New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton.
By Richard Fidler
May 8, 2011 -- Life on the Left -- If New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton’s election-night speech to his Toronto supporters is
an indication of what lies ahead, the NDP is going to have a hard time
coming to terms with a parliamentary caucus now composed of a majority
of MPs from Quebec.
To a crowded room in which nearly everyone
was waving Canadian flags, the NDP leader delivered two-thirds of his
remarks in English without ever mentioning the expression “Quebec
nation”. The scene, televised across Canada, did not go unremarked in
Quebec, where most of the NDP’s sudden support had come from
nationalist-minded voters, including many sympathisers of Quebec
The NDP breakthrough was the big surprise of the
May 2 Canadian federal election. In a wave of support that developed into a
veritable tsunami, the NDP took 42.9% of the Quebec popular vote,
winning 58 of the province’s 75 seats under the first-past-the-post
system and defeating most MPs and candidates of the pro-sovereignty Bloc
Québécois, now shrunken from a caucus of 50 to only four MPs in the federal
House of Commons. And along the way the NDP candidates reduced the much
smaller contingents of Quebec Conservatives and Liberals to six and
seven seats respectively.
In the rest of Canada (ROC), the NDP
share of the popular vote increased from 17.5% in the previous federal
election (2008) to 26.3%, largely on the coattails of the Quebec surge.
But the party’s net gains outside of Quebec were limited to five new
With a total of 102 seats — 60% of them from Quebec,
where in 2008 the party took 12.2% of the vote and only one seat — the
NDP now constitutes the official federal parliamentary opposition. This is clearly a major
achievement for the party. It was won despite the almost unanimous
opposition of the big-business media: 31 Canadian newspapers editorially endorsed Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party; one, the Bloc Québécois (Le Devoir); and one, the NDP (Toronto Star).
it is an opposition with little parliamentary clout. Harper’s
Conservatives, known as the “Tories”, with just 39.6% of the popular vote,
elected 167 MPs, giving them a clear majority in the 308 seat House of Commons. As
for the Liberal Party, it elected only 34 MPs, an all-time low for that
The NDP can abandon its dream of “making parliament
work”. It will work well, but not for the NDP’s natural constituency —
what it referred to in the campaign as “working families”.
A new Conservative hegemony
the next four or five years, the reinforced Harper government can be
expected to pursue even more vigorously the right-wing agenda it has
followed for the past five years of its minority government: more war
and militarisation, privatisation of social services and federal
institutions (Canada Post?), the weakening or abolition of many
regulatory bodies, more “free trade” and investment deals, increased
spending on police and prisons, and a complete flouting of the most
minimal environmental measures that has already turned Canada into an
international pariah petro-state. Quebec will be further marginalised
through the addition of new parliamentary seats in British Columbia,
Alberta and Ontario, where the Tories are strong.
crushing defeat of the Liberals, Harper has now established the
Conservatives as the hegemonic party of capital. But this hegemony comes
at a price. Capital in Canada has traditionally ruled through a system
of alternance between Liberals and Conservatives, each ready to replace
the other if defeated in parliament or by the electorate. However, with
the crushing defeat of the Liberals, and the victory of the NDP, the
scenario has radically changed. Although the Tory government’s
parliamentary majority is secured for four or five years, the alternance
is now up for grabs. For Canada’s ruling circles, this poses a dilemma.
Should they bank on rebuilding the Liberals? Or should they start
thinking of the NDP as an acceptable government option at the federal level, as they already does in some provinces where the NDP has governed for many
Provincial office is one thing. But the central
government, with its crucial jurisdiction over banking and finance,
foreign affairs, the military, trade and commerce, criminal law and the
senior courts and judiciary, etc. — and above all its role in protecting
the territorial and institutional integrity of the state and
forestalling any challenge by Quebec to that integrity — that’s a
somewhat different matter.
The difficulty here, of course, is
that the NDP, created at the aegis of the trade unions in English-speaking
Canada, has historically been viewed by capital and labour alike as a
workers' party and for that reason has never enjoyed the confidence of
big business — despite all the efforts of NDP leaders through the
years to neutralise and overcome that antipathy.
For the time
being, a choice between a reconstituted Liberal Party and the NDP as the
party of federal alternance remains open for debate. The outcome will
depend very much on how the situation in Quebec evolves. Meanwhile,
Harper is being reminded that he must rule in the interests of the entirety of the capitalist class, and not just a right-wing faction of the class. Whether or not that will require him to rein in some of the more extreme rightist elements in his caucus remains to be seen.
Little policy debate
the serious stakes involved, the election campaign was characterised by
a remarkable absence of discussion on the major issues confronting the
country — from the wars in Afghanistan and now Libya, to the looming
climate and environmental catastrophe, the economic crisis and the
“national question”: the ongoing disaffection of Québécois with their
place as a nation in the Canadian constitutional setup.
In the media and
party platforms, voters were essentially asked to choose between
competing menus of promises that purported to increase their disposable
income in various ways, as if politics and citizenship itself involved
little more than a consumer marketing exercise. Most media analysis
during the campaign centred on speculation as to how many seats the
shifting percentages in the polls might yield to each party as a result
of tactical vote-splitting between parties in the multi-candidate
ridings. But serious policy debate? There was very little of that. It is
not easy, therefore, to decipher what the May 2 vote indicates about
shifts in public opinion.
Le Devoir’s Josée Boileau expressed the frustration of many on the lack of substantive policy debate, in an April 29 editorial on the federal election:
An ageing Canada is spinning its wheels [s’autosuffit].
It does not dream, does not assume new challenges, does not see itself
as a source of inspiration, nor does it draw inspiration from what is
done elsewhere. ...
Last week Le Devoir interviewed
Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations, who reported on his moves to
get the UN to adopt a Charter of the rights of nature. Bolivia itself,
seeing the climate changes that have melted its glaciers by one third,
adopted similar legislation last December and has appointed an ombudsman
to enforce it.
Moreover, the country dreams of an
international tribunal of climate justice, and of replacing the notion
of GDP by an indicator of sustainable development. In short, Bolivia is
talking 21st century! Here, we are still talking ancient Greek.
was also — and even more importantly — an election campaign nearly
devoid of serious mobilisations outside the electoral arena around
issues of importance to working people that could have contributed to
policy debate. The anti-war demonstrations in mid-April were small.
Despite the threat to abortion rights and equality legislation posed by a
Conservative victory, the women’s movement was largely unheard. A
Parliament Hill demonstration on May Day, initiated by the Hamilton steelworkers union locked out by US Steel, attracted only a thousand or
so demonstrators, although it was addressed in part to an issue of great
concern to millions — the vulnerability of pensioners who are being
deprived of their life savings and old-age security by corporate
bankruptcies and downsizing.
In the youth-based environmental
and social movements, many activists are inclined either to abstain from
electoral politics or to focus their political action on the community
rather than “national” level.
Some who did become involved in the election were initially at least
attempting to forge an informal “anybody but Harper” coalition that
could elect candidates of any party but the Tories. The NDP’s sudden
surge in pre-election polling tended to convert many of these to NDP
votes, which on election day helped to defeat a few Liberals and allow
the election of some Tories.
Notwithstanding the lack of
substantive debate, a few observations can be made, I think, about the
trends revealed in the May 2 voting. With special reference, as usual,
to Quebec, that deep and decisive fault line in Canada’s political
The Liberal fall from grace
Liberals, now down to 34 seats with only 18.9% of the popular vote —
their worst result ever — the election was catastrophic. Liberal leader
Michael Ignatieff, defeated in his own riding, resigned as party leader
the next day. Ironically, the voters’ immolation of “Iggy” coincided
with the news on election eve of the US assassination of Osama bin
Laden; Ignatieff first sprang to public prominence in the wake of 9/11
as a Canadian professor at Harvard who authored newspaper articles
defending torture in the pursuit of terrorists.
Throughout most of the 20th
century, the Liberals ruled as Canada’s “natural governing party”, the
party’s parliamentary representation traditionally drawn from most parts
of the country, including Quebec. That hegemony originated in the late
19th century when a Conservative government suppressed the
Northwest Rebellion of French-speaking Métis and Indigenous peoples and
hanged its leader Louis Riel. Quebec’s resulting hatred of the Tories
endured for well over half a century.
The Liberals’ slow decline
began almost 30 years ago, in the wake of the Pierre Trudeau government’s
unilateral patriation — despite unanimous opposition from Quebec’s
National Assembly — of Canada’s constitution imposing a complex amending
formula that virtually rules out fundamental constitutional change and a
Charter of Rights specifically aimed at overruling crucial features of
Quebec’s language laws. The Liberals' unpopularity in Quebec crucially paved the
way for the victories of Brian Mulroney’s Conservative governments in
1984 and 1988.
The Liberals enjoyed a decade-long return to
government beginning in the early 1990s in the wake of the defeats of
the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional agreements, which broke
up Mulroney’s alliance of western provincial autonomists and Quebec
“soft” nationalists and produced the Reform and Bloc Québécois parties.
In 2000, the Liberals were even able to outpoll Bloc Québécois (BQ) in Quebec as a
result of popular disaffection with the Parti Québécois (PQ), the BQ
counterpart, and the PQ government’s “zero deficit” austerity program.
But the Liberal Party was massively rejected shortly afterwards when the
sordid details emerged of the “sponsorship” scandal in which the
federal Liberals had spent millions of government dollars on illegal
funding to subvert the Quebec sovereigntist movement. Bloc Québécois
recovered its lead and the Liberals were once again relegated to their
largely Anglophone enclaves.
Having gone through three leaders in the last five years, the federal Liberals are now in existential crisis.
2006 the Conservatives regained office, this time as a merged and
blatantly “neoliberal” Reform-Conservative Party under Stephen Harper.
But they had few seats in Quebec, and now they have lost their tiny
enclave of ridings in Quebec City to the NDP.
The Bloc Québécois: An exhausted strategy?
The big loser in Quebec was of course the Bloc Québécois. How did this happen?
BQ originated as a party of disappointed federalists; its first MPs, in
1991, were Conservatives and Liberals who broke from their parties in
the wake of English-speaking Canada’s rejection of the Meech Lake constitutional
agreement, which had been intended to legitimate Canada’s constitution
in the eyes of the Québécois. BQ was to be Quebec’s agency in parliament during the negotiation of Quebec’s independence following the
When the referendum narrowly failed — just
under 50% of the voters opted for the “yes” — BQ evolved into an
insurance policy for Quebec, a means of avoiding the conflict of
legitimacy for the Quebec nation that had arisen in the early 1980s when
the National Assembly voted against the patriation deal but the Quebec
MPs in Ottawa voted for it. As such, BQ’s MPs, for five successive
elections comprising two-thirds of Quebec’s deputation in the House of Commons,
became an enduring symbol of Quebec’s alienation from the Canadian confederation. They purported to defend “the interests of Quebec”
conceived as a purely nationalist non-class specific counterpart to the
Parti Québécois and its bourgeois independentist perspective.
BQ’s program was similar to the NDP’s in many respects, excepting BQ’s allegiance to a sovereign Quebec — at best, proposals for modest
reforms within a neoliberal context. Where it differed, it was
sometimes to the right. For example, while the NDP promised to “review”
the Tories’ decision to spend billions on the purchase of new F-35
fighter jets, BQ demanded only that a “fair share” of the planes’
manufacture, deployment and maintenance be done in Quebec — a position
that grated on the antiwar sensibilities of many Québécois. However,
both BQ and the NDP voted with the Tories and Liberals in favour of
Canada’s participation in the NATO assault on Libya. And the NDP program
promises to “maintain the current planned levels of Defense spending
commitments”. This general all-party agreement on Canada’s massive
increase in military spending under recent Liberal and Tory governments
helped to preclude debate on foreign policy during the election
In recent years, with little prospect of an early move
toward sovereignty under the PQ, progressive opinion in Quebec
increasingly questioned BQ’s utility in Ottawa and began to look
for potential allies in English-speaking Canada. During the 2008 federal election
campaign, a debate opened up within the pro-independence left over whether to vote for BQ or the NDP.
It foreshadowed the movement from below that suddenly erupted during
this year’s campaign. And when the polls this April indicated swelling
support for the NDP, BQ reverted to its specifically sovereigntist
base, hoping to mobilise support through speakers like PQ leader
Pauline Marois and former premier Jacques Parizeau, ghosts of elections
past. This reinforced the popular perception that BQ had outlived
its claim to represent Quebec’s interests, broadly defined, on the
The NDP: A vote for the party, not the candidates
The NDP’s Quebec candidates surfed into office on a wave of popular disenchantment with the Tories, Liberals and BQ. A post-election survey by Léger Marketing
published May 7 reveals that the uppermost concern among Quebec voters,
including many former BQ supporters, was to find some way to block
the Conservative government and that BQ was no longer seen as the
best rampart. The NDP was perceived as the one party that offered some
prospect of change. At the same time, NDP voters indicated that the
potential for constitutional change was not a major factor in their
decision. The Québécois have largely abandoned any expectation of
constitutional change coming from Ottawa or the rest of Canada — which does not
mean they have abandoned their desire for greater national autonomy or
The huge majorities the NDP registered in many
ridings [constituency seats] were gained without real organisation or presence of the party.
However, it fielded a candidate in every riding, not only to sustain the
illusion of a potential party of government but also to benefit from
the generous state funding for every vote a party gets under the
election laws. Many of these candidates were poteaux
(“poles”), as they are known in Quebec — stand-in placeholders without
known roots as activists in unions or social movements in the respective
communities. At the outset of the campaign, they were not expected to
win. Some are already proving an embarrassment to the party, such as the
young woman elected in a rural 100% Francophone riding who does not
speak French, lives a three-hour drive from the riding and vacationed
in Las Vegas during the campaign.
There are some notable
exceptions, of course. One is Nicole Turmel, a former president of the
Public Service Alliance of Canada, one of Canada’s largest unions.
Another is Romeo Saganash, elected in a far northern riding, a Cree [Indigenous]
leader who was one of the negotiators for the United Nations Declaration
on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. At least one new MP, Alexandre
Boulerice, a trade unionist and environmental activist, is a member of
the left-wing pro-independence party Québec Solidaire; he was
communications director for the NDP campaign in Quebec and says he is a
supporter of Quebec independence.
Two of the party’s Quebec MPs
are former Liberals. Thomas Mulcair, deputy federal leader, was once a
cabinet member in the province’s Charest government and is former legal
affairs director of Alliance Quebec, the Anglophone lobby that has led
the fight against Quebec’s language laws. Françoise Boivin is a former
Liberal MP. They are committed opponents of Quebec sovereignty. The
particular views of most of the other new MPs are not known. It is a
safe bet that many support Quebec’s traditional nationalist demands for
linguistic, cultural and jurisdictional autonomy; some probably harbour
sovereigntist sympathies. This ensures a sharp conflict within the party
if the Layton leadership pursues the NDP leadership’s longstanding
dream of replacing the Liberals, either through elimination (their
original project) or merger — an attractive goal to them today, when
they could be in the driver's seat in any such agreement. We had a
foretaste of this in December 2008, when the Liberals and NDP signed
onto a coalition government agreement (with BQ support) in an
unsuccessful effort to defeat the Harper minority government.
electoral breakthrough in Quebec will — at least for the next four or
five years, the term of Harper’s majority government — bring the NDP
face to face with the reality of Quebec and the national question. This
will be a new and no doubt unsettling experience for the party and its
hundreds of thousands of members and supporters across Canada. If the
NDP is to develop a meaningful understanding of the national question
and foster relations of active solidarity with the progressive forces
within Quebec, it will have to jettison a lot of baggage from its past.
This will involve much more than a rhetorical adherence to Layton’s
concept of “asymmetrical federalism” — which, by the way, was not
mentioned in the party’s formal election program. The pressures will
grow exponentially if, as opinion polls predict, the PQ forms the next
government in Quebec.
A dismal history of failed encounters
the NDP has failed to gain even a modest foothold among Quebec’s
French-speaking majority. Shortly after its founding in the early 1960s,
the party’s Quebec supporters split, a largely Anglophone minority
refusing to follow the majority in establishing an autonomous albeit
sympathising Quebec counterpart, the Parti Socialiste du Québec. The PSQ
advocated a new constitutional relationship of two “associate states”,
Quebec and Canada, but was outflanked by the pro-independence Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale
and later the development of the Parti Québécois. (PQ founder René
Lévesque incorporated the “associate states” formula in his party’s
program, with the proviso that Quebec had first to separate before it
could negotiate a new relationship with the rest of Canada; he called it
In the early 1970s, the NDP’s
exceptional opposition to the War Measures repression in the October
Crisis attracted to the party a contingent of Francophones led by union
leader Raymond Laliberté.
At the party's 1971 federal convention, most of them allied with the
left-wing “Waffle caucus” delegates around resolutions in support of
Quebec’s right to self-determination; they lost interest in the party
when it subsequently expelled the Waffle.
In the early 1980s,
the NDP leadership under Ed Broadbent endorsed unilateral patriation
of the constitution without Quebec’s consent, and in 2000 the party
voted in favour of Bill C-20, the Clarity Act, which (among other
things) made Quebec sovereignty following a successful “yes” vote
contingent on agreement by the federal parliament — a blatant violation
of Quebec’s right to national self-determination.
This brief historical
sketch omits many incidents of a similar nature in the course of the
NDP’s problematic relationship with the Quebec national question. It is
now 50 years since the party’s founding. Whatever excuse there may have
been in 1961 for the party’s ambivalence on the Quebec question, the
electoral breakthrough today occurs in a very different context —
characterised most notably by the existence of a powerful
pro-sovereignty movement and the existence in Quebec politics of a
fledgling left-wing party, Québec Solidaire, which seeks to arm the
independence movement with a progressive social agenda that differs
radically from that of the capitalist PQ and BQ.
Yet in every
major confrontation over the national question that has arisen, the
NDP’s Canadian nationalism — its commitment to the federal state
structures — has trumped any sympathies for Québécois nationalist
challenges to those structures.
It need only be added that this
blindness, if not hostility, to Quebec’s concerns and demands has not
elicited major opposition within the NDP’s ranks. Globe & Mail political columnist Jeffrey Simpson notes:
“As we saw during the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional
debates, rank-and-file NDPers are no more inclined to humour Quebec than
supporters of other [federalist] parties.”
However, I would argue that
such indifference more often than not reflects ignorance of what is at
stake than it does conscious opposition to Quebec’s fundamentally
democratic aspirations as a nation with its own dynamic of development.
Getting up to speed on these issues now becomes a major challenge facing
NDP members and supporters in the rest of Canada. Let us hope that the
new contingent of MPs from Quebec can assist them in this task.
The Sherbrooke Declaration
Jack Layton took the leadership of the NDP in 2003 he undertook to
shift the party’s approach toward a more sympathetic stance on some
longstanding Quebec demands. In 2005 the general council of the NDP’s Quebec section adopted a document now commonly known as the Sherbrooke Declaration.
Entitled in part “Federalism, Social-Democracy and the Québec
Question”, it was subsequently endorsed by the federal NDP at a 2006
convention and is the most complete statement of the NDP’s current
position on the national question. What does it indicate of current NDP thinking?
The declaration is thoroughly federalist in orientation. It rules out any
prospect of constitutional change, the usual way the national question
is posed in Canada. It admits that the refusal of successive Quebec
governments (both sovereigntist and federalist) to sign on to the 1982 constitution “is a real untenable problem in the long term” but states
the party’s objective “in the medium term” is “to get results that could
allow Quebec to embrace the Canadian constitutional framework”. In the
TV debates, Layton referred to this as “creating winning conditions” for
The document refers to Quebec only once as a “nation”
(quotation marks in the original) and says that Quebec’s national
character “can be expressed in the context of the Canadian federation”.
It “recognizes Quebec’s right to self-determination”, but emphasises
that in the NDP view this right can be “exercised within Canada” and
that in any case it “is not useful or necessary” to “legally formalize
It says the NDP “would recognize a majority
decision (50% + 1)” in the event of a referendum on Quebec’s political
status but cannily formulates this as 50% + 1 “of the Québec people”
(and not voters!). And it adds that the federal government must
“determine its own process in the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling” on
the Quebec secession question (1998). That ruling specifically denied
that Quebec could secede without the consent of the other provinces as
well as the federal parliament, or without determining the borders of an
independent Quebec. (Significantly, the Sherbrooke Declaration, in its
definition of the Quebec “nation”, does not include a reference to
Sherbrooke Declaration does not repudiate past positions of the party
on the Quebec national question. In fact, it is explicit that the declaration “does not make obsolete the other positions taken earlier”,
citing (inter alia) NDP positions on bilingualism and
multiculturalism. French is defined as the “language of work and the
common public language” in Quebec; but Quebec’s Charter of the French Language (Law 101) says French is the
official language and the common language, full stop, not simply of the
“public” sphere. Instead, the declaration proclaims the party’s support
of the federal Official Languages Act within Quebec — a law that grants equal rights to English in federal institutions.
There is nothing in this document that is incompatible with the parliamentary NDP’s support of the infamous Clarity Act.
In fact, these positions are largely incongruent with the Québécois
nationalism that has fueled the province’s emergence as a self-conscious
nation in recent decades and — in the face of intransigent resistance
from Ottawa — stimulated the movement for sovereignty or independence.
these issues were not aired much in this campaign, other than in the
French-language leaders’ debate, when Layton sidestepped BQ leader
Gilles Duceppe’s challenge to support the BQ position on applying the
provisions of Law 101 to federal government institutions in Quebec.
A repudiation of sovereignty?
is unlikely that many of those who voted for the NDP were aware of the
party’s actual positions and record on these issues. For most, it was
probably enough to know that the party differed in significant ways from
the Tories and Liberals, and seemed more sympathetic to some of
Quebec’s outstanding national grievances. In any event, a commonly
expressed theme of voters’ comments in talk shows and media interviews
was that Quebec’s constitutional status would and should be determined
in Quebec, not Ottawa. Thus the “poteaux” phenomenon; people voted for a party, not the individual candidates.
the NDP sweep denote a repudiation of Quebec sovereignty by the
Québécois, as alleged by prominent NDP supporters in the rest of Canada, such as Stephen Lewis?
No serious commentator in Quebec — from committed federalists to
disappointed Bloc Québécois supporters — makes that argument.
Sovereignty still registers about 40% support in opinion polls, and the
BQ, while reduced to four seats, still managed to win the support of
23.4% of Quebec voters. It broods on the sidelines, hoping no doubt that
the NDP’s neophyte deputation in Ottawa will implode before the next
federal election, when BQ could again be a potential contender!
is significant, however, that once again the Québécois have voted
overwhelmingly for parties that do not form the government in Ottawa, a
manifestation of their alienation from the federal regime. (Prior to BQ’s formation, Quebec tended to vote in federal elections for the
party perceived as likely to form the government, in the hope that this
would guarantee it a voice in the cabinet.)
The durability of
the NDP’s gains in Quebec is by no means certain. The party faces many
challenges as the Layton leadership strives to incorporate its new
Quebec MPs into a functioning caucus in parliament, and the latter in
turn face a major challenge in the need to build understanding and
support for Quebec aspirations within the party, and among its
working-class supporters, in the rest of Canada.
And Québec Solidaire?
NDP victory is naturally attracting much interest, and speculation as
to its meaning, in Québec Solidaire, the independentist party of the
left that seeks office only within Quebec. In a post-election statement, Québec Solidaire co-leader Amir Khadir expressed regret at the BQ defeat, but
praised Layton for his “intelligence and understanding of Quebec”. The
NDP, he said, “will show itself worthy of the confidence the people of
Quebec have placed in it, and will reject the opportunism of the
federalist elites who interpret that support as rejection of the idea of
sovereignty.” And he added, in this optimistic vein:
has shown once again to what degree it is a distinct society. The
Québécois have demonstrated a thirst for change and an attachment to
progressive values. When the day comes that we decide to be independent,
no one will be able to prevent us. Independence does not belong to a
political party, it belongs to the Quebec people.
Responding to a reporter’s question at his media scrum April 21, Khadir noted:
think a Quebec in which Québec Solidaire were in power might be better
able to negotiate Quebec’s future, a sovereign future decided by the
Québécois, with a Canadian government led by Jack Layton rather than a
Michael Ignatieff or a Stephen Harper. It seems to me that this should
be obvious for most sovereigntists.
Writing in the May 3 issue of the webzine Presse-toi-à-gauche,
Bernard Rioux, a leader of the Québec Solidaire collective Gauche Socialiste,
welcomed the NDP’s gains and the division in the sovereigntist vote
between BQ and the NDP.
It is the sign that we in
Quebec can no longer present sovereignty as being beyond the left-right
polarization. Already, on the Quebec scene, the birth of Québec
Solidaire posed this need to link the project of an egalitarian,
feminist and ecological society, the project of national independence,
and the democratic process of achieving independence, as the three
dimensions of a redefinition of our struggle for national emancipation.
This is the orientation that should inspire us to redefine the struggle
for real social transformation and for our national independence.
Rioux pointed as well to the internal dynamics of the NDP. These, he thought, will also be radically transformed.
Official Opposition, the NDP will be placed in the centre of Canadian
politics. It will be traversed by a series of strategic debates: over
orientations in opposing the Conservative government, over relations
with the Liberal party, over Quebec’s place in the Canadian
confederation. With more than half of its caucus from Quebec, it cannot
be content with an economistic discourse in abstraction from all the
questions related to Quebec’s national oppression.... With the Canadian
nationalism that oozes from this party, and the presence of
sovereigntists in its caucus, other waves could shake the party.
election result is a startling reminder of the volatility of Quebec
politics. At the same time, it underscores the centrality of events in
Quebec, not only to Canadian politics but especially to the fate of
progressive forces in the rest of Canada. It demonstrates the potential
for Quebec to become, once again, a bulwark of resistance to the
aggressive rightist program of the Harper government.
in the rest of Canada will have to think about possible means of taking advantage
of this new situation, and especially of engaging positively with Quebec
progressives and independence supporters who will be encouraged by the
NDP’s electoral advance to take a new interest in developments in the
Canadian state. Notes
A notable exception to this pattern occurred on Vancouver Island, where
a community-based electoral mobilisation managed to elect Green Party
leader Elizabeth May, that party’s first (and only) member of parliament. In that riding, Saanich-Gulf Islands, the voter turnout was
75.3%, the third highest in the country. Overall, only 61% of the
electorate voted, not much higher than in the 2008 election.
Harper has promised to put an end to federal state funding of political
parties. This will be a harsh blow to the Liberals, while also
depriving the NDP of its major source of funds. As for the Tories, the
new “natural ruling party” of big business, they don’t need it.
 Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale, led by Pierre Bourgault.
 Laliberté was a former president of the then teachers’ union (now the CSQ).
 For an account of some of the key steps in this process, see “How the NDP managed to win nationalist voters in Quebec.”
To my knowledge, the federal NDP has never published the Sherbrooke
Declaration, although it was frequently cited in the Quebec media during
the recent campaign. A few NDP candidates in Quebec linked to it on
their web sites. The English version cited here was published
bilingually by Layton’s then “Quebec lieutenant” Pierre Ducasse when he
ran unsuccessfully in the 2008 election campaign.
 This is not a trivial question. As Pierre Dubuc, editor of the left sovereigntist monthly L’aut’journal notes,
“When Stephen Harper speaks of the Québécois nation, he refers to the
‘Québécois’ and not Quebec — as a diplomatic note of the U.S. Embassy,
revealed this week by Wikileaks, has just reminded us. This does not
involve recognition of Quebec territory.... This opens the door to
partition of Quebec territory. Soon after the 1995 referendum Harper, a
[Reform party] MP, tabled a private bill describing the procedure to be
followed for partitioning Quebec in the case of a possible victory of
the Yes.” Just as the British did in separating Northern Ireland from
Ireland when conceding the latter’s independence! Divide and rule...
 Jack Layton was critical of the Clarity Act, adopted before he was an MP, but later repudiated his opposition.
[This article first appeared at Richard Fidler's Life on the Left website. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with his permission.]
Postscript: More on that election
By Richard Fidler
May 18, 2011 -- Life on the Left -- Some further thoughts about Canada’s May 2 federal election and its implications for the left...
reader asked me what I thought about the significant decline in the
combined votes for the capitalist parties over the last decade — from
78.5% for the Liberals, Progressive Conservatives and Alliance in 2000,
to 59% for the Liberals and Conservatives in 2011.
I think the figures reflect three developments, essentially.
The ongoing decline of the Liberals. The combined Tory/Reform/Alliance
vote in 2000 is 37.7%, exactly the same percentage as the Tories got in
2008. They increased this only slightly, to 39.6%, in 2011. But the
Liberals have declined steadily throughout this period: from 40.8% in
2000, to 36.7% in 2004, to 30.2% in 2006, to 26.3% in 2008, to 18.9% in
2. The shift between the Bloc Québécois vote and the
NDP in Quebec in 2011. The BQ took 39.9% in 2000, 48.9% in 2004, 42.1%
in 2006, 38.1% in 2008 (about where it was in 2000). But in 2011 it sank
3. The ongoing increase in the NDP vote, and of
course the surge in 2011. The NDP polled 8.5% in 2000 (1.8% in Quebec),
15.7% in 2004 (4.6% in Quebec), 17.5% in 2006 (7.5% in Quebec), 18.2% in
2008 (12.2% in Quebec). Then the party surges to 33.1% in 2011 (42.9%
A closer analysis might show that the
NDP has been steadily gaining support against the Liberals, and in 2011
it also overtook the Bloc. More than 4.5 million people voted for the
NDP on May 2, about 2 million more than in 2008 — a huge shift in the
A possible hypothesis: The trends reflect a
polarization of opinion, with the Liberals being the main losers
(especially outside Quebec), mainly to the NDP. In 2011, Quebec caught
up with this trend in the Rest of Canada (ROC); a Léger post-election
poll published in Le Devoir indicates that a desire to forestall a
Conservative majority in Ottawa was the primary factor motivating
Quebec’s NDP voters. Harper and the mass media campaigned for a majority
government, free at last to implement their “full” program. In turn,
the broad “left” and “progressive” milieu in the ROC made the danger of a
Harper majority the main issue. This was noticed in Quebec, where it
was interpreted by many as well as a further threat to Quebec’s national
interests and integrity. This fed into a debate that had been
developing for some years: was the Bloc’s presence a sufficiently
effective means of warding off these dangers? Could the NDP, the only
potential alternative, be of use?
And Francophone Quebec, when
it detects a developing shift in opinion, tends to vote as a nation,
particularly in the federal context, a reflection of its consciousness
as a national minority that is wary of federal intrusion on its
jealously guarded jurisdictions, especially in the realm of language and
culture. In 2011 public opinion seems to have reached a kind of tipping
point, when the NDP vote in Quebec suddenly ballooned at the expense of
the declining Bloc (already down from almost 49% in 2004 to 38% in
I should add, perhaps, that the shift to the NDP from the
Liberals (and now the Bloc) is most remarkable because it largely
occurs outside of any real increase in extra-parliamentary mobilization.
What the NDP seems to offer for many of its voters, I suspect,
is a way to compensate for their perceived lack of perspectives; a
means to fend off worse attacks by the capitalists, but without much
sense of taking a radical turn. Layton’s campaign seemed cleverly
calculated to appeal to that lowest common denominator of potential
support: modest tinkering in the interests of “working families”, with a
cheerful message that no one need feel threatened. Nevertheless, the
voters’ turn to the NDP, elevating it to Official Opposition status —
within striking distance of forming the federal government — represents a
huge collective protest against the right-wing thrust of politics in
Obviously, there is much more to be said — for
example, about the nature of this electoral polarization, and the
development of the Reform-Alliance formations in the 1990s, their
takeover of the Progressive Conservative party a decade ago, and the
social bases, content and aims of this very conscious right-wing
formation (and social and ideological coalition) now enjoying
unprecedented control of the federal government. But for socialists the
key question to think about now is what the election means for the
course of working-class politics in Canada in the next period.
Amir Khadir: Quebec vote shows need for a left strategy for independence
the coming weeks, I plan to report and sometimes comment on various
interpretations of the results that are being made within left and
progressive circles. I will start today with a major op-ed article in
the May 14 issue of Le Devoir by Amir Khadir, the Québec Solidaire member of Quebec’s National Assembly: “After the federal elections: the Quebec that awaits us”. Khadir makes a number of points worth pondering.
He begins with a comment similar to earlier ones he made,
to the effect that the NDP surge in Quebec is a good thing, but he
regrets that the Bloc suffered such a defeat. (In passing, he says he
voted NDP in his riding against his good friend [BQ leader] Gilles
Duceppe, and would not have done so had he known Duceppe would
personally be defeated; but he adds that the elected NDPer, Hélène
Laverdière (a long-time Canadian foreign service officer) “will make an
excellent MP for Quebec.”
Khadir says he was voting pragmatically, against Harper and to strengthen the NDP’s rise in Canada. This “vote utile”,
he says, by contributing to the defeat of Bloc Québécois MPs like
Duceppe, illustrates a problem “that must be addressed frankly in the
independentist movement”: the lack of a system of proportional
representation. The first-past-the-post system resulted in the Bloc,
with almost a quarter of the votes in Quebec, getting only one-twentieth
of the seats. We now have to grasp, he says, “the danger that the lack
of a proportional voting system poses for any sovereigntist formation”.
second lesson of the Quebec results, says Khadir, is “the political
exhaustion of a certain sovereigntist orthodoxy”. He points to “a new
electoral dynamic”: “emergence of a new left-right electoral anchorage;
massive rejection of the Charest [Quebec] government; lack of enthusiasm
about the PQ, which is perceived by some as belonging to the power
élite and distresses others by its refusal to engage in the necessary
fight for independence.”
Who will benefit from this new
configuration of the political landscape, he asks. “Everyone thinks of
QS, but our formation still has a long way to go before it can arouse
such passion. However, no party can now consider itself the proprietor
of the sovereigntist vote.... No party is immune to reverses from the
‘useful vote’ and the aberrations of the present electoral system.”
Solidaire has consistently campaigned for reform of the electoral
system to include some form of proportional representation. A poll
released May 14 in Le Devoir shows QS with 9% popular support; a
system of PR could give it 10 seats or more with a vote like that.
(Khadir is so far its only elected member.)
As to the defeat of
the BQ, says Khadir, the “new electoral dynamic” reflects “the
exhaustion of the strategy that the leadership of the sovereigntist
movement has pursued federally through the BQ.” He quotes Duceppe, at
the PQ convention in April: “Electing as many sovereigntists as possible
in Ottawa... for the next stage, electing a Parti Québécois government
in Quebec City... [and] it all becomes possible, as far as sovereignty
The basic problem with the BQ-PQ scenario, says
Khadir, is that it bases a strategy for Quebec independence on
alienation from Canada. “But the approach has failed; it is time to try
something else. And this cannot be strictly electoral, derived from
above by some elected members lying in wait for fleeting winning
conditions” — a reference to the PQ’s oft-repeated formula for a
referendum victory based on taking advantage of the opportunity afforded
by a conjunctural set of circumstances, such as the 1990 defeat of the
Meech Lake constitutional amendment package.
this country of projects that awaits us,” says Khadir, “can only be
born from the firm will of our people and the dreams that sustain it.
Quebec’s march toward its independence cannot be fueled by resentment.
We have to imagine a strategy by which the acts taken for Quebec are
aimed toward a ‘rupture de dépassement’ [freely, a challenging
break from the present]. Innovating socially and economically. Taking
the ecological and political turn that can reveal the exciting potential
of freedom to our own people. It must be positive, and necessarily
involve huge popular mobilizations.”
draws attention to Québec Solidaire’s concept of moving toward
sovereignty through a constituent assembly that would help build a
stronger relationship of forces in favour of independence, with a
compelling legitimacy. The party counterposes this to the PQ’s top-down
referendum strategy that excludes popular participation in formulating a
program for an independent Quebec.
will be up to our people to decide. And when they have decided, since
any independence will involve negotiations for new collaborations and
agreements, Quebec will have every interest in seeing that a more open
Canada emerges, under the leadership of principled, generous and open
people — like Jack Layton and the NDP, who have undertaken to respect
our right to self-determination.”
language, to be sure — and at this stage, excessively so! But the point
is well made: The Quebec independence movement cannot overlook the need
to win friends and allies in the Rest of Canada. And the NDP victories
in the recent election, in a context of developing or deepening
ideological, political and class polarization in the electorate in both
Quebec and the Rest of Canada, open some new perspectives for doing