Quebec, Canada, and the Indigenous Peoples: Toward Plurinational Alliances around a Decolonial Outlook?
The latest issue of the Quebec journal Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme (NCS), published in September, revisits the Quebec national question in light of the mounting struggle against climate catastrophe, the growth of Indigenous resistance, and the crisis of Quebec’s national movement. A number of articles probe the potential for creation of the strategic class alliances and perspectives that are needed if we are to begin a fundamental social transformation that re-imagines not only the Quebec reality but its place in the creation of an ecosocialist society in the Canadian, North American, and global context.
Published below, in my translation, is an article by NCS editor Pierre Beaudet introducing some of the key themes in this issue, followed by what I consider an outstanding contribution by Dalie Giroux that challenges the Quebec left to rethink national emancipation within a decolonial perspective that can help enlist Indigenous and international solidarity around a common project of rethinking the relationship between national and social emancipation.
Our Friends in Canada
Until the 1960s, the left in Canada and in Quebec was mainly Canadian and Anglophone. During Premier Maurice Duplessis’s “Grande Noirceur” (the great darkness, 1936 to 1939 and 1944 to 1959), the provincial government drew heavily on the reactionary right wing of the Catholic church, making life very difficult for Quebec progressives. Some trade unionists and artists chose exile instead. In this period, as well, the Canadian left, from the Communist Party (CP) to social-democracy (later the NDP), held fast to the idea of a strong federal state as the vehicle for implementing the social changes sought by the popular classes, such as medicare, social welfare, etc.
Quebec’s demands for national emancipation were relegated to the sidelines, regarded as an abhorrence to be fought by all means. The CP denounced the “separatist threat” in terms not notably dissimilar from those used by Ottawa’s political establishment. A courageous exception, sometimes, was the party’s intellectual leader and historian Stanley Ryerson (1911 – 1998), who defended the right to self-determination of the Quebec people. After much debate, the NDP shut the door on its Quebec branch, which went on to form the Parti Socialiste du Québec and called for constitutional protection of that right. Later, the NDP campaigned alongside the parties of reaction for the ‘No’ side in the 1980 and 1995 referendums. However, while this effectively eliminated the Canadian left from Quebec, it opened room for the creation and development of a pro-independence Quebec left.1 But the links between Canadian and Quebec progressives remained infrequent, apart from the efforts of a few courageous trade unions that fought for social emancipation linked with national emancipation. Examples are the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).
Some Decades Later
This non-dialogue had many perverse effects. In Canada, the left failed to wage a resolute fight against the post-colonial state structures, not even when the Constitution was “patriated” by Pierre Trudeau in 1982 in the face of intense opposition from Quebec’s National Assembly and public opinion. After the 1995 referendum, the NDP members of Parliament (with few exceptions) voted for the so-called “Clarity bill,” which limited even the likelihood of a negotiated agreement with Canada following a Quebec vote for independence. In the short period during which he led that party, Jack Layton tried to shift the party’s position, but after his death, the party under Thomas Mulcair’s leadership returned to its hard-line federalist alignment. Quebec’s attraction to the NDP was short-lived.
The non-dialogue did not help the cause of the left in either Quebec or Canada, and efforts to achieve coordination on inter-provincial issues were difficult and uncertain. During the Summit of the Peoples of the Americas, in Quebec City in April 2001, in opposition to the proposal of a hemispheric free-trade area of the Americas (FTAA), groups such as the Council of Canadians tried to impose the same Canadian perspective “from coast to coast.” Canadian unions more attuned to Quebec concerns supported the position of almost all Quebec participants that the fight against the FTAA was not tied to “strengthening” the Canadian state. A progressive magazine published in Winnipeg, Canadian Dimension upheld this point (as it still does), providing Canadian progressives with information and analyses concerning Quebec’s popular movements and struggles.2
Subsequently, attempts at dialogue outside the framework of the formal organizations were initiated by André Frappier of Québec solidaire, who met over several years with various left-oriented groups in Toronto, Edmonton, Halifax, and Vancouver.3 The basic idea was to meet and discuss the national questions in the Canadian state, in an effort to combat the substantial indifference on these issues in both the Quebec and Canadian left. Some progress was made with a small part of the Canadian left, but it can hardly be said that the fundamental idea in the Quebec left of combining anti-capitalist struggle with a challenge to “made in Canada” colonialism is widely understood or accepted among Canadian progressives.4
This timid reopening to dialogue has been encouraged by political developments among the Indigenous peoples. Their reawakening and leadership of some mass movements targets the very essence of the Canadian state, built upon a persisting colonial dispossession, and thus, challenging the legitimacy of the federal government. As the Dené intellectual activist Glen Coulthard has said, the Indigenous struggle will go nowhere if it does not become a wider anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggle.5
In recent years, some Indigenous leaders like Roméo Saganash have voiced publicly what many Indigenous think that their anti-colonial struggle will be strengthened if it finds ways to interface with the struggle for Quebec emancipation. And this requires that the Québécois openly acknowledge the right to self-determination of the Indigenous peoples.6
The Quebec Challenge
The struggle for Quebec emancipation will be conducted in Quebec, of course. However, we must be conscious of the balance of forces that exists between this project and its opponents. Those elites are politically organized around the federal state and its subaltern relays in the provinces. They have their counterparts in the Quebec bourgeoisie and its political expressions in the Quebec Liberal Party and the Coalition Avenir Québec, now the government. They are supported overwhelmingly by US imperialism, which our first sovereigntist premier René Lévesque failed to see when he tried to convince the big shots in New York and Washington that the sovereigntist project would be completely harmless in the North American context and that Quebec would remain a subaltern ally like Canada. This dream that Quebec’s independence could be negotiated peacefully misled the people, including in the two referendums.
It is not hard to see that for US imperialism, access to Canada’s rich resources, and the interests of continental defense against the Russian and Chinese ‘threat’, are priorities, which means that it is imperative for the rulers in both Washington and Ottawa to keep Canada as it is. Long ago, Pierre Vallières and Charles Gagnon, to mention only them, understood this very well, which is why they emphasized the need for connecting with the forces of change in the Americas.
Break Down the Wall
How are we going to breach this wall of indifference in English Canada? As Andrea Levy and André Frappier argue,
“…it is necessary to define a strategy of common organized struggle to retake power in the Canadian state. The struggle must be common because in Quebec alone we cannot manage to create an egalitarian and independent society without confronting the Canadian state, and because an ecologist perspective cannot be implemented solely within our borders. Quebec needs the support and collaboration of the workers and popular groups in English Canada, and these cannot develop an emancipatory perspective without adhering to a strategy of common anti-capitalist struggle with the progressive forces of Quebec.”7
That was, in fact, the message that was conveyed in 2014 with the Peoples Social Forum that brought together in Ottawa several hundred activists and thinkers from Quebec, Canada and the First Nations. With Québec solidaire and the social movements, we need to continue these efforts, engaging in manifestations of mutual support and solidarity. •
Indigenous Peoples and Quebec: Rethinking Decolonization
My purpose here is to outline some thoughts that can assist in a reassessment of the question of Quebec independence in light of relations between Quebec and the Indigenous peoples. This entails, in part, undertaking a necessary, albeit painful, critique of the history of these relations since the election of the Parti québécois (PQ) in 1976. It also means proposing some principles that can guide us in a new development of Quebec anti-colonialist thinking, which up to now has failed to question the British colonial regime from a truly inclusive standpoint, and without serious or sufficient consideration being given to the Indigenous presence on this continent for thousands of years.
Quebec’s colonial legacy, its obscure expression in law, its mentality, the form of its productive activity, was established in successive steps through the operation of a set of dispossession measures that we must inspect, understand, criticize, and dismantle if we are to pursue a collective policy of fighting this dispossession. Approaching dispossession from a decolonial perspective based on the Quebec situation is not inspired by some patriotic necessity but rather expresses the need to confront a history that we did not choose but inherited, as we have inherited and cultivated the ethical tensions inscribed in our political life. This rethinking must address the following questions:
- How can we escape, all of us, in the here and now, from the complex structure of dispossession that is the legacy of French and British colonialisms?
- How are we to undermine and eliminate the measures of dispossession by accumulation that define that structure?
- How, especially, can we combine all the mutual expressions of struggles for emancipation – decolonial, anti-racist, feminist, pro-immigration, ecologist – within a materialist horizon, without eliminating the singular features of the places, affects, temporalities, and narratives that constitute, traverse, and animate our specific common habitat?
Masters In Our Own House?
Let us begin by backtracking a bit. Modern Quebec arose at the turn of the 1960s around the proposal to become “Maîtres chez nous,” masters in our own house, and to take control of the whole of the provincial territory, the limits of which had been fixed in 1912 by federal legislation. Retroactively, it must be observed that this Quebec, master of itself, had been built on the basis of a colonial-type state. Quebec’s exit from the Canadian constitutional fold, as set out in the sovereignty project put forward by the Quebec nationalist forces, was not an accomplished movement of decolonization, that is, of rupture with the structure of dispossession inherited from French and British colonialism. It rather involved giving the Québécois the privilege of acquiring the status of colonizer they had lost with the British Conquest. As Zebedee Nungak writes:
“No one would question the ‘masters’ part of the slogan if Quebec’s borders were confined to the locations in which Champlain’s descendants lived and farmed the land in order to maintain and sustain their distinct French identity, their language and culture as they wished. The problem lies in the part that reads ‘in our own house,’ which has come to encompass Eeyou Estchee (the Cri territory) and the Inuit Nunangat, including large swathes of territory where there is not an ounce of French history, language or culture. These lands should never have been incorporated in the French ‘house.’ But that is exactly what happened when Quebec rushed headlong toward carrying out its James Bay hydroelectric project.”8
In reality, a major portion of the territories over which Quebec governments have exercised their power to the explicit benefit of the Francophone majority have never been surrendered within the meaning of the British Canadian colonial regime. Access to the territory north of the 49th parallel, and its occupation by the populations needed for colonization, exploitation, and control over the groundwater, hydro-electric, forest, mineral, marine and tourist resources, have been defended both by the Canadian courts and successive Quebec governments as pertaining, in Canadian legal language, to “compelling and substantial governmental objectives.” Moreover, although the Canadian and Quebec governments have signed a series of treaties in the terms peculiar to modern treaties, the result has been the consolidation of the Crown’s sovereignty and the colonial enterprise of generalized extraction to the benefit of the owners of the means of production and the resulting rents. The jurisdictional and financial compensation negotiated between the Indigenous groups and the state, and the renunciation of the inherent right to the territory implied in almost all of the cases involving this type of treaty, have constituted an irreparable loss of sovereignty for all of the Indigenous peoples and the consolidation of an extractive economy of dispossession.
The Contradictions in the PQ Project
The election of the Parti québécois in 1976 marked an important turning point in the march of the “Masters in our own house” and highlights the ambiguous political role of the Québécois within the British empire. An explicitly sovereigntist government was in place in Quebec City and held the reins of the provincial state. Today, it is hard to imagine the power of that moment for the descendants of the “anciens Canadiens”: an illiterate, residual people with a bastardized language, had acceded to the institutional pinnacle of the state, through their own efforts and in opposition to the entire history of British Canada, which had sought its tranquil submission and cultural assimilation. The people without a state proved to the English colonizer that it was worthy of a state and of power. It was a revenge and an exploit, promising a new world – a victory over themselves and over the adverse forces of history.
It was not long, however, before this enthusiasm came up against the Indigenous question. Rémi Savard, the anthropologist who studied this question for many years, himself a fervent independentist, asked himself whether the Indigenous policy of the first PQ government, headed by René Lévesque, could really challenge the colonial relationship between Quebec and the First Nations. Instead, he found that the Quebec of the PQ’s first term of office had positioned itself along the lines of British colonialism:
“In the spring of 1977 Bérubé, the minister, was proclaiming on Radio-Canada, without batting an eyelid, his government’s formal and definitive opposition to any recognition of the right of the Indigenous to self-determination, explaining that it was inconceivable since ‘we are the proprietors of the soil’.”9
Yves Bérubé was, at the time, minister of natural resources and lands and forests, and what he was defending against the sovereignty claims of the Indigenous peoples was also clear: the exploitation of natural resources, which is the foundation of Quebec’s strategy of mastery in its own house, through economic development in French and in our name. This mastery of resources was accompanied by a claim to “ownership of the soil” and referred to the public land held by the state. The unceded Indigenous territories of north-eastern Quebec were located, as it happens, almost entirely on these public lands, 90% of the territory of the Province of Quebec. The PQ minister’s statement was quite explicit about the nature of the mastery claimed by the Québécois through their “national” government: “We are the lords of the public lands, and no political claim over these lands is conceivable.” In the following year Gérald Godin, now the minister, repeated the PQ position, citing the right of conquest inherited from the British crown. Savard concluded that the sovereignty project was proclaiming explicitly the pursuit of the genocide anticipated by the Canadian government “and which has often targeted the Québécois people.”10
Some Dissident Approaches
While the sovereignty project has been unable to go beyond the colonial framework, there is no denying the transformative potential of Quebec’s struggle for national emancipation. This struggle, which to a large degree has ensured the passage from servitude to mastery, is one of the major political experiments of the 20th century. Moreover, some Quebec intellectual and political actors have indeed seen the need to integrate a global overcoming of colonialism within the liberatory dynamic. For example, Pierre Vallières stated that the Indigenous peoples were more oppressed than the French Canadians of Quebec. That led him to nurture a certain distrust toward the promotion of nationalism as the ultimate goal of Quebec struggles and to uphold the claims of Indigenous sovereignty.11 Charles Gagnon, too, thought it was necessary to integrate the anti-racism fight and the Indigenous struggles in his revolutionary project of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggle:
“This does not mean, and cannot mean, making Quebec a new Mexico, politically ‘independent’ but economically exploited, pillaged, dispossessed. It does not mean creating one or more Black or American Indian capitalist states subject to imperialism. It does mean destroying imperialism and racism; it means building in North America a new society in which the different races and ethnic populations cohabit in harmony because each has endowed itself with the structures and institutions it considers favourable to its fulfilment.”12
The anthropologist Rémi Savard, through his research and his attempts to develop solidarity between the Quebec and Indigenous peoples, thought the opposition of the Québécois to Indigenous claims was linked to the fact that they themselves were wronged by the Canadian constitutional regime. He criticized the colonial posture of the first independentist government in Quebec’s history which, he said, while comprising an undeniable economic motivation, was based on an opportunist legal conservatism. This posture profoundly shaped the relations between the Quebec state and the Indigenous peoples on the territory that we have inherited, through its refusal to respect the minimal requirements of peoples’ justice that the Indigenous peoples were developing on the international level.
The Missed Encounters
Overall, the independentist movement failed to take the hand proferred to it by the Indigenous peoples, and this was a factor, as we know today, in its political marginalization and the failure of its project. Savard reports that in 1978, two years before the referendum on Quebec sovereignty, Noel Starblanket, then chief of the National Indian Brotherhood (which became the Assembly of First Nations in 1982), wrote to René Lévesque:
“We have studied your project of sovereignty-association. This political platform suits us because it coincides with the demands of the Indians throughout Canada who want to exercise the greatest possible power over their natural resources and establish normal relations with their neighbours. We are starting from a position the opposite of yours: you are in Confederation and want to put a foot outside of it, while we who have never been a confederative club want to set foot in it. In practice, however, we agree completely. Extend us your hand. Let us, together, put an end to the federal government’s colonial power over us. But to the benefit of our respective collectivities. Not to put the Indians under the rule of some other white power, in this instance that of Quebec and the other Canadian provinces.”13
As to the sovereignty-association proposed by the Parti québécois, the chief stated, on behalf of his organization, that “this political platform suits us.” The subaltern position of the Francophones in the Canadian regime, as well as their existence as a collective entity, were acknowledged outright. Starblanket went on to propose an alliance between Quebec and the First Nations, against the colonial power of the federal government. This alliance, he said, was conditional on the equality of the parties: Quebec, in its approach to independence, was not to replace the federal government as a colonizer. It would have to work for the concurrent liberation of the First Peoples, in short, to break up the post-British Canadian regime in the interests of the peoples, Francophone and Indigenous, who were minorities within it.
Like Noel Starblanket, another leading Indigenous leader, Georges Erasmus, openly called for an alliance between the Indigenous peoples and Quebec to counter Ottawa’s approach to patriating the Constitution without recognizing the national minorities:
“We the Indigenous, have been pushed, along with Quebec, under the rug of the country that Trudeau and his sidekicks of the English provinces have just constituted. I call on the government and people of Quebec, and on René Lévesque in particular, to make known their reaction to this and to express their feeling about the rights of the Indigenous populations to self-determination. I challenge the people of Quebec – if in fact this people believes in self-determination – now is the time to support the Indigenous people. It is not the time for us to remain separated and to lead ourselves individually to defeat. We must act now. This is the moment of our reckoning. We, the Indigenous, need Quebec’s support in the coming hours. We need the support of the Quebec people. The country is in a state of national emergency and this demands that the Indigenous and Québécois unite their forces.”14
Given these quite dramatic statements at the time, Savard was adamant as to the conditions of any possible Francophone political existence in America:
“As to the project of Quebec self-determination itself, I think there is no chance it will come about in the short, medium or long term unless it begins to articulate the pan-Amerindian dynamic. […] The worst disservice we can render to our descendants is to underestimate the political meaning of Indigenous aspirations and the continental reach of the present immense political awakening.”15
He lamented the fact that this invitation to an alliance had remained a dead letter, testimony to the sovereigntist élite’s very poor understanding of the continental colonial situation at the time.
“The imprecise desires of the Indigenous peoples for political autonomy may very well unleash furious reactions among many citizens against the threat of creating so many de facto holes in our national territory. That’s the Canadian side, somewhat buccaneering I would say, of our nationalism. It is also what prevents us, to the great relief of the federalists, from grasping the historical perch now being tendered to us, as explicitly as can be, by the Indigenous peoples of Canada as a whole.”16
Rethinking the Terms of Emancipation
The history of decolonization experiences offers many examples of national emancipation carried out by the state and capital that produce the results we have experienced in Quebec: the self-dispossession of the peoples through the exercise of the privileges of a national-state within the framework of a globalized economy, and the renewal of the oppressions suffered by other, subaltern populations, other minorities.
That said, the Quebec republican resistance, which has taken the colonial institutions as its emancipation model, has helped to constitute within the continental colonial space a place of distinct power, Quebec, the existence of which has undeniable ethical, political, and epistemological value. If we start from that reality, that place, it is possible for us today to rethink emancipation in a more complete and more inclusive form. But this reconsideration must be radical, and not make any commitment as to the continental, colonial, historical, and economic situation of Quebec.
To reinterpret the spirit of independence that gave rise to “Masters in Our Own House,” it is truly and urgently necessary to rethink the relations between the peoples inhabiting the territory of the province, the ways in which they mutually conceive the frontiers of this territory, and the way in which we draw from this our subsistence and the powers of dispossession that we support (and that support us). The emancipatory policy of the 21st century, which will be conceived on the basis of Quebec’s situation, cannot elude this thinking, which necessarily challenges the life style of the majority and the legitimacy of the claim to mastery over the “national” territory, but has the merit that it invites us to escape the colonial political imagination and to begin to think about the alliance that remains to be formulated.
A second dimension that must be advanced if a decolonial tension is to be introduced in the Quebec emancipation current is that of the Indigenous presence in the territories placed under the jurisdiction of the Province of Quebec, 90% of which is classified as being property of the Quebec state – the Quebec equivalent of Crown lands.
The chain of solidarity that could begin to develop through a rethinking of independence within North America and the need for alliances that must inform it, can only be developed or experienced not from the Quebec “majority” standpoint, but by and through a psycho-political and material process of dis-identification with the colonial state and the capitalist, extractive life of dispossession that this state imposes, supports, renews, generalizes, and legitimates. Accordingly, we must in this context study the genealogy of the cognitive, material, and political tools through which the populations involved in the colonization self-identified existentially with the structures of dispossession that were, for better or worse, the conditions of formation of the peoples of the New World. We have to revisit frankly our relations with the other peoples on this territory as well as the genesis and onto-juridical framework of our present relations.
The Big Challenge
This is a sizable challenge for a people whose existence is closely linked to the colonial undertaking, a motley people, intrinsically diasporic, without age-old tradition or inherent rights toward which to turn as the basis for its coherence and collective action, who do not and will not have the political aura of the European colonizer or the prestige of the white decolonizations of the 19th century, or the ethical presence of the present decolonial and anti-racist forces today. For a people dismissed and removed from power over the territory, a people whose initial segment is a product of a remaining, residual, demobilized, rebellious population lacking in social mobility and the possibility of representation, this seems to me to be also an opportunity to think otherwise and directly the questions of possession and dispossession, to go counter to colonization, to invent other ways of living, and to constitute ourselves as a hybrid, perhaps in a hitherto unseen form of upstream humility and downstream hospitality.
The political issue for Quebec in the 21st century will not be to find the road to becoming masters in our own house – which would mean pursuing the European colonization of the Americas in our own name – but to think and act in terms of the real and urgent objective of abolishing, through a grand alliance, all relations of servitude that make up the French and British colonial forms of dispossession that we have inherited. •
- See Pierre Beaudet, “La gauche canadienne et le Québec. Les multiples dimensions d’un dialogue inachevé,” in Nouveaux Cahiers du socialisme, No. 24, Autumn 2020.
- Among the regular contributors to Canadian Dimension are Andrea Levy and André Frappier, members of the NCS Collectif d’analyse politique.
- Frappier also attended the 2016 Socialist Scholars conference in Calgary, where he participated as a resource person in several workshops. – R.F.
- See “Le défi de lutter ensemble,” by André Frappier and Andrea Levy, NCS No. 24.
- Glen Coulthard, “Marx et la grande tortue,” NCS No. 21 (Winter 2019).
- Which Québec solidaire has done, unlike the other parties including the Parti québécois.
- “Le défi de lutter ensemble,” NCS No. 24.
- Zebedee Nungak, Contre le colonialisme dopé aux stéroïdes. Le combat des Inuits du Québec pour leurs terres ancestrales (Montréal, Boréal, 2019 ), p. 42.
- Rémi Savard, Destins d’Amérique. Les autochtones et nous (Montréal: L’Hexagone, 1979), p. 109.
- Ibid., p. 110.
- Daniel Samson-Legault, Dissident. Pierre Vallières (1938-1998). Au-delà des Nègres blancs d’Amérique (Montréal: Québec Amérique, 2018), p. 391.
- Charles Gagnon, Feu sur l’Amérique. Écrits politiques, Vol. 1 (1966-1972) (Montréal: Lux, 2006), p. 117.
- Savard, op. cit., p. 145. [My retranslation from the French. – R.F.]
- Quoted (and translated from the English) in Jean Morisset, Sur la piste du Canada errant (Montréal: Boréal, 2018). [My retranslation from the French – R.F.]
- Savard, op. cit., p. 110.
- Ibid., p. 154.