The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Playing on Regional Tensions

Aug 16, 1997

In Canada’s June 2 federal elections, the ruling Liberals, led by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, emerged weakened. The Liberals lost 22 seats, leaving it with only a bare majority in the House of Commons, 155 of the 301 seats.

Two regional parties continued to occupy the second and third positions, which they had moved, although they shifted positions. The Reform Party, based in the western provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, gained 14 seats, moving it into second place. The Bloc Québécois (BQ), which is the national version of the provincial Parti Québécois (PQ), lost 10 seats, moving it down into third place. Nonetheless, it still came in ahead of the Progressive-Conservatives and the New Democratic Party (NDP), both of which appear nationally.

These latter two parties both improved their showing somewhat from 1993, when they had been pushed completely out of power—the Conservatives nationally, and the NDP in their provincial stronghold in Ontario. In 1993, the Conservatives, who had dominated the political scene since 1984, almost collapsed, holding on to only two seats nationally. But after 1993, the responsibility for Canada’s continuing double-digit unemployment and cuts in social programs has been in the hands of the Liberals nationally, and the Parti Québécois in Quebec. Thus in the 1997 election, both the Conservatives and the NDP were able to regain a small part of the ground they had lost, but not enough to bypass the two regional parties whose dominant showing in their respective areas reflects the regional tensions which mark Canada today.

The current results indicate that Canada’s political scene continues to be marked by centrifugal forces.


Regional tensions are a part of Canada’s legacy. The biggest and oldest source of tension has been between the English provinces and Quebec, the lone French province.

This conflict is usually represented as due to the differences in language, culture and traditions. But underlying this conflict was the fact that the English-speaking Canadians dominated the federal government. They, along with English-speaking Britains and Americans, dominated business and the economy. As a result, French Canadians were often not allowed to speak their own language at work. They suffered from discrimination, and they endured levels of unemployment and poverty that were usually significantly higher than in the rest of the country.

The development of Quebec’s economy over the last century, its industrialization based on mining, timber and the building of hydro-electric power dams transformed their society from rural and traditional to largely urban. In the 1960s, the Quebec government moved to modernize the governmental institutions. It took control of education, health care and welfare away from the Catholic Church, vastly extending these programs at the same time. A new and improved provincial pension system was also instituted. These reforms became known as the "Quiet Revolution." The dynamic working class that grew with industry carried out several decisive strikes in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. And they had an impact on the government reforms of this period, especially the 1964 reform of labor laws, that recognized government employees’ right to strike for the first time. All these reforms taken together raised expectations for improved living conditions and greater equality in all sections of the population.

But the economic crisis that hit Quebec in the late 1960s crushed many of those hopes. The working class reacted with strikes, especially in the newly unionized public sector. On the political level, there was an upsurge of Quebec nationalism. Separatist groups formed. Imitating the guerrillas of Algeria or Latin America, some carried out terrorist acts. In 1970, the Canadian government invoked the War Measures Act. More than 800 people were arrested. Most were arrested simply because they opposed the government. At least one-quarter of them were trade union militants. Almost all were eventually released without being charged with a crime, proving that it was obviously a political dragnet aimed at dispersing growing mobilization.

In 1968 the Parti Québécois (PQ) was formed, led by René Lévesque. Under Lévésque, the PQ stopped short of advocating independence. Instead, it stood for greater autonomy from Ottawa, while threatening separation if Ottawa did not meet its terms. Underlying the creation of the PQ were the aspirations of a French-speaking petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie that strove to assume what they considered to be their rightful places in the economy and politics. The PQ could sound, by turns, anti- American or anti-Ottawa. But this did not preclude their close ties to both. After all, the PQ was composed of politicians who had served both masters. Lévesque himself had formerly been a Liberal Party cabinet minister. He also bent over backward to reassure U.S. business interests, already so dominant in Quebec, that their investments and profits were safe, and that Quebec continued to be a friendly place to do business. In fact, part of the appeal of separation for Quebec was the chance for it to deal directly with U.S. business, while cutting out the Ottawa middlemen. Although it must be added that the U.S. government always made it clear that it was not about to go for this. It consistently opposed any Quebec breakaway, since a break-up could lead to all kinds of instability.

The PQ grew quickly. It went from gaining 24% of the vote in 1970 to 30% in 1973. By 1975 it had won 40%, which was enough to put it in power in the province. Lévesque became the premier. In 1980, the PQ government held a referendum that played on the nationalist sentiments of a part of the French- speaking population. It was advertized as the first step toward independence. In fact, it was something else all together. According to the terms of the referendum, the Quebec government was only to negotiate greater autonomy from the federal government. If the negotiations did not result in an agreement, then the question of independence might be put to the population.

When this referendum was defeated by a decisive 60 to 40 margin, Lévesque renounced all further referendums. But the PQ continued to rule. As the economic crisis worsened, the PQ imposed the same kinds of sacrifices on the working population of Quebec as all the other provincial governments were doing. In 1985, the Lévesque government fell to the Liberals.

After the defeat of the 1980 referendum, the politicians at the federal and provincial government wrangled over the legal relations of the Quebec government inside the federation. Hidden behind vague rhetoric about whether Quebec was a "distinct" society from the rest of Canada was the legal question of whether Quebec could have a veto over Constitutional questions, that is, the relationship between the provinces and the federal government. In 1982 the federal government drafted a constitution in which Quebec was considered "equal." This meant that Quebec did not have that veto that it coveted. This is something which Ontario, the most populous and dominant province, in effect, had. While the Constitution was adopted by all the rest of the provinces, Quebec turned it down. In 1987 the provinces and federal government negotiated a revision to the Constitution, called the Meech Lake accord. This revision granted Quebec its "distinct" status. Quebec ratified it. But Newfoundland and Manitoba, two of the poorest provinces, did not, protesting that Quebec was being given too much power. So in 1990 the Meech Lake accord died.

Still another attempt at revising the constitution was reached by politicians, this time in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, once again granting Quebec "distinct" status. This was put up to a vote in a national referendum in 1992. Not surprisingly it went down to defeat in half the provinces, including Quebec, because the referendum was held in the middle of the deep recession when discontent was high, and most people wanted to vote against whatever the politicians proposed.

The politicians were unable to resolve the issue of Quebec’s situation. The question of separation continued to percolate, both in Quebec and all over the country. Even while the PQ was out of power, the politicians, "experts" and news media never stopped asking, "Can Canada be preserved?"

This was the question that they continued to put in front of the public, even though all the political establishment was wrangling over only how to share and divide power and money between the various provinces and the federal government.

The PQ Returns

In 1994, in a very close vote, the PQ once again unseated the Liberals in Quebec. Despite their very narrow margin, and the lack of any push for autonomy from the population, the new PQ premier, Jacques Parizeau, proposed another referendum, scheduled for October 1995.

With or without greater support, this referendum was essential for the PQ politicians. There had been no semblance of the promised economic recovery. Instead, economic conditions in Canada continued to worsen, as mass downsizings continued. The telecommunications giant, Bell Canada, had announced that it was laying off a quarter of its workforce. The construction industry was paralyzed, with a cascade of bankruptcies. In some cities, the housing market fell by 40%.

Things were worse in Quebec, where the number of people on welfare had increased by 60% in five years, and 17% of the population lived below the official poverty line. In Montreal, the city government had announced that it was laying off 20% of its work force. In the inner cities, homelessness and crime grew.

In earlier periods, the PQ had been able to hide behind a social democratic façade. But by the eighties, already under Levesque, all that foolishness had been jettisoned for the gospel according to Thatcher-Reagan. Now in the mid-90s, the PQ was put in charge of overcoming a massive provincial budget deficit, made worse by enormous cuts in transfer payments from the federal government. This was guaranteed to stir mass discontent, not to speak of opposition to the PQ, before it even was able to situate itself in power.

A referendum deflecting popular opinion was the PQ’s answer to its problem. It hoped to gathering support around the issue, divert attention from the butchering it would carry out. For months, the politicians, the media, the "experts" talked about nothing but the referendum. First, came the debate over whether to have the referendum. Then there was speculation about when the referendum would take place. Then there was the campaign itself. It became a matter of international concern, and U.S. President Clinton made a state visit to Ottawa in order to show U.S. support for the forces opposing the referendum.

For most of this period, opinion polls showed that most people in Quebec remained largely indifferent, and the poll numbers hardly budged, with approximately only 40% supporting the referendum. Only in the last weeks, with a furious push by both sides did the daily diet of fear and patriotism finally have an impact. The level of support for the referendum increased. To counter this, those opposed to the referendum organized a major demonstration in Montreal, with cheap train and plane fares offered by the federal government and business.

The result was a record 92% turnout, with the referendum losing by about one percent, or about 50,000 votes.

Despite losing, the separatists picked up 60% of French speakers who voted on the referendum, as opposed to less than half in the 1980 vote.

This encouraged the PQ to continue playing a demagogic game. In an incendiary speech, Parizeau blamed the loss on "money and the ethnic vote," that is, the immigrants and foreigners. He then resigned. Days later, the provincial government closed five hospitals—all in non-French speaking sections of Montreal. Montreal is by far the largest urban conglomeration, with 20% of its population English-speaking and another 20% immigrant. This divisive retribution was just a prelude, of course, to much bigger across-the-board cuts.

Lucien Bouchard, founder of the BQ and former Conservative cabinet minister, was first appointed the head of the provincial PQ, and then Quebec’s premier. Bouchard promised another referendum within a year. But he soon backed off. The threat of more referendums (or neverendums) obviously could not disguise what he and the government was doing.

As a result, the BQ saw its vote decline in the 1997 election, going from second place to third place in the House of Commons.

Demagogy in the West

Second place was taken by the surging Reform Party led by the son of a former Alberta premier, a business consultant and Christian Fundamentalist, Preston Manning. The Reform Party rode some of the same gusts of disaffection against the traditional parties that Ross Perot did in the U.S. The Reform Party carried out an anti-tax and anti-immigrant demagogy. But it also tapped into regional tensions, proclaiming that both the politicians in Ottawa, the seat of the federal government, and Quebec were taking advantage of the West.

In the 1993 election, it swept two of Canada’s most western provinces, taking 46 of 58 Parliamentary seats in British Columbia and Alberta. Nationally it finished only 2 seats behind the BQ.

In this year’s federal election, the Reform Party continued its advance. Manning opened up an attack against not just the Quebec separatists, but all Quebec politicians. (Prime Minister Chrétien, as well as former prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau are from Quebec.) Added to his calls for a referendum on abortion, a crack down on crime, trying teenagers over 14 accused of serious crimes as adults and an end to gun control, this call for "no special treatment" for Quebec is credited with increasing the Reform Party’s seats to 60.

The feelings that the Reform Party was tapping into are nothing new. In the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s, William (Bible Bill) Atherhart, a fundamentalist lay preacher, founded the Social Credit Party in Alberta, and through weekly radio broadcasts recruited a fervent following. Promising a "social dividend" of 25 dollars a month to every citizen, the party won control of Alberta in 1935. The central Government blocked the 25 dollar payment scheme, but the party flourished nevertheless, and in 1952 won control of British Columbia. Elsewhere in the West, the voters of Saskatchewan in 1944 elected the vaguely socialist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). This populist government held power until 1966. Both the CCF and Social Credit were the vehicles of politicians who expressed the anger and resentment of the farms and small towns that were losing their property and businesses, often in a regional protest against Ottawa. Over time, Social Credit and Atherhart faded. But the CCF in the West merged with the trade unions in the East to form the present-day New Democratic Party (NDP).

Today, the politics of right-wing protest obviously continues to bubble in Western provinces. Part of that sentiment is based also on separatist tendencies, although undoubtedly not as strong or as deep as those in Quebec. But they are there. In the last election, Manning was forced to publicly denounce all talk of secession, having earlier exacerbated the issue. He even threatened to throw out of the party any candidate who dared mention it in the campaign.

But that does not at all exclude the possibility that in the future Manning could reverse his position, just like Lucien Bouchard, the current premier of Quebec did, if it fits his purposes. And, in fact, there were other politicians in the West playing the secessionist card. After the June election, word was leaked to the press that British Columbia had already done feasible studies of what would happen if that province declared independence.

The Position of the Unions

How have the trade unions dealt with the rise of regional politics?

The largest trade union federation, the Canadian Labor Congress (CLC), is tied to the NDP. The NDP is currently in power in the Western provinces of Saskatchewan and British Columbia. As responsible bourgeois politicians, the NDP premiers have dutifully imposed the current crop of government layoffs, austerity measures and budget cuts in social services on the working class. Those local unions where workers have been attacked sometimes take a position opposing the NDP. But this does not at all prevent the CLC leadership from continuing its partnership with the NDP.

The CLC’s close relationship with the NDP was only really interrupted once. That was after the NDP captured control of the province of Ontario in the late 1980s. Ontario has Canada’s biggest population. It is where industry is most concentrated and where the unions are strongest. Once elected premier with union support, Bob Rae of the NDP initiated enormous attacks on government workers and cuts in social programs, making him the most hated man in the province. The unions revolted against Rae. The largest unions, including the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), withdrew their support of the NDP. Rae lost in the next election. And the NDP also underwent a collapse in the 1993 federal elections.

But, the unions of the CLC did not then take the logical step even in their own terms of building their own party. Certainly, they discussed this option. But they dismissed it out of hand. Instead, they waited a couple of years before renewing their partnership with the NDP, for which they actively campaigned and even ran some union members as NDP candidates in the June federal election. Union support allowed the NDP to partially recover from its earlier election debacles, going from nine to 21 seats in the House of Commons.

Given the growing desperation of sectors of the working class, the unions’ support for politicians who turned around and betrayed the workers has obviously opened the door to the influence of right-wing demagogues. The CLC even admits this. In the "Political Action" document the CLC prepared for the June election, CLC President Bob White cites the example of one union district in the West: "A lot of our members supported the Reform Party in the last election. A lot of our members have bought into the me-first right wing messages that now dominate political debate."

In Quebec, it is more or less the same. The Confédération des Syndicats Nationaux (CSN), whose unions are strongest in the hospitals, the service industry and government offices was formally non-partisan. They didn’t endorse candidates in elections.

In fact, from the PQ’s origins, the CSN gave it informal support. This support was finally formalized in 1990, when a CSN convention endorsed the PQ. After the PQ came to power, the CSN supported its policy of austerity, presenting labor peace behind the PQ as necessary for making Quebec independent, thus tying the hands of workers who have carried out militant fights against austerity, hospital closings, etc.

Thus, demagoguery of all sorts is being used in these times of economic crisis in Canada. Can this demagoguery push Canada to come apart, as advertized and feared? As of now, this appears to be only a very distant possibility. Neither is it in the interests of the bourgeoisie in Canada, nor its various provinces, nor its superpower neighbor, the U.S. While people like Manning, Parizeau and Bouchard have from time to time explicitly or implicitly threatened separation, each time they have also retreated from these threats.

The main problem is that this demagoguery is being used to obscure and justify major attacks against the working class. And faced with those attacks, the working class in all of Canada, including Quebec and the West, has no independent policy. And this leaves the door open for the workers to support the very people who in reality are their most dangerous enemies.