Spartacist Canada No. 177
Quebec Under the PQ: Austerity and Repression
For a Binational Revolutionary Workers Party!
No to Anglo Chauvinism—For Quebec Independence!
One year ago, the largest student strike in Canadian history polarized Quebec. Hundreds of thousands of students and their supporters, including many trade unionists, repeatedly took to the streets against the Liberal Party government of Jean Charest, whose austerity attacks targeted a huge swathe of Quebec society. More than 3,300 protesters were arrested and many injured in vicious police attacks, as Charest unleashed the capitalist cops and courts to try and break the strike.
When the bourgeois-nationalist Parti Québécois ousted the Liberals in last September’s provincial election, many workers and youth looked to it to provide a “progressive” alternative. But the PQ government has picked up where Charest left off. Tuition is still going up, if at a slower pace. The hated health tax remains in place. Social services are being slashed, notably for welfare recipients. And repression of student and other left-wing activists continues, with well over 1,000 arrested in Montreal since March.
The attacks in Quebec are part of a worldwide capitalist assault on workers and the oppressed. As we warned in a leaflet distributed to student strikers last summer, “if there is one lesson to be drawn from the struggles to date it is that looking to ‘progressive’ capitalist parties or the bosses’ social-democratic agents is a road to disaster ” (“Students: Ally with the Working Class!” SC No. 174, Fall 2012). We emphasized that whatever party won the Quebec election, it would continue the assault on social programs, the labour movement, youth and minorities. Mere months after the PQ took office, the truth of this has come home with a vengeance.
The PQ uses the rhetoric of “national solidarity” against English Canadian domination to tie Québécois workers and youth to its coattails. Then every time it takes office it rules unambiguously for the capitalists. The first péquiste government under René Lévesque broke strikes by public sector workers in the early 1980s. Fifteen years later, Lucien Bouchard’s PQ regime instituted savage cuts to social services in its drive for a “zero deficit” budget. Now premier Pauline Marois has taken up the same call, aiming to balance the books on the backs of the poor by next March.
Among the cuts already announced are reductions to welfare payments, already among the lowest in Canada. People 55 and older will get $129 less a month, while a special assistance program for those with young children has been all but eliminated. Protests against these cruel attacks have broken out in various cities. A Montreal protester indicted the government: “Trying to live on a cheque of $604 a month is completely impossible. The PQ has betrayed us across the board” (tvanouvelles.ca, 13 March). Another said bitterly: “People are already starving, are already in the street.” The government has also taken the axe to daycare subsidies, chopping $56 million in spending. Some 8,000 people rallied to protest this on May 11.
Meanwhile, repression of leftist demonstrators has in many ways gone further than under the Liberals. Taking advantage of a draconian anti-protest law passed by the Liberals at the height of the student strike, municipal administrations in Montreal and Quebec City adopted their own laws that ban any demonstration where the itinerary is not announced in advance, as well as the wearing of masks during protests. (In Montreal, the law is called P6.) After it took office, the PQ repealed the Liberals’ hated law, only to make clear that it supports the municipal legislation.
A new round of mass arrests began after the ASSÉ (Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Etudiante) student federation brought 10,000 protesters into the streets in late February against the PQ’s indexation of tuition fees. Many students then sought to hold evening demonstrations in Montreal, as they did regularly last year. But as soon as these began, business owners demanded harsh measures aimed at blocking any revival of last year’s protests. On March 5, the cops arrested 72 people at a student demo. Ten days later, more than 250 were arrested on the annual demonstration against police brutality. On March 22, at least 200 protesters (out of about 500) were arrested half an hour into a demonstration called to mark the anniversary of the first huge protest during last year’s student strike. Another 279 were arrested on an April 5 protest against law P6.
One of the most dramatic instances of this stepped-up state repression came at a May 1 march organized by the Convergence des Luttes Anticapitalistes (CLAC—Anti-Capitalist Convergence). CLAC rallied outside the 357c private club in Old Montreal, infamous as the locale used by Quebec businessmen and politicians of all stripes to conduct their corrupt dealings. The ongoing Charbonneau commission into corruption recently implicated some PQ officials, which won it a warning from Marois to “act with prudence.”
The demonstration was declared illegal barely 15 minutes after it began. Almost 450 protesters were then arrested, even though CLAC had announced the start and end points of its march. The cop mobilization was so large and menacing that one protester described it as “almost a police demonstration” (Le Devoir, 2 May). In staging mass arrests, sometimes of entire demonstrations, the police and their political masters are working to demonize leftist youth and to eliminate the right to militant street protest. Drop all the charges!
The Treachery of the Labour Bureaucracy
This year’s May Day demonstration initiated by the Quebec union federations gave a taste of the broad discontent that continues to simmer in Quebec—and of the treacherous role of the union misleaders in channeling discontent into the arms of the PQ. Some 50,000 people from all over the province, mainly trade unionists, rallied on April 27 and marched to Montreal’s Place des Festivals, site of some of the huge student protests a year earlier.
The protest was called in opposition to “reforms” to Employment Insurance by the federal Tory government that further restrict access to EI, especially for seasonal workers in sectors like fishery, farming and tourism. But rather than mount a display of labour power against this attack, the Quebec union bureaucrats organized the May Day rally through a coalition that not only includes the unions, student federations and anti-poverty groups but also the Union des Municipalités du Québec (UMQ). The most prominent component of the UMQ is the Montreal city government, which is orchestrating the mass arrests of left-wing activists!
According to Lucie Martineau, president of the SFPQ public employees union, the protest showed “a huge consensus in Quebec against this reform. It’s not only the unions, but also the municipalities, workers in the agricultural sector, economic, cultural and community organizations who oppose it” (Le Devoir, 29 April). The president of the Centrale des Syndicats du Québec declared: “The diversity of our coalition will mark history. Twice, the four political parties in the National Assembly have voted unanimously against this reform. The federal government cannot ignore such a consensus.” A year ago, the Quebec union leaders joined angry protests against the Charest government; today they are pleased that these same Liberals, now in opposition, are part of an anti-Harper “consensus.”
The Harper Tories are rightly hated by just about everyone in Quebec, making them an easy target. But the labour tops breathed not a word against the attacks being carried out by the PQ government. For its part, the PQ wasted no time in framing opposition to the federal reforms as a nationalist crusade, creating a “national commission” on EI and putting former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe at its head. On May 1, the leaders of the Quebec union centrals held a polite meeting with Marois to, among other things, ask her to fight against federal policies like the EI cuts.
For Revolutionary Internationalist Leadership!
Throughout the student strike, we emphasized that the road to victory lay through mobilizing the social power of the working class. Thanks to its central position in the capitalist economy—in the factories, the mines, the transportation systems—the working class can shut down the flow of production and thus of capitalist profit. Quebec labour has a history of militant struggle, including mass defiance of strikebreaking injunctions in the 1972 general strike. But the fighting power of the unions has been sapped by decades of collaboration with the enemy class on the part of the nationalist labour bureaucracy.
The union misleaders worked to channel the student strike and the social crisis it generated onto the shoals of bourgeois parliamentarism. After trying to force a sellout “compromise” down the student federations’ throats, the labour tops pushed for elections as the road to “social peace.” By late summer, the mass protests became dominated by electoralism, as hatred for the Liberals was transformed into support for one or another nationalist party: the PQ, the more left-talking petty-bourgeois populist Québec Solidaire (QS) or the “hard” nationalists of Option Nationale. While not endorsing any party, the anarchist-influenced CLASSE—initiated by ASSÉ for the student strike—also pushed “lesser evil” politics, calling demonstrations around the demand, “Neoliberals out!”
The hold of nationalism in Quebec flows from and is constantly reinforced by the Anglo chauvinism that dominates the Canadian state. The unions in English Canada overwhelmingly support the right-wing social democrats of the NDP or even the bourgeois Liberals, parties with long records of hostility to Quebec’s national rights. The NDP recently underscored this by opposing a parliamentary motion by the Bloc that called to withdraw the infamous Clarity Act, enacted by the then federal Liberal government in 2000 to ban Quebec’s democratic right to national self-determination.
The result of all this is a working class that is deeply divided along national lines, greatly undermining the prospects for united struggle against the exploiters, whether they be English Canadian or Québécois. For this reason, we Marxists advocate independence for Quebec. We do so as proletarian internationalists: getting the national question off the agenda would create better conditions for the workers to understand that their “own” national capitalists are not allies but class enemies.
The course of both the student strike and the more recent protests in Quebec also testifies to the divide in the working class. The Quebec student struggle had little echo on English Canadian campuses. And while the Harper government’s attacks on EI target workers throughout the country, the protests against it have been almost solely in Quebec. One can also contrast the tens of thousands of workers who came out to the union-initiated May Day march in Montreal to the handful of May Day rallies that took place in English Canada, the largest of which drew about 1,000 people to City Hall square in Toronto.
Québec Solidaire: A Populist Dead End
Working people desperately need united struggle against the depredations of the ruling exploiters. Such unity can only be forged through an unstinting fight against all aspects of capitalist oppression—from the national oppression of Quebec, to the racist scapegoating of immigrants and other minorities, to the attacks on Native people. Such a perspective points to the need for a new proletarian leadership: a binational, revolutionary workers party that fights for all the oppressed.
But the vast majority of self-styled “socialist” groups in Quebec have a very different perspective, having buried themselves in the nationalist-populist Québec Solidaire. QS does not even pretend to be a socialist organization. While working to corral disaffected youth, it is at its core a way station for disappointed péquistes and rightward-moving former radicals. On the eve of last year’s election, QS leader Françoise David (herself a former Maoist) pledged to support a possible PQ minority government. Now, as unpopularity with the PQ regime grows by the month, QS leaders are going out of their way to present a moderate image based on “credible” economic proposals.
A QS congress in early May endorsed a resolution affirming that it is a “party prepared to govern, defending the common good, and the only alternative to neoliberal policies.” QS is moreover heavily funded by direct subsidies from the capitalist state based on its level of electoral support.
In giving by-and-large uncritical support to this petty-bourgeois outfit, reformist left groups like Gauche Socialiste, La Riposte (Fightback) and Alternative Socialiste are building an obstacle to proletarian class consciousness and struggle. And when they do raise a few criticisms, this is manifestly not from a Marxist perspective. An article on the La Riposte website (7 February) criticizes QS leaders’ push for alliances with other nationalist parties, only to call for it to “move towards alliances with the traditional organizations of the workers, that is to say, the New Democratic Party,” as well as the unions. La Riposte’s call for an alliance with the NDP fits neatly with its own retrograde position on the national question, since it opposes the demand for Quebec independence.
Layers of young activists learned some basic truths about capitalism in the course of the student strike. They experienced first hand the repressive role of the capitalist state, centrally the cops and courts, including mass arrests and vicious attacks on protesters. Today, these youth can see vividly that, nationalist rhetoric aside, the PQ in power differs little from the Liberals. The way forward lies through assimilating the lessons of past struggles in Quebec and around the world, and joining in the fight to forge a revolutionary Marxist leadership of the working class. This is the perspective upheld by the Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste, Canadian section of the International Communist League, in our fight to reforge the Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution.