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Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 532
August 5, 2011
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Nycole Turmel’s Induction in the
Federalists’ Wonderland

Richard Fidler

Surprise, surprise! Belatedly, the Globe and Mail ‘discovers’ that an elected NDP member of parliament – in this case interim party leader Nycole Turmel – has been a member of a Quebec sovereigntist party. And not just one but two! Turmel acknowledges that she was a member of the Bloc Québécois for five years, surrendering her membership card in January of this year as she was about to accept the NDP's nomination in Hull. And it seems that Turmel – as well as some other recently elected NDP MPs (how many is unclear) – is a member of Québec Solidaire, “a provincial party dedicated to socialism and sovereigntism,” warns the Globe. Sufficient reason to doubt her loyalty to Canada, let alone to the NDP!

In fact, Turmel's opponents, and the media, baited Turmel repeatedly during the election campaign over her past public support of Québec Solidaire. Whatever the effect of this witch-hunting, Turmel was elected with a hefty 23,000 majority vote over the Liberal incumbent on May 2.

The Globe's editors – and, in their train, a pack of baying commentators in the business media – have seized the occasion to lecture the NDP on its ‘responsibilities’ to uphold the federal regime. Just days after effusive expressions of sympathy for party leader Jack Layton, forced to relinquish his post by a renewed bout with cancer, they have returned the spotlight to a central contradiction facing the federal NDP: the obvious clash between its ambitions to pose as a staunchly federalist ‘government-in-waiting’ in Ottawa, and its attempt to build an electoral base in Quebec, where progressive-minded voters are for the most part inclined to favour Quebec sovereignty or independence.

“Not since [BQ leaders] Lucien Bouchard and Gilles Duceppe has someone whose loyalty to federalism appeared so tepid and fair-weather served as leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition,” fulminates the Globe. If the NDP's federal council, which endorsed Layton's nomination of Turmel for interim leader, knew of her history, they are “reckless” and “if they did not, then they are incompetent. Either way, the NDP's suitability for the role of government-in-waiting is at best tenuous, unless the government in question is that of a sovereign Quebec.”

‘Sovereigntists, Go Home’

Federal office, you see, is closed to any Québécois who harbours doubts about the nature of the existing federal regime. When it comes to federal party leadership, only “an outspoken federalist” may apply, the Globe pontificates. And its editors point to several modest proposals by Layton's NDP that it claims justify “concerns over the NDP's Quebec caucus and indeed its Quebec policies,” citing “its support for the extension of Quebec's provincial language law to federally regulated employers and Mr. Layton's commitment to protect Quebec in any redistribution of House of Commons seats on the basis of population.”

Nycole Turmel, for her part, has been less than clear in her own defense. Yes, she has taken out BQ membership, but she voted no in both the 1980 and 1995 sovereignty referendums. She notes there is no contradiction in belonging to both the NDP and Québec Solidaire, as the latter, unlike the NDP, is a Quebec-only party and they do not compete; but she will drop her QS membership anyway. As a member of the NDP for 20 years, including a stint on its federal executive in the 1990s, she says she supported the BQ and QS for other parts of their programs. And indeed, as president of the Public Service Alliance union, she worked closely with both the BQ and the NDP.

All true, but how to explain her ambivalence between Canadian federalism and Quebec sovereignty? In fact, Turmel is by no means alone in this confusion among Quebec supporters of the NDP.

The NDP's Dilemma – a Failure of Leadership

A good part of the explanation is outlined in a major op-ed piece[1] in the August 3rd Le Devoir by political scientist André Lamoureux, author of the book Le NPD et le Québec 1958-1985 (Éditions du Parc, 1985), a book that has unfortunately never been translated into English. He documents the NDP's chronic failure to address the Quebec national question and to confront what the Québécois struggle for self-determination entails for building a mass party of the left in the Canadian state.

In 1961, the party's founding organizers in Quebec wanted the new federal party to recognize the existence of two nations in Canada (at the time, there was little consciousness of the aboriginal ‘first nations’ among Canada's settler communities). Some even thought of putting the issue of Quebec's right to self-determination to the founding convention, although they dropped this proposal as ‘premature’ when faced with strong opposition among the party leaders in English Canada. Instead, they decided to focus on amending the party's proposed statutes, to substitute the word “federal” in place of “national” in describing its structure and elected bodies. After tumultuous debate, they were successful on August 3, 1961 – 50 years ago to the day. “A timorous victory,” says Lamoureux, “since it was not reflected in any real and convincing translation in the party's program.” And he notes:

“The concept of Quebec people or Quebec nation was not yet fully developed in the thinking of the New Party's supporters in Quebec. So there was no question of recognizing the Quebec people and their right to self-determination in 1961, contrary to what has often been repeated since the most recent federal election campaign.”

This initial ordeal encountered by the Québécois at the NDP's founding convention was followed by a series of even more difficult ones in succeeding years, Lamoureux writes, as “successive leaderships in the party consciously decided to turn their backs to the national aspirations of the Québécois, which they considered contrary to the objectives of Canadian social-democracy.”

“The refusal of the NDP's convention in 1977 to recognize the right to self-determination of the Quebec people (in the wake of the Parti Québécois’ election); the party's participation in the Pro-Canada coalition on the eve of the 1980 referendum; its unconditional support to Trudeau's constitutional power grab in 1982; the centralizing orientation favoured by the various leadership teams, overriding provincial powers; the campaign against the Meech Lake Accord during the final phase of that constitutional bargaining; the support given to the infamous referendum ‘clarity law’ (C-20) – so many insults to Quebec, which led the party to marginalize itself and suffer an uninterrupted series of setbacks before the surprise of the May 2 federal election.”

True, the party opposed the War Measures in 1970, but that could not alter the party's course in regard to Quebec, Lamoureux adds.

An Unresolved Issue

Today, in the wake of its stunning victory in Quebec on May 2, he says, there is a real danger that it will dodge the Quebec national question and try to sweep it under the carpet. This is the primary challenge facing the NDP: “If it does not fully come to terms with this issue in its positions and its actions, the problems of the past will surely reappear.”

Is it simply inadvertence that the party's web site lists Nycole Turmel as chair of the “national caucus” not federal, he asks. Is the party's support for Harper's 2006 motion recognizing the “Québécois nation” completely meaningless?

The so-called Sherbrooke Declaration, likewise adopted in 2006, was brandished by Layton and deputy leader Thomas Mulcair during the recent federal election to compensate for the complete lack of commitments to Quebec in the party platform. It can no longer substitute for an orientation concerning Quebec, writes Lamoureux. Adopted in the wake of the divisions within the party over the Clarity Act, it recognized the right of self-determination, a constitutional right to opt out of federal programs with full financial compensation, and the rule of a simple majority in any future referendum on sovereignty. But it is just a statement of intention, with no real influence. There is no prospect of reopening the constitutional issue, so the Sherbrooke Declaration is nothing more than vague conjecture.[2]

Most disquieting, says Lamoureux, is that there was no resolution concerning the Quebec question put to the NDP's federal convention in Vancouver in mid-June. “Astonishingly, nothing. Quebec, which had just supplied more than half the NDP's parliamentary deputation, remained in the waiting room. No statement, even of general intention, was developed.”

This, despite the fact that the convention delegates voted on a resolution aimed at establishing a new “nation to nation” relationship with the indigenous peoples of Canada, so as to defend their rights and interests and establish the basis for a new equitable relationship in Canada. “Why was something similar not voted on for the people of Quebec?”

Lamoureux ends his article by noting that Nycole Turmel says the party's parliamentary caucus will be establishing their strategic framework for the coming session in September. “Let us hope that the Quebec question is not left high and dry, once again.”

Why the Ambivalence?

Nycole Turmel's apparent equivocation on the issues of Quebec sovereignty and Quebec's relation to Canada reflects the ambivalence of many Québécois, including many in the labour movement – especially among those like Turmel with a long history of activity in unions operating in the federal jurisdictions. Not untypical perhaps are the mixed feelings so clearly articulated by former postal workers' leader Jean-Claude Parrot, an outstanding labour militant who played an instrumental role in building the Canadian Union of Postal Workers into one of the more progressive unions in Canada today. In his autobiography, My Union, My Life (Fernwood Publishing, 2005) Jean-Claude writes:

“When I moved to Ottawa after my election in 1971, I had already long been a strong supporter of Québec independence. While still working in Montréal, I supported the formation of the Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale and later became a member of the Mouvement Souveraineté Association, and then of the Parti Québécois (PQ). I was a great admirer of Pierre Bourgault and André D’Allemagne, who both wrote and spoke in the 1960s on Québec independence.

“I first became involved in the early 1960s when Marcel Chaput, a federal government employee in Ottawa, began a fast to protest the lack of recognition of the French language in federal government departments. I collected money to support his cause at the postal station on St. Laurent Street in Montreal where I worked. ...

“When I first moved to Ottawa, I attended PQ meetings in Hull but, because I lived on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River, I was soon told that I could no longer be a member. This made sense, and I stopped going to PQ meetings, but I never stopped supporting the cause.

“After the PQ came to power in 1976, the issue of Québec's relationship to the rest of Canada was the subject of sharp discussion across the country. This was certainly true of the labour movement, and at CUPW's 1977 National Convention in Halifax, delegates adopted a policy that called for the right to self-determination for the people of Québec. It took no particular side on the issue of Québec's place in Canada, saying only that this was a matter for the people of Québec to decide on.

“The first to speak on this resolution was Brother A. Galley from the Burlington local. He raised concerns that this could divide our union in two. He ended his comments by saying, ‘First and foremost, I am a Canadian, and I wish and hope that there will be no such thing as the withdrawal of the Québec region from this union and that we stay as one united national union.’

“The next speaker, Brother Marcel Perreault from Montréal, indicated that there was no question of making a regional union with this resolution, only that Québec was one of two nations within Canada.

“One speaker, Brother T. Penney, said that twenty-eight years earlier Newfoundland, which had the right to self-determination, had used that right to join Canada and that nobody was going to tell him that today the people of Newfoundland didn't have the right to leave Canada if they wanted to. ‘This is a right that Québec must also have,’ he said.

“Brother [Evert] Hoogers from Vancouver also spoke, saying that he stood irrevocably for the principle that the people of Québec had the absolute right to determine their destiny:

‘I stand here as a Canadian worker, and I say that the only way I can have unity with my brothers and sisters in Québec, with Québécois workers, is to underline and actively work for their right to decide on their own destiny themselves. When people, workers especially, in English Canada respond to the phony issue of national unity, I just want to bring to their attention that what they are responding to is the call of a man – and the call of a government – who has hardly been the friend of CUPW. If we look over the history of the regime of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, we see a Prime Minister who has consistently worked in the interests of big business and large corporations. Never once has he worked in the interests of workers in this country. Why do we think, because he is calling for us to unite with him around the issue of national unity, that somehow he is working in our interests now? To the call of Prime Minister Trudeau for unity with him, I say never.’

“All other speakers spoke in favour of the resolution, and it was adopted unanimously.

“Brother Hoogers was certainly correct in his comments on Prime Minister Trudeau. Although Trudeau oversaw the implementation of the Official Languages Act in 1969, which recognized the French language in Canada, he never had the courage to meet the aspirations of the people of Québec.

“Trudeau pretended to never recognize that people in Québec were looking for sovereignty-association with the rest of Canada, not outright independence. To him, they were just a bunch of ‘separatists’ who wanted to destroy ‘our country.’ Trudeau used the term ‘separatist’ in a very derogatory way, and because of this many Canadians turned against the people in Québec.

“Trudeau was admired in English Canada because of his intelligence and charisma. He came from Québec, was fluently bilingual, and he made it look to many in English Canada as if the country was under attack by Québec. Many in English Canada had been asking, ‘What does Québec want?’ Trudeau managed to get many of these people to change that question into a statement: ‘If Québec gets it, we want it too.’

“Trudeau successfully put Québec in the position of being just one among ten provinces. He never tried to find a solution to the aspirations of the people of Québec. On the contrary he encouraged many in English Canada to oppose any accommodation with Québec.

“Whenever I hear people say that Trudeau saved Canada, or that he united it, I get a knot in my stomach. This guy never united Canada: he divided it. Many people in the rest of the country don't want to hear about the aspirations of the people of Québec. In some parts of the country, there is even hatred against people from Québec. Bilingualism in federal government services is seen by some as a way to give jobs to French-speaking people ahead of English speakers. In 1980, some even suggested that the army be used if the people of Québec voted ‘yes’ in the referendum on sovereignty-association that was held that year. The appointment of a francophone as director of an Ottawa hospital was denounced fanatically, despite his recognized competence, because at one point he had shown sympathy to the PQ.

“It was never properly explained to the rest of Canada what the PQ was really asking for in the 1980 referendum. There was a clear difference between sovereignty-association and full independence. René Lévesque's position was quite clear, and he never deserved to have the term ‘separatist’ used against him in the derogatory manner Trudeau did.

“Today the provinces are demanding that the federal government give them more power, yet, strangely, nobody calls them ‘separatists.’ This is all that Québec under René Lévesque had demanded, that more power be delegated to Québec without affecting the existing status of the other provinces. Québec wanted much more responsibility in such areas as immigration, social programs, and a larger voice in the international field.

“I wasn't at all surprised when the Bloc Québécois was formed as a strategic move to let the Liberals and others in English Canada understand that, whether they liked it or not, Québec is a distinct society. Indirectly, that ‘great Canadian,’ Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was largely responsible for the formation of the Bloc.

“The fact remains that people in Québec believe in a strong Canada, and whatever happened in the past or will happen in the future, Québec will never be a province like the others. Québec, whatever form its relationship to the rest of Canada may take in the future, will always be a good thing for Canada, especially once Canadians accept Québécois as friends, not enemies.

“The policy CUPW adopted in 1977 in support of Québec's right to self-determination has been renewed at every convention since, and it remains the policy of CUPW today. Not long after we adopted this position, it was also adopted by the CLC [Canadian Labour Congress].

“I was happy to see, in 1994, the CLC, on behalf of all the provincial Federations of Labour, sign an agreement with the Fédération des Travailleurs et des Travailleuses du Québec (FTQ). We in the labour movement love to call it our sovereignty-association agreement. It allocated more funds to the FTQ to allow it more autonomy on issues that had before been strictly the responsibility of the CLC. It also recognized a role for the FTQ in the international activities of the CLC. It was agreed that one of Canada's two seats on the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions be given to the President of the FTQ. The role of the CLC in the francophone countries around the world was also transferred to the FTQ.

“I hope that someday our politicians will have the courage to act in a similar manner regarding the relationship between Canada and Québec. The CLC-FTQ agreement shows that Canadians and Québécois can find solutions that work for both parties.” [pages 288-291]

Like Nycole Turmel, a good many other new MPs from Quebec may think that membership in the NDP is not necessarily incompatible with support of Quebec sovereignty – although, of course, Turmel, who is under tremendous pressure from the media, the other parties, and no doubt her own party, strenuously affirms her support for federalism. That is her – and their – contradiction. It is understandable, however, and Jean-Claude Parrot's defense of “sovereignty-association” between an autonomous or sovereign Quebec and a “strong Canada,” his (naïve?) hope that an accommodation can yet be reached between the people of Quebec and Canada short of independence, but also his typically understated indignation at the violence and ignorant abuse with which Quebec's aspirations are met on a daily basis, tell us much about the challenge facing the workers' movement in the days, months and years ahead.

Incidentally, when I last attended a meeting of the federal NDP in my riding, Ottawa-Vanier, Jean-Claude Parrot (still a sovereigntist, he assures me) was chairing the policy debate – as always in both English and French, in equal measure. •

Richard Fidler is an Ottawa member of the Socialist Project. This article first appeared on his blog Life on the Left.


Endnotes:

1. Entitled, in translation, “50 years after the NDP's founding – from the ordeal of Jack Layton to the issue of Quebec,” the article argues that Layton's current illness is not the only cause for concern about the NDP's future. “The Quebec national question as a whole, contrary to what some may think, has not been eclipsed, either, by the NDP's dazzling victory in the election of last May 2.”

2. For a detailed critique of the Sherbrooke Declaration, see “The federal NDP's electoral breakthrough in Quebec: A challenge to progressives in Canada.”

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