Québec: Québec solidaire in search of a second wind; Federal NDP meets in Montréal – another missed opportunity?

Quebec solidaire: a party of the ballot box or a party of the streets?

The first article below is a translation and slight modification of the original article published in French on Marc Bonhomme’s blog, March 29, 2013. The second article, by Richard Fidler, deals with the New Democratic Party's position on Quebec. Both are posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.

By Marc Bonhomme

April 8, 2013 -- Local and regional bodies of Québec solidaire are in the process of discussing and taking a first vote on the proposals from the party’s national bodies for its convention to take place at the beginning of May 2013. Political strategy, including the issue of alliances with other parties, as well as the choice of the male spokesperson for the party will undoubtedly be the central points of discussion of the convention.

With the possibility anytime of an election call in Quebec,[1] pre-convention debates must take into account the party’s stagnating poll numbers. Poll numbers are sitting around 9 per cent, but taking into account “strategic voting” pressures amplified by the first-past-the-post voting system, in reality poll numbers are similar to those at the outset of the 2012 election, a little more than 6 per cent. QS does not seem able to benefit from the Parti québécois (PQ) governance that is clearly to the right of that party’s electoral platform. And now it is challenged by the rise of Option nationale (ON). Although the latter has no elected member of the Quebec National Assembly (MNA), 1000 people attended its recent convention.

To better understand the debates within Québec solidaire -- which have nothing in common with those invented by Presse-toi-à-gauche[2] to salvage a dead-end constituent assembly strategy --we’ll rely, though not exclusively, on the very real and rich debates of the general assembly (in March) of the QS membership in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve electoral district [in east-end Montreal]. It is considered a winnable district and it has the third-largest number of party members after Mercier and Gouin, the two electoral districts that elected QS MNAs last year.

The four candidates for male spokesperson were each invited to make a presentation. This fell through when only one accepted the invitation -- Alexandre Leduc, the chosen candidate of the district for the next election. But if we base ourselves on blogs and web presentations, there are two candidates for the position who stand out – Leduc and Andrès Fontecilla. The former is a union staff person and presents himself as the youth candidate, emphasising Quebec sovereignty and electoral growth for the party. The latter emphasises the importance of internal party democracy and political campaigns. His background is in international solidarity and community organisations.

To make a long story short, we can refer to the former as the candidate of a party of the ballot box and the latter as the candidate of a party of the streets. This was especially noticeable at a meeting of the candidates in Quebec City when during a break in the proceedings, an improvised debate took place because people were fed up with monologues on different subjects that did not allow any differentiation between the candidates. On the key question of electoral alliances raised at the end by the audience, the two main candidates pronounced clear opposition. Fontecilla’s opposition was based on the differences with the societal projects of the other sovereignist parties, including Option nationale; Leduc’s was motivated by a wish to put an end to QS sympathisers voting for the PQ because of “strategic voting”.

The general assembly of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve also hotly debated electoral alliances. Apart from a few members favouring a broad alliance of sovereignists, the vast majority at the assembly voted for a third position not present in the convention resolutions book, for a rejection of all alliances. The resolutions book presently contains two proposals on the subject -- the first favouring a conditional alliance with the PQ, the other an open one with ON. The members in favour of a party of the streets said there is a programmatic incompatibility with the QS’ adversaries, whereas those favouring a party of the ballot box argued for a clear differentiating between QS and the PQ/ON in order to counter “strategic voting”.

The assembly displayed sensitivity to relationships with the social movements, an approach not present in the resolutions book. After refusing to amend the third stated objective of the QS electoral campaign, “a party capable of governing” (that is with a centre-left program), and removing the relatively more radical expression “social strike” in the original formulation, the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve assembly added a fifth objective for the party, which is “to explain the necessity of a strong social movement to build the relationship of forces necessary to put into practice an anti-neoliberal policy”. Though the assembly refused to consider an alliance with the social movements as a third position (in place of the suggested alliances with the PQ or ON), it accepted a complementary option to the resolution, saying that instead of simply rejecting these alliances, “Québec solidaire will propose an agreement with the different components of the social movements based on our program and their demands in order to mobilise their members to join our electoral campaign and, once in power, have the necessary relationship of forces to implement a common program”.

I have a certain discomfort not shared by my colleagues at the general assembly, namely, the two leading candidates for male spokesperson of the party are also candidates in two priority electoral districts -- Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and Laurier-Dorion. In my opinion, the president of the party, who is also one of its two spokespeople but cannot run for office, should be focused on building the party, especially the “party of the streets” side of Québec solidaire. He (or she) should be perceived by the public as having a position equal to the MNA-spokespeople. This would avoid having to start over with the position should the non-elected spokesperson be elected as a MNA and this would especially avoid the impression that the position of non-elected spokesperson (and president) merely serves as a stepping stone to the National Assembly.

Objections to this were voiced, of a pragmatic and electoralist character, saying the new non-MNA spokesperson, as a full-time employee, will have the time to campaign for election and so much the better if his/her function as spokesperson provides more visibility. At this stage of development of the party, the argument goes, we need more MNAs. Sure, in the end, we always need more MNAs to win the majority at the National Assembly. But we also never have enough time to build a party of the streets. It’s not enough to have a good mobilisation committee, a newspaper and a regular production of leaflets; as much for elections, we need to restructure the party for the purpose of connecting to the social movements, creating horizontal communication and a culture of debate, decentralising decision making as much as possible, and asserting tighter supervision of the national leadership by the party base.

Is it enough, however, to reject the alliance with the neoliberal parties, sovereignists or not, and to substitute for that an alliance with the labour and popular movements to reshape the party to act in synergy with the social movements? Is it not contradictory to have a great organisation to articulate the aspirations of the social movements but which merely smoothes out neoliberal policies to end up with an electoral position hardly different from the PQ and ON (see my article [in French] on this subject: “The urgency of getting the Quebec solidaire’s campaign out of a PQ rut”, Presse-toi-à gauche, 8/06/12) and, after the election, downplay the few anti-neoliberal planks in its platform (see my article, “Quebec Solidarity fails to oppose oil extraction”, 26/03/13)?

In these times of social polarisation, an economic crisis strangling Europe and spreading out from there, and an intensifying ecological crisis which multiplies weather extremes, left-leaning people are increasingly looking for a break from neoliberalism, if not from capitalism. They are looking for an alternative party, not just the kind of lesser evil parties like the PQ now in power (or Option nationale in its place), the New Democratic Party in power in Manitoba and Nova Scotia (or as the party would govern in Ottawa), or the Socialist Party in France (and the former governments of the PSOE in Spain and PASOK in Greece).

Even neoliberal parties have understood the need for marketing campaigns (to deflect attention from the fact they don’t offer meaningful alternatives). The Liberals have their Plan Nord, to expand resource exploitation in the north of the province; the Coalition avenir Québec is testing out its Plan St. Laurent; and Option nationale offers Quebec independence. Even the PQ has a variant—“sovereignist governance” and energy independence. In the last election, Québec solidaire offered “Stand up” for five main demands. These were: for a country -- but the PQ already claims that ground; electrified public transit -- another position shared with the PQ; for developing Quebec’s natural resources – ditto; retirement with dignity – ditto; free education -- they nailed that one, at least.

What about the QS proposal for a constituent assembly in which the party would defend the sovereignty option? A people does not go into political motion for such a vague or vacuous perspective. The peoples of Venezuela and Bolivia rose up for their second independence against imperialism on a program to nationalise their important natural resources, to radically redistribute income and to free their majority peoples of color and of indigenous origin. Their constituent assemblies then codified all this, albeit rather poorly and stopping short.

The continual softening of a program at least partially anti-neoliberal can lead to one like the NDP’s. We say we are against privatisation, but then speak in favour of small and medium businesses. That opens a slippery slope to supporting private day cares and subsidies to private companies for environmental objectives and exploitation of resources.

We call ourselves ecologist but no longer oppose drilling for oil in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (I await a criticism of this position by the new ecosocialist collective in QS).

We are against poverty but in favour of a social economy, that is, an economy of the poor, for the poor and paying the wages of the poor. We are feminist but in favour of the “domestic economy”, that is to say, of domestic slavery.

We should present ourselves as a party of ecological full employment, or at least a party of free services -- education, health care, including dental and optical care, child care, public transport, basic household electricity, broadband internet. Why not a party that champions independence in order to tax -- if not expropriate -- the banks and to protect the French language?

As Danton once declared as invaders closed in: “We need audacity, more audacity, always audacity!”[3] Québec solidaire is sorely lacking such spirit. That’s the price of this electioneering which is constantly watering down what was a more promising start when the party was founded.[4]


[1] Following the provincial election on September 4, 2012, the Parti québécois formed a minority government dependent on votes or abstentions from the Liberal or Coalition avenir Québec parties in order to adopt legislation.

[2] Presse-toi-à-gauche (Move Left) is a weekly, online news publication.

[3] Georges Danton was a radical, leading figure in the early stages of the French Revolution that began in 1789.

[4] Québec solidaire was founded in 2006.

Federal NDP meets in Montréal – another missed opportunity?

By Richard Fidler

April 11, 2013 -- Life on the Left, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- The federal convention of the New Democratic Party, the official opposition in Canada’s parliament, opens on April 12, in Montréal.

Although a majority of the party’s MPs (now 57 out of a total of 101) represent Quebec constituencies, its leader Thomas Mulcair is from Quebec and the convention is meeting in Quebec’s metropolis, the draft agenda indicates that little time has been set aside for debating the party’s approach to Quebec. The 122-page book of resolutions proposed by constituency associations, affiliated trade unions and party leadership bodies contains very little addressed to the national question.

This is unfortunate, as there is much the party members need to discuss — ranging from a new look at its existing position on the Quebec national question (the “Sherbrooke Declaration”) to Mulcair’s stated support for building a Quebec “provincial” NDP that would compete electorally with the pro-independence Quebec solidaire.

The Sherbrooke Declaration is now published as an appendix to the NDP program.

The party’s small Socialist Caucus, which exists mainly in the Toronto region, has sponsored noon-hour public meetings at the convention on the Friday and Saturday. The first, on “Quebec and the NDP” and “Why Quebec Students are in the Streets Again,” features speakers André Frappier, a co-leader of Québec solidaire, and Adam Szymanski, a Quebec student active in the recent student strike. The second meeting, on Canada’s military intervention in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, features Raymond Legault, a leader of the antiwar coalition “Échec à la guerre,” and Caucus chairperson Barry Weisleder.

The Caucus has produced an issue of its occasional magazine Turn Left for distribution to the convention delegates. It is also available for download at http://www.ndpsocialists.ca/. The magazine includes two articles by yours truly, one in English, the other in French, which I wrote at the request of the Caucus. Both are addressed to the NDP’s position on the Quebec national question, and in particular the federal party’s recent bill to reform the controversial Clarity Act. I am not responsible for the content of other articles in Turn Left.

Only one draft resolution submitted to this convention addresses the NDP bill; Malpeque constituency (in Prince Edward Island) challenges the “50% plus 1” test for determining the validity and legitimacy of a Quebec referendum vote for sovereignty. Other resolutions urge greater party support for English-French bilingualism in federal institutions like the Supreme Court and the CRTC, the federal broadcast control agency, and some terminological changes to reflect binational differences, such as changing “national director” in the party statutes to “federal secretary.” One, submitted by “Young New Democrats of Quebec,” advocates replacing the party’s support for “multiculturalism” with “inter-culturalism,” but without explaining the differences between the two, which are correctly viewed as significant in Quebec.[1]

The original draft of my English article had to be shortened, with my agreement, for Turn Left, owing to space limitations. It is published in full below. The French article, also published below, is an adaptation for a Québécois audience of my blog piece “The NDP Revisits the Clarity Act,” and was translated by Pierre Beaudet.

As regular readers of this blog are aware, I am a harsh critic of the NDP’s record on Quebec, and of the Sherbrooke Declaration. The first article, below, sidesteps some of these aspects and attempts to emphasise for NDP members the overriding need for the party to hold a serious discussion at all levels, but particularly in English Canada, on how the Quebec question fits within the development of a strategy for progressive change in what is currently the Canadian state.

The ‘Quebec question’: Despite progress, the NDP still has far to go

The NDP’s bill C-470, which would replace the Clarity Act and acknowledge the democratic legitimacy of a simple majority vote for sovereignty in a Quebec referendum, aroused a storm of opposition. Not just from the other federalist parties (which was to be expected), but also from the major media in English Canada.

Typical was an editorial in the Toronto Star, the only daily newspaper that endorsed the NDP in the 2011 federal election, protesting that the NDP bill “lowers the bar to [Quebec] secession.” The Star editors doubted whether the NDP, as “a party that aspires to govern the federation is prepared to defend it.”

More ominous was a Harris-Decima-Canadian Press poll in early February that found majority support for the bill only in Quebec, while in English Canada close to three out of four respondents were opposed. And a CP poll of provincial NDP leaders found that only one, New Brunswick’s Dominic Cardy, was willing to express support for it. The others, including the premiers of Nova Scotia and Manitoba, refused to comment.

Yet Bill C-470 simply applies the reasoning in the NDP’s Sherbrooke Declaration, adopted overwhelmingly by the federal party in 2006 as its current position on the “Quebec question.” The Declaration recognizes “Quebec’s right to self-determination,” which, it says, “implies the right of the people of Quebec to decide freely its own political and constitutional future.” If Quebec were to hold a vote on sovereignty “the NDP would recognize a majority decision (50% + 1)….” The Declaration was widely credited as a factor in the “orange wave” that elected NDP candidates in 59 of Quebec’s 75 electoral districts in 2011, hoisting the party to Official Opposition status in the House of Commons.

What does the reaction to Bill C-470 tell us about the challenge facing the NDP and its attempts to reconcile Quebec’s desire for change in its status as a nation with the party’s longstanding support of Canada’s federal system?

A tortured history

The Sherbrooke Declaration’s principled recognition of Quebec’s right to national self-determination — notwithstanding some ambiguities and contradictions, discussed below — represented an important step forward for the NDP, which since its founding in 1961 has struggled to understand Québécois dissatisfaction with Canada’s federal regime. The party’s firm commitment to working within the existing constitutional framework of the Canadian state has often collided with the pro-sovereignty views held by the trade unions and most progressives in Quebec.

In the early 1960s, the majority of NDP supporters in Quebec split to form an independent party, the Parti socialiste du Québec (PSQ), which called for adoption of a sovereign Quebec constitution and the negotiation of a new “confederal” accord with English Canada. The PSQ was soon eclipsed, however, by the formation of the Parti québécois, which expressed a similar objective of sovereignty followed by some form of constitutional association with English Canada.

Caught short by the rise of the independence movement, the federal NDP tended to tail the approach to constitutional reform taken by Pierre Trudeau and the federal Liberals as well as the Conservatives. It was an active participant in the unilateral 1982 patriation of the Constitution, which now included a Charter of Rights that would be used by the Supreme Court of Canada to void major provisions of Quebec legislation protecting French-language rights. Successive Quebec governments — sovereigntist and federalist alike — have never accepted the legitimacy of that Constitution. The federal NDP campaigned for the No side in both of Quebec’s referendums on sovereignty, in 1980 and 1995. And in 2000 the party’s parliamentary caucus — defying opposition by the NDP Federal Council and the Canadian Labour Congress — voted for the governing Liberals’ Clarity Bill, which makes Quebec sovereignty following a successful “yes” vote contingent on acceptance by the federal Parliament of both the question asked and the response given by the voters.

These actions effectively foreclosed any possibility of building significant support for the party in Quebec. Unable to build an enduring base of support in the province, the NDP for decades lacked credibility in both Quebec and the Rest of Canada as a potential federal government.

By the turn of the century, it was evident that no one on the federalist side could credibly promise renewed federalism. However, a Social Democratic Forum on Canada’s Future, sponsored by the party in the late 1990s, came up with a host of proposals for a change in the relationship between English Canada and Quebec, many of them later incorporated in the Sherbrooke Declaration. The adoption of the Declaration signalled a new readiness to rethink the party’s relationship to Quebec. And in 2011, this openness was sufficient to convince many Quebec voters, now looking for potential allies in English Canada in resisting a Harper majority government, to turn to the NDP.

The Sherbrooke Declaration

Despite its new recognition of Quebec’s right to national self-determination, the Sherbrooke Declaration does not reject a federal role in determining the legitimacy of a Quebec vote for sovereignty, nor does Bill C-470. The bill simply attempts to structure that role, in effect fettering the power of the federal Parliament to reject the popular verdict. It would accept a narrow Yes victory — and suggests some acceptable wording of the question — while proposing a similar procedure for a possible Quebec referendum question on reforming the Constitution short of secession.

The virulent opposition to Bill C-470 by the Harper government and the Liberals, however, demonstrates the complete unwillingness of Canada’s traditional governing parties and their corporate backers to contemplate any fundamental change in Quebec’s constitutional status. Typical was the reaction of Liberal leadership aspirant Justin Trudeau. “To bring forward that motion is the height of both hypocrisy and political gamesmanship of the worst kind. If I needed another reason to cross out the idea of co-operation with the NDP, that’s an obvious one.”

Both Tories and Liberals had hoped that the amending formula in Trudeau Senior’s 1982 Constitution — which makes any major constitutional change contingent on adoption by Parliament and seven of the ten provinces with at least 50% of Canada’s population — would rule out any possibility for Quebec’s legal secession from the federation. They are outraged that the NDP, with its modest proposal to accept a democratic majority vote, has now challenged this federalist consensus. We can be sure that they will hound the party on this issue in the months and years to come.

The Sherbrooke Declaration indirectly acknowledges the impossibility of constitutional reform to accommodate Quebec concerns. Instead, it recommends a limited practice of “asymmetrical federalism” that would “consolidate [conjuguer] the Canadian federal state with the reality of Quebec’s national character” by allowing Quebec to opt out with compensation from federal programs in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction. And its over-arching concept of “cooperative federalism,” an old NDP standby, involves not a reallocation of powers but a never-ending process of policy and program negotiation between Quebec and Ottawa and (in most cases) the other provinces and territories, negotiations in which Quebec may and often does find itself alone arrayed against the other ten or more governments. It is cast as a strategy for winning Quebec acceptance of a federal union even before any constitutional guarantees of its national character have been achieved. Fundamentally, this comes down to little more than the status quo.

Clearly, the ball is in the court of the Québécois to initiate and lead the movement for change in Quebec’s constitutional status, whether in or out of the federation. But is the NDP prepared not only to listen to this national movement and learn from it, but to work to create understanding and solidarity with the national struggle of the Québécois among its members and supporters in English Canada? Such solidarity is an essential ingredient in building a pan-Canadian movement that can not only defeat the Harper government but reverse the neoliberal offensive. This requires a much greater effort by the party in English Canada to address Québécois concerns — a major challenge, as English Canadian hostility to even the modest democratic content of the NDP’s Bill C-470 illustrates.

The Sherbrooke Declaration was adopted at a time when the pro-sovereignty movement was at an ebb, largely as a result of popular frustration in Quebec at the lack of success in previous attempts at constitutional reform as well as disillusionment with the neoliberal “zero deficit” record of Parti québécois governments. This may have given some credibility to the Declaration’s argument that Quebec’s aspirations could be satisfied without a change in its constitutional status. However, popular disaffection with the Harper government in Quebec offers the prospect of renewed support for sovereignty. On September 4, 2012, Quebec voters elected a PQ government, 40% of them casting their ballots for the PQ and other pro-sovereignty parties.

Impact of the ‘Maple Spring’

The defeat of Québec’s Liberal government was in part the result of the “Printemps érable,” the Maple Spring of 2012, which began with a massive strike by college and university students that eventually drew tens of thousands of other citizens into the streets in solidarity with the students and opposition to government repression. The students’ call for fundamentally rethinking the role of education in Quebec society and questioning the whole logic of neoliberal commodification of social services won the sympathy of many Québécois. The scope of this mass democratic struggle, and the profound social issues it has raised, have inspired many to think about how “another Quebec,” a society of social justice and equality, can be built as an alternative to the neoliberal regression of today. Their debates can inspire equivalent thinking and responses among other victims of the capitalist offensive across Canada.

Quebec sovereigntists are now attempting to refound the movement for independence in a series of meetings throughout the province under the aegis of the Estates General, a broad coalition of parties and other organizations. A pamphlet to introduce the debates, entitled (in English translation) “What Future: A Province, or a Country?,” lists no fewer than 92 “obstacles” to Quebec’s development under the federal regime, as perceived by its authors. Many point to what are undeniably fundamental problems with the Canadian federation.

The Sherbrooke Declaration noted that Québécois efforts to “build a social and political project based on solidarity” have been increasingly “centered around the Quebec state.” The Estates General pamphlet explains why. Not only has Canada’s constitution never recognized Quebec’s national character, it was historically founded on denial of that nationality in the wake of the British Conquest, the suppression of the 1837 Patriotes’ revolt, and the later denial of French-language rights in the other provinces. Most recently, constitutional changes and court judgments have imposed further obstacles to achieving national recognition under Canada’s federal regime. However, there is new hope for change in Quebec. As the Estates General document puts it:

“Today, in all parts of Quebec a movement is rising that resists cynicism and disenchantment, rejects the dictates of neoliberalism in the name of democracy, and seeks to reappropriate citizens’ action and implement collective solutions. In this forward march toward the common good, these forces are rediscovering the importance of the state in realizing this objective. However, the state to which the hopes and aspirations of a large majority of Québécois turn, the State of Quebec, is a truncated, padlocked and cordoned off state because it is confined to mere “regional” and “provincial” actions within the Canadian regime….

“Close to half of our budget is outside our control, and the Canadian government habitually invests it in areas that differ in priority from ours, contrary to our needs and our values. At a time when the future of the planet increasingly hangs in the balance internationally, we cannot collectively have a say, as our national state is constitutionally subordinate to the Canadian straitjacket.”

Québec solidaire: A new, progressive vision for Quebec

An important progressive component of this Quebec national movement is Québec solidaire, a left-wing party founded in 2006 following a decade-long process of coalescing left-wing organizations, including the remnants of the old Quebec NDP, with activists from Quebec’s social movements, including the women’s movement and many trade unions. Québec solidaire presents its program for fundamental social change in the conceptual framework of an independent Quebec that would act in solidarity with progressive movements in Canada and around the world. QS has about 14,000 members, slightly more than the federal NDP’s membership in Quebec.

NDP members and supporters outside Quebec can sympathize with the democratic and progressive thrust of this movement, even if many find it difficult to accept its sovereigntist conclusions. They have every reason to see themselves as partners in this process, and not its opponents. In fact, a powerful movement for social and political change in Quebec can only bolster all progressive forces in Canada.

But it will be a struggle. Many anti-Quebec misconceptions and prejudices have to be confronted and overcome. The NDP will face unrelenting opposition in its efforts by a hostile media, especially in English Canada.

However, there really is no alternative if the party is to build on its May 2011 breakthrough. And there is ample evidence that the needed reorientation of NDP thinking on Quebec, initiated by the Sherbrooke Declaration, can in coming years help to cement strong ties of solidarity between progressives in both nations — a precondition to turning politics in Canada toward the left.

Le dilemme du NPD

En 2006, le NPD avait surpris l’opinion en adoptant la « déclaration de Sherbrooke ». Cette déclaration, bien qu’elle dépasse le discours habituel du NPD, contient d’importantes ambiguïtés et contradictions qui en fin de compte nient l’engagement formel du parti à défendre le droit à l’autodétermination du peuple québécois.

Pas de réforme constitutionnelle

À un premier niveau, la déclaration n’aborde pas la question du statut constitutionnel, ni du point de vue d’une réforme, ni du point de vue de l’indépendance. Cette question pourtant centrale est évitée par le NPD qui préfère une approche bureaucratique et administrative. Le fédéralisme préconisé par le NPD n’implique aucune redistribution des pouvoirs et débouche sur un processus sans fin de négociation entre le Québec et Ottawa, et même avec les autres provinces et territoires. On demande au Québec d’accepter le cadre fédéral, avant même des négociations constitutionnelles qui pourraient éventuellement redéfinir la confédération et offrir au Québec des garanties sur son statut de nation. Cette approche, c’est ce que le NPD qualifie de fédéralisme « coopératif ».

La loi de la « clarté »

Il est encore plus remarquable que la Déclaration de Sherbrooke ne mentionne pas la loi dite de la « clarté », votée au Parlement en 2000 à l’initiative du gouvernement Chrétien. Il faut se souvenir que les députés du NPD (il y avait deux exceptions) ont voté en faveur de cette loi qui brime le droit du Québec à l’autodétermination. La direction parlementaire du NPD est allée dans ce sens en dépit de l’opposition au projet de loi exprimée par le Conseil fédéral du NPD ainsi que le Congrès du travail du Canada et plusieurs militants ordinaires du parti. En vertu de cette loi, un vote pour un « oui » serait soumis au bon vouloir du parlement fédéral et des autres provinces.

En janvier dernier néanmoins le NPD a proposé une nouvelle loi (C-470), qui obligerait le gouvernement fédéral à négocier avec le Québec dans l’éventualité où la majorité des Québécoises et Québécois votait pour la souveraineté dans le cadre d’un référendum. En faisant cela, le NPD a voulu évité d’être coincé par un projet de loi du Bloc Québécois (C-457), qui voulait tout simplement demander l’abolition de la Loi sur la « clarté ». Le projet de loi C-470 représente un certain progrès pour le NPD puisqu’il prend, au moins partiellement, ses distances par rapport à la Loi sur la « clarté ». Ceci dit, le projet de loi C-470 ne déborde pas le cadre conceptuel de cette loi.

Les « conditions » du NPD

Pour justifier son projet de loi, le NPD s’identifie aux principes énoncés par la Cour Suprême du Canada dans le Renvoi relatif à la sécession du Québec. Selon le NPD, la loi sur la « clarté » ne respecte pas ces principes de ce jugement selon lequel, dans l’éventualité d’un vote majoritaire pour la souveraineté, « toutes les parties » seraient dans l’obligation de « venir à la table des négociations ». Cette négociation, toujours selon le NPD), serait soumise au respect de certaines conditions :

* Le gouvernement fédéral doit déterminer si, à son avis, la question référendaire « énonce clairement la modification constitutionnelle envisagée ». Le libellé de cette question pourrait être par exemple : « Le Québec devrait-il devenir un pays souverain ? ». Ou encore : « Le Québec devrait-il se séparer du Canada et devenir un pays souverain » ? Si le gouvernement fédéral juge que la question n’est pas claire, il en saisit la Cour d’appel du Québec qui doit alors se prononcer sur la clarté de la question dans un délai de 60 jours. Si cette Cour déclare la question inadéquate, le référendum québécois serait illégitime. En d’autres mots, le NPD propose que le gouvernement fédéral (ou la Cour d’appel du Québec dont les juges sont nommés par Ottawa) ait le pouvoir de décider si l’éventuel référendum sur le statut constitutionnel du Québec sera légitime ou non.

* Dans la même optique, Ottawa aurait le droit de déterminer cette légitimité, non seulement en fonction d’une question qu’il jugerait « claire », mais aussi en évaluant l’ensemble du processus et de la procédure du référendum (l’exercice du vote, le dépouillement du scrutin, la transmission des résultats et les limites des dépenses, etc.)

* Une fois que ces conditions seraient respectées et qu’une « majorité des votes validement exprimées est en faveur de la modification proposée », le NPD voudrait que « toutes les parties formant la Confédération » (c’est-à-dire non seulement le gouvernement fédéral et le gouvernement québécois mais aussi les gouvernements de toutes les provinces et territoires) s’assoient et négocient la sécession ou le changement constitutionnel demandé par le Québec.

Où est le droit à l’autodétermination ?

Comme on le sait, la loi sur la « clarté » ne spécifie pas le pourcentage du vote qui constituerait une « majorité claire ». En réalité, les partis fédéralistes comme le PLC et le PC ont déjà dit qu’il faudrait plus de 50 % des voix pour que la sécession soit légitime. Pour le NPD, la position est plus nuancée. Dans la déclaration de Sherbrooke, le NPD affirme qu’il « reconnaîtrait une décision majoritaire (50% + 1) des Québécoises et Québécois » tout en ajoutant qu’« il appartiendrait au gouvernement fédéral de déterminer son propre processus ». L’objectif du projet de loi C-470 est de forcer le gouvernement fédéral à engager des négociations impliquant « toutes les parties formant la Confédération ». On évite ainsi la discussion sur le partage des pouvoirs et sur le fait que dans la constitution actuelle, c’est Ottawa qui dispose des pouvoirs réellement importants, tels le système financier et bancaire, le commerce, les affaires extérieures, les tribunaux et instances judiciaires supérieures, les forces armées et la police fédérale.

Une certaine ouverture

On doit cependant admettre que le projet de loi du NDP manifeste une certaine ouverture. Dans la clause 9 de C-470 par exemple, Ottawa et les provinces seraient obligées de négocier toute proposition constitutionnelle ratifiée par les électeurs québécois concernant l’intégration du Québec dans l’ordre constitutionnel canadien (soit la constitution de 1982 (qui n’a jamais été endossé par les gouvernements québécois), la délimitation du pouvoir fédéral de dépenser au Québec, les transferts fiscaux permanent et les normes y afférents, ainsi que le retrait du gouvernement du Québec, avec pleine compensation, de tout programme en cas d’intervention du gouvernement fédéral dans un domaine de compétence législative provinciale exclusive. Ces clauses pourraient renforcer la position du Québec face aux gouvernements fédéral et provinciaux. En substance, cette approche pourrait rejoindre la « gouvernance souverainiste » préconisée par le leadership du PQ en substitution au projet original.[2] Par rapport à un éventuel référendum, le NPD suggère qu’Ottawa et Québec négocient préalablement la question, un peu comme l’ont fait récemment les gouvernements anglais et écossais.

Entre l’arbre et l’écorce

Entre les lignes, il appert que le NPD cherche à dialoguer avec les éléments plus conservateurs du PQ et de la mouvance nationaliste québécoise. Il voudrait également se mettre de l’avant comme force politique capable de réconcilier le Canada et le Québec. Ce faisant, le NPD pourrait également apaiser les tensions qui subsistent au sein de sa députation québécoise (58 députés du NPD), qui semble-t-il ne partagent pas la même idée sur la question nationale québécoise.

Cependant, l’approche du NPD a été la cible d’une montagne de critiques au Canada anglais. Non seulement de la part des autres partis fédéralistes (ce qui était prévisible), mais également de la part des médias qui en général ont été très violents dans leur dénonciation de C-470. Le Globe & Mail, le Ottawa Citizen, et même le Toronto Star (le seul quotidien qui avait appuyé le NPD lors de l’élection de 2011) ont tous dénoncé un projet qui pourrait « faciliter la sécession du Québec ». Un parti qui aspire à gouverner la fédération, ont-ils dit, doit être prêt à « défendre le Canada ». Ces réactions n’augurent rien de bon pour Thomas Mulcair qui espérait attirer les appuis tant des nationalistes québécois que des anglophones fédéralistes modérés.

Au Québec, la réaction à C-470 a été plutôt tranquille. Les médias québécois ont surtout mentionné le fait qu’au Canada, il semble avoir un refus unanime des aspirations québécoises dans leur ensemble. Une exception cependant a été l’analyse de la correspondante du Devoir à Ottawa, Manon Cornellier. Selon Mme Cornellier, le projet du NPD pourrait réconcilier le caucus québécois avec le reste du pays où une majorité substantielle d’électeurs continue d’appuyer l’idée d’une loi qui pourrait contrôler une tentative de sécession. En substance selon elle, C-470 limite la marge de manœuvre et l’arbitraire d’Ottawa. Indirectement, il confirme l’appui du NDD au droit à l’autodétermination, à la reconnaissance d’une victoire possible du oui au référendum et au fédéralisme asymétrique.

Avenir incertain

Avec une telle manœuvre, le NPD espère satisfaire ses électeurs québécois. Le Bloc Québécois serait ainsi privé de plusieurs de ses appuis (les « nationalistes mous ») et ainsi, le NPD pourrait protéger ses 58 sièges. En tout cas cela reste à voir.

Car en réalité, aucun des deux projets, tant celui du NPD que celui du Bloc, ne seront adoptés ni même présentés au vote de la Chambre. De manière plus importante, le débat autour de C-470 a démontré l’ampleur du « non-débat » sur cette question au Canada anglais. Un jour ou l’autre, le NPD sera confronté à ce dilemme. Ou bien il est apte à proposer une nouvelle vision du Canada qui impliquerait sans ambages ni ambiguïté le respect des droits du peuple québécois à l’autodétermination. Ou bien il s’engage à défendre le statu quo quoi qu’il advienne. Seuls de grands bouleversements politiques et sociaux pourraient modifier la donne.[3]

Or justement, le mouvement Idle No More représente potentiellement une ouverture. Ce mouvement militant reflète l’opinion d’une partie croissante des Premières Nations qui estiment que l’architecture légale et constitutionnelle que lui a imposée l’État colonial canadien n’est plus tolérable. Il reste à voir si cette évolution pourrait forcer un réel débat au sein de la gauche au Canada anglais, qui était et reste ambiguë par rapport aux enjeux fondamentaux soulevés par les peuples qui réclament leurs droits.


[1] “Multiculturalism,” in federal legislation and the Constitution, places all ethnic cultures in Canada’s population, including French and English as well as those of other immigrant and settler populations, on an equal footing, ignoring the distinct national cultures of the First Nations, the Québécois and the Acadians. “Inter-culturalism,” a Quebec concept, emphasizes integration, not separation. It was defined by the Bouchard-Taylor commission on reasonable accommodation as “a policy or model that advocates harmonious relations between cultures based on intensive exchanges centred on an integration process that does not seek to eliminate differences.”

[2] Le nouveau ministre des relations internationales du Québec, Jean-François Lisée, a déjà proposé un « plan B » étapiste dans son livre Sortie de Secours: Comment échapper au déclin du Québec (Boréal, 2000). L’idée est d’organiser plusieurs référendums sur des besoins essentiels qui, s’ils étaient acceptés, imposerait un renouvellement du fédéralisme.

[3] Le NPD peut-il se rapprocher de l’aile progressiste du mouvement souverainiste, notamment de Québec Solidaire ? Pour cela, il faudrait rejeter la proposition de Mulcair de bâtir une aile provinciale du NPD au Québec (remise à plus tard lors du dernier congrès du NPD pour des raisons principalement pragmatiques). Le membership officiellement réclamé du NPD au Québec est de 13 000 membres, un peu moins que le membership de QS et de loin inférieur à l’objectif recherché par M. Mulcair (20 000) lors de sa campagne pour le leadership du NPD.