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Independence, from Scotland to Quebec and First Nations

Jesse McLaren

September 22, 2014

The Scottish referendum raised debates about the politics and strategies of independence, both abroad and at home. But there’s a contradiction in Canada: as the Toronto Star reported, “A 2012 Forum Research poll showed that 49 per cent of Canadians supported Scottish independence, compared to only 19 per cent who said they were in favour of Quebec independence.” The figures supporting indigenous sovereignty are unlikely to be higher, though these figures could have changed through the solidarity with the Quebec student strike and Idle No More.
Freedom fighters vs. terrorists
Western media have glorified Scottish freedom fighters through films like Braveheart, while demonizing other resistance movements—in Palestine, Tamil Eelam and Turtle Island. We’re told to celebrate some independence movements, but fear or forget others. Like William Wallace in Scotland, Louis Riel led indigenous uprisings and was executed by the state—where’s the Hollywood film celebrating his fight?
The selective support for independence is determined by imperial politics. While Harper supports Israel’s war against Palestinian freedom, he claims to support Ukrainian independence. This has more to do with competing with Russia to be Europe’s supplier of natural gas—which comes from fracking in New Brunswick, where the Canadian state attacked indigenous sovereignty in Elsipogtog.
Quebec oppression
People across the political spectrum have denied similarities between Scotland and Quebec, claiming Scotland has been oppressed but Quebec has not. As a blogger wrote for claimed “Maybe most importantly Quebec's cultural distinctions haven't been undermined by Canada to the extent that Scotland's have been by the U.K. The Gaelic and Scots languages, folk music and even the physical population of the Highlands have suffered greatly under the Union.”
This ignores a long history of oppression. The conquest of New France in the 18th century saw British occupiers support French elites to maintain Quebec as a semi-feudal state until the 19th century. During WWI, a war to defend the British Empire, the Canadian state sent troops to crush anti-conscription protests in Quebec. Québecois workers were used as a supply of cheap labour, and until the 1970s English bosses and the English language dominated the workplace. The Canadian state responded to the Quiet Revolution with mass repression, including using the War Measures Act to round up hundreds of activists. Quebec was excluded from the Canadian constitution in 1982, and has had its right to independence restricted through the Clarity Act
Resistance to this long history of oppression has made Quebec home to the largest protests across the country—from the anti-war demos that kept Canada out of Iraq in 2003, to the Quebec student strike that stopped a tuition hike and toppled the government.
Two types of nationalisms, two strategies for independence
Despite the militancy of the Quebec labour movement—like the 1972 general strike—there has not been a labour party in Quebec like the NDP. Instead the progressive vote has been usurped by the bourgeois nationalist parties, the Bloc Québecois and Parti Québecois. This is because of the dominance of left nationalism in English Canada, which fights for an “independent Canada” but not Quebec self-determination. Canada is built on the oppression of Quebec and Indigenous peoples, so Canadian nationalism is reactionary and offers nothing for Quebec progressives. On the other hand, Quebec nationalism is a reaction to national oppression and has progressive content—as can be seen from Quebec’s history of resistance.
But parties like the BQ and PQ, which have dominated national aspirations, reduce sovereignty down to exchanging the Canadian flag for the Québecois flag—while maintaining the capitalist state and capitalist corporations. The collapse of the BQ in the last federal election showed voters were disillusioned with its strategy of independence, and the defeat of the PQ and its project of Islamophobia and racism showed a welcome loss for right-wing ethnic nationalism. But NDP stalwart Stephen Lewis wrongly interpreted the Orange Wave as a “repudiation of sovereignty,” and NDP leader Tom Mulcair announced the NDP will run provincial candidates in Quebec.
This would put it in competition with the most exciting political party across the country: Québec solidaire—a party of the ballot box and the streets. For QS, independence is not an end in itself, but a means to achieve social, economic and ecological justice.
Canada: prison-house of nations
Facing demands for Quebec self-determination, the Canadian state and its supporters fall back on their supposed concern for Indigenous peoples. As National Post columnist Andrew Coyne wrote, “Pray for a ‘No’ vote in Scotland’s referendum, for Canada’s sake”: “There’s no Scottish equivalent to the Crees, the Mohawks, or the Innuit in Quebec: distinct sub-sub-national populations, with their own territorial claims…But of course all of these distinctions would be lost in the propaganda rush that would follow, should Scotland secede.”
This is hypocritical and cynical. Canada is founded on the oppression of Quebec and Indigenous peoples, and dividing oppressed groups against each other has been a central tactic of the Canadian state. There would be no difference to Indigenous peoples if Quebec became sovereign in the narrow capitalist sense advocated by the BQ or PQ. But the broader project of Quebec sovereignty as a project towards social, economic and ecological justice is not contradictory to Indigenous peoples. As Indigenous activist Ellen Gabriel wrote, “The only party who tries to address Aboriginal issues is Québec Solidaire and I applaud their efforts.”
The left in Scotland has supported the Yes campaign as a tactic against austerity and war, and sovereignty movements in Canada deserve similar supports against the Canadian state. Sovereignty for Québec solidaire means challenging the destructive Plan Nord and supporting workers, students and the poor. Sovereignty for First Nations across Canada means challenging extractive industries that are destroying the planet, and ending the violence against Indigneous women.
Socialists and self-determination
The Russian empire was a prison-house of nations, and the brief experience of the Russian revolution before it was crushed provides valuable lessons about how we can link national liberation struggles with the fight against capitalism. The first step is to acknowledge the difference between the nationalism of oppressor nations and the national of oppressed nations.
As the Russian Revolutionary Lenin wrote, “A distinction must necessarily be made between the nationalism of an oppressor nation and that of an oppressed nation, the nationalism of a big nation and that of a small nation.  In respect of the second kind of nationalism, we, nationals of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historic practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence; furthermore, we commit violence and insult an infinite number of times without noticing it…That is why internationalism on the part of the oppressors or ‘great’ nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nation, the great nation, that must make up for the inequality which obtains in actual practice.”
It is up to oppressed people themselves to determine how they will fight for liberation. Socialists might have tactical debates, but we need to give unconditional support for this fight against our own state—as part of building international solidarity against capitalism. As Lenin wrote, “If the proletariat of any one nation gives the slightest support to the privileges of its ‘own’ national bourgeoisie, that will inevitably rouse distrust among the proletariat of another nation; it will weaken the international class solidarity of the workers and divide them, to the delight of the bourgeoisie. Repudiation of the right to self-determination or to secession inevitably means, in practice, support for the privileges of the dominant nation.”
While Canadians can cheer the near victory of the Yes vote in Scotland and the ongoing movements that rallied behind it, we need to work to support self-determination for Quebec and Indigenous peoples against the Canadian prison-house of nations.


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