Canada: NDP breakthrough in Quebec -- a challenge for the Canadian left

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 independence.

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 seats.

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).

However, 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 party.

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

Over 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.

With the 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 years?

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

Despite 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.

It 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.[1] 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 landscape.

The Liberal fall from grace

For the 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.

In 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?

The 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 1995 referendum.

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 campaign.

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 federal level.

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 independence.

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.[2] 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.

The 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

Historically, 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[3] 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 “sovereignty-association”).

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.[4] 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

When 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.[5] 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.[6] 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 Quebec.

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 this process”.

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 territory.[7])

The 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.[8] 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.

However, 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?

It 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.

Does 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!

It 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?

The 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:

Quebec 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:

I 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.

As 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.

The 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.

Socialists 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale, led by Pierre Bourgault.

[4] Laliberté was a former president of the then teachers’ union (now the CSQ).

[5] For an account of some of the key steps in this process, see “How the NDP managed to win nationalist voters in Quebec.”

[6] 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.

[7] 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...

[8] 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...

A 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.

1. 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 2011.

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 to 23.4%.

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% in Quebec).

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 popular vote.

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 2008).

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 this country.

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

In 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”.

The 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.”

Québec 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 is concerned.”

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.

“Quebec, 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.”

Khadir then 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.

Khadir concludes:

“It 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.”

Optimistic 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 this.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Mon, 05/30/2011 - 14:15


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Layton chooses Supreme Court, Clarity Act over NDP’s Sherbrooke Declaration

By Richard Fidler

It did not take long for the NDP’s contradictory positions on the Quebec national question to surface within its new parliamentary deputation.

Yesterday, as Jack Layton presented his full caucus of 103 MPs — 59 of them from Quebec — to the media, on Parliament Hill, there was no denying the existence of deep rifts among them on whether Quebec has the right to self-determination, and what it means to defend that right.

In an earlier post, I pointed to the contradictions in the 2005 Sherbrooke Declaration, the NDP’s major statement on Quebec. A central one involves the party’s attitude toward a future Quebec referendum on sovereignty. The Declaration says the NDP “recognizes... that the right to self-determination implies that the Assemblée nationale [the Quebec legislature] is able to write a referendum question and that the citizens of Québec are able to answer it freely.” But it immediately adds: “It would be [up] to the Federal government to determine its own process in the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling” on the 1998 Secession reference.

The problem is that the Supreme Court ruling — and the federal Parliament’s Clarity Act, adopted in 2000 pursuant to that ruling — made Quebec sovereignty following a successful “yes” vote contingent on agreement by the federal Parliament. The Sherbrooke Declaration does not mention the Clarity Act. In 2006, Layton endorsed the Clarity Act, reversing his previous opposition to it.

The Declaration says the NDP “would recognize a majority decision (50% + 1)” in a referendum on Quebec’s political status. But the Supreme Court, in the Secession Reference, said the referendum vote must represent a “clear majority” on a “clear question” — as determined not by Quebec but by Ottawa and the other provinces, in clear violation of Quebec’s right of self-determination. Those conditions are now entrenched in the Clarity Act.

Responding in yesterday’s press conference to repeated questions by Quebec reporters, Layton first dodged the issue, then stated his own position.

“We’ll follow the decision of the Supreme Court judges,” he said. “We think that’s an appropriate framework. We don’t need to be revisiting legislation.” At the same time, he said in French that he stood by the Sherbrooke Declaration.

Other members of his caucus expressed differing opinions. Among those saying they would recognize a 50% + 1 vote for sovereignty were Quebec MPs André Boulerice (Rosemont-La Petite Patrie) and Guy Caron (Rimouski-Neigette-Témiscouata-Les Basques). Boulerice is also a member of the left independentist party Québec Solidaire. Caron is a former president of the Canadian Federation of Students. Both are trade union officials: Boulerice with the Canadian Union of Public Employees; Caron with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union.

West Coast MP Peter Julian likewise said a simple majority vote was the party’s position.

"The NDP has for years recognized Quebec's right to self-determination and for me it's clear that means the 50-percent rule must be respected," said Boulerice.

Among those expressing instead their support for the Clarity Act were Nova Scotia MP Peter Stoffer and Winnipeg MP Pat Martin. The latter maintained that there was no contradiction, that a simple majority was enough — provided there was a “clear question” however.

Le Devoir political columnist Manon Cornellier aptly summed up Layton’s dilemma. “Yesterday’s scene was the perfect illustration of a leader caught between a rock and a hard place,” she wrote. “And it won’t be the last time.” Layton says he wants to create “winning conditions” for Canada in Quebec and thereby avoid the referendum threat. “But one of those conditions is to speak frankly and forthrightly about the rules by which he intends to play. But can he do so at this point without upsetting the rest of the country, or Quebec?...

“For Jack Layton, the solution is through a Parliament that functions, that improves things for families, that produces changes in people’s lives. But the Harper government has a majority and is under no obligation to take account of the opposition, even if it is full of good will.

“The Mulroney and Chrétien [majority] governments sometimes gave a helping hand to the opposition parties, but only when the policies they defended divided their own caucus, as on the issues of abortion, the long-gun registry, gay rights and same-sex marriage. If not, the steamroller was the rule. To impose the GST, reduce transfers to the provinces, slash government spending, limit access to employment insurance.... It will be no different this time around.”

Layton’s fundamental problem is that he is trying to square the circle — claiming to support Quebec self-determination, and the nationalist aspirations of the vast majority of Québécois, while hoping to convince them of the merits of the federal regime and fend off hard-line federalists within his caucus. Layton’s “winning conditions” require as a first step a progressive federal government and a “parliament that functions”, impossible goals in today’s conditions.

The solution will not be found in Parliament. Nor will it be found in the Clarity Act or a judgment of the Supreme Court. And still less in the Sherbrooke Declaration. The Declaration was a transparent attempt to paper over contradictory positions, to reconcile rhetorical support for Quebec’s right to national “self-determination” with a commitment to federalist hegemony over any attempt by the Québécois to exercise that right.

For as long as the NDP had no real presence in Quebec, and no Quebec members of its parliamentary caucus other than Thomas Mulcair, a committed federalist and opponent of Quebec sovereignty, these contradictions could be covered up. But no longer. They are now mirrored within the NDP’s parliamentary deputation.

The NDP has no choice but to confront the Quebec question and attempt to develop a coherent and principled position. This can only be done through a wide-open discussion throughout the ranks of its members and supporters, and through engagement with the movement for Quebec independence — and especially with the progressive leading edge of that movement, Québec Solidaire. The debate must be conducted above all within the working class and its organizations outside Quebec, in the other provinces and territories. It is long overdue, and the NDP will pay a serious price for any further attempts to evade it.

It should be clear by now that no lasting resolution of Quebec’s national aspirations can be found short of a fundamental change in its constitutional status. It should be equally clear that only a successful drive toward Quebec independence can lay the basis for any genuine partnership of equals between the peoples of Quebec and Canada — including the aboriginal First Nations.

Canada’s ruling class, including its Québécois component, are firmly opposed to a sovereign Quebec and the prospect of losing control over what is at present a key component part of their state. They will use every resource at their disposal to fight the movement for Quebec self-determination and political independence. This poses an enormous challenge to the working people of Canada, who must be won to consciousness of the need for ongoing solidarity and active support to their Québécois sisters and brothers.

This will be no easy task. As the Le Devoir columnist says, it will “upset” a lot of people — conditioned as we are by the constant trivialization of “the Quebec question” by a hostile mass media and capitalist politicians.

“My message to Quebecers is clear,” said Jack Layton yesterday. “You can count on me to defend your interests.”

Layton may think he can be the sole arbiter of their interests. But the more than 1,628,000 Québécois who voted for the NDP on May 2 were not just voting for Jack Layton; their vote was for the NDP. It was their way of saying — within the constraints of our electoral system — that they wanted a closer connection with progressive opinion in the Rest of Canada than the Bloc Québécois was able to provide.

We cannot afford to disappoint them.