A Place Amongst Nations: Quebec in the Struggle to Win
poster from the Societe St-Jean Baptiste,
a conservative nationalist group, and a cornerstone of the Quebec national movement today
Last week’s article by Barbara Kay in the right-wing National Post should be clipped and put aside (or saved to hard drive) as a reference for future discussions about Quebec nationhood, racism and the province plays in the English Canadian psyche.
The long and short of Kay’s analysis: the Quebec intelligentsia is left-wing, racist and soft on terrorism.
It is a standard and long-lived claim, repeated now and then (and with much more frequency when a referendum rolls around, of course) – the current catalyst being the presence of several of Quebec’s leading politicians and cultural personalities at the demonstration against Israeli aggression on August 6th.
This picture painted is familiar, in part because it is so easily inverted by some “pro-Quebec” comrades, for whom there is this inspiring story of Quebec being more left-wing and radical than the rest of North America – a version which deftly dismisses any claims of racism as a slur that “the oppressors” make about any oppressed nationality. Just like the Palestinians, for instance.
Indeed, Kay’s article is titled “The rise of Quebecistan” – the idea being there’s a little bit of jihad that could break out here too.
That people on both sides of this national divide manage to make such comparisons with a straight face never ceases to boggle my mind.
Because of course both of these pictures are really inaccurate, even dishonest, and clinging to either is just plain silly. It’s like i joked to a friend after the last referendum – once you get outside of Canada many people end up thinking that an independent Quebec will be transformed into another Cuba… or else a modern day Nazi Germany. Take your pick.
And yet despite their dishonesty both visions persist, obviously reinforcing each other all the while. So much so that at certain times they seem to dominate the official Canadian national disourse.
The bottom line is that Quebec is currently a modern capitalist nation, albeit one without full State powers, “trapped” as it is within the Canadian State structure. Regardless of its own colonization by the British – the process which gave rise to “Canada” itself – modern-day New France has been built on the same process of genocide and dispossession of indigenous people as the rest of Canada, the United States, Israel and so many other settler societies. Likewise, those who hold power in Quebec are – like their American and Anglo-Canadian counterparts – firmly committed to the tenets of bourgeois democracy. Just like George Bush and Stephen Harper.
It’s nothing to be proud about, but also nothing that our friends in Toronto or New York City aren’t already familiar with.
Are there any differences?
Of course: Quebec is a different nation and so it does have its own characteristics.
Most importantly, being a nation “trapped” in another State, Quebec has a nationalist movement which is both enmeshed in important sections of the left (especially the trade union movement) and also in important sections of the State and ruling class. A fact which explains the once-in-a-blue-moon episodes of violence at this that or the other “broad based” demonstration – some anarchist or communist will harass some right-wing nationalist or bourgeois politician, and then the trade union field marshals will try and pound on the radical, and then a scuffle will break out just before the riot cops move in to “restore order.” (Indeed, one important anarchist group in the 90s had its formative moment being violently thrown out of a Mayday parade after they chanted anti-nationalist slogans.)
What is most telling is not the violence or the aftermath, but the fact that we’re all there together in the first place. In this way, nationalism occupies a similar niche in the political world of the left here as social-democracy does in classical marxist stories. (Indeed, regardless of their actual politics most nationalists would probably self-identify as soc-dems.)
This can often give politics a topsy turvey “what’s going on here” feel for people from other places, and it helps to explain why major politicians occasionally show up at demonstrations like the one on August 6th. It also helps to explain why there is a serious weakness around anti-racism and such confused and confusing lines on anti-colonialism in sections of the left here.
For those of us who want to build a radical future here (and everywhere else!) there is a pressing need to see what is actually happening, the real ground we are standing on. That means seeing through the fog and cutting through the bullshit – both the anti-quebecois drivel of the National Post and also the self-congratulatory crap churned out by “our” “progressive” con artists.
So for starters, Quebec as a whole (i.e. not just the left) is very similar to the Rest of Canada in terms of racist oppression. Black and Latino kids get shot by cops for no reason. Members of First Nations continue to resist national oppression – both structural and (more rarely theseadays) military. Muslims get stabbed in the metro or show up to Mosque to find the windows broken by self-styled “anti-terrorist” vigilantes. Public figures make occasional noises about the worrisome low birth rate amongst whites.
Like i said, on a fundamental level – peu importe 1760 – what we have here is what we have elsewhere on this blood-drenched continent. Nothing to be proud about, but again: nothing that our friends in Toronto or New York City shouldn’t already be familiar with.
There are the same issues, the same flash-points, the same need for radical change.
What is specific, and what is of concern to those of us on the left, is that we have to contend with the nationalist movement here. As i already mentioned, this movement plays a similar role as does social democracy elsewhere – meaning it acts as a break on the left, a fifth column within any radical movement it involves itself in – but with the difference that it appeals to people on a national basis. Which in this world can often get translated as an “ethnic” or “racial” basis.
As such, nationalism could play a strategic role in derailing future insurgent movement, bringing it over to the terrain of the far right. A possibility, not a certainty, but one we need to keep our eyes open to. At this point: ephemeral, a side-issue.
Nevertheless: in order to work against such a possibility, and also to ground our own work of building towards radical social change, we need to be able to map our terrain. We need to see what kind of society we are living in, how it got this way, and who benefits and who is hurt by the way things work. An analysis which will obviously have nothing to do with the lies of the Canadian bourgeoisie or the Quebec nationalists.
In this hope – of seeing the truth of the matter – it’s worth checking out a couple of documents produced by the radical left here.
For starters, the North East Federation of Anarchist Communists (a federation which at times seems to be mainly based in Quebec!) have produced an ok position on the “national question” in Quebec. It comes to good conclusions, and does us the service of spelling out why the federation opposes the nationalist movement here. Unfortunately, though, the NEFAC position lacks that zip and zing that a radical vision needs, and occasionally slips into some of the lazy conclusions of the broader left.
For instance: Any discussion of the “national question” in Quebec today should include more talk of the actual role played by the national movement not only in sabotaging radical movements but also in elaborating a national class perspective. This particular class perspective may be “populaire,” but it is the perspective of people who wish to cement their position as equals to “the (white) English” and even “the (white) Americans” within North America, a position which can only be guaranteed by partaking in the same colonialist and racist practices at home and abroad.
Little wonder that this nationalist movement – even, or perhaps especially, as it exists within the left and the labour movement – has found itself time and again opposing the aspirations and rights of Native people and immigrants.
Because that’s what “being a real nation” is all about.
This is a factor which radicals thirty years ago could be excused for not paying attention to, as this ascendant class still suffered clear national oppression, and the future had yet to be written… but today it is such a glaring reality that it needs to be confronted head on.
Instead, NEFAC adopts a good final position on the national question in Quebec, but bases this on a facile dismissal of anti-colonialism tout court. This is an easy out – allowing activists to fall on what they know in their gut is the correct position (i.e. opposing the nationalists) but without having to actually grapple with the specificities of the Quebec situation which make this movement a clear opponent, albeit one which has seduced many who should be our allies.
Nevertheless, i should repeat: the NEFAC paper is a good place to start, and much better than certain sections of the left!
More developed and unambiguous, i would also recommend people check out the relevant chapter in the Revolutionary Communist Party Organizing Committee’s Programme (“Against national oppression! Against nationalism and chauvinism! Fight for absolute equality for all nations and languages!”)
The RCP-OC – a Maoist outfit – have the benefit of being able to draw on a long tradition of opposition to nationalism in Quebec. Indeed, as has been mentioned previously, Maoism has its roots in Quebec in the 1970s amongst those radicals who wanted revolution and opposed nationalism.
While politically the RCP position is better than NEFAC’s – acknowledging the need to combat national oppression where it exists, i.e. in the First Nations and amongst francophones outside of Quebec – the RCP too pays scant attention to the class changes that have taken place in Quebec over the past fifty years.
Instead, it simply dismisses the nationalist movement as “a ploy to create a fallacious unity between the ruling class and the proletariat.”
While it is true that nationalism has been used as a ploy – “reinforcing class collaboration and for maintaining social peace” - this is only half the story. As i argued above, the nationalist movement is also the expression of a particular upwardly mobile class, which has risen to a position comparable to that of many white Americans and Anglo-Canadians and wishes to cement this with the creation of a separate state structure – following the logic that every “real” nation needs its own State. (in this context one could read “real” as “parasitic”!)
In this regard, NEFAC’s claim that “In the last 30 years, the joint action of the labor movement and a sovereignist party in power corrected the most outrageous forms of national oppression” is more true than the RCP’s that “After more than 30 years of national struggle in Québec, the support of the organized workers' movement to the sovereignist project has only served the interests of the upper class.”
What we need to examine – and i’m not pretending to be able to do so here – is the actual meaning and implications of this “correction” of national oppression. Largely, what we can see is the elevation of Quebecois to a position of “equality” with their white North American counterparts (i.e. Quebecois workers “equal” to white English workers, Quebecois petit-bourgeois “equal” to white English petit bourgeois, etc.) – but that this “equality” relies on intensifying the inequality suffered by indigenous people and immigrants.
The above – true to form – is a sketched out set of my thoughts on this. Kind of scattershot, i know, and certainly different from what i though i would write about when i saw the initial stupid “Quebecistan” article – but i’m giving myself some leeway.
The discussion is superficial, and i know it is also skewed with an incompleteness that (while i am aware of it) i do not know how to fill at the moment. Namely, the gender dimensions of the Quebec nationalist movement, and of national oppression in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada. This is likely not a minor point – not with the heavy relationship between the nationalist and feminist movements in this province, with the feminization of poverty or with the explosion of women’s revolt against the Church which accompanied the birth of the modern nationalist movement forty years ago.
But i don’t have a handle on this, so i have thought better to not blather on about stuff i would just be guessing at.
More study, and more thought, is certainly needed.