A Tale of Two Referendums
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.