the urgency and immediacy of undertaking a turn were regarded with great skepticism. Worse, there was no regard to national circumstances that might have crafted the turn in Canada. In particular, the early application of the turn was quickly factionalized over the issue of the public sector unions.2 A series of splits or resignations on this issue took place from 1980 to 1982. [...]

“The onset of the 79-81 economic recession and the unemployment that lingered for years afterward had a great dampening effect on trade union struggle. We never took account of this reality, believing it to be short-term. A steady drift to propagandism took place in the RWL factions. We were less and less comfortable as trade union activists, preferring the insular world of propagandism. To be sure, there were repeated admonishments by the leading bodies of the RWL to connect our propagandism to action, and vice versa. But we had little living and historical experience upon which to draw. [...]

“By the early 1990s, I was fed up with the propagandism that had overwhelmed our trade union work. ‘Strike solidarity’ work was the key activity of trade union fractions, but it consisted almost entirely of visits to picket lines in order to sell the Militant and bring workers to forums. I saw the looks of skepticism in the eyes of picketers at many strikes – Nationair (1992), Irving Oil (1994-95) – as they saw that we were doing nothing to advance their struggle.”

And why were the comrades selling the Militant, the SWP’s weekly paper? Because, Roger noted, the RWL paper Socialist Voice had folded in 1986.

“In my opinion, that was as close to a death knell as we could have pronounced for the RWL. We were relieved to begin to sell the Militant because the Voice had been reduced to a shadow of its former self: published biweekly in a small-size format with four or five articles, no columns and strident editorials. Yet, a newspaper is the thinking machine and organizing tool of any serious party or grouping. We voluntarily gave up that organizing tool because we were at a loss to figure out how to produce something that would appeal and would have some impact in politics in the country.”

And Roger added an important note:

“Of course, a vital side to the story of the RWL is that of its French-language section, the LOR. All the problems cited above were doubled in their consequence there because the turn's initial reception was less enthused and the mechanical replication of strategies drawn from the SWP had less relevance and application than in English-speaking Canada. What’s more, we made a grievous sectarian error in abstaining from the 1980 referendum vote on sovereignty (I believe we reversed course at the last minute). I think it’s fair to say that most LOR members were quickly disaffected of the turn to industry, if they were ever won to it at all.”

I then offered my explanation, most of which I reproduce below.


From my letter to Barry Sheppard


You ask a series of questions about developments from 1980 on, most of which I am unable to answer because my own relationship with the Canadian section of the Fourth International ended abruptly in May-June 1980.... However, I would like to address the rationale presented at the time for the turn to industry, because I think retrospection yields a number of clues to what subsequently went wrong.

Roger writes: “... there was no regard to national circumstances that might have crafted the turn ; in Canada.” I would nuance this somewhat, based largely on a recent re-reading of the major line text on the turn, “Why the RWL/LOR Must Make an Immediate Turn to Industry,” by R. Brock, J. Connolly, J. Crandall, and S. Lachance (respectively, Richard Fidler, John Steele, John Riddell and Colleen Levis), RWL/LOR PanCanadian Preconvention Discussion Bulletin, Vol. 1, No. 5, November 1978 [not on line].... Less than a year later, a much shorter text drafted by a newly composed majority on the Political Committee, “For a major reorientation of the RWL,” reiterated many of its arguments, without fundamentally altering the overall description of the political situation.

The backdrop to the turn for the Canadian comrades — in addition to the impetus from the U.S. SWP, which had already initiated such a turn — was the need to develop a unified line of march, following the fusion convention of 1977, in relation to three major components of the class struggle in the Canadian state: the Quebec national question, the politics of working class struggles in English Canada and in particular the question of the NDP, and our work in the women's liberation movement. The fusion brought the various Fl groups together around general principles3 but failed to launch the new organization on the basis of agreed campaigns around a unified conception of our immediate tasks. During the first year of the fused organization's existence, internal debate was largely devoted to a seemingly irresolvable debate on the gay question pursuant to an agreement at the fusion convention; it was dominated by the views of a substantial minority of comrades who saw some “revolutionary dynamic” in sexual liberation and, if anything, projected a turn toward countercultural and identity politics.

The turn to industry, as articulated by the SWP leadership, seemed to many of us to provide a way out from the confusion surrounding these initial internal debates. In our turn document, we sought to develop a particular Canadian perspective on the turn. We did try to motivate the turn on the basis of “national circumstances,” but I have to say, with the benefit of hindsight, that our explanations and conclusions were rather unilinear and schematic — and in many ways refuted by the subsequent course of events.

For what it’s worth, my own recollection of the decision to initiate the turn in Canada begins a few months earlier, in August 1978, at the annual SWP gathering in Oberlin, Ohio. I showed [SWP national secretary] Jack Barnes a typewritten draft of a document I had written on the NDP question for potential discussion in the RWL, seeking his feedback. Jack responded by calling an informal meeting in his room between a number of RWL leaders (all of them, I think, from the former LSA/LSO) and a number of SWP PC [Political Committee] members to whom he had circulated my text; I think you were there. We kicked the draft around a bit, and then some of you SWPers suggested that we pose the NDP question in the context of the need to develop our presence in the major industrial unions that were aligned with the NDP. A few days later, Colleen Levis and Sam Anderson returned to Canada from an SWP National Committee plenum all fired up with the proposal that we turn our own September plenum, which at that point lacked a focus, into a discussion on the need for our own turn to industry. So the SWP leadership's direct input was an important factor in our decision to implement the turn to industry in Canada. It was subsequently reinforced by the draft World Political Resolution of the Fourth International, drafted with major input by the SWP leadership, which projected a global “turn to industry” by the FI sections. (My amended draft theses on the NDP were published in the preconvention discussion bulletin, along with a counter-position by Tyson (Steve Penner); neither position had received a majority at the September 1978 plenum.)

Following the plenum [...] some former LSA/LSO leaders authored a specific proposal for the turn. Since we represented only one of the two major founding components, Roger's statement that the turn in Canada “was factionalized from the beginning” is true in more than one sense. At the April 1979 convention, this turn perspective failed to win a majority and little progress was registered in getting comrades into industrial jobs until, in August, a new realignment of forces in the Political Committee (again, provoked in large part by discussions with SWP and Fl leaders at Oberlin that year) brought some important leaders and members of the old RMG and GMR on board. This new majority leadership wrote the “major reorientation” document mentioned above.

The more positive aspects of this turn document lie in its retrospective analysis of the then-recent history of working-class politics in Quebec and the rest of Canada: the struggle against wage controls and the one-day general strike in 1977; the Quebec labour upsurge in the early 1970s; the debate on the action program of the postal workers and other militants at the CLC convention, etc. It did a pretty good job of demonstrating the interrelationship of the Quebec national struggle and the women's movement with working-class politics and how recent labour struggles illustrated the applicability of key transitional demands.

But the document is also striking in its proposal of a continental (in fact, global) tactic of industrial implantation to prepare for the projected imminent confrontation between Capital and the industrial workers — exactly the same method, the same kind of undialectical schema, some of us had only recently campaigned against in the Fl in relation to the Latin American guerrilla struggle and the European “new mass vanguards.”4 For example:

“The international context is crucially important. Capitalist rationalization and restructuring, and the measures comprised by the current antilabor offensive, will not bring about the needed qualitative increase in the average rate of profit. The forces of stagnation remain deep and predominant. To radically reverse the trend, major defeats of the masses are required, with all that that implies. However, such catastrophic defeats of the anticapitalist forces on a world scale remain extremely unlikely. And attempts to impose them would touch off such intensified class struggles as to place on the agenda fresh opportunities for victorious socialist revolutions. This is especially true in the imperialist countries, where the proletariat has experienced no major defeats since the last imperialist war. [...]

“The very depth of this combined crisis excludes the possibility that the capitalist class can buy off the working class through massive social concessions and reforms. [...]

“The outlook is for a continued, sustained rise in the class struggle. Major battles lie ahead — battles that will confront the capitalists and their governments with the united power and combativity of the major industrial contingents of the proletariat of Quebec and English Canada. [...]

“We are in the initial stages of a radicalization now beginning to reach into the major industrial sectors of the labor movement. The depth of the capitalist crisis is such that this radicalization will not be fundamentally stemmed or reversed before the working class has had a chance — in a series of major imperialist countries, including quite possibly Canada —to wage a decisive struggle for state power against the bourgeoisie. [...] (pages 6-9)

“We must turn toward the industrial working class in order to participate in the fight for a class-struggle left wing and to build our party. The turn to industry is essential to all our work — building the women’s movement and struggles against national oppression, participating in the student movement, defending immigrants, and so on. The turn is already overdue. Failure to make it will place us increasingly outside the mainstream of the class struggle. Our survival as a revolutionary party is at stake. We must get the majority of our members into industrial jobs and into industrial unions as quickly as possible. [...]

“The turn to industry is not simply our general proletarian orientation. It is not simply a turn to the unions. to doing more union work. Placing a majority of our membership in industrial jobs at this time is a specific tactic to ensure the presence of our party, our cadre, and our program at the strategic center of the radicalization as it unfolds today — among industrial workers. [...] (page 14)

“The developing offensive of the Canadian ruling class is aimed squarely at the nearly four million workers in the resource industry (mining, forestry, energy, etc.), heavy industry (steel, auto, etc.), manufacturing and food processing, transportation (air, rail, city transport, trucking, etc.), and communications (mail, telephone, etc.). These workers are the most powerful social force in capitalist society. When they strike, they bring production to a halt; the capitalists immediately feel the effects on their profits. And once they begin to fight back, they become the center of the radicalization because of their strategic importance.” (page 16)

Also worth noting is the somewhat formulaic approach to the question of leadership in the unions, and the roseate view of the short-term prospects for anti-bureaucratic struggles and the building of a revolutionary anticapitalist leadership:

“In a time of economic and political crisis, when the perspective for reforms considerably narrows, the bureaucracy's class-collaborationist program becomes less and less realistic, It can't even defend the workers’ current conditions let alone lead the struggle to improve them. As struggles intensify, more and more workers will draw conclusions about the kind of leadership they need to win against the bosses and capitalist governments. They will learn that struggles are not lost because the workers aren’t strong enough to win but because they were betrayed by their own leadership. And they will become more receptive to proposals for restoring rank-and-file control of the unions.” (page 13)

Overall, the document was correct to identify the turn in the political situation with the end of the postwar phase of capitalist expansion, the end of the postwar accommodation of unions within the now-traditional industrial relations regime, and the developing ruling-class offensive aimed at overcoming a crisis of profitability stemming from overproduction, etc. But it failed to anticipate a range of possible alternative responses by Capital, which would not necessarily be hinged on direct immediate catastrophic confrontation with the strongest contingents of the proletariat as the document tended to argue.5

The neoliberal strategy was only in its initial phases. But in the following years the capitalist response to its profitability crisis included a range of components: attacks on public employees, cutbacks and deterioration of public services as a prelude to privatization and public-private partnerships; financialization of pensions and creation of new financial instruments; the corralling of the union bureaucracies into investment fund strategies, starting with Quebec and the FTQ’s Solidarity Fund; and culminating of course in the move toward “free trade” and the lowering of tariff barriers, globalized investment regimes, transfer of production to the Third World, etc. Union membership declined, precarious and temporary labour and self-employment increased. Yes, industrial workers were attacked but in a more selective and astute way than anticipated by the turn document: the rulers probed for points of particular vulnerability, and effectively maneuvered reformist leaderships into collaborating with many of their initiatives. And many working people, seeing no perspectives for gains through collective struggle, were seduced by the ubiquitous consumerism of contemporary neoliberalism.

We may also have underestimated the corroding effect on the unions of the entire postwar industrial relations regime reflected in the dues checkoff, the replacement of grievance processing for the right to strike during the life of a contract, the management residual rights protection, etc. enforced in the various collective bargaining provisions and laws, and the expanded role of the bureaucracy in policing the contract to the detriment of internal union democracy and on-the-job action. There was little or no mention of this in the turn discussions in which I participated.

There were exceptions to this pattern, of course. A notable one was the no-concessions split of the Canadian Auto Workers from the UAW and the CAW’s emergence for a period as a class-struggle antibureaucratic alternative for many workers. This important development the RWL/LOR initially opposed as I recall, with SWP counselling no doubt.

With employment declining in the major industries, it became impossible to implement the industrial turn as originally envisaged. Comrades got jobs where they could, often in marginal industries with weak unions or even no unions at all! The turn took on a moral complexion, I believe: it became a virtue in itself to work with the most oppressed and exploited. But workers with starvation wages, large families, often without citizenship rights, with few language skills, are hard to recruit. As Roger notes, there was a drift toward propagandism and, I would add, a real depoliticization. Roger and other comrades who lived through these years can say more than I about the consequences of these developments on the remaining cadres.

By the way, we should note that the 1978 turn document did include some qualifications on the application of the turn. For example, it stated (page 15) that “We would be wrong to vote that all comrades in teaching or hospital jobs quit to go into industry. The work of these comrades is important. But our main task is not to build up by colonization what we have now in the service unions, but rather to break new ground. Where we have real operations, they should be maintained and the emphasis placed on recruitment.” And it cited favourably the work of comrades already involved as shop stewards in the postal union and the auto workers. As early as 1980, however, the RWL/LOR was advising comrades not to take any posts or leadership positions in unions, and existing public sector fractions were being dissolved in favour of a one-sided focus on getting jobs and establishing party fractions in industry.

On a related matter, Roger notes the Political Committee’s shift on the eve of the Quebec referendum in 1980 toward favouring the yes side, as opposed to the abstention position adopted by the pan-Canadian convention only two months earlier. I was not a participant in that decision, but as I recall it helped to provoke the split of the bulk of the LOR in Quebec the following month. Taken unilaterally, without consultation with the LOR as a whole, it was my impression that this arbitrary shift in line may have been the drop that overflowed the cup for many in the Quebec wing, already very resistant to the turn to industry. In my view, the decision to support the yes side on the PQ’s referendum was programmatically justifiable, but the unilateral process seemed calculated to drive many Quebec comrades out of the organization. This, too, was an early manifestation of the sectarian super-centralized leadership precepts that were soon to triumph in the party as a whole.

In fact, the major development in Canadian politics during this period, 1978-80, was not an antilabour offensive but the preparation for and holding of the first Quebec referendum on sovereignty, sponsored by the PQ government. The Quebec national upsurge, which had continued throughout the Seventies, posed a fundamental challenge to the stability of the Canadian state. I think it could be argued that the development by the RWL of a coherent campaign by the entire organization — for independence in Quebec (and participation on the referendum yes side in the context of the deep polarization of class forces around that issue), and in defence of Quebec’s right to self-determination in the rest of Canada — would have done more to unify and build the RWL/LOR politically than the “turn to industry,” which, as it developed, tended to tear at the fragile unity forged in the fusion process.6

The defeat of the referendum in May 1980 was a major defeat of the Quebec national movement, consolidated by the federal government in the 1982 patriation (from Britain) of the constitution with an amending formula that effectively ruled out unilateral secession by Quebec and a “charter of rights” that laid the basis for a string of judicial rulings overturning aspects of Quebec’s legislation in defense of its French language and culture. The setback in Quebec was a great boost for the Canadian bourgeoisie as it moved to implement neoliberal austerity in the Eighties and Nineties.

In addition to a greater focus on the Quebec issue, the RWL/LOR would have benefited from paying more attention to building solidarity with the Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions of 1979 on. But the turn to industry, once adopted, absorbed so much of the organization’s energy and resources that it tended to preclude attention to other, political questions. And it was accompanied by a tightening of the party regime, including greater emphasis on disciplinary actions, etc., that created an atmosphere inimical to critical thought and discussion. A more relaxed regime would have been able to accommodate the necessary debates and differing positions that were developing over a number of difficult unforeseen situations —Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and its war with China; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; the Solidarnosc experience in Poland, etc. — on all of which there were sharp divisions in the Fl that did not always replicate the alignments in the previous period. But I imagine that these same points could be made about the evolution of the SWP at this time. I was not a direct witness to this process, however.

Notes

1 Interregnum, Decline and Collapse, 1973-1988: A Political Memoir (London: Resistance Books, 2012). The first volume, The Sixties: A Political Memoir, was published in Australia by Resistance Books, 2005.

2 Roger suggests that this be added here for further clarity: “The hard-line proponents of a ‘turn to industry’ argued that the labour power of workers in state-run industries such as postal service, health care and education was only tertiary to the workings of capital and therefore these workers could not be expected to play a leading role in coming class battles.”

4 Between 1969 and 1975 the majority of the Fourth International favoured a strategic “tactic” in Latin America based on rural guerrilla warfare, supposedly applicable by revolutionary forces throughout the continent. This line was opposed by a minority including the SWP and the LSA/LSO. In Europe the FI majority favoured a generalized approach to party-building in the 1970s based on orienting to “the concerns of the new mass vanguard” layer of militants that had emerged in some major class confrontations in the late 1960s – which were by no means synonymous with the concerns and interests of the broader working class.

5 I might have added that less than a decade later, the demise of the USSR, which shifted the global balance of forces even further toward U.S. hegemony, had a deeply negative impact on the international class struggle.

6 In his “Inquest into a failed socialist fusion,” John Riddell incorrectly refers to “the two overriding issues in Quebec that had divided the LSA/LSO from the GMR: the call for an independent socialist Quebec and for building a mass workers’ party in Quebec based on the trade unions (a ‘labour party’).” While there were differences on the applicability of the demand for a “labour party” in Quebec (the GMR called for a “workers’ party”), the LSA/LSO had in fact supported an independent socialist Quebec since 1970, when a party convention adopted a document by that name: https://www.socialisthistory.ca/Docs/1961-/Quebec/Ind-Soc-Quebec-1970.htm. The GMR tended to express it differently: “For a Workers Republic of Quebec.” In my view, both formulations are compatible.