The National Question in the Canadian State

by Robbie Mahood
National oppression and racism remain endemic features of capitalist states in the world today. In few, if any, does the national question play such a central role as in Canada. This is most clearly demonstrated in the case of Quebec, where national resentment periodically erupts to take centre stage in political life. It is seen in the rising national consciousness and demands of indigenous peoples in Canada and Quebec. The French-speaking communities outside Quebec who have survived anglo-assimilation, notably the Acadians, can also stake a claim to nationhood . And it applies, arguably, to Newfoundland, where a separate society existed for three hundred years before its incorporation into the Canadian state in 1949.
The Historical View
A walk through our common history will establish the weight of national oppression in the formation and subsequent development of the Canadian capitalist state.
The establishment of settler colonies in eastern North America by both France and Great Britain involved the dispossession and subjugation of the native inhabitants through war, theft, religious proselytizing, unequal terms of trade and the exploitation of the skilled labour of aboriginal men and women, notably in the lucrative fur trade.
The long struggle for colonial supremacy swung in Britain’s favour in the mid 1700’s. In 1755, after its military successes in Canada’s maritime region, the British expelled thousands of French Acadian settlers, an early example of brutal ethnic cleansing.
Larger concentrations of French settlers in Quebec required a different strategy. After their victory on the Plains of Abraham, the British imposed colonial rule on their new subjects through the active collaboration of the Roman Catholic Church and the landed seigneurial elite. They sought to build an English-speaking majority in both Upper and Lower Canada, aided in this respect by the influx of Empire Loyalists opposed to the American Revolution of 1776.
The Patriotes Rebellion. Quebec 1837-1839

In 1837, the British colonial administration suppressed armed uprisings in both French and English-speaking Canada after years of popular democratic agitation. The rebellion in Lower Canada (Quebec) was crushed with particular brutality because it was also a struggle for national rights.

The launch of the Canadian federal state in 1867 was a bid by the anglo-Canadian bourgeoisie for expansion into the vast northwest territory of British North America. It was the product of colonial elite consensus, rather than popular anti-colonial struggle, actively promoted by Britain to counter the threat of American annexation.
Only in Ontario was there any enthusiasm for the nation-building project. Quebec was granted provincial status but would be condemned to permanent minority status in federal institutions. As for the Metis and indigenous peoples of the West, John A. MacDonald’s National Policy envisaged their displacement by an influx of English-speaking immigrants from Eastern Canada, or from Europe, with a preference for those from the British Isles.
First in Manitoba in 1870, and then in Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1885, Ottawa deployed armed force to crush a Metis and Indian

Louis Riel, political leader of the Métis people. He led two resistance movements against the Canadian government

insurgency, securing anglo-Canadian supremacy and delivering a decisive blow to a French or indigenous people’s role in the development of the West. A colonial apartheid regime awaited the defeated native peoples, consisting of their relocation to reserves under the authority of the federal Department of Indian Affairs, while their language and culture (and even their children, literally) were under assault in the church-run school system. The legal status of the French language was suppressed in one province after another.

Thus, from the beginning, capitalist development in Canada took on a double form of inequality, not only in terms of the struggle of workers and small farmers against capitalists, but also between dominant and subordinate nations within the federation. The anglo-protestant ascendancy that was integral to the construction of the pan-Canadian state imposed a reality of economic marginalization and the threat of cultural and linguistic assimilation for French-speaking and First Nations peoples. But the denial of the national rights of Quebec and the other dominated nations came at the price of potentially explosive tensions and contradictions at the heart of the federal state.
Population density and a common language, culture and history, have given Quebec a strategic role in Canadian politics. Following the execution of Metis leader Louis Riel by the Conservative government in 1886, and for many decades thereafter, Quebecois favoured the Liberals. Thanks to their Quebec base, the Liberals were the dominant party of the Canadian bourgeoisie, exercising power at the federal level through most of the 20th century. Quebec’s bourgeoisie sought to advance its interests through an alliance with anglo-canadian capital. But Quebec as a whole remained a backward society characterized by the prominent power of the church, the marked subjugation of women, high levels of poverty with massive out-migration, and English as the language of preference in the workplace and amongst new immigrants. National consciousness took on a reactionary and parochial form, although it could also display an anti-imperialist dimension as it did in the Conscription crises of WWI and WWII.
Anti-conscription demonstration staged by Université de Montréal students, Champ de Mars. In Quebec, 72.9% of the population vote "no," whereas across the other provinces, 80% of the residents vote "yes."
Anti-conscription demonstration staged by Université de Montréal students, Champ de Mars. In Quebec, 72.9% of the population vote “no,” whereas across the other provinces, 80% of the residents vote “yes.”
All this was to change with the wave of nationalist and social agitation which swept Quebec in the 1960’s and 70’s. For the first time, the demand for Quebec independence was raised, creating panic in the Canadian ruling class and its political representatives. Ottawa mustered two distinct responses to this mortal threat to the Canadian capitalist state: an unrelenting hostility to Quebec’s national demands under Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, followed by a softer more cooptative approach under Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Neither strategy was to succeed in putting the genie of separatism back into the bottle, even though the federalist side prevailed in the two referenda on independence.
National humiliation at the hands of the Canadian state the War Measures Act (1970), exclusion from the repatriated Canadian Constitution (1982), the failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords (1990, 1992), the sponsorship scandal (1995) and the Clarity Act (1997) have driven a deeper wedge between Quebec and the Rest of Canada than ever before. The effect has been to weaken Quebecois attachment to the two parties of Anglo-Canadian capital, in particular, the Liberal Party.
Idle No More demonstration in Montreal
The example of Quebec has stimulated the national consciousness of aboriginal peoples, as well as the demands of the francophone minorities outside Quebec. The First Nations peoples of Canada and Quebec have demonstrated their determination to maintain their sovereign rights through the courts, in negotiation with Ottawa and the provinces, and by militant direct action to defend their traditional lands and treaty rights when these have been threatened.
The National Question and the Left in English-speaking Canada
The existence of national oppression in the Canadian state seems not to have been recognized, let alone become a preoccupation of the early workers movement. The 1933 Regina Manifesto, founding document of the CCF (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, social democratic precursor of the New Democratic Party) commits the party to “replace the current capitalist system, with its inherent injustice and inhumanity, by a social order from which the domination and exploitation of one class by another will be eliminated.” But a thorough search of the elaborate program which follows will not reveal a single reference to Quebec or to aboriginal peoples. Neither did the early Communist Party take up the national question, despite the example provided by the Bolsheviks. Four delegates from Quebec are said to have attended the founding conference of the Workers Party in 1922, versus 43 from Ontario and 16 from western Canada.
During WW II, both the CCF and the then-Stalinized CPC, supported conscription, thus alienating them from the working class wing of the anti-conscription movement in Quebec. Stanley Ryerson, the CP’s leading intellectual, wrote the most authoritative Marxist account of the national question in the formation of the Canadian state in his book Unequal Union. But because of its orientation to an allegedly progressive wing of the Canadian bourgeoisie ready to break with the Ottawa-Washington axis, the CP did not tolerate nationalist leanings in its Quebec wing.
Canadian soldier in Montreal during 1970 FLQ crisis
Canadian soldier in Montreal during 1970 FLQ crisis

English-Canadian social democracy’s finest hour with respect to Quebec came when federal NDP leader T.C. Douglas opposed Trudeau’s War Measures Act during the 1970 FLQ crisis. Douglas argued from a strictly civil libertarian stance. Still, it took courage to swim against the hysteria that Ottawa drummed up to justify sending the army into Quebec and jailing over 400 activists without charge. For the most part, however, the NDP leadership has mirrored the chauvinism towards Quebec that operates across the political spectrum in English-speaking Canada. For example, now elder NDP statesman but then Saskatchewan Attorney General, Roy Romanow, was a key collaborator in Trudeau’s freezing-out of Quebec during the 1982 constitutional negotiations between Ottawa and the provinces, what is known in Quebec as ‘the night of the long knives.’

During the 1960’s and 70’s there was strong sympathy on the English Canadian left for Quebec’s aspirations, up to and including independence. By the 1990’s and into this century that sympathy had largely evaporated. The reasons offered for this change of heart are generally along similar lines. The Parti Quebecois had abandoned its alleged social democratic origins and transformed itself into a right-wing pro-capitalist party. The Quebecois had supported the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. They had succumbed to a reactionary ethno-centric nationalism intolerant of Quebec’s aboriginal and immigrant minorities. Francophone Quebeckers had successfully dismantled the system of English privilege and were now bending the stick too far the other way.
In contrast, in relation to First Nations peoples, the English Canadian left has retained a basic sympathy and recognition of the justice of

Canadian Soldier and Mohawk Warrior standoff at Oka

their struggles. This difference reflects a degree of liberal moralism, paternalism and superficiality to which many on the left in English-speaking Canada have retreated. It is enough for the Quebecois to have registered gains for their ongoing struggle to become suspect. Or because there is racism and xenophobia in Quebec we can no longer extend the hand of solidarity. Some on the progressive side of Canadian politics seem surprised to discover that Quebec is a capitalist society dominated by the bourgeoisie in which there is an ebb and flow in struggles, and where the possibility of social advance or retreat depends on the relationship of forces, as is the case for any other society in the world today.

To be sure, Quebec has undergone many changes since Pierre Vallières wrote Les Nègres Blanc d`Amerique. The gains for the francophone majority are tangible, but fragile, particularly in the crucial language battleground of Montréal. But these changes fall far short of national liberation. They do not include power over banking and finance, over the judiciary at the highest level, over the army and foreign policy. And Quebec is still the prisoner of a constitution which does not recognize its national rights, on which it was never consulted, and which it is next to impossible for it to amend.
2766141687_f219220ca5A certain left nationalist discourse still prevails in English-speaking Canada. It subscribes to the myth of Canada as a gentler, more civilized variant of capitalism. It is the land of medicare with all the trimmings. The Stephen Harper-led Tories are reviled for wanting to betray this vision and install a more brutish American-style model which would not be consistent with Canadian ‘values’. To be sure, this view suffers from the absence of a class analysis. Harper’s determined pursuit of capitalist austerity at home and imperialist militarism abroad is fully supported by the Canadian ruling class. Canada’s ruling rich have confidence in Harper and his team. They could even be said to share the same version of Canadian, and thoroughly capitalist, `values`. Defending alternative, progressive Canadian ‘values’ is not necessarily bad. It finds an echo in broad layers of working people in English Canada. In the final analysis, this reflects a more favourable balance in the relationship of class forces than has existed thus far in the United States. The problem with left nationalism (and its attendant ‘values’ discourse) is that it tends to obscure the class nature of the Canadian state and to oppose anything that would threaten the unity of that state, such as Quebec independence.
There is another barrier to understanding and opposing national oppression. In some parts of the socialist left, the central contradiction in460_0___30_0_0_0_0_0_clenched_fist_1 capitalist society is reduced to the antagonism between worker and capitalist in an abstract and ahistorical manner. Other contradictions of class society, such as national or gender oppression, are deemed non-class issues that are less important, or even diversions from the real struggle. In this framework, which we might term economist, Quebec’s national grievances might be recognized, but the solution proposed relies abstractly on uniting the workers of both nations in a common struggle against the bourgeoisie. Anything that throws the working class in the oppressed nation into the same camp as its bourgeoisie is to be resisted. For example, the demand for Quebec independence, and even upholding the province’s language law, could be opposed because they divide the bi-national working class.
Our Approach
For us in Socialist Action, national oppression is pre-eminently a class question. The national oppressor of an oppressed nation is not primarily another nation but the state as the instrument of an exploitative ruling class. The struggle of an oppressed nationality is against the state, in order to break its authority and control over the oppressed.
In the case of aboriginal peoples in Canada and Quebec, we support their right to self-government, to control of their resources above and

First Nations Idle No More protestors march and block the International Bridge between the Canada and U.S. border near Cornwall Ontario
First Nations Idle No More protestors march and block the International Bridge between the Canada and U.S. border near Cornwall Ontario

below ground and the right to develop their system of education, employment, health care and infrastructure according to their own values. We do not believe that the capitalist system can meet these aspirations. Since its importation from Europe, capitalism has reaped immense profits from the expropriation of the native peoples of the continent, and it will continue to do so unless opposed.

First Nations peoples have sometimes become caught in the struggle between Quebec and the pan-Canadian state. In our view, it is not in the interests of indigenous peoples to oppose the legitimate national aspirations of the Quebecois so long as their own national rights are also respected. Any successful bid by the Quebecois for their own state must accord the native peoples of Quebec the same full right of self-determination, up to and including the right to secede and/or to stay within the Canadian state. This right should also apply to aboriginal peoples who may wish to leave Confederation to be part of a future independent Quebec.
We support not just the right to self-determination of the Quebecois, but also the concrete political expression of this right which for over fifty years has been the demand for Quebec independence. This demand is supported by all the Quebec labour union federations and has deep roots in the Quebec working class and other social layers. Our support for independence is informed by a serious examination of Canadian history and the central role and weight of national oppression in that history. The national question remains the Achilles heel of the Canadian bourgeoisie presenting a direct challenge to the stability and authority of the federal state, which is the main guarantor and enforcer of its elite class interests.
Within Quebec we support a break with the bourgeois nationalist leaderships of the Parti Quebecois and the Bloc Quebecois, and the Logo RŽgionbuilding of a mass working class political party which can address all the problems affecting Quebec society from an independent working class perspective, and which is capable of leading a struggle for Quebecois national liberation. We believe that the emergence of Quebec Solidaire represents a potential step in that direction. We further believe that revolutionary socialists should participate in that party as an organized tendency to fight for an anti-capitalist program.
Inside the NDP, including through our participation in the NDP Socialist Caucus, we defend unequivocally the national rights of Quebec and First Nations peoples, and oppose the party leadership’s vacillation or outright collaboration with the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the Canadian state`s violation of these rights. NDP Leader Jack Layton’s equivocation on the Clarity Act (enacted in 2000), which gives Ottawa the power to determine the validity of any future referendum on Quebec independence, is a case in point.
Our support for Quebec independence is aimed at creating the best conditions for the class struggle in both Quebec and the Rest of Canada. In as much as independence for Quebec has not yet been realized, we favour an alliance between the working class organizations of Quebec and the ROC to install a workers’ government in Ottawa. The recent catapulting of the NDP into official opposition status, largely on the strength of its vote in Quebec, opens up some potential opportunities in that respect. The NDP does not have any significant roots in the Quebec working class. And, given the class collaborationist reflexes of its leadership and the party`s long record of English Canadian chauvinism, it will not defend Quebec should another crisis of national unity occur. But at the same time, the willingness of large numbers of Quebecois working people and youth to throw their support to the NDP reflects a recognition of the need for unity across the national divide against a mutual class enemy, as personified by the Harper Tories. Whether this rather generous offer is taken up, and to what extent, at the base of the NDP and the labour movement in the ROC remains to be seen. But it is, we argue, the duty of socialists, even with small forces, to try to influence this process in a positive direction, that is to strengthen cross-national mobilization against the next round of austerity, militarism, eco-degradation and repression which the Harper government is hoping to impose. Indispensable to this task is a clear perspective on the enduring reality of national oppression in the Canadian state and the need to combat it.
The National Question in classical Marxism
In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels declare: “the working men (sic) have no country”. Corrected for gender bias, this remains the clarion call to internationalism that is at the heart of the struggle to overthrow capitalism. Is nationalism simply then a tool through which the bourgeoisie ideologically disarms the workers and enlists their support for austerity, domestic repression and war? Should not socialists then stand in uncompromising opposition to nationalism?
Karl Marx
Karl Marx

It is worth probing further into the same passage from the Manifesto. Yes, say Marx and Engels: ” The (workers) have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.” This is an altogether richer and more dialectical understanding of the nation-class relationship, projected onto the concrete struggle between contending classes in specific states or nations.

Initially, the views of Marx and Engels on the national question were shaped by the bourgeois democratic revolution that swept through Europe in 1848. They welcomed the struggles for national unity and the independence of the German, Italian, Polish and Hungarian peoples. In contrast, the struggles of the smaller nations of eastern and southern Europe, such as the Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, Serbs and Bulgarians,did not elicit their support because of the backwardness of these social formations and their alliance with the most reactionary power in Europe, Tsarist Russia.
After he took up residence in London and became acquainted with the Irish question, Marx took a different stance toward national oppression. Instead of Irish national liberation riding on the coattails of the English revolution, he came to see the colonization of Ireland as a block to the class consciousness of the English working class. So long as it acquiesced in the subjugation of Ireland, the English working class would never be able to wage an effective struggle against its own ruling class. Therefore, the working class of the oppressor nation must break with its bourgeoisie and support the struggle of the oppressed nation for self-determination, even if that means political separation.
The succeeding generation of European Marxists in the early 20th century engaged in a long debate on the national question. The most

Three of the Bolshevik leaders who founded the Soviet Union. Trotsky (left), Lenin (center) and Kamenev (right)
Three of the Bolshevik leaders who founded the Soviet Union. Trotsky (left), Lenin (center) and Kamenev (right)

advanced expression of this interchange remains, in our view, that of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who championed the rights of oppressed nations not only in the pluri-national Russian Empire, but also in the colonial and semi-colonial world dominated by imperialism.

National self-determination, up to and including the right to secede, is a pre-requisite to the voluntary amalgamation of nations envisaged in a world socialist order. Against Rosa Luxemburg’s charge that unconditional defense of national self-determination subordinated the working class in an oppressed nation to its own bourgeoisie, Lenin argued as follows: “Insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation fights the oppressor, we are always, in every case, and more strongly than anyone else, in favour, for we are the staunchest and the most consistent enemies of oppression. But insofar as the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation stands for its own bourgeois nationalism, we stand against. We fight against the privileges and violence of the oppressor nation and do not in any way condone strivings for privileges on the part of the oppressed nation.”
Defense of national self-determination did not necessarily imply secession. According to Lenin, that would depend on “a thousand unpredictable factors”, and on the unfolding rhythm and needs of the class struggle in a given instance. What he insisted on is that the fight against injustice and for democratic (including national) rights is not secondary, but is rather an essential component of the class struggle, waged as it is politically on all fronts.
Our contention here is that national oppression is embedded in the Canadian federal state. With respect to Quebec, the demand for independence has deep historical roots and should occupy an important place in the strategic thinking of revolutionary socialists. Its realisation would strike a blow against the Canadian capitalist state at one of its weakest points. And it would encourage independent class politics in both Quebec and the Rest of Canada, increasing the scope for anti-capitalist struggle and revolutionary social transformation.
(Robbie Mahood is member of Socialist Action/Ligue pour L`Action Socialiste who has lived in Montreal for the past 18 years. He was a candidate for Quebec Solidaire for the Quebec National Assembly in 2009, and ran for the PDS-Party for Socialist Democracy in Montreal in 1998. Originally from Saskatchewan, Robbie is a pro-choice physician who helped to establish the Morgentaler Clinic in Winnipeg, Manitoba.)