Canada, Quebec and the Left: Outflanked Again?

The surprise Conservative motion recognizing that the “Québécois form a nation within a united Canada” and the unexpected selection of Chrétien protégé, technocrat and Clarity Act point man Stéphane Dion as Liberal leader have shown (yet again) just how important Quebec is to Canadian political life. And for at least the fifth time in the last quarter century, the Left has been caught flatfooted by developments shaped by Quebec’s weight in the federation and its enduring national aspirations. Still, the present context is fluid enough that the Left can win a hearing for a very different approach to the “constitutional” file. We cannot and need not allow ourselves to be outflanked by the cynical manoeuvering of the Conservatives or bamboozled by the Liberals into a “patriotic alliance” against virtually the entire spectrum of Left-progressive opinion in Quebec.

If nothing else, the Conservative motion and the cliffhanger Liberal leadership race confirm that we are living through a period of tremendous volatility in elite-level politics, particularly electoral volatility, in this country. The present volatility is striking in several respects, not least that, save for the honourable exception of the new left-wing Québec Solidaire party in Quebec, social-movement and activist-Left politics in the country are at a very low ebb indeed. It is safe to say that the turbulence “above” has not been caused by upheaval from “below” – not in the immediate, massive country-wide marches in-the-street sense at any rate.

Of course, the paradox of social stability and the elite and party consensus on neoliberal policies, alongside electoral volatility, is hardly a new feature of Canadian politics. More so than that of many other places, Canada’s history is an extremely fragmented affair, driven by conquest, dirty tricks and repression of sporadic episodes of rebellion, followed by elite-level bickering and accommodation lorded over the country’s multi-ethnic working classes and dominated peoples – first and foremost Aboriginal peoples, but also the people of Quebec and French-speaking minorities in the rest of Canada.

Though difficult, it is necessary to chart a way forward out of the current mess from a Left-progressive perspective: against the neoliberal, technocratic, authoritarian drift of mainstream political and institutional life, and toward a radical solution genuinely reflective of Canada’s complex multinational, multi-ethnic and regional realities.

With this in mind, this essay presents five arguments about the present situation in the country. First, while the Conservatives have more margin for manoeuvre in the present context, the most likely outcome is that neither they nor the Liberals will be able to form a majority government out of elections held any time soon.

Second, the Bloc Québécois’ (BQ) confused and ultimately supportive position on the Harper motion has highlighted the impasse of mainstream sovereignism as represented by the BQ and the Parti Québécois (PQ). Both parties are unable and unwilling to break free of the neoliberal policy straitjacket and institutional ground rules of the Canadian state.

Third, neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals can resolve what can be described as the longer-term crisis of legitimacy and representation of their parties and of the federal system itself, especially in Quebec. Quebec remains at the heart of the longer-term “crisis of representation” of the federal system, a crisis further exacerbated by the way neoliberalism has narrowed the social base of party-electoral-institutional politics in the country.

Fourth, after the relatively upbeat period stretching from the anti-globalization protests of 1999-2001 through to the 2004 and 2006 federal elections under NDP leader Jack Layton, the Left finds itself in a tight spot once again. Passiveness in the area of social-movement struggle is combined with a threat to the modest electoral gains made in recent years.

Finally, the social and political Left should see the current fluid context as a window of opportunity for advancing a radically different, multinational vision of the federation, as a central component of an anti-neoliberal project – in line with the Bolivarian project for the Americas taking root across Latin America.

A Crisis of Political Representation

There is currently a “crisis of political representation” in Canada. This has several aspects: the regional fragmentation of the party system in Canada; the lack of proportional representation and the marginalization of many political viewpoints from electoral representation; the under-representation of urban voters; and the failure of the federal system to accommodate the Aboriginal and Quebec peoples within Canada. The most recent expression of this crisis was the inability of any pan-Canadian party to form a majority government in either the June 2004 or the January 2006 federal elections.

This failure of the two main parties has its immediate origins in the organizational and electoral collapse of the federal Liberals in Quebec in the wake of the sponsorship scandal and the revelations of the Gomery Commission about this scandal. This collapse was in turn the result of the rot that had set in to the system of patronage and kickbacks the federal Liberals had established in Quebec to “rebuild” the party after Trudeau’s unilateral repatriation of the constitution in the early 1980s severely undermined the party’s historic foothold in the province and consigned the federal Liberal Party to the doghouse during the Mulroney years. The “rebuilding” was stepped up once the Liberals returned to power in Ottawa in 1993, under Trudeau’s constitutional comrade-in-arms Jean Chrétien, and were in short order confronted with a referendum on sovereignty in Quebec and the breathtakingly near victory of the pro-sovereignty forces.

The further collapse of the Liberal machine in Quebec created a big void in the party-electoral sphere of mainstream politics. It is no surprise that the Conservatives would seek to exploit this for tactical-electoral reasons. The unexpected Conservative mini-breakthrough in the 2006 elections, going from nothing to a 10-member Quebec caucus – on the basis of vague promises to address Quebec’s traditional fiscal concerns, overtures to the Liberal provincial government of former federal Tory leader Jean Charest, and an active pursuit of the Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) hard-Right electorate in a handful of ridings in the Quebec City area – gave them further reason to pursue this tack. The Conservatives know as well as anyone that, given the country’s other divisions, the size of Quebec and the importance of Quebec representation for achieving political legitimacy, a sizeable Quebec caucus is vital for securing a stable majority.

In light of these shorter term electoral calculations, some panic was surely setting in Conservative ranks: far from building on its gains in the January elections, the party was dropping in the polls in Quebec. Opposition there is strongest to Harper’s hard-Right stance on the Afghanistan “mission”, the Kyoto Protocol, gay marriage and recent Israeli aggression in Lebanon and the occupied territories. Once the Liberals chose a new leader, it was also inevitable that they would recover somewhat from their 2006 electoral nadir in Quebec. This would, of course, improve the Liberal seat tally and/or split the “federalist” vote and hand seats back to the BQ. Harper made a quick but focused decision to “push the envelope” of the Quebec national question, offering symbolic recognition of Quebec’s distinctiveness in Canada, in an attempt to restore his party’s fortunes in the province and short-circuit the political gamesmanship of the other parties around this issue.

The Harper initiative also sought to exploit the wide margin for manoeuvre the Harper minority government appears to enjoy, at least for the time being. After the defection of the Quebec-sovereignist wing of the Mulroney alliance, followed by years of division between the traditional Tory party and the Western regionalist and ideological hard-Right Reform Party, Harper has emerged as the Conservative champion. He has no challengers in sight, the antics of a few Mulroney-era hucksters like Garth Turner notwithstanding. Bay Street has, moreover, effortlessly shifted its allegiances from Paul Martin to Harper and Finance minister Jim Flaherty and cut them a tremendous amount of slack, as the corporate world’s prompt acquiescence to the stunning volte-face on income trusts most recently proved. From such a position of strength, Harper can afford to rile some of his supporters in the rest of Canada in exchange for making inroads into Quebec and (he hopes) resurrecting the old Mulroney-era alliance with a section of Quebec nationalists.

This is made still easier by the fact that the Bloc Québécois has yet to recover from the shock it received in the 2006 elections – blindsided by the Conservatives’ ability to occupy some of the wide-open space created among federalist voters in Quebec by the Liberal collapse. With a relatively friendly federalist premier, Jean Charest, in office in Quebec City, the Harper Conservatives decided that this was as good a time as any to strike. It is also not at all clear that Charest will last another term; closer collaboration around the national question is deemed to be in the electoral interest of both the federal Conservatives and the Quebec Liberals.

The Harper “Québécois nation” motion and the selection of Stéphane Dion as Liberal leader partially fulfill each camp’s short-term objectives – increasing the party’s appeal in Quebec in the case of the Conservatives; overcoming internal division and presenting a united public face in the case of the Liberals. However, while it is by definition hazardous to forecast election results in such a volatile period, both parties’ gains appear both insufficient and mutually exclusive.

The Impasse of the Bloc Québécois and the Parti Québécois

While it makes sense to describe the main political contest in Quebec as one between “federalists” (the Quebec Liberals) and “sovereignists” (the PQ), the term “federalist” does not quite apply to the position of the mainstream pan-Canadian parties on Quebec. “Centralist” would be a more accurate label. Whatever their differences about socio-economic policy or even about the rights and responsibilities of provinces, the pan-Canadian parties are unanimous in asserting the primacy of the central Canadian state over recognition and accommodation of Quebec’s national reality within the federation.

Within Quebec, on the other hand, the majority of “federalists” and all “sovereignists” take Quebec’s national status and demands as a starting point, the debate being about (among other things) how best to pursue the Quebec national project in relation to the Canadian state. This is why the two main Quebec parties rejected both the Trudeau constitutional deal of the early 1980s and the more recent Clarity Act. Both ran roughshod over the prevailing conception in Quebec that Quebec is (or should be) an equal partner in a bi-national (or multinational) federation. From the Confederation debates in the mid-19th century until the present day, this has remained the dominant conception in Quebec of its place in Canada. Outside Quebec, though, the emergence of the Canadian national project in the post-War period – and especially from the late 1960s onwards – has tended to negate the very idea of a federal pact between the “Canadian” (or “English-Canadian”) and “Quebec” (or “French-Canadian”) nations.

Though it has deep roots in Quebec history and its internal social and political struggles, the rise of the modern Quebec sovereignty movement has also been a response to the assertion of this one-nation nationalism from the demographically and economically dominant Canadian (or English-Canadian) nation. While talk of the death of the sovereignty movement is patently absurd, it is clear that it has been in an impasse for some years now. Currently, the BQ has no perspective beyond its current role in Ottawa, and the PQ has nothing to offer beyond administering a somewhat gentler form of neoliberalism than the Quebec Liberals.

Below the surface consensus around the leadership of Gilles Duceppe (BQ) and André Boisclair (PQ), pressures have been building to break out of this impasse in one way or another. Some of these tensions came out into the open in late 2005 and early 2006, which saw a PQ leadership race and the founding of the Québec Solidaire party.

In October 2005, former Mulroney cabinet minister, BQ founder and PQ premier Lucien Bouchard issued the Pour un Québec lucide (For a clear-eyed vision of Quebec) manifesto. This regressive document seeks to take the neoliberal transformation of the sovereignty movement even further. While its release was a major media and political event, it was not openly supported by a large number of mainstream sovereignist spokespeople. Former PQ leader and Quebec premier Bernard Landry, for example, found the manifesto represented too open a break with the sovereignty movement’s traditional social-democratic pretensions. PQ leadership candidate (and current leader) André Boisclair adopted a more conciliatory tone.

Within a few weeks, the sovereignist academic, party and social-movement Left responded to Bouchard’s initiative by issuing the Manifeste pour un Québec solidaire (Manifesto for a Quebec based on solidarity). In early February 2006, the Québec Solidaire party was launched by many of these same people, out of the merger of the Union des forces progressistes (UFP) and Option Citoyenne. Neither initiative will break the sovereignty movement out of its impasse in the short term, but they provide some idea of future debates and battles.

The impasse of the sovereignty movement has further widened Harper’s margin for manoeuvre, allowing him to “recognize” Quebec on the cheap. The adopted motion is meaningless in constitutional terms and illogically asserts that the “Québécois nation” only exists (!) within a “united Canada.” The motion re-affirms the stricture entrenched by the Clarity Act that Ottawa must be the ultimate arbiter when it comes to Quebec’s future relationship to the federation. It is also significant that the motion states in French and English that the “Québécois” form a nation, and not Quebec tout court. This further defuses any kind of constitutional implications, let alone more subversive political ones, by reducing the matter to a recognition of the “Québécois” – all those people defined (by whom?) individually as “Québécois”. This has little to do with the definition of the Quebec nation generally accepted in Quebec itself: the really existing collective, sociological and political entity of Quebec with its set of accumulated experiences and aspirations, not to mention institutions and borders.

Still, the motion cornered a fumbling BQ into accepting a conception that dovetails nicely with mainstream sovereignism’s de facto embrace of a far less troublesome brand of “French-Canadian” cultural nationalism in the Bleu tradition. The Conservatives will undoubtedly couple this gesture with a few token tax reforms in their next, pre-election budget as a response to Quebec’s demands around the “fiscal imbalance”. All this could be enough to stabilize or even increase Conservative support in Quebec in the coming elections.

The Crisis of Federalism

It is difficult, however, to see how the Conservatives will resolve federalism’s longer-term crisis of legitimacy and representation in Quebec. For the present volatility is not solely a matter of tactical manoeuvering between the main parties. It can be traced to three inter-related sources. First is the now quarter-century old exclusion of Quebec from the constitutional dispensation entrenched by the Trudeau-led Liberals in the early 1980s. Second is the way in which neoliberalism has narrowed the base of party-electoral-institutional life and exacerbated the age-old centrifugal forces at play in this country. Third is Canada’s integration into the American post-Cold War push for further economic integration, geopolitical cooperation and military expansion, rechristened the “War on Terror” in its post-911 period.

Generally speaking, the Conservatives are more hardline on the matter of deepening the neoliberal counter-revolution and aligning Canadian foreign policy with American imperialism; and the Liberals are more hardline in their rejection of any kind of accommodation with Quebec’s national aspirations. But the parliamentary vote on the Harper “nation” motion, the strong showings in the Liberal leadership race of empire-lite candidate Michael Ignatieff and Israeli apologist and free-trade convert Bob Rae – and the prominent role both now play in the Dion-led party – show that the lines between the two parties on these important questions are blurred to say the least. Nor should we forget that the idea for the Clarity Act was first hatched by none other than Stephen Harper in his days as a Reform MP, and that this post-1995 referendum “get tough on Quebec” approach was shepherded into law a few years later by none other than Stéphane Dion during his tenure as Chrétien’s minister of intergovernmental affairs.

Indeed, practically the only thing that today’s Liberal Party retains of the Trudeau-era party is the hard line against Quebec. One needn’t have a romantic view of Trudeau to see that his approach to social programs, the public sector, regional inequality, Canada-U.S. relations and world affairs would be at significant odds with the position of today’s Liberals on these questions. It is almost amusing to see the Trudeau-esque posturing of someone like “kingmaker” Gerard Kennedy – until recently a loyal cabinet minister in an Ontario Liberal government that has left much of the Mike Harris disaster untouched while aggressively pursuing a regionalism-of-the-rich agenda by demanding that more of Ontario’s taxes stay in the province, and de facto in its wealthy southern zones. Kennedy’s calls for “Canadian unity” are very selective indeed.

More broadly, the overall project of neoliberal counter-revolution in Canada and across the Americas (through the FTAA) was actually pushed much further under the Chrétien-Martin Liberals than it had been under the Mulroney Tories. Jean Chrétien’s (evil?) “genius” was to take the Keynesian and vaguely national-populist party built up from the Depression onwards from Mackenzie King through to Pierre Trudeau and wed it utterly and irreversibly to this neoliberal agenda. This ran parallel to what Blair did to the Labour Party in Britain and what Clinton did to the Democratic Party in the USA. In short, this was the Canadian variant of the Blairite “Third Way”.

It was one thing for the old Trudeauite Liberal warhorse Chrétien to pull this off – and quite another to expect shipping magnate and party latecomer Paul Martin, Chrétien’s hatchet-man in the Finance ministry, and the gang of hacks and careerists in Martin’s entourage to sustain this enterprise for any length of time. This was all the more unlikely since two key conditions for Chrétien’s success had been the other right-wing camp remaining divided and shut out in Quebec – a state of affairs that could not last eternally.

The first condition disappeared once ultra-neoliberal former National Citizens Coalition head Stephen Harper emerged as the unity figure for the alliance of hard-Right ideologues, social conservatives, Western regionalists and residual traditional Tories that make up the new Conservative Party. The second condition disappeared when the Liberal Party’s fortunes in Quebec plummeted in the wake of the sponsorship scandal and the Gomery Commission’s further revelations about the scandal.

There is no fundamental disagreement between the centre-Right Liberals and the hard-Right Conservatives around the three cornerstones of Canadian ruling-class politics today: “one Canadian nation” constitutional rigidity, embrace of the neoliberal agenda and support for U.S.-led imperialist expansionism. With such a platform, neither party can resolve the longer-term crisis of legitimacy and representation of the federal system, especially not in Quebec.

The Left in a Tight Spot

The Left cannot avoid dealing with these “constitutional” questions – or afford to squander this opportunity to tackle them in the present relatively fluid context. We have a supportive ally in Quebec ready to respond to any and all overtures from sincere and principled forces in English-speaking Canada.

To be sure, this will be difficult to put into practice in the current defensive period. But unlike what we have tended to see since the famous “free trade” debates in the late 1980s, there is an undercurrent of goodwill towards Quebec among many Left forces in the rest of the country. This can be found among younger people brought into politics by the anti-globalization protests at Seattle and the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001 and the anti-war protests of 2003 to the present day; and among older leftists and progressives unimpressed by the stale patriotic rallying cries of a corrupt Liberal Party so totally committed to the corporate agenda.

Adopting a new approach on Quebec and the constitution is crucial not only a matter of principle, but also a strategic pre-condition for building a durable pan-Canadian alliance of the Left, achieving true democratic reform and breaking out of the maddening “jurisdictional” dead-end around socio-economic questions at the municipal and provincial levels (healthcare, labour laws, child care, housing, public transit, and so forth). Such an alliance represents a far more viable and “winning” strategic orientation into the medium term than continuing down the path of the parliamentary horsetrading and zigzags on Quebec in which the NDP has become entangled (especially since the 2004 elections).

This means pushing for a re-opening of the Constitution and preparing now for the day when it is re-opened, as it necessarily will be one day. Better to begin cobbling together a solution on our own terms now than to play catch-up in a context of crisis. We do not want to find ourselves outflanked yet again by Liberal and Conservative elites, as was the case in relation to the Harper motion and, most recently before that, during the Meech Lake and Charlottetown episodes in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

While following through on the will of party members is often another matter. The position in favour of withdrawing Canadian forces from Afghanistan taken at the recent NDP federal convention shows that the party can take an independent position if pressed to do so. Nor should we forget that Jack Layton made tentative moves towards the sovereignist Left after winning the leadership in early 2003. He took a strong position against the Clarity Act, met with UFP representatives and ran federal NDP candidates with connections to the UFP in the 2004 elections. By the end of the 2004 campaign, however, facing “patriotic” pressures from the national media and within the party, Layton had already reversed his position on the Clarity Act. And after running to the rescue of the Liberal minority government in 2005, prominent among his other justifiably harsh words for the Conservatives was that they were in cahoots with “the separatists”.

In the latest twist, the NDP is trying to buy time before the next elections, which it rightfully dreads, by helping the Conservatives look good on the environment. While parliament is a mug’s game at the best of times and the NDP has been placed before some unenviable choices since the 2004 elections, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the party has painted itself into a corner by banking too much on high-stakes wheeling and dealing. The party’s zigzags on Quebec are a key component of this ultimately self-defeating strategy.

Though still fragile and tentative, Québec Solidaire provides the first opportunity in a generation to carry a different approach forward outside the marginal confines of the far-Left, with an ally in Quebec that is open to such cooperation and has real weight and prospects for growth. With the Liberals now rebounding from their previous lows and the Greens threatening it in the polls, the NDP is entering a new period of crisis and introspection. It may be possible to push the party back towards the more Quebec-friendly positions taken in the early days of the Jack Layton leadership.

Toward and Anti-neoliberal, Multinational Alternative

In Quebec, Québec Solidaire has advanced the idea of a “constituent assembly” as a way to engage and mobilize broad sectors of the population in fashioning the constitution of a sovereign Quebec, which would then be submitted for approval in a referendum. This is a radically democratic approach which the rest of Canada would do well to emulate – taking the whole matter of how we want to run the country out of the hands of the “constitutional experts”, media blowhards, bureaucrats and corporate lobbyists that monopolize debate and entrench division and deadlock.

We can promote such an approach in a way that places socio-economic questions front and centre. The current constitutional arrangement ties the hands of those looking to beat back privatization and raise standards across the country. Far from representing a line of last defense against capitalist globalization, the federal state and its provincial, territorial and municipal tributaries are active agents of the neo-liberalization and commodification of every aspect of life and politics in this country. No alternative to neoliberalism is possible without a radical break from the current pan-Canadian institutional order.

The push for an anti-neoliberal, multinational alternative can build on the work done by the forces of the left-wing “no” against the Charlottetown Accord in 1992 – led by the National Action Committee on the Status of Women with its proposals for “asymmetrical federalism” – and by the critique developed by social-movement forces of Chrétien and Dion’s 1999 Social Union agreement with the provinces, to the exclusion of Quebec. This can be the contribution of Canada, Quebec and Aboriginal peoples to the Bolivarian project sweeping across Nuestra América – uniting the peoples of the hemisphere against neoliberalism and U.S. imperialism. •

Nathan Rao is a longtime member of the Toronto Left who has been living in Paris since 2012. He can be reached at natrao[at]tuta[dot]io.