April 28, 2011

THE CAMPAIGN IN QUEBEC - A WORKING CLASS PERSPECTIVE By Johan Boyden, Montreal, in People's Voice



As the federal election campaign wraps up in the area of the country that most effectively denied the Conservatives a majority in 2008, much discussion has been around class and social issues.

At the French-language leaders debate, Madame Muguette Paille, a middle-aged, working-class woman, living in a de-industrialized Québec town asked: "Myself, together with many people in my community, are unemployed. We will soon run out of employment insurance. What will you do?"

By the end of the debate Michael Ignatieff had said her name eleven times. Soon, facebook groups in this previously unknown woman's name sprang up with thousands of members.

One wonders how Madame Paille would respond to the Communist Party's proposal to set EI benefits at 90% of previous earnings for the duration of unemployment.

The Communist Party is also putting up messages for peace which have proved distinctive and popular. In the four Montreal ridings with Communist candidates, over six hundred signs have gone up, calling for voting for people before profits, ending support of Apartheid Israel, and immediate withdrawal of the troops from Afghanistan.

Talking down to workers

The Liberals too have signs - giant billboards showing a silhouette of a fighter-jet to one side, a family on the other, each with a check box. The message is clear. Voters face a question of priorities. And almost everyone understands it - even though the fighter jets will be built here.

Of course, the Liberals are trying to re-write history. They got Canada into the imperialist war in Afghanistan and started this bonanza for the merchants of death by increasing military spending. They shamelessly raided the EI fund to pay off the federal debt.

But with decades of inflation, high unemployment (higher than many other parts of Canada), lower wage levels, and de-industrialization - a situation that has only got worse with the economic crisis - is it any surprise that working class Québécois connect with Muguette Paille?

Nor has the Canadian military ever been very popular here.

Between these sentiments of the people and the solutions offered by the major parties is a wide class gulf. As elsewhere in Canada, when the big business parties propose their solutions they are speaking directly down to - but not for - the working people.

Cheap Québec-bashing

What is different from the rest of the country is the unrecognized and constitutionally denied sovereignty and self-determination of the Québec nation within Canada. This grievance finds its expression in the Bloc Québécois.

The English-language corporate media portrays the Bloc as malicious nation-wreckers. An Angus Reid-Toronto Star poll after the TV debates claimed to reveal high levels of antipathy toward Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe. "Virtually every utterance from Duceppe prompted viewers to press buttons registering their annoyance,'" the Star reported.

The irrational fear-mongering reaches a high-point with the Harper Conservatives' endless rant about the `coalition with the separatists.' Conservative incumbent for Fort McMurray-Athabasca, Brian Jean, even announced Ignatieff would put Duceppe in charge of defense.

The Communist Party's candidates have exposed this cheap Tory fear-mongering as big-nation chauvinism.

"Parlons Québec"

In fact, the Bloc Québécois campaign - "Parlons Québec", based on the idea that they are the only true voice for the nation - is more about jobs.

Accepting GM and the auto industry's departure, the Bloc platform calls federal attention to this industry an example of Ontario bias (`attention' that has forced auto workers and retirees to accept major concessions). Instead, the BQ puts the emphasis on Québec's crisis-afflicted forest sector - proposing loans to the forest industry.

This is the Bloc's vision of Québec as a "market" and they also say the other parties "refuse to fight for Québec's financial sector so as not to offend Toronto." In essence it is a class-collaborationist illusion that the workers and bosses of Québec are in the economic crisis together.

Like the New Democrats, the Bloc voted for the bombing of Libya; nor does their platform call for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan. But on other issues it is stronger: banning scabs, establishing a guaranteed income supplement, opposing the privatization of Canada Post, eliminating tax havens, and abolishing tax give-aways for oil companies.

A different direction

The BQ will never form a government. Its identity is as a protest vote. This allows it to put forward some progressive policies, even drawing trade union leaders into its ranks as MPs. Yet after some twenty years of protest votes, perhaps the limitations of this tactic are becoming clearer to Québécois.

The "surge" of the New Democrats in the polls in Québec is also "fluffing" NDP support in the rest of Canada, pollsters say. The NDP made their break into Québec with the 2007 byelection victory of a former member of the Québec National Assembly and Charest Liberal, Thomas Mulcair. Now the NDP's Québec lieutenant, Mulcair has also "distinguished" himself as a hard pro-Zionist voice.

Mulcair has given his party new visibility. And at least some of the rise in interest in the New Democrats is also likely connected with growing support for Québec Solidaire, the left-wing party represented by National Assembly member Amir Khadir.

But the NDP's policy history on the national question includes opposition to Québec's right of self-determination (ie. supporting the Clarity Act). In this election they are calling for extension of the language law, Bill 101, to federal workers in Québec. The constitutional implications, however, are unclear. Some opinions suggest it may actually be illegal. Will the NDPs rise in popularity will translate into votes in Quebec? Not necessarily.

Of all the Parties on the ballot, the Communists alone are calling for a new, democratic constitution based on an equal and voluntary partnership of the Aboriginal peoples, Québec, and English-speaking Canada up to and including the right of separation.

While the national question has not been the burning issue this campaign, it would be naive to suggest the long-standing grievance of the unequal union of Canada is about to go away. Nevertheless, the election debate in Québec about social issues shows how this is a campaign taking place in tough times. People are looking for different ideas - and feeling more connection with Madame Paille, perhaps, than any of the big parties.


(The above article is from the May 1-15, 2011, issue of People's Voice, Canada's leading communist newspaper. Articles can be reprinted free if the source is credited. Subscription rates in Canada: $30/year, or $15 low income rate; for U.S. readers - $45 US per year; other overseas readers - $45 US or $50 CDN per year. Send to People's Voice, c/o PV Business Manager, 706 Clark Drive, Vancouver, BC, V5L 3J1.)

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