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Vol. 78/No. 18      May 12, 2014

Quebec provincial elections register
historic gains won by working class
in Canada
(feature article)
MONTREAL — A historic victory for working people in Quebec and across Canada has been registered in the defeat of the Parti Quebecois in the April 7 provincial elections. Discrimination against the French-speaking Quebecois is no longer the powerful club that capitalists in Canada had for decades wielded against the working class.

The PQ, a bourgeois-nationalist party increasingly out of touch with the sentiments of working-class French-speaking Quebecois and more and more openly at odds with the interests of working people of all backgrounds, received its lowest vote in three decades. Its demagogic and reactionary appeals to Quebecois nationalism — including measures targeting immigrants who make up a growing proportion of the working class in the province — has largely fallen on deaf ears. This is particularly true in the working class.

The rejection of the PQ is above all a reflection of the fact that Canadian imperialism has failed to prevent the working class from steadily making gains against the discrimination of French speakers in Quebec and across the country. This weakening of national oppression against Quebecois — and the divisions it fostered within the working class of Canada — unfolded in step with the weakening of U.S. imperialism and of imperialism on a world scale over recent decades.

A colossal misjudgment

Quebec is one of 10 provinces in Canada. Some 80 percent of its 8.1 million inhabitants speak French as their first language.

The Parti Quebecois was elected to the Quebec National Assembly in September 2012, forming a minority government. It had formed provincial governments several times in recent decades.

At the beginning of March 2014, the PQ leadership called a five-week snap election, more than two years early, convinced they faced an easy victory.

The election was to be the party’s triumphant culmination of a campaign that was in fact launched last September, when it introduced into the Quebec National Assembly a draft of its Charter of Quebec Values. In the name of secularism and women’s rights, the charter would have banned the wearing of “conspicuous” religious headwear, jewelry or other dress by government employees. Its primary target is Muslim immigrant women who wear various kinds of head covering, thousands of whom work in government-run day care centers, schools and hospitals.

When the elections were called polls suggested that a majority of Quebecois supported the proposed charter.

Then, at the very beginning of the campaign, the PQ leadership announced with great fanfare the candidacy of multimillionaire Pierre Karl Péladeau, former president of Quebecor Media, one of Canada’s biggest multimedia companies. In announcing his candidacy, Péladeau proclaimed, with his fist in the air, that he wanted to make Quebec “a country,” a signal that the PQ was bringing the demand for Quebec’s independence to the fore. The demand — once at the center of the fight against national oppression of Quebecois — has been the first article in the PQ program since its founding in 1968. But the PQ’s trump card turned out to be a colossal misjudgment on the popularity of independence today and the degree to which Quebecois working people no longer see it as a way to address their most pressing concerns.

Péladeau’s statement transformed the election campaign into a “referendum on the referendum,” as it was commonly called in the big-business media, referring to previous referenda on Quebec sovereignty. Polls immediately indicated a shift to the Liberal Party, the other main capitalist party in Quebec and a longtime defender of the status quo.

The PQ responded by digging in its heels and stepping up its anti-working-class “secularist” demagogy.

Before the April elections were announced, Louise Mailloux, running for the PQ in the Montreal riding of Gouin, equated baptism and circumcision with rape and asserted that kosher food was a racket by rabbis to fund “religious wars.” In mid-March Mailloux “absolutely” stood by these remarks and Prime Minister Pauline Marois publicly stood by her. Under pressure Mailloux issued a statement saying she “never wanted to offend or hurt anyone” and apologized “if that has happened.”

After months of dodging the question, Prime Minister Marois announced April 2 that adoption of the charter would mean the firing of government employees who wore religious head covering on the job.

At the same time, the PQ launched a campaign against English speakers, initiating measures to prevent Canadian McGill University students born outside Quebec from voting in the April 7 elections. And it lambasted Liberal leader Philippe Couillard for suggesting that Quebecois today want their children to learn English. “Is there a single parent,” said Couillard, “who doesn’t want that his child learn another language?” — a statement more in touch with the prevailing sentiments of Quebecois working people today than the self-proclaimed champions of “Quebec values.”

The Liberals won 70 legislative seats with 41.5 percent of the vote, obtaining a solid majority in the National Assembly. The number of PQ seats dropped from 54 to 30. Defeated in a riding with a big Quebecois majority, PQ leader Marois resigned the night of the elections.

Talking with working people

In discussions with co-workers and in selling the Militant door to door in Montreal leading up to the elections, communist workers noticed that the PQ campaign wasn’t popular.

Among immigrant or English-speaking workers, opposition to the Charter of Quebec Values was practically unanimous and seen for what it is: a discriminatory assault on workers’ rights, including on freedom of worship, speech and association.

Quebecois workers had more mixed reactions. Many supported the charter as a way to register the fact that Quebec is a nation with a distinct culture. But even among those who backed the charter, most opposed the idea of firing workers because of how they dressed or their religious beliefs.

Workers’ opinions of capitalist Pierre Karl Péladeau were more uniformly negative. For many Péladeau is known as the “lockout king.” He is responsible for 14 lockouts in recent years, the last being in 2009 against workers at the Journal de Montréal, which lasted 764 days. Few workers are attracted to the idea of an independent Quebec government led by him.

Communist workers have also noticed that although many Quebecois don’t read English, that hasn’t been an obstacle to discussing the revolutionary working-class politics in the Militant, an English-language paper. While supporters of the Militant have been translating one article per week into French and sending it to those who are interested, French speakers sometimes get the paper so they can improve their English.

Big changes

The PQ’s electoral defeat is a registration of two developments that have strengthened the working class in Quebec over the last half century.

First are the gains Quebecois workers have won through mass struggles beginning in the 1960s and ’70s against national oppression. The second is the changed composition of Quebec’s working class, which is more multinational and heterogeneous today.

In the 1960s the Quebecois came to identify their fight with the Black struggle that had erupted in the U.S. The White Niggers of America, a book published in 1968 by Pierre Vallières, sought to reinforce such identification and became a symbol of the Quebecois struggle at the time.

According to the 1961 federal census, those who spoke French in Quebec had on average incomes 35 percent lower than English speakers. Quebecois had an average schooling of eight years, compared to 12 years for those who spoke English. There were two English-language universities in Montreal and only one in French.

In the factories the vast majority of workers spoke French, while bosses and management, starting with foremen, spoke English. Union contracts were written in English and negotiations were conducted in English. Public signs were often only in English. English was the language of social advancement and new immigrants would overwhelmingly send their children to English-speaking public schools, which usually enjoyed superior facilities.

For the capitalist rulers in Canada, the national oppression of the Quebecois allowed them to pocket superprofits based on lower wages and conditions imposed on a significant section of the working class. And it weakened labor by fostering divisions based on language.

Mass movement begins in 1960s

Inspired by the mass struggle by African-Americans and the revolutions in Cuba, Algeria and Vietnam, a new movement for Quebec rights that began in the 1960s brought hundreds of thousands of workers and youth into the streets over the next two decades. Trade unions were at the center of this fight, which magnified its power.

In October 1970, the Liberal Canadian government of Prime Minister Pierre-Elliot Trudeau decreed the War Measures Act with the aim of stemming the Quebecois and workers’ struggles, which included moves toward forming a labor party based on the unions in Montreal. Some 8,000 soldiers were deployed to Montreal; more than 500 people were arrested without a warrant; and some 31,700 searches were carried out by the police and the army.

The bosses’ counterstrike failed to quell the fight.

In May 1972, a spontaneous general strike broke out throughout Quebec after three union leaders were imprisoned for refusing to obey a decree ordering back to work some 210,000 government workers on strike for a minimum wage of $100 per week. It was the biggest union action in North America since the post-World War II strike wave.

Fearful of the growing working-class militancy, the top officialdom of the labor federations sought to channel the fight by the union ranks into support for the Parti Quebecois.

The PQ was formed in 1968 from a split in the Quebec Liberal Party. Its founding leader, René Lévesque, had been a minister in a previous Liberal government and was credited with nationalizing the private electric companies that existed then under Hydro Quebec — a giant state monopoly.

From the start, the PQ sought to get the Quebec movement off the streets and behind an electoral project of a “sovereign” Quebec (without speaking openly of independence). While saying it had “a bias in favor of workers,” the PQ firmly maintained policies that defended capitalist property.

The PQ was elected for the first time in November 1976, one month after nationwide protests against a federal government wage freeze.

The first PQ government adopted a series of measures that codified the gains of the Quebecois struggle. Among them:

* Law 101, which made French the language of work, government and law in Quebec; imposed French on signs; and enrolled children of new immigrants in French public schools. Important mobilizations at the end of the 1980s put an end to repeated attempts by Canada’s rulers to reverse these affirmative action-type measures.

* The PQ government refused to implement the federal anti-abortion law. This strengthened the fight for a woman’s right to choose abortion across the country and helped lead to the law’s repeal in 1988.

* An anti-scab law was enacted that made it illegal for bosses to hire scabs during labor conflicts. (Over the following decades, bosses were able in practice to strip the law of its content without much resistance from the unions.)

The PQ organized two referendums on Quebec sovereignty, in 1980 and 1995. In both cases, mobilizations in support of the referendum were organized in workplaces and by unions. Both were narrowly defeated. The close results and what they showed about the resolute struggle of the Quebecois scared the Canadian rulers, and eventually led to concessions from the federal government, which included recognition in 2006 that Quebec constitutes a distinct nation within Canada.

Inequalities largely overcome

According to the 2006 census, the median income among French-speaking men was $30,854, compared to $27,008 for English speakers. At the same time, mean average income is about $4,000 higher for Anglophones. This suggests that there is no longer any meaningful difference between wages of workers who are Quebecois and English speaking, while Anglophones still comprise a greater proportion of those in the highest income brackets — i.e. capitalists and the well-paid professionals. Differences in average years of schooling have also largely disappeared.

French has become the common language of communication at work. More than half of Quebec’s residents whose first language is neither English nor French learn French. By 2006, nearly 70 percent of those whose first language is English in Quebec also spoke French.

As a result of these conquests and the self-confidence earned in struggle, English is no longer viewed as a language of oppression, as something imposed from outside. Bilingualism among native French speakers grew from 31.5 percent in 1991 to 35.8 percent in 2006. For young people in particular, speaking French and English is seen as something positive. And many want to learn English because it’s the language of international communication and commerce.

Rise in immigration to Quebec

The PQ’s inability to use xenophobia is also a reflection of the substantial weight of immigrant workers in the working class in Quebec today. The foreign-born population grew steadily from 7.4 percent in 1961 to 9.9 percent in 2001. But then it shot up to 12.6 by 2011. New immigrant populations come from many countries, starting with Morocco, Algeria, France, China, Haiti, Colombia, Lebanon, Philippines, Iran, Mexico, Cameroon and Romania. Arabic is today the third most common language spoken in Montreal.

For years the PQ enjoyed widespread support among the Arabic-speaking immigrants from North Africa. But that changed overnight with the Charter of Quebec Values, which directly targeted them and turned off broader sections of the working class who sympathized with their co-workers, neighbors and friends.

The recent elections confirm that for several years now the question of Quebec independence is no longer seen by many Quebecois workers as a solution to Quebecois national oppression, most aspects of which have largely been overcome through struggle.

Members of the Communist League in Canada and its predecessors called for support for Quebec independence shortly before the proclamation of the War Measures Act in 1970. The changes described in this article and brought home by the recent elections explain why the party has not put forward the demand for at least the last decade.

The demand for Quebec independence is no longer an indispensible part of a fighting program to strengthen and unify the working class in Canada and to prepare it for the revolutionary mobilization of workers and their allies to wrest power from the capitalist exploiters.

The blows struck against the national oppression of Quebecois are one of many consequences of the weakening of U.S. and world imperialism since the collapse of the Soviet Union and other Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s.

The ground conquered against national oppression of Quebecois in Canada is one aspect of a world marked by the fact that U.S. imperialism — as well as the privileged ruling Soviet bureaucracies that were wiped out with the fall of the Stalinist regimes — failed to inflict demoralizing defeats on the working class in the former workers states of Eastern and Central Europe. This has been borne out by the recent overthrow of the Viktor Yanukovych government in Ukraine and by the fact that nowhere have the propertied rulers been able to inflict a crushing defeat on working people. As a consequence, toilers around the world, from Montreal to Kiev, are using the political space they’ve carved out to discuss, debate and organize against the bosses in face of the worldwide crisis of capitalist production and trade.

World imperialism led by Washington lost the Cold War against the working class in the former Soviet Union. In similar fashion, Canadian imperialism has lost the Cold War against the working people of Quebec.

This is something to celebrate.  
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