Quebec Solidaire Opts for Independence/Sovereignty

by Robbie Mahood

Quebec’s small mass left-wing party, Quebec Solidaire(QS), held its fifth convention in a Montreal suburb on November 20-22, 2009. About 300 delegates and observers gathered to further a process of political clarification initiated by the leadership.

In 2008, QS managed to get one of its popular leaders, Amir Khadir, elected to Quebec’s National Assembly. However, its vote across the province has yet to pass 5%, even if polls sometimes place it as high as 8%. The party has about 5,000 members.

QS was formed in 2006 defining itself as “alter-mondialiste, féministe, écologique et de gauche”, a party representing diverse social movements and dedicated to breaking the neo-liberal strait-jacket in Quebec politics. Anti-neoliberal it is, but without an explicit working class or socialist perspective, although several left-wing organizations were permitted to form political `collectives` or tendencies within QS.

QS has a history of avoiding controversy in favour of lowest common denominator consensus. The leadership`s improvised public pronouncements have often fallen far short of its own militants`expectations, for example on the Afghan war or in response to community outrage at the police killing of a young man, Freddy Villanueva, in one of Montréal`s immigrant neighbourhoods.

Highlighted at this convention were debates on the national question, and on secularism in relation to immigrant religious and cultural rights — issues that are controversial in Quebec politics as well as within QS.

Socialists in English-speaking Canada and the United States may question the obsession with the national question in Quebec, or wonder whether the Quebecois any longer suffer national oppression. After all, the national and class agitation of the 1960’s and 70’s led to significant advances for the francophone majority in Quebec. Two failed bids for independence in the referenda of 1980 and 1995 have led the sovereignist movement, dominated by the bourgeois nationalist Parti Quebecois, to an impasse. At present, sentiment for independence is at a rather low ebb. Should the struggle for an independent Quebec any longer occupy the place it once did in the strategic thinking of revolutionary socialists?

The view that independence is passé takes little cognizance of the national tensions that have been and continue to be a decisive factor in Canadian politics. Regardless of their views on independence (which fluctuate greatly depending on the conjuncture), the Quebecois have a more clearly defined national consciousness than ever before. The exercise of their national rights brings them continually up against the power of the Canadian state and constitution. This is most clearly seen in struggles around language and culture but periodically broaches questions of economic control, defense of social programs and participation in imperialist wars. This unresolved national problem continues to fester away at the heart of the Canadian federation, undermining the stability of class rule exercised by the Anglo-Canadian bourgeoisie and by its junior Quebec partner.

This is the context which impelled QS to adopt a more coherent position on this perennial question in Quebec politics. Up to this point, the party had defined itself as ‘sovereignist’, a term that leaves some ambiguity. After a vigorous debate over four competing options, delegates opted for the use of “independence or sovereignity” interchangeably, narrowly edging out those who argued for “independence” only. Two other choices, “sovereignity” only, and ”neither independence or sovereignity”, were decisively rejected.

At the same time, the delegates recognized the sovereignity of “the ten Amerindian peoples and the Inuit people who also inhabit Quebec territory” , affirming their right to self-determination whether through independence or in the form of self-government within Quebec.

Delegates also repudiated the ethnic nationalism increasingly promoted by the Parti Quebecois (PQ). For Quebec Solidaire, the Quebec nation is “ethnically and culturally diversified, with French as the common language” and the Quebecois are all those who “live in Quebec and participate in its life”.

As for how to achieve independence, Quebec Solidaire proposes a democratic Constituent Assembly charged with conducting a vast consultative process on Quebec`s “political and constitutional future and the values and political institutions pertaining to it.“ This exercise in popular sovereignity is in contrast to the narrow and elite-driven referendum strategy of the Parti Quebecois (now placed in cold storage by the party brass until so-called ‘winning conditions’ reappear).

Anti-immigrant sentiment surfaced in a major way in the Quebec election of 2007 when the right wing populist party, Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ) , capitalized on latent hostility to cosmopolitan Montreal, especially to its Muslim and Hasidic Jewish minorities, to propel itself into official opposition status in the National Assembly.

Subsequently, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission held public hearings on so-called `reasonable accommodation` of new immigrants.

One of the major achievements of Quebec`s `Quiet Revolution `in the 1960`s was ending the Catholic Church`s control over education, health and social services. The secularization of Quebec society enjoys overwhelming support in the population and is closely linked in the public`s mind with advances in women`s and to a lesser extent gay/lesbian rights. But these arguments for separation of church and state and against patriarchal oppression are now being recruited to a xenophobic campaign against religious or cultural minorities, targeting primarily traditionally-attired muslim women. Most recently, debate has erupted over whether public employees have the right to wear religiously identified clothing or symbols.

Delegates voted for a position which distinguishes between the state, which must be secular, and individuals, who have the right to express their religious beliefs. Government employees working with the public should be able to wear religious “insignia” provided they do not proselytize and are not as a result impeded in the performance of their duties. This position clearly distinguishes QS from the PQ, which is seeking a ban on religious apparel in the civil service akin to the coercive laicity of France where the hijab (head covering) has been prohibited in public schools.

QS marked a step forward at this convention in more clearly aligning itself with the perspective of Quebec independence, explicitly acknowledging the sovereignity of aboriginal peoples and rising to the defence of religious and cultural minorities. At the same time the party suffers from some important deficits.

In general, the positions adopted are premised on the future election of a QS government, lending them a rather abstract character (for example, the constituent assembly) or similarly, posing solutions in administrative terms, for example, qualifying the conditions under which a state employee would be allowed to display personal religious insignia.

Largely missing from this convention were resolutions that would orient QS to organizing struggles that are immediate and pressing, both in the electoral and extra-parliamentary arenas. One exception to this was the unanimous support given to a resolution in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle committing the party to help build the global Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against the Israeli state.

Indeed, there is a noticeable gap between QS’s initial electoral success and its low or non-existent political profile on the streets and in the movements — ironic for a party formed in large measure by social activists. In this respect, the downturn in mass struggles in Quebec over the last 5 years has reinforced the party’s electoral pre-occupation. The risk is that with any resurgence of mass mobilizations, QS will be a passive observer content to reap whatever benefits come its way in the polls.

Shifting to a stronger pro-independence stance may lead to a broader and more comprehensive programmatic debate on the measures needed to combat the twin economic and ecological crises. Demands to nationalize the banks, abrogate NAFTA, withdraw from NATO and NORAD, develop unemployment insurance to provide a living wage and re-train workers laid-off in the crisis, bring financially or ecologically bankrupt industries under public ownership and re-orient toward green production, defend public health care against Supreme Court authorized privatisation – these and other anti-capitalist measures imply not only mass mobilization within Quebec but, more often than not, a confrontation and break with the federal Canadian state.

Various observers have noted that whatever its limitations, QS is a party in formation. One must be patient and allow time for deficiencies to be overcome. But political differentiation, suppressed for the most part up to now, is becoming more apparent. It would be naïve to overlook bureaucratic and reformist tendencies, nor should it be surprising given the relationship of political forces within QS since its founding and the impact of its modest electoral success.

The weakness of ‘class’ politics in QS is a reflection of the society around it. Neither Social Democratic reformism nor Stalinism have ever established a significant presence in Quebec, a reality that brings with it mixed blessings. On the one hand, a labour movement reknowned for its militancy has yet to assert itself as an independent political actor. On the other hand, there is an absence of hardened reformist currents exercising control over working class politics.

QS’s election campaigns have been endorsed by more radical elements in Quebec’s labour movement, notably the Montreal central council of the Confederation des syndicaux nationaux (CSN). But the relationship between the party and the unions is tentative at best. Certainly, the working class has been given no particular strategic weight in the party’s thinking. However, the notion that QS should limit itself to being the political voice of a coalition of movements dedicated to a more just and equitable society (superceding the struggle between social classes) is being undermined by the depth of the current crisis which brings class contradictions in the broadest sense into greater relief.

This convention demonstrated that party militants are capable of vigourous debate and retain a certain independence from the leadership. The role of socialists within QS in advancing a class struggle perspective around transitional anti-capitalist demands, such as those listed above, will be very important. To be sure, this task is not to be approached in a mechanical way from the stance of bringing received wisdom from outside, but rather in the context of discussions as they actually unfold within the ranks of the party. But it is a task that must surely be taken up.

*Robbie Mahood is a federal steering committee member of Socialist Action / Ligue pour l’Action socialiste. He is a physician working in a Montreal neighbourhood clinic, and was a Quebec Solidaire candidate in the constituency of Mont-Royal.

Ottawa culprit in Copenhagen fiasco

by Barry Weisleder

For the Canadian government, the 12-day Copenhagen climate change summit in December 2009 was a public relations disaster – deservedly so, as the Stephen Harper Tories slavishly followed Washington’s lead, even trying to scupper the weak legacy of the Kyoto Accord.

Environmentalist activists at Copenhagen ‘awarded’ the daily Fossil of the Day to Canada, on its own, or as one of a group of countries, ten times — more than any other state present. Toronto Mayor David Miller, followed by Ontario and Quebec’s representatives, condemned the Harper regime. A leaked cabinet document suggested the emissions from Alberta’s oil sands will rise 165 per cent in the coming years. And an elaborate stunt by social media pranksters exposed Ottawa’s perfidious position to the world media.

Still, Prime Minister Harper maintained that his government’s insistence on ‘realistic targets’ was vindicated by the bargaining process at Copenhagen. The result, of course, was no enforceable agreement on emission reductions, and only offers of inadequate aid to less developed countries, to be meted out via imperialist financial institutions. It’s a case of finding ‘vindication’ in an elite-crafted failure.

Canada is the only country to ignore its international obligations under the previous Kyoto climate treaty. At Copenhagen it blocked all attempts to reach a new treaty to significantly cut carbon emissions.

“Canada is the dinosaur at these talks,” said Canadian David Cadman, president of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, an international association of local governments that hosted a Mayor’s Conference on climate change.

“They are all about protecting Canada’s fossil fuel sector instead of protecting the interests of the Canadian public,” Cadman told TerraViva.

Canada is “throwing a spanner into the works wherever it can”, agreed Dale Marshall of the David Suzuki Foundation, a Canadian environmental group. “They are even blocking agreement on the use of 1990 as the base year,” Marshall said in an interview.

It’s not hard to understand why. Not only are Canada’s emissions 34 percent higher than the 1990 baseline and rapidly growing, its massive Alberta tar sands production is believed to be the world’s biggest single industrial source of carbon emissions.

The emissions cut offered by Stephen Harper’s government is just three percent under 1990 levels by 2020 – less than the Kyoto obligation of cutting six percent by 2010. Scientists have repeatedly warned that to have any chance of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (which is likely insufficient to avoid eco-catastrophe), industrialized countries must cut emissions 25 to 40 percent by 2020 compared to the baseline of 1990.

Canada also lobbied hard alongside the U.S. to abandon the Kyoto Protocol process entirely, to the outrage of developing countries. Ottawa expects them to make significant emissions reduction commitments despite Canada’s unwillingness to live up to its legal obligations from 1997.

The poorer countries, represented in a bloc known as the G77, want the Kyoto deal extended past its 2012 deadline. China, India, Brazil and South Africa called on rich countries to take on targets under an extended Kyoto plan that would cut emissions by 40 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020.

New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton said “despite the support of Canadians for a real plan to cut emissions, Harper has sided with the big polluters”.

He’s right. Unfortunately, Layton’s solution is a ‘carbon trading’ scheme, which British environmentalist author of “Heat”, George Monbiot, says is like the medieval Catholic Church selling indulgences. It might make some people feel better about their sins, but it won’t reduce carbon emissions.

Representatives of Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia hit the mark squarely when they argued at Copenhagen that the real obstacle to the cutting of emissions is the global capitalist system, which profits from the destruction of nature.

Consider the scope and trajectory of the problem. How can a system that has consumed more resources and energy in the last 50 years than all previous civilization be made to stabilize and reduce its rate of resource depletion and pollution emission? How can such a wasteful, poisonous and unequal economic system be compelled to introduce technologies, consumption patterns and radical income redistribution, without which sustainability is only a cruel joke?

The reason there is no capitalist solution to climate change is simple. Capitalism is made up of thousands of corporations, all competing for investment and profits. There is no “social interest” in capitalism – only separate interests. If a company decides to invest in cutting emissions, its profits will go down. Investors will move capital into more profitable investments. The ‘green’ company goes out of business. “Grow or die” is the motto of the private enterprise economy. Capitalist anarchy, its social irrationality, is not accidental. It is not the product of a ‘market failure’. It is the very nature of the beast.

The solution lies in the direction of less, not more reliance on the market. Society needs more social control, more economic democracy. Only public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy makes that possible. The place to start is the energy industry: Nationalize Big Oil. Then make the corporations that produce greenhouse gases pay the full cost of cutting emissions, end all subsidies to fossil fuel producers, and re-direct the billions of dollars now being spent on wars and debt into public transit, into retrofitting homes and offices, and into renewable energy projects.

Changing from fossil fuels to other energy sources will require massive spending, which in the short run will be unprofitable. Carbon emission reductions must be global. Air and water do not respect borders. Change must be all-encompassing. In every economic sector Capital will resist. Only the expropriation of Capital, followed by the institution of democratic economic planning by workers and communities, can overcome the anarchy of production under capitalism.

Revolutionary Cuba has shown that it is possible, even in a poor country suffering under a 50-year embargo by the world’s dominant power, and even after the loss of its major trade partner, to reduce the carbon footprint while defending and raising health and education levels for the population as a whole, and building an egalitarian and highly participatory society.

A century ago the great socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg predicted the future for humanity would be “socialism or barbarism”. In light of the fiasco at Copenhagen, and the deepening crisis of climate change, we are compelled to revise the slogan to read: “Eco-socialism or extinction”.

Political crisis boils over Afghan occupation

by Barry Weisleder

For the second year in a row, the Conservative minority government asked Governor-General Michaelle Jean to prorogue, or suspend, Parliament for the winter months in order to avoid political accountability and a potential loss of office. Shamefully, the G-G agreed. Thus, all Bills in process were abandoned, and a new session will begin with a brand new budget on March 3.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s refusal to release documents that would shed light on Canadian Forces’ handling of Afghan detainees was set to provoke a crisis on January 25, when the House of Commons was to return. On December 10, the Commons ordered the government to produce uncensored documents dealing with detainee transfers. But Harper refused, citing ‘national security’, troop safety, and relations with allies.

Former number two Canadian diplomat in Afghanistan, Richard Colvin, raised concerns in 2006-2007 about prisoners being routinely beaten and tortured by Afghan authorities. So did the Red Cross, Britain, Netherlands, the media and human rights groups. General Walter Natynczyk, Chief of Defence Staff, confirmed that Canadian troops did hand over a detainee in June 2006 to the Afghan police, who promptly beat him, until he was taken back into Canadian custody.

But Ottawa continues to deny that a problem existed. Instead, the Tories attacked Colvin’s credibility, made an issue of the Opposition’s ‘patriotism’, and proceeded to boycott a special sitting of the Parliamentary committee probing detainee abuse.

The question arises: Why are Harper and company being so pig-headed?

The issue goes beyond parliamentary decorum, beyond the centralization of power in the PM’s Office. The treatment of detainees has become a lightening rod for mass popular opposition to the war of occupation in Afghanistan. It highlights the nature of the corrupt regime of war lords and drug barons in Kabul which NATO, including Canada, sustains.

For the Canadian ruling class, the treatment of Afghans is far less important than the economics of energy pipelines and the politics of western domination of the Middle East and South Asia. Tory intransigence in Ottawa is proving to be a costly political impediment to the realization of larger imperialist foreign policy aims. A major section of the Canadian business elite would rather cut their losses in Afghanistan (where the 134th Canadian soldier died on December 23), make a superficial concession to public opinion, and re-deploy troops to another theatre of neo-colonial occupation, like Haiti.

Setting aside all the hypocrisy about ‘the rule of law’, the supremacy of Parliament, and the promotion of ‘democracy’ abroad, the division of the rulers over the war is a good thing — even better if it leads to an early exit from Afghanistan, and an early end to the Harper government. But neither should be taken for granted, as the Tories seem as determined to tough it out, as they are to make working people pay for the economic crisis.

Pension ‘status quo’ is not an option – CLC

by Barry Weisleder

Pension plans and retirement savings have been hit hard by the downturn. The security of many Canadians is at risk. Some companies even want to cut defined benefit plans that employees paid into throughout their working lives. (That’s a big issue in the United Steelworkers’ strike at Vale Inco.) People with Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs) and other private pensions that invested heavily in stock and financial markets have seen their investments lose much of their value. There is an urgent need to expand public pensions and reduce reliance on financial markets for economic security. Public pensions remain secure, but they replace only a modest share of previous work-related earnings.

In fact, 11 million Canadians (one-third of the total population) don’t have a workplace pension. 1.6 million seniors qualify for Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) benefits (and therefore earn less than $11,300 per year). Employers use bankruptcy courts to shirk their pension promises. In the Nortel bankruptcy case, retirees stand to lose a third of their pension incomes. Average fees gouge a third of workers’ RRSP earnings.

Thus, pension reform is in the air. The New Democratic Party is pushing a Canadian Labour Congress plan. The federal Conservative minority government is resisting. The Liberal Opposition, following the lead of British Columbia and Alberta, wants a CPP supplement to which individuals could voluntarily contribute. The banks, fearing that a beefed up CPP will cut into their lucrative RRSP business, are notably hostile to the idea.

The CLC proposal asks the federal government to:

*Phase in a doubling of payouts from the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and the Quebec Pension Plan (QPP). (The average CPP payout is about $600 a month.)

*Immediately increase by 15 per cent Old Age Security (OAS), which is about $500 a month, and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), which is about $450 a month for all retirees.

*Create a national pension insurance fund to ensure that workers’ defined benefit pensions aren’t at risk when employers go under or speculative bubbles go bust. (The United States has a pension guarantee fund covering up to about $50,000 of pension income.)

Working people and nature are the source of all the wealth. It is appropriated by Capital. Workers shouldn’t have to beg for crumbs in retirement. In the face of the economic crisis we did not cause, and the bail-out of banks and big businesses we did not approve, our demand is that, in addition to doubling the CPP and QPP, the OAS and GIS be increased sufficiently to ensure that no senior is condemned to subsist below the poverty line (approximately $30,000 a year in large urban centres).

The federal and provincial Finance Ministers met in Whitehorse, Yukon in December, and will meet again in May 2010. Several of them said there’s nothing wrong with the existing pension set up. So, it’s time to start organizing and agitating. They need to hear the CLC’s message amplified many fold: The pension status quo is not an option!

Will Copenhagen Make a Difference?

– Toronto Socialist Action Public Forum Presents –

Will Copenhagen make a difference?

World leaders gather for the climate change conference in Denmark, after ten years of market-based ‘solutions’ set out in Kyoto have failed miserably to effect real reductions in carbon emissions. Will it take a social revolution to make the energy revolution needed to stop our planet from burning?

Judith Deutsch, president of Science for Peace
John Valleau, member, Science for Peace; professor (retired), University of Toronto.

Q & A, and discussion period will follow the presentation.
Friday, December 11 7 p.m.
OISE, 252 Bloor St. West, Room 2-212
(at the St. George Subway Station)

Everyone is welcome. $3 donation is requested.
For more information, visit the SA web site at: or call 416-535-8779

Ligue pour L'Action Socialiste