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.


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: The GMR tended to express it differently: “For a Workers Republic of Quebec.” In my view, both formulations are compatible.

Friday, September 4, 2020

History revisited: Canada’s feminists respond to Quebec’s national movement

(And a contribution to the debate rejected by Canadian Dimension)

By Richard Fidler

Thirty years ago, in June 1990, the Meech Lake Accord died, its package of constitutional reforms having been rejected by the legislatures in Manitoba and Newfoundland/Labrador. Its demise — and with it, recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society” — gave rise in the following five years to a new surge in the Quebec movement for independence that came very close to winning in the 1995 referendum, accompanied by a series of renewed attempts by the Canadian government to negotiate a constitutional deal that would defuse that movement and maintain the existing Canadian state.

The anniversary was marked this year by a number of articles in the Quebec media but went largely unnoticed in the rest of Canada (ROC). Unremarked as well, in both Quebec and the ROC, was the role the angry public debate in Canada over modest acknowledgement of Quebec as a “distinct society” (never mind, nation) drove a wedge between the feminist movements in both nations and marked a key turning point in the evolution of the Quebec women’s organizations toward increasingly nationalist orientations and, during the 1990s, open support for Quebec independence.

This story is told in a 2009 doctoral dissertation by Flavie Trudel, of the Université du Québec.[1] The rift became public in 1987 when the Meech Lake Accord was widely criticized at a general meeting of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), on the grounds, among others, that the “distinct society” clause would likely be used by the courts to undermine federal protection of women’s rights. In reaction, the Quebec Federation of Women (FFQ) left the meeting. Francophone women’s organizations had come to see Quebec, with its jurisdiction over language, culture and family law — and the progressive values upheld, for example, by Quebec juries’ multiple acquittals of abortion rights advocate Dr. Henry Morgenthaler — as a more favourable milieu for advancing women’s rights.

In a brief to the House of Commons committee studying the constitutional proposal, the FFQ stated that in its view “the progress achieved [in Quebec] in women’s status is not unrelated to its character as a distinct society.”

About a dozen Quebec women’s organizations, among them the FFQ, the CSN’s women’s committee, and a group led by Françoise David and union militant Madeleine Parent, began meeting in late 1987 to determine whether to remain in the NAC, where Francophones were a small minority.

In 1989, the FFQ decided not to renew its affiliation to the NAC, while continuing to attend its meetings as an observer. “NAC’s failure to understand or accept the position of Québec francophone women,” write NAC historians Jill Vickers et al,[2]

“marks the beginning of the end of NAC’s ability, through the affiliation of the FFQ, to provide a bridge, however fragile, between the French and English movements.… Many NAC activists would again be unable to comprehend or accept the view of the majority of francophone feminists from Québec that their liberation rested with the Québec state and with recognition of Québec as a ‘distinct society’.”

NAC was not the only women’s organization in Canada to be critical of the Meech Lake Accord. Others included the National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL), which argued that the Accord endangered women because it recognized aboriginal rights and Canada’s multiculturalism without mentioning women’s rights to equality. This position was typical of the many social movements in Canada that had become seduced by “Charter politics” in the wake of Parliament’s adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, with its offer of recourse to the courts to override legislated obstacles to their goals — a phenomenon brilliantly analyzed by the late Michael Mandel in The Charter of Rights and the Legalization of Politics in Canada.[3] Mandel also points to the role of the Charter as a key ingredient in Pierre Trudeau’s strategy for enhancing federal institutions and standards in opposition to Quebec’s, itself confirmed by the illusory view that Quebec’s “distinct society” constituted a threat to women’s rights.

Flavie Trudel adds, however, that judging from the exchange of correspondence between the NAC and the FFQ, “it seems clear that the FFQ’s dissatisfaction was not addressed to the feminist action of NAC…. For example, a little later NAC was quick to come out in support of Chantal Daigle in the struggle against her former partner for her right to an abortion, and the NAC reacted with outrage to the massacre at the École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989.”[4]

Moreover, the FFQ withdrawal prompted some rethinking in NAC about its approach to Quebec issues. “Judy Rebick was elected president of NAC in 1990 on a promise to work to lessen the divisions between Québécoises and women in the rest of Canada. And Rebick committed as well to stepping up NAC’s interventions on the constitutional question.”[5] NAC soon evolved toward a “Three Nations constitutional position that recognized the legitimacy of decentralized power for Quebec and the First Nations.”[6]

Meanwhile, the FFQ continued to develop its thinking on the Quebec national question, becoming clearly pro-independence in 1990. This orientation would undergo no fundamental change through the following years. And when the Parti Québécois government turned to harsh fiscal austerity after the defeat of the referendum in 1995, the FFQ, now headed by Françoise David, focused on the fight against poverty, combined with the issue of violence against women. Its discourse was transformed, writes Trudel. “It moved to the left, close to Marxism, at the same time becoming more inclusive.”[7] At the outset of the 21st century it became as well “altermondialiste,” that is, engaged in the global justice movement. Following the success of its “bread and roses” marches in the mid-1990s, the FFQ initiated the World March of Women in 2000.

After the defeat of the Meech Lake Accord

The FFQ was now the umbrella organization for 115 Quebec associations with about 100,000 members in all walks of life. In its brief to the Bélanger-Campeau commission on Quebec’s political and constitutional future, established in 1990 by the Quebec government following the defeat of the Meech Lake Accord, the FFQ stated:

“We believe that the possibility of achieving significant changes in the social and political fabric of Quebec will be proportional to the degree of autonomy Quebec obtains. And we believe that greater manoeuvrability for Quebec will promote the development of a feminist model of society, provided that women are closely associated with all phases in the development of this model. To define and implement a plan for society, we need a framework that we can be part of.

“With this in mind, and although we are fully aware that political autonomy is not the only condition for such changes, we think that women as a social group have an interest in choosing the greatest possible political autonomy for Quebec.[8] […]

“We feminists understand the importance of autonomy and identity, concepts that have always been at the heart of our struggle. We have refused to dissolve our identity as women into that of our fathers and husbands; and today we refuse to dissolve our Quebec identity into the Canadian identity. We know the price of autonomy, but also its value.

“Our feminism is expressed collectively; it is part of a specific cultural reality, that of Quebec, and it is not independent of the social and political context. For example, let us recall that the birth of neo-feminism in Quebec in the early 1970s was closely related to the goal of national liberation. Feminist groups situated the struggle of women within the struggle for national liberation, as was illustrated by the slogan ‘No women’s liberation without the liberation of Quebec. No Quebec liberation without the liberation of women.’ Then, as today, it was not feminism that was exclusive to Quebec women, but the context in which it was developing. […]

“Since it is the overall future of Quebec that interests us, we think that the changes in Quebec should not be limited to a fundamental modification of the relationship between Quebec and Canada, but should be situated within an overall plan for society. What we need to collectively redefine is not only our relationships with Canada but what this new country of Quebec will be. It is social relationships as a whole that must be re-envisaged.”[9]

And the FFQ went on to develop some of the key ideas it thought should be included in the constitution of an independent Quebec. It added:

“The new constitution should be elaborated by a constituent assembly elected by universal suffrage and composed equally of men and women.

“The proposed constitution should be submitted to the entire population for ratification. It will be the property of the citizens of Quebec, and should not be the subject of any negotiations with other countries, including Canada.”[10]

No surprise, then, that the FFQ opposed the Charlottetown Accord, the follow-up to Meech negotiated by the first ministers and put to a cross-Canada referendum for approval in 1992. FFQ leaders participated in a new coalition, the Regroupement des Québécoises pour le NON, and published a “pink pamphlet,” Non à l’entente de Charlottetown: Pour un avenir qui nous ressemble.

NAC, too, with the FFQ again a member, opposed the Accord. NAC leaders Judy Rebick and Shelagh Day issued a statement explaining that “The Quebec and aboriginal peoples have the right to decide democratically their own future without being crushed by a massive campaign orchestrated by the majority’s political elites.”[11] But this position was sharply attacked not only by the media but by some NAC affiliates who protested that the position taken by the organization’s leaders was not based on adequate consultation with the members.[12] In the October 1992 referendum, the Charlottetown Accord was defeated in both Quebec and the rest of Canada.

Leading up to the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence, the FFQ voted in a membership assembly to endorse the OUI following a consultation in which three different positions were advanced: for, against, and neither. But the FFQ’s efforts were not enough to tip the balance in the popular vote, in which the OUI was narrowly defeated — 50.55% against, 49.45% in favour.[13]

And where was the left in this history?

The feminists were not alone in their divisions over Meech and the Quebec national question. The Quebec NDP, which was experiencing a brief surge in support following the PQ’s endorsement of Mulroney’s Conservatives in the mid-1980s, opposed the Accord. But the federal NDP supported Meech, as it had the unilateral patriation of the Constitution in 1992 without Quebec consent. Quebec’s tiny Communist party, which had opted for Yes to sovereignty-association in the 1980 referendum, urged a No vote in 1995; the party has never supported Quebec independence, and in the early 21st century most of its Quebec members split, first to adhere to the pro-sovereignty Québec solidaire, later to support the PQ.

Other Marxists? In a recent article on the demise of the Trotskyist tendency to which both he and I had adhered, John Riddell noted that our Quebec forces, which had historically favoured Quebec independence, split in 1980 and formed Gauche socialiste in 1983: “Gauche Socialiste went on to play a significant and constructive role in the creation of a new left party, Québec Solidaire.” During the 1980s and 1990s, John notes, “the broader socialist movement was in decline.” Yet, he says, “these were the very years in which the International Socialists (IS) emerged in Canada as a dynamic and influential far-left organization.” On this, I think he exaggerates. In any case, the IS record on the constitutional debates speaks otherwise.

In 2012, IS leader Abbie Bakan criticized the NAC for opposing the Charlottetown Accord: “The National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) … tragically sided with the ‘no’ side. But this position encountered considerable challenge, most importantly from Quebec feminist allies, including the Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ).” Bakan misstates the FFQ position, as we have seen. She goes on: “At the time, the International Socialists, a member organization of NAC, wrote an Open Letter calling for a reversal of the ‘no’ position.”

In a 40-page pamphlet published in 1991-92, which is still the most complete statement of IS thinking on Canada’s national questions,[14] Bakan argues that “genuine self-determination for all the oppressed can only be won by smashing the Canadian state…,”[15] but apparently she and the IS are unable to see how Quebec independence might be strategically related to that goal.

For my part, in 1987 I drafted an article for the widely-read left magazine Canadian Dimension aimed at rebutting the very myths being propagated in Canada by some feminists and leftists concerning the Meech Lake Accord. It was rejected by the CD editorial collective, citing (in a letter by managing editor Jim Silver to Donald Swartz)[16] “our disagreement with the interpretation offered by the article.” CD’s refusal was protested at the time by a number of socialists in Canada and Quebec whose support I had solicited (although they did not necessarily agree with the article’s content) — among them Gil Levine, Lukin Robinson and Swartz.

In Quebec, Roch Denis translated the article and published it in the June-July 1988 issue of Tribune Ouvrière, the newspaper of the Groupe socialiste des travailleurs, with an introduction that stated, in part: “…while the author’s position is widely held within the left and among worker militants in Quebec, it is much more seldom heard in English Canada… where the dominant circles of the ‘left’ yield to no one in their defence of the Canadian state.”

Ironically, in a book published to mark the 50th year of publication of Canadian Dimension,[17] a chapter by Peter Graefe on its coverage of Quebec states:

“In retrospect, the lack of Quebec voices on Meech Lake was unfortunate. A key claim of CD’s rejection of Meech Lake involved the spending power provisions, which were seen as preventing future universal social programs. Ultimately, the Quebec left rejected these same provisions on the opposite grounds: namely that they recognized and legitimized the use of the spending power and thus made it easier to use. In some ways, this debate was never joined in the pages of the journal….”

Here, then, for the first time in English, is my article as it was submitted to Canadian Dimension, with a few outdated references removed. My approach to the “distinct society” issue is somewhat different from the FFQ’s, although not inconsistent with it.

Meech Lake: Myth and Reality

By Richard Fidler

Almost no one on the left likes the Meech Lake accord. But the critics differ on what is wrong with it, and what it means for the political future of this country. There is parti­cular confusion over Quebec’s status, federal-provincial rela­tions, and the role of judicial review. Clarity on these matters will strengthen the opposition and reinforce the unity of the left in Quebec and English Canada.

Myth No. 1. Quebec has gained new powers.

The accord inserts a clause in the Constitution recognizing that Quebec is “a distinct society” within Canada. This was instrumental in getting [Quebec Premier] Bourassa’s signature on the accord, which is said to “bring Quebec into the Constitution.” And this in turn has helped many who are critical of other provisions in the accord, such as Ed Broadbent and the NDP federal caucus, to swallow their misgivings and endorse the accord.

But recognition of Quebec’s uniqueness is largely symbolic, as critics in Quebec have pointed out. The meaning of “distinct society” is unclear: its content will be defined by the unelected judiciary — ultimately the Supreme Court of Canada, in which Quebec judges are a minority. The judges will interpret it in light of the accord and the Constitution as a whole. What do these indicate?

The accord does not give Quebec protection in the crucial area of language rights, so essential to the definition of its distinct character. Provisions in the Constitution Act, 1867 and the Charter of Rights that were used to invalidate large parts of Law 101 remain in place. One might think that “distinct society” refers at minimum to Quebec’s French language and culture. But the clause is subject to a “duality principle” which, among other things, requires the Quebec legislature to “preserve” the English-speaking population in Quebec, whose presence is stated to be a “fundamental characteristic of Canada.” This is a clear invitation to the courts to cut down Quebec language laws that are deemed to interfere with Anglophone “rights.”

In addition, the accord for the first time gives constitutional authorization to the federal government to initiate spending programs in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction — a power Quebec long resisted.

Quebec still lacks a comprehensive veto on constitu­tional change. In 1981 the Supreme Court said Quebec’s veto was only a “convention,” not law, and that the Constitution could be patriated without Quebec consent. Under Meech Lake, the require­ment of provincial unanimity in amendments concerning federal institutions is extended, but the general amending formula (seven provinces with 50% of the population) remains.

Most important, the “principle of equality of all the provinces,” specifically mentioned in the resolution for adop­tion by the legislatures, decisively undermines any real recog­nition of Quebec as a “distinct society.” This is why Quebec has no unique veto power; as Senator Lowell Murray, Minister of State for Federal-Provincial Relations, explains, “Once the principle of provincial equality was enshrined in the Constitu­tion on Nov. 5, 1981, the only way to give Quebec a veto was to also give a veto to all the provinces.” Thus, from now on, all provinces must consent to any constitutional amendment affecting the powers, number and method of appointment of Senators. (This effectively precludes any possibility of abolishing the Senate.) Quebec gets a voice in appointments to the Supreme Court and the Senate — but so do all the other provinces.

In addition, all provinces are allowed to “opt out” of federal shared cost programs and constitutional amendments that transfer provincial powers to the federal government. A province opting out will qualify for federal compensation if it “carries on a program or initiative that is compatible with the national objectives” established by the federal government (not Parlia­ment).

Opting out with financial compensation was originally devised in the 1960s to enable Quebec to establish its own social programs — medicare, university funding, pensions, etc. — without conceding any special constitutional status to the province. In theory the procedure was available to any province, but only Quebec used it. Now it will be entrenched in the constitution for all provinces.

Under Meech Lake, “special status” is given to all provinces, and therefore to none. The rationale: to avoid at all costs conceding any meaningful national character to Quebec. In legal and constitutional terms, Quebec remains very much a “province like the others” — but subject to continuing constitu­tional restrictions on its power to legislate to protect its distinctive language and culture. This is the primary injustice in the accord.

Myth No. 2. Meech Lake weakens the central state.

Many English-Canadian critics of the accord complain that it weakens the federal jurisdiction, which they see as the primary source of progressive legislation. They worry that the first ministers, in signing the accord, have surrendered some portion of Canadian sovereignty.

Thus, Larry Brown of the National Union of Provincial Government Employees says (in a brief presented to the parliamentary committee studying the accord) that it “means a substan­tial transfer of power from the federal to the provincial governments.” The United Electrical Workers (UEW) speaks of the “balkanization” of Canada and warns about “a continuous dynamic of decentralization” under the accord. The Canadian Labor Congress echoes these views while conceding it does not speak for its Quebec affiliate, the Quebec Federation of Labor (QFL).

The unions worry about the enhanced provincial role under the accord. And they argue that the vague spending powers formula opens the way to gutting existing federal-provincial shared-cost social programs, and may foreclose meaningful stan­dards in future ones such as the proposed childcare program.

Conversely, however, the requirement that provincial programs be compatible with “the national objectives” could pressure provinces to participate in programs determined by Ottawa. This may be objectionable to Québécois who wish to establish their own priorities in terms of national (Quebec) needs. As the QFL put it, in a brief to the National Assembly, Quebec has established some relatively advanced social programs in recent years: “Why should we recognize the federal govern­ment’s power to dictate our next public spending priorities?” An opting out formula that recognized Quebec’s unique needs would obviate this problem.

Making compatibility with national objectives a condition for federal funding of social programs does not necessarily bar pioneering reforms by some provinces; in fact, many social reforms in Canada have been initiated by provinces, such as medicare in Saskatchewan under the CCF-NDP. Much will depend on how restrictively those “national objectives” are defined.

Other arguments marshalled in support of the “balkani­zation” thesis are similarly unconvincing. The provinces may submit lists of nominees for the Senate and Supreme Court, but the federal government makes the ultimate determination. A province may negotiate an immigration agreement with the federal government that is “appropriate to the needs and circumstances of that province,” but any such agreement must conform to national standards and objectives set by the federal Parliament.

Nor should the ideological consequences of the accord be ignored. The Globe and Mail editors argue that Quebec’s formal acceptance of patriation and the Charter of Rights, and the enhanced provincial role in determining the composition of federal institutions, will tend to “increase the legitimacy” of those institutions “in Quebec and in the regions.”

Ed Broadbent was probably right when he told Parlia­ment: “The powers of the national Government of Canada have not been reduced one iota by this accord.” That is why the Quebec NDP opposes the accord — and why Broadbent supports it.

Myth No. 3. Increased judicial review will promote democracy and equality.

The underlying problem with Meech Lake is not the increased provincial input in federal institutions and policies, but the enhanced role of the executive, bureaucratic and judi­cial powers under the accord.

The role of the elected House of Commons and provin­cial legislatures is diminished through such means as annual First Ministers’ conferences on the economy and the constitu­tion. Mulroney and other first ministers are even claiming that none of the 11 legislatures “debating” the accord may amend it in any way. Intergovernmental agreements contemplated in the accord can bind successor legislatures, and leave no role for native people, Northerners or Francophone minorities outside Quebec who do not have governmental status. The Senate is here to stay. The amending formula becomes increasingly complex.

Above all, the accord effects a further huge transfer of power to the judiciary. Judges will have to determine the meaning of terms like “distinct society,” “national objectives,” and “reasonable compensation.”

Ironically, some critics of Meech Lake would rely on the courts to remedy perceived injustices in the accord, by extending the scope of judicial review under the Charter of Rights. Some unions and women’s groups are calling for an amendment that would make the “distinct society” clause subject to Charter protection of women’s equality rights. They point out that the accord specifies that the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society is not to affect federal jurisdiction over Indians or the multicultural character of Canada under the Charter. The failure to provide a similar exemption for women, they say, permits Quebec, in the name of promoting its distinc­tiveness, to override women’s rights.

In legal terms, the pro-Charter argument is less than overwhelming. It can also be argued, as does the Quebec women’s federation (FFQ), that in terms of the constitutional division of powers native people and cultural minorities are analogous with Québécois, in that they all have national or ethnic charac­teristics. Women, however, are not a nationality and there is therefore no need to mention them in the accord.

Politically, the pro-Charter argument is disastrous. It is offensive to Québécois, both male and female. It suggests that unless the Quebec government is subject to external consti­tutional constraints, it will continue to oppress women; that is, that the Québécois themselves are unable to eliminate sexual oppression. This position has divided Quebec and English-Cana­dian feminists and has been effectively exploited by Mulroney, Bourassa and other supporters of the accord to demoralize those in Quebec who criticize the “distinct society” clause as providing insufficient protection of Quebec’s vulnerable language and culture. (“You see, even this is too much for English Canada; it’s the best you can hope for.”)

The National Association of Women and the Law, tes­tifying before the parliamentary committee on the accord, cited the “potential” for “misuse of population control in the name of preserving or promoting distinct populations.” But the old stereotype of a priest-ridden Quebec engaged in a “revenge of the cradles” hardly squares with contemporary Quebec’s compara­tively progressive approach to women’s rights, reflected, for example, in the greater access to abortions. As the FFQ noted, “in Quebec, respect for women’s rights is increasingly a part of our political culture. The progress we have made in terms of women’s status is not unrelated to this characteristic as a distinct society.”

The federal government-sponsored Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women has even called for making the entire Constitution subject to the Charter — and for a judicial opinion on the accord before it is adopted by Parliament.

This resort to the Charter and the courts is misguided. As many in the left are coming to understand, the Charter of Rights is at best a dubious instrument for advancing the struggles of the oppressed and exploited.

Charter rights are abstract. Their content is defined by the judiciary, with its traditional conservative bias. Legal reasoning tends to discount arguments founded on history and class — essential considerations when assessing laws that engender inequality or that are designed to overcome it. Is it mere coincidence that the overwhelming majority of cases so far under the sexual equality provision of the Charter have been initiated by men seeking “equal” benefits for men?

The courts tend to favor the individual over the collective, and private enterprise over government. Thus the Supreme Court had no difficulty finding that the “fundamental” freedom of association in the Charter did not protect union members’ right to engage in collective bargaining or to strike, while the right of protection against arbitrary search and seizure protected the Southam newspaper chain from a federal law designed to curb monopoly concentration.

In fact, the general thrust of Charter litigation, as of all judicial review, is to restrain government action or legislation. This can be useful in some circumstances — for example in defending individual rights against arbitrary police action, or women’s right to choose against the criminalization of abortion. But what women, Québécois, and all working people need above all is positive government action that protects them against unfettered corporate power and the inequalities of the “free market”.

Charter litigation has definite limits as part of an offensive political strategy. It tends to divert attention away from the need for collective action to obtain specific reforms and governmental change, in favor of the courts and abstract judicial arguments of principle.

For example, opponents of cruise missile testing launched a court challenge under the Charter that received massive media attention. The courts in the end ratified the tests. Meanwhile, Operation Dismantle’s alternative strategy of promoting binding municipal referenda across Canada on cruise tests as well as NATO membership got lost in the Charter mania. Similarly, unions confronting wage-control legislation in several provinces chose to fight it with a Charter challenge in the courts instead of organizing on-the-job protests and strike action as they had in 1976 in response to Trudeau’s wage controls. Again, the courts upheld the legislation and the unions were back to square one.

An alternative approach would focus on rallying support for specific actions and laws rather than leaving the solution to the discretion of judges. For example, feminists say their desire to amend the Meech Lake accord is prompted by a recent ruling that the rest of the Constitution is not subject to the Charter. In that case, teachers and school boards in Ontario went to court to challenge the provincial government’s decision to extend Catholic school funding to senior grades. They argued that the protection of denominational schools in Ontario and Quebec in section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867 was contrary to the Charter. They lost. The Supreme Court said that it would not interfere with the “fundamental compromises” negotiated between the provinces and the federal government. In effect the judges threw the decision back into the political sphere, where it should have been all along. What should the Ontario teachers do now? Certainly not fight to make the Charter override the rest of the Constitution. Instead, they could join forces with the Quebec unions and community groups that have been fighting to secularize the schools by ending the religion-based distinctions in section 93.

The Charter directs us to rely less on legislatures and governmental power and more on the courts for solutions to our problems. It is no accident that its adoption coincided with the unilateral patriation of the Constitution following defeat of the Quebec referendum on sovereignty. The Charter is a cen­tralizing instrument: it subjects Quebec’s laws and government action to judicial scrutiny for compliance with a pan-Canadian jurisprudence. In doing so, it restricts Quebec’s capacity to develop its own institutions and laws adapted to its national character or distinctiveness.

Until now Québécois have been somewhat diffident toward the Canadian Charter. The Parti Québécois government was applauded when it invoked a Charter provision to exempt Quebec legislation from some key provisions of the Charter.

But in mid-April 1987, a few days before signing the Meech Lake accord,  Bourassa quietly let the provision lapse. With the accord, Charter politics now acquire greater force in Quebec — even though Quebec’s own Charter, an act of its National Assembly and therefore subordinate to the Canadian Charter, is in some respects more advanced. (For example, it prohibits dis­crimination on grounds of political views or sexual orientation, and it is directed against arbitrary discriminatory action by private agencies, not just governments.)

The proposal to extend the jurisdiction of the Charter, and therefore the courts, simply reinforces these trends. And it stands reality on its head. Quebec’s struggle for its rights as a nation, however imperfectly reflected in the Meech Lake accord, does not threaten the struggle by women against their oppression as a sex. The interests of Québécois and women lie in a common struggle against a central state that maintains the oppression of both.

[1] Flavie Trudel, “L’Engagement des femmes en politique au Québec: Histoire de la Fédération des femmes du Québec de 1966 à nos jours.” I am indebted to Raghu Krishnan for drawing this work to my attention.

[2] Jill Vickers, Pauline Rankin, Christine Appelle, Politics as if women mattered: A political analysis of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1993), p. 119.

[3] Toronto, Thompson Educational Publishing, 2nd ed. 1994.

[4] Trudel, op. cit., p. 253.

[5] Ibid., p. 254.

[6] Vickers et al., op. cit., p. 9. See also “NAC Response to Federal Constitution Proposals,” October 25, 1991. Copy in my possession.

[7] Trudel, op. cit., p. 285.

[8] Richard Fidler, Canada, Adieu? Quebec Debates its Future (Institute for Research on Public Policy, 1991), pp. 159-60.

[9] Ibid., p. 163.

[10] Ibid., p. 164.

[11] Trudel, op. cit., p. 292. My re-translation from the French.

[12] Ibid., p. 292.

[13] Ibid., p. 316.

[14] Abbie Bakan, Quebec: From Conquest to Constitution, A Socialist Analysis (Toronto: An International Socialists Pamphlet). A pdf copy is in my possession.

[15] Ibid., p. 3.

[16] Dated February 17, 1988. Copy in my possession.

[17] Cy Gonick (ed.), Canada Since 1960: A People’s History (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2016).