A Tale of Two Referendums

SPO'ConnorYesRallyLessons from Québec on the politics of nation and class.

The Radical independence campaign, by its success, has shown how the fight for social justice can inspire and give new meaning to the struggle for national self-determination. The history of independentist politics in Québec has demonstrated the same but because of the difficulties of the Left and social movements to find their own voice and free themselves from the hold of nationalist politics. The national question and the class struggle have weaved around each other throughout Québec history, drawing a complex pattern. We will focus here on one segment of that tapestry: the two referendums.

There have been two referendums in Québec, not on outright independence but on autonomist projects: “sovereignty-association” in 1980, and “sovereignty-partnership” in 1995, both somewhere between independence and “devo-max”. The questions were about giving a mandate to the Québec government to negotiate a new deal with the rest of Canada. The results were about 40% Yes in 1980 and 49.5% Yes in 1995. In both cases, the campaigns were initiated and led by our nationalist party: Parti Québécois. But the circumstances of the two referendums were very different.

First referendum: 1980

It was the end of the long boom. The 1960s and 1970s were periods of cultural revival and social struggles in Québec, anti-imperialism, feminism, radical union struggles, etc. The Parti Québécois’ first government, following the election of November 1976, was the most progressive in Québec history. It campaigned under the slogan of being on the side of workers, but it wasn’t led by workers or rooted in labour unions. The PQ was a mass party (over 200 000 members) with deep roots among young workers, artists and intellectuals, but also sections of the ruling elite, notably among high ranking public servants.

In that period, most of the left was working inside the PQ, with the exception of sizable Maoist groups hostile to Québec nationalism (for dividing the working class) and small Trotskyist ones trying to maintain the Independence and Socialism perspective, or the idea that you could not achieve independence without socialism and vice versa.

The defeat of 1980 can be explained by many factors. Chief among them was the scare campaign from the No side which convinced many older voters to choose security over freedom. The fear was deeply rooted. Only 10 years earlier, the federal government used a kidnapping by the very small FLQi to impose the War Measures Act and crack down on independentist, labour and socialist activists: 500 arrests, 3000 home searches, all with no warrants. Tanks were rolling in the streets of Montréal for weeks.

But also, the nationalist leadership was very hesitant, not daring to fight for true independence, already afraid to frighten the people rather than determined to mobilize them. Paradoxically, this lack of clarity and confidence at the top made it easier to imply that the sovereignty project was weak and risky. This strategy on the part of the PQ leadership was a direct result of their commitment to the social and economic status quo. There was no interest on their part to confront north-American imperial interests or question the capitalist order.

Aftermath of the 1st referendum

Following the referendum defeat, the PQ got its biggest electoral victory ever, with 49% of the total vote. Its membership and fundraising reached new heights. It was the biggest party ever seen in Québec or Canada, before then and since then.

At the same time, the Federal government built on its victory to impose a constitutional reform without Québec. In this new arrangement, the Federal government and the other nine provinces made it possible to change the constitution further without the consent of the only province with a French speaking majority.

Because of this, Québec still hasn’t signed on to the new Canadian constitution even though the federalist (unionist) Liberal party has ruled the province for 20 of the intervening 32 years.

Then, in response to the recession of the early 1980s, the PQ government turned on its base by making public sector workers pay for the crisis. Also, the PQ leadership developed a new strategy of supporting the federal Tories in the hope of reopening the constitutional debate and winning more autonomy. It was a Liberal federal government that had led the charge in 1980 and imposed the new constitution.

These turns towards autonomism and neoliberalism led to a massive exodus of members from the PQ and the creation of several small parties and movements to its Left. But none of them was successful in the context of the brutal defeats imposed by a young and bold neoliberalism and the general climate of disillusionment with politics and activism. The time for collective mobilization seemed to be over. It took us 25 years, many struggles of all sizes and five different “united parties of the left” to build, with Québec solidaire, a party strong enough to get one person elected to our National Assembly.

So how did we get to a second referendum only 15 years after the brutal defeat on 1980 and in spite of having an increasingly right wing and demoralized nationalist party?

Two failed attempts, by a new Conservative federal government at bringing Québec into the constitutional foldii, ultimately revived the movement for sovereignty and led to the second referendum. That is because their failure was caused by the combined forces of anti-Québec chauvinism and the defense of a strong central government by the same federal liberals who had imposed the new constitution. What the federalist government of Québec considered to be the minimum they could accept was considered too much by the rest of Canada.

The second referendum: 1995

The PQ government elected in 1994 hurried into organising the second referendum to take advantage of the upsurge in support for sovereignty following the failure of the two Tory led constitutional accords.

The main message of the YES campaign was that nothing would change. Everything was meant to reassure people and counter the predictable scare tactics of the No campaign. But it took a progressive content anyway because of the class dynamic of the struggle: Most business organizations backing the No side while the Yes coalition was broad, going from unions and feminist and community groups to artists and former federal Tories.

Also, there was a new political landscape coming out of the complete collapse of the Conservatives. In the Canadian elections of 1993, they only won two seats out of 308! Their base was taken over by two new formations: the Bloc québécois (BQ), equivalent to the PQ but in federal elections (there was no such thing before 1990), and the very conservative Reform party, based mostly in Alberta and British-Columbia. That new party built its support in part by opposing the two constitutional accords because they were making too many concessions to Québec autonomism (with the vague notion of a “distinct society” for example). Québec bashing was a big part of their electoral success.

Even Lucien Bouchard, leader of the newly formed Bloc Québécois and star of the Yes campaign, a former Tory Minsiter and corporate lawyer, called on people to vote YES to protect Québec from “the Right wing wind blowing from the West”.

Aftermath of the 2nd referendum

The federal government responded to its very narrow victory in 1995 (1% difference!) by adopting the Clarity Act, a law designed to make it as difficult as possible to hold a third referendum. It would have to include a clear question (not a mandate for negotiating a new partnership…) and a clear majority. This meant that 50%+1, which was implied as the only criteria for success in 1980 and 1995, would no longer be enough. It was enough to keep Québec within Canada although it had not signed on to the constitution, but would not be enough to secede.

The Québec PQ government, under their new leader, the same former Tory Minister who was warning about the Right wing wind a few months earlier, then took a sharp turn to the Right with a zero deficit policy bringing about unprecedented cuts to social programs. This led to another crisis in the relationship of the PQ to its working class and progressive base.

The movement that eventually led to the creation of Québec solidaire came from the struggles against that new wave of austerity policies, imposed on the people by a nationalist government. It got stronger through the global justice mobilisation following Seattle (Québec city April 2001 being the stronger moment) and the anti-war movement of 2003, the World March of Women movement (which started from Québec), the massive student strike of 2005, etc. Québec solidaire was founded in February 2006 in a meeting of 1000 activists that looked a lot like the RIC conferences in many respects.

Since then, the PQ has been incapable of renewing its strategy for achieving sovereignty. After many years of simply waiting for the next crisis to create an opportunity, they took a turn towards identity politics, scapegoating religious minorities with a twisted notion of secularism borrowed from France. This fortunately led to their worst election results since 1970 (25% of the vote) and a major crisis in leadership.

It now looks like the next leader of the PQ will be Pierre Karl Péladeau (PKP for short), a billionaire media mogul with zero political experience and a despicable history of union busting. He was responsible for half the work days lost to lock outs in Québec over the past 15 years. This indicates that the PQ may moderate its recent turn toward divisive identity politics, but it will never question its commitment to neoliberal economics.

Since coming to power in April 2014, the Liberal government is attacking every conceivable social program or public service with another round of drastic cuts. This is generating a growing mobilization which could be comparable to the magnificent student strike of 2012. Could this struggle against austerity, combined with the grass roots resistance to tar sands oil and fracking, be the starting point of a new struggle for national self-determination, one that is rooted in the working class and doesn’t shy away from confronting the rich and powerful?


In these times of global markets, new colonialisms, imperial wars and climate crisis, fighting for democracy, national self-determination and for the basic needs and rights of all people is one struggle, a struggle for humanity.

If the Left doesn’t fight for true self-determination, for popular sovereignty, then the Right will distort the national sentiment into a narrow minded chauvinism, as it has done with the FN in France and now with UKIP.

The Radical Independence Campaign in Scotland has shown that there cannot be a successful struggle for Independence without an independent political voice for the left and a mass movement for social justice.

If anyone tells you to fight for independence first and socialism later, don’t listen to them. You are going to end up getting neither and have to dig your way out of a political hole in order to get a party that represents your principles.

Finally, two pieces of advice. Don’t get into self-proclamation and say “We are the united party of the Left!” when many people on the Left are not yet rallied to your party. Be humble. But don’t fall into “waitism” either and postpone any initiative because not everyone is ready to move forward. It took us 30 years and 5 different parties to get to Québec solidaire and win three seats and hundreds of thousands of votes in spite of the distorting British inspired First pas the Post system. Start building now or you will wait forever!

i Benoit Renaud is a founding member of Québec solidaire. He was on the national leadership from 2008 to 2012, first as General Secretary and then as the coordinator of mobilizations. He was also a candidate four times, including in the recent general election of April 2014, in the constituency of Hull.

ii Front de libération du Québec, à network of a few dozen young activists inspired by anticolonial movements in the Global South and radical political theories. They engaged in an urban guerilla from 1963 to 1970.

iii The Meech Lake and Charlotetown accords. The first one was negotiated in 1987 by the governments of Canada and the 10 provinces. But it failed to get ratified by two of the provinces (Manitoba and Newfoundland) which led to its collapse in June 1990. The second was submitted to a pan-Canadian referendum in 1992 and was also defeated, both in Québec and over all.

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  1. Darien says:

    An increasing worry is if the SNP simply becomes part of the Establishment. That seems analogous to Quebec’s political journey. Nicola cuddling up to the likes of banker Lordy Smith’s SSE private equity millionaire factory and their millionaire blue chip chums? Scottish Minister suddenly acting as gopher to a UK Minister? Walking away from a Yes Alliance and virtually guaranteed removal of Scottish Labour and LibDem MP’s at GE2015? MSP’s with some exceptions all smiles and happy chappies across the chamber, nice remuneration, smart suits and all? Public appointments still the same sort of people as before? The massive number of new SNP members could quickly become peed off the more SNP look and behave like an Establishment party. Which is what appears to have happened in Quebec.

    1. Doug Daniel says:

      How does land reform and a push for gender equality fit into this right-wing neoliberal agenda you seem to be ascribing to Nicola? The idea that the SNP are going to be any more of an establishment party under Nicola’s leadership than we were under Alex’s is bizarre, quite frankly.

      Nobody’s “walking away” from a Yes Alliance. A Yes Alliance may have appealed only to Yes voters, and even then, there are Yes-voting Labour types who are already right back into the Labour tribalism. The SNP can appeal to Yes voters and folk who voted No but still want more devolution.

      1. Darien says:

        At one time people thought the Labour Party was not part of the establishment either. Look at them now. Land reform and gender equality policies don’t exactly set the heather alight for most folks, especially those struggling to feed bairns or heat hames.

    2. 1314 says:

      Boy, are you depressing – ‘Darien’ indeed.

      Here’s a cheerier thought – parallel lines never meet (and the bit your maths teacher missed out was – the said lines may be an infinity apart and end up at an entirely different destinations).

      1. Darien says:

        Talking about parallel lines, there is a difference between the people who ostensibly ‘lead’ Scotland and those who actually ‘run’ Scotland. While our governing politicians may appear to have substantially changed in recent years, Scotland’s meritocracy has not altered much in terms of composition or culture. Scotland’s meritocracy mostly voted No, which means Scotland has leaders who seek to go in one direction, and generals who wish to go in another. Our meritocracy is of course a firm part of the British establishment. Their aim is to ‘reel the SNP in’, a la Smith ‘working together’ ‘agreements’, SSE type events etc.

    3. I see your problem Darien, I think after independence, the Scottish people will be so vitalized, energized and so politically aware, that the possibilities of a diverse political system will be top of the agenda.
      We cannot keep going in this ruler-ruled corrupt,contempt system, it is not sustainable as people are wakening up to new possibilities every day. Stick together and the people win.

      1. Garrion says:

        Let’s also remember that the Scottish Labour party did not ever seek independence, ergo it was easier for them to be assimilated into the establishment miasma, which arguably they were well before Blair.

        The SNP have, as a central plank of who they are and what they stand for, the goal of Scottish self determination. That doesn’t change, or else they are no longer the SNP. They may not fully represent your political goals, but I would argue that the Scottish Socialist left have at no point until the run up to the last referendum, made independence an explicit component of their objectives. The danger was and is always that a conflation would occur between these two inter-related but distinct objectives that would lead to the usual “Judean Peoples’ Front versus Peoples Front of Judea” that neoconservatives the world over have been laughing their asses off at for the last 40 years.

        My concern is that, while I am following the writings and articles on Bella, this is beginning to happen. It’s fine to differ, but the larger goal remains the same and requires everyone to seek the same primary objective.

  2. Garrion says:

    “If anyone tells you to fight for independence first and socialism later, don’t listen to them. You are going to end up getting neither and have to dig your way out of a political hole in order to get a party that represents your principles.”

    …and vice versa, unfortunately. National independence should not be conflated with political stripe. Not only are you imposing (some would argue) a failed political paradigm of “left” and “right” on what may be an entirely new political reality, but you are also introducing a landscape which can (and was) manipulated by a monolithic Establishment (consisting of left and right) whose sole objective is to prevent independence.

    You are then likely to be in a position whereby success is dependent on not only winning the battle of freeing one’s country from a broken empire and external powers that be, which already proved to be a daunting battle, but also adding the task of battling your fellow countrymen and women who currently do not share your political perspective…and we have myriad examples of how the left definitively does not play well with itself. It may hold true that those who would most benefit from independence are those who suffer the most under (broadly speaking) a right or neo-right government, but one should build the ship before one decides how it should be steered.

    1. 1314 says:

      ‘National independence should not be conflated with political stripe.’

      Absolutely. Independence is about running/controlling our own affairs as opposed to others doing it for us and, being human, having an eye for their own advantage.

      From an independence point of view, the problem with the UK parliament is not whether it is Tory or Labour or anybody else – it’s that it is THE UK parliament where Scotland has minimal influence (zero when it matters most) .

    2. Garion, I am an actual shipbuilder to trade, that’s what we are doing at the moment, building a ship of people. When it all comes together, we will pick the right captain, engineers, etc. and sail off into the future, hope your with us on deck to feel the wind of freedom in your face.

  3. gjc says:

    As a Scot living in Canada for the past 8 years I have seen all the games played by the MSM and establishment to frustrate the aspirations of Scots and Quebecois. However, the PQ have done themselves no favours either in recent times. The Yes campaign in Scotland was very much about inclusive nationalism, i.e. if you want to live her you are a Scot, irrespective of birth, religion, language, nationality, etc. The PQ in recent years has become fairly racist and xenophobic, almost up there with UKIP in some respects, much more the type of thing that the MSM in Scotland was falsely accusing the SNP and broader yes campaign of being. I believe if the PQ wishes to restore some credibility they have to get over their obsession with divisive race politics and drop this stuff; it serves no one.

  4. Crubagan says:

    “Finally, two pieces of advice. Don’t get into self-proclamation and say “We are the united party of the Left!” when many people on the Left are not yet rallied to your party.”

    Someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the RIC had decided not to become a political party? There are various political parties supporting RIC but they haven’t agreed to merge.

  5. Gordie McRobert says:

    Darien, I know where you are coming from. I have the same fears but I have no evidence that the SNP are about to sell the country out. Over the years I’ve trusted the SNP and I trust all the other Independence groups to work in good faith. I don’t see the SNP doing what PQ has been described as having done in this article I’m more concerned about tactics and I am impatient,. I disagreed with the NATO move and I disagreed with the stance on monarchy(tactics are normally kept pretty quiet but as a tactic someone might explain it to me one day). My confidence would get a huge boost if I knew that the SNP we’re holding meetings with the wider movement (they might well be?). Independence is unlikely to be won by a single political party no matter how many members are in its ranks. Individual tactics and policies to the side the SNP has served the national movement for self determination magnificently to date, fingers crossed and keep turning up to the meetings I suppose

  6. GORDONCowal says:

    The great thing about this debate is we get back into the dialogue of not trusting the SNP. They have been the main stay of ensuring a democratic process where we ended up having a referendum. The Radical Independents have done a fantastic job working collectively with the greens , SNP, SPP up to the referendum. As is always the case with radicals they then all start falling out with their previous partners , that’s in their nature. That’s also what the establishment wants to happen and we all fall into the same pit we have just climbed out of.
    We must stay united in the lead up to the GE2015, be strategic on who stands in what seat. Its good to talk so the high heid yins in each party need to get this agreed in early 2015 so that the groundswell of support for Independence can get to work, get the leaflets through the doors, increase footfall in all of the shops and cafés and maximise coverage via our National newspaper. A strong alliance, ok probably predominantly SNP MP’s, must get into Westminster otherwise forget it. The labourite/Tory strategists are already at work with The BBC in the drama which will unfold in the next six months. Batten down the hatches. Don’t forget it’s the people who are sovereign, don’t forget it , and neither should the SNP or anyone else elected to serve the people.

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