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Quebec Left: From Charlottetown to Québec solidaire

Abbie Bakan

January 10, 2012

From the student movement to labour-organizing, from the women’s movement to the anti-war movement, resistance in Quebec has helped to shape the left in the rest of Canada, often leading the way and inspiring others to organize and fight back.

The strength of the Quebec left is grounded in its history of mass participation against both capitalism and the oppressive, colonial practices of the federal state. While some sections of the English Canadian left have embraced this legacy, it is an uneven process.

The abortion rights movement in Ontario, for example, worked closely with Dr. Henry Morgentaler and the Quebec women’s movement, generalizing the battle for women’s right to choose.

But during the debates on the Canadian Constitution, much of the English Canadian left failed to identify the central issue of Quebec oppression at the heart of movements against constitutional reform. These debates reached a high point in the lead-up to the October 26, 1992 Canada-wide referendum on the Charlottetown Accord. The National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), for example, tragically sided with the ‘no’ side. But this position encountered considerable challenge, most importantly from Quebec feminist allies, including the Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ).

At the time, the International Socialists, a member organization of NAC, wrote an Open Letter calling for a reversal of the ‘no’ position. As a summary of the issues, it is useful to revisit this letter today.

“Dear Sisters… As a socialist organization committed since our inception to the principle of women’s liberation, we share many of the objectives of NAC. Over the last year, we have frequently quoted NAC’s public position in defence of Quebec’s right to self-determination, and its role in the constitutional hearings in particular, in our publications and actions….

“Our objection to the adoption of the ‘no’ position in the referendum is that, despite the best intentions to the contrary of NAC members and supporters, being ‘pitted against Quebec again’ will be the inevitable outcome…. The issue at the core of the constitutional debate is recognition of Quebec as a distinct society that will be assured a minimal degree of ‘affirmative action’ in the form of a guarantee of 25 per cent representation in the House regardless of the size of its population. Moreover, the historic constitutional demand of the Native rights movement has been for recognition of the inherent right of aboriginal peoples to self-government. This demand has been dismissed in every previous constitutional offer, but it has at last been conceded in the current proposal…. The Reform Party was able to grow dramatically and to move into national prominence in the aftermath of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord. They did this by challenging the Tories from the right, maintaining that even [then PM] Mulroney and Co. were too lenient in ‘succumbing’ to the demands for recognition of the national rights of the Québécois. The result of that growth is measurable….”

Sadly, the outcome of the referendum led to further divisions, and the right wing continued to gain momentum. Stephen Harper’s wing of the Tories, originating in the far right Reform Party, owes its rise in influence to this period.

And this legacy continues to influence Tory policies. It is no accident that Harper has not only advocated increased militarism, but also overt identification with the British monarchy, which has the lowest support in Quebec.

The divisions between Quebec and rest of Canada continue to be reflected in federal electoral politics. The recent growth of the NDP in Quebec catapulted the social democrats to Opposition status, reminding the rest of Canada that the Tory majority is hardly unanimous.

Within Quebec, a new political party, Québec solidaire (QS) continues this pattern. The party is still in its formative years, but QS combines the politics of the street and the ballot box. Amir Khadir sits as a QS MNA in Quebec.

Importantly, QS has incorporated feminism in its core principles, building on the history in the province in the abortion rights movement and NAC. QS identifies this historic element on its website:

“Québec solidaire is the result of a merger that took place between the Union des forces progressistes party and the Option citoyenne political movement. Founded in 2002, the UFP was the culmination of a merger process that took place between Rassemblement pour une alternative progressiste, the Socialist Democratic Party, and the Communist Party of Québec.

“… In May 2004, the Option citoyenne movement … brought together approximately 100 people at its foundation, with a predominantly female membership. After touring Québec in the summer of 2004, Option citoyenne’s membership mushroomed, and its first Québec-wide meeting was held in November 2004… establish[ing] Option citoyenne’s political orientations about issues that included feminism, globalization, the economy, sovereignty, and relations with Aboriginal peoples. …[A]t a policy convention, held on November 26 and 27, 2006, Québec solidaire adopted its political platform [which] drew their inspiration from positions taken by the two former political entities, and from the Women’s Global Charter for Humanity, which collectively called on governments to adopt policies to promote equality, environmental integrity, civil liberties, solidarity, justice, and peace.”

These are good principles to start from, and continue to inspire activists in English Canada to organize for radical change.

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