MONTREAL - As one can see on the facing page, the Militant has received many letters from readers questioning its support for Quebec independence. These include readers Juan Carlos Chirgwin and Lavina G. Shaw, who doubt the fact that the 6 million Quebecois constitute an oppressed nation in Canada on the basis of their language.
As a Quebecois worker who grew up and still lives in Montreal, I remember vividly what it was like when I was a teenager here in the mid-1960s. Even though 70 percent of the population spoke (and still speaks) French in Montreal, you could not be served in French in downtown restaurants and big department stores. Most signs and billboards across the city were only in English.
There were two English-speaking universities serving less than 20 percent of the population, in contrast to the single one available to the French-speaking majority. I was involved in a series of very large student mobilizations that forced the provincial government to open a second French-speaking university in Montreal in 1969.
Data from the 1961 census showed that English-speaking people in Montreal earned on average 35 percent more than those who spoke French. Discrimination was systematic at work. It took a series of labor battles to make French the normal language of work in Quebec.
Reader Shaw says, "The reason that the French have lagged behind is not because of the English, but due to the influence of the [Catholic] church hierarchy."
It is true that the reactionary Catholic church hierarchy dominated social life in Quebec for decades, until it was largely pushed aside by the big national and labor battles of the 1960s and 1970s. But the weight of the church in Quebec was the direct result of the bloody defeat by London's troops of a democratic revolutionary upsurge by French- and English- speaking small farmers, workers and merchants a century and a half ago. This upsurge, both in what are now Quebec and Ontario, challenged British colonial domination, and demanded a secular state, an agrarian reform, and basic civil rights.
As explained in "Land, Labour and the Canadian Revolution" published in issue no. 6 of the Marxist magazine New International, Canada's rulers then made a conscious decision to maintain semi-feudal relations in the countryside of Quebec. This slowed down enormously the economic development of the province and is one of the main reasons explaining the abysmal living conditions of Quebecois up to World War II.
This policy was part of a package of other discriminatory measures against French-speaking people aimed at preventing any new convergence of the struggles by French- and English- speaking toilers - including the imposition up to this day of a religious school system in Quebec by the Canadian Constitution.
The fights by Quebecois working people and youth from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s were able to push back many of the worst aspects of the discrimination they faced. These gains helped to improve their wages, working conditions, health and education - thereby improving those of all working people across Canada. They also played a major role in breaking down the prejudices and suspicions that have deeply divided Quebecois and other workers, thus reinforcing our unity.
Reader Chirgwin claims that past "injustice" against Quebecois "has hardly any reminders in the present."
Unfortunately, this is untrue. According to the 1986 federal census, French-speaking people earned on average 16 percent less than those speaking English in Canada, despite the development over the last quarter century of a significant layer of French-speaking Quebecois capitalists and middle class. Statistics Canada refuses to give comparable figures from its 1991 census.
However, Statistics Canada's own figures show that wealth continues to this day to be distributed along language lines in Quebec. Though English-speaking people constitute a little less than one fifth of the greater Montreal population, five of the ten richest tracks in the 1991 census had a majority of English-speaking residents. In contrast, eight of the ten poorest census tracks had a French-speaking majority.
Quebec is the second most industrialized province in Canada. But according to Statistics Canada it has the greatest numbers living below the poverty line - that is if you take into account the actual cost of living. According to Ottawa's own figures Quebec's biggest city, Montreal, is the fourth poorest city in Canada - preceded by three other Quebec towns.
A series of big corporations, like Alcan, Bombardier, J.W. I. Johnson and Domtar, continue to this day to pay their workers in Quebec $2 to $3 an hour less than in other parts of Canada.
Quebecois have fought for self-determination to to rid themselves of this historic and present national oppression. Our struggle for independence is in the interests of working people throughout Canada because it can weaken the Canadian imperialist state and help unite toilers of different nationalities. That is why working people and youth around the world should stand with Quebecois patriots.
- MICHEL PRAIRIE
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