Avoiding the Social Question in Quebec

By Shragge, Eric | Canadian Dimension, January-February 1992 | Go to article overview
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Avoiding the Social Question in Quebec

Shragge, Eric, Canadian Dimension

For ERIC SHRAGGE the Left in English Canada and Quebec have left crucial questions unaddressed as they seek to deal with the issue of Quebec sovereignty. Shragge takes up the debate where Quebec trade union leader Monique Simard left it s in the July-August issue of Canadian Dimension.

The issue of the future of Quebec, and by implication the rest of Canada is one that raises serious political and social questions.

The Left in Canada has tried to walk a tightrope between a position that supports the right of the people of Quebec to determine their own future, and one which argues for the necessity of a central Canadian state that can defend some kind of national identity and protect an independent economy and social programs.

The francophone Left in Quebec takes for granted that independence is both desirable and inevitable. This position is supported by Monique Simard in July/August edition of Canadian Dimension.

In the discussion that follows I do not take a position for or against independence. I think that both camps have failed to address the crucial social questions we face in Quebec. I found that Simard's article avoided vital issues. This avoidance has made it easier for her to argue her position. But in doing so she has trivialized this central debate of our day.

I am writing this response as a native Montrealer and Quebecer. Although English is my mother tongue, and I work in an English speaking institution, I have made an effort to function in French and participate in a variety of political activities and social movements in which common concerns have pushed many like my to engage politically alongside French-speaking activists. I have always felt that solidarity on issues related to social justice and peace transcended differences in culture and language. My central concern is the link between the national question and the many social issues that are present in our society.

Simard states:"...Quebec must go through, once and for all, with its ultimate national choice. If not, Quebec will never be able to fulfill its project de societe. Social and economic issues will always be pushed off because the national question will dominate." This split between the social and the national question poses a danger and threatens to undermine progressive forces.

The nationalist alliance

The central absence in Simard's article is a lack of discussion of the agenda of the Left in the independence movement. Do we assume that social questions are to be addressed a some kind of post-independence postscript?

There are reasons to be concerned and uneasy with the alliances formed around the current nationalist movement. The first basic question is what are the consequences for the wider society of a movement composed of incompatible class interests. The current nationalist movement is composed of a wide alliance of labour, business, and community interests. Its political leadership is in the hands of the Parti Quebecois.

Yet, Simard points out it was the same Parti Quebecois that turned against the trade union movement in 1980. The reason, she argues is because of the response of the labour movement to the 1980 referendum. Another explanation is that the PQ is a party committed to the current neoconservative agenda, including free trade. In order to reach these objectives, and to push Quebec to compete internationally, a weakened trade union movement, or perhaps no trade unions at all, is required. In a context in which the trade union and other social movements are under attack by government, what benefit is there in jumping in bed with those who support these neo-conservative policies? What kind of post-independence society are we discussing when the leading political voice for independence-the Parti Quebecois--has the same vision as Mulroney, Bourassa, and Bush?

Simard uses similar logic in explaining the electoral support of many here for the Mulroney Conservatives.

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