Life on the Left
May 25, 2011
It did not take long for the NDP’s contradictory positions on the Quebec national question to surface within its new parliamentary deputation.
Yesterday, as Jack Layton presented his full caucus of 103 MPs — 59 of them from Quebec — to the media, on Parliament Hill, there was no denying the existence of deep rifts among them on whether Quebec has the right to self-determination, and what it means to defend that right.
In an earlier post, I pointed to the contradictions in the 2005 Sherbrooke Declaration, the NDP’s major statement on Quebec. A central one involves the party’s attitude toward a future Quebec referendum on sovereignty. The Declaration says the NDP “recognizes... that the right to self-determination implies that the Assemblée nationale [the Quebec legislature] is able to write a referendum question and that the citizens of Québec are able to answer it freely.” But it immediately adds: “It would be [up] to the Federal government to determine its own process in the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling” on the 1998 Secession reference.
The problem is that the Supreme Court ruling — and the federal Parliament’s Clarity Act, adopted in 2000 pursuant to that ruling — made Quebec sovereignty following a successful “yes” vote contingent on agreement by the federal Parliament. The Sherbrooke Declaration does not mention the Clarity Act. In 2006, Layton endorsed the Clarity Act, reversing his previous opposition to it.
The Declaration says the NDP “would recognize a majority decision (50% + 1)” in a referendum on Quebec’s political status. But the Supreme Court, in the Secession Reference, said the referendum vote must represent a “clear majority” on a “clear question” — as determined not by Quebec but by Ottawa and the other provinces, in clear violation of Quebec’s right of self-determination. Those conditions are now entrenched in the Clarity Act.
Responding in yesterday’s press conference to repeated questions by Quebec reporters, Layton first dodged the issue, then stated his own position.
“We’ll follow the decision of the Supreme Court judges,” he said. “We think that’s an appropriate framework. We don’t need to be revisiting legislation.” At the same time, he said in French that he stood by the Sherbrooke Declaration.
Other members of his caucus expressed differing opinions. Among those saying they would recognize a 50% + 1 vote for sovereignty were Quebec MPs André Boulerice (Rosemont-La Petite Patrie) and Guy Caron (Rimouski-Neigette-Témiscouata-Les Basques). Boulerice is also a member of the left independentist party Québec Solidaire. Caron is a former president of the Canadian Federation of Students. Both are trade union officials: Boulerice with the Canadian Union of Public Employees; Caron with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union.
West Coast MP Peter Julian likewise said a simple majority vote was the party’s position.
"The NDP has for years recognized Quebec's right to self-determination and for me it's clear that means the 50-percent rule must be respected," said Boulerice.
Among those expressing instead their support for the Clarity Act were Nova Scotia MP Peter Stoffer and Winnipeg MP Pat Martin. The latter maintained that there was no contradiction, that a simple majority was enough — provided there was a “clear question” however.
Le Devoir political columnist Manon Cornellier aptly summed up Layton’s dilemma. “Yesterday’s scene was the perfect illustration of a leader caught between a rock and a hard place,” she wrote. “And it won’t be the last time.” Layton says he wants to create “winning conditions” for Canada in Quebec and thereby avoid the referendum threat. “But one of those conditions is to speak frankly and forthrightly about the rules by which he intends to play. But can he do so at this point without upsetting the rest of the country, or Quebec?...
“For Jack Layton, the solution is through a Parliament that functions, that improves things for families, that produces changes in people’s lives. But the Harper government has a majority and is under no obligation to take account of the opposition, even if it is full of good will.
“The Mulroney and Chrétien [majority] governments sometimes gave a helping hand to the opposition parties, but only when the policies they defended divided their own caucus, as on the issues of abortion, the long-gun registry, gay rights and same-sex marriage. If not, the steamroller was the rule. To impose the GST, reduce transfers to the provinces, slash government spending, limit access to employment insurance.... It will be no different this time around.”
Layton’s fundamental problem is that he is trying to square the circle — claiming to support Quebec self-determination, and the nationalist aspirations of the vast majority of Québécois, while hoping to convince them of the merits of the federal regime and fend off hard-line federalists within his caucus. Layton’s “winning conditions” require as a first step a progressive federal government and a “parliament that functions”, impossible goals in today’s conditions.
The solution will not be found in Parliament. Nor will it be found in the Clarity Act or a judgment of the Supreme Court. And still less in the Sherbrooke Declaration. The Declaration was a transparent attempt to paper over contradictory positions, to reconcile rhetorical support for Quebec’s right to national “self-determination” with a commitment to federalist hegemony over any attempt by the Québécois to exercise that right.
For as long as the NDP had no real presence in Quebec, and no Quebec members of its parliamentary caucus other than Thomas Mulcair, a committed federalist and opponent of Quebec sovereignty, these contradictions could be covered up. But no longer. They are now mirrored within the NDP’s parliamentary deputation.
The NDP has no choice but to confront the Quebec question and attempt to develop a coherent and principled position. This can only be done through a wide-open discussion throughout the ranks of its members and supporters, and through engagement with the movement for Quebec independence — and especially with the progressive leading edge of that movement, Québec Solidaire. The debate must be conducted above all within the working class and its organizations outside Quebec, in the other provinces and territories. It is long overdue, and the NDP will pay a serious price for any further attempts to evade it.
It should be clear by now that no lasting resolution of Quebec’s national aspirations can be found short of a fundamental change in its constitutional status. It should be equally clear that only a successful drive toward Quebec independence can lay the basis for any genuine partnership of equals between the peoples of Quebec and Canada — including the aboriginal First Nations.
Canada’s ruling class, including its Québécois component, are firmly opposed to a sovereign Quebec and the prospect of losing control over what is at present a key component part of their state. They will use every resource at their disposal to fight the movement for Quebec self-determination and political independence. This poses an enormous challenge to the working people of Canada, who must be won to consciousness of the need for ongoing solidarity and active support to their Québécois sisters and brothers.
This will be no easy task. As the Le Devoir columnist says, it will “upset” a lot of people — conditioned as we are by the constant trivialization of “the Quebec question” by a hostile mass media and capitalist politicians.
“My message to Quebecers is clear,” said Jack Layton yesterday. “You can count on me to defend your interests.”
Layton may think he can be the sole arbiter of their interests. But the more than 1,628,000 Québécois who voted for the NDP on May 2 were not just voting for Jack Layton; their vote was for the NDP. It was their way of saying — within the constraints of our electoral system — that they wanted a closer connection with progressive opinion in the Rest of Canada than the Bloc Québécois was able to provide.
We cannot afford to disappoint them.