A Fire of Unity - from Feminist Nationalism to Global Feminism in Quebec
Schoenwandt, Jeanne, The World and I
The morning of last October 14 was overcast and damp. I had arranged to meet a friend midmorning. She and I would walk together to Montreal's Parc Lafontaine, the starting point for the march. En route, we stopped for a coffee at Cafe Rico, a store on Rachel Street. We couldn't be too long, our server told us. The store was closing, so that the employees could attend the march!
Parc Lafontaine is centrally located in Montreal's Plateau district just east of the downtown core. As we approached the park, we could see tent tops. In every corner of the park, women from various groups-- unions, community groups, and regional associations--were gathering for the 2000 World March of Women. Organized by the Federation des Femmes du Quebec (FFQ), the march was adopted by women in sixty-five countries and held on five continents. In Montreal, the crowd was thirty thousand strong, a number matching approximately one-tenth the population of the Montreal metropolitan area. Women of all ages and backgrounds, from the regions and urban centers, marched to a strong and singular message: No more poverty, no more violence against women.
Around the park, groups distributed literature on topics of interest to women. At the tents, spokespersons from various organizations, including the environmental group Greenpeace, spoke with members of the crowd. At one of them, an organizer took off a white scarf she was wearing--white for peace--and put it around my neck. My companion and I listened to speeches, signed support cards addressed to UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan (4,754,212 cards had been received as of December 1, 2000), and ate a bagged lunch--also distributed to us--before taking our places at the march's starting point.
Political solidarity took many forms along the route. On its first segment, west along Cherrier Street, one woman played electric guitar and another a cello in commemoration of the 1995 "Bread and Roses" march (also sponsored by FFQ and held to protest poverty). Marchers waved and clapped appreciatively. We turned onto Berri Street, which slopes away from the Plateau and runs south to the St. Lawrence River and Old Montreal. Hundreds of white ribbons commemorating victims of conjugal and other violence against women covered the concrete embankment bordering the street. Even the names of the streets were renamed and transformed: "Solidarity Street, Diversity Lane, Labor Boulevard."
We continued through Montreal's official Latin Quarter, where we were greeted by two choirs and a Latin American dance group. They continued to perform as the crowd streamed past. The march snaked its way to the bureaucratic center of Montreal on Rene Levesque Boulevard. Cries of "sol-i-dar-i-te" got louder as we passed Quebec government offices and the provincial utilities giant, Hydro Quebec. We reached our final destination, St. Catherine Street in front of Places des Arts, Montreal's commercial and cultural core. The square eventually swelled with all thirty thousand jubilant marchers. We were treated to more musical entertainment and speeches to close out a week of march-related activity and, for some, months of preparation and hard work.
A feminism of their own
It is too early to tell what effect the 2000 World March of Women might have on policies and legislation aimed at eliminating poverty and violence against women in Quebec. One effect, however, is certain. As a large-scale educational event, the march has inspired individual women participants to want to know and do more about the world in which they live. The march also marks a new phase in the Quebec women's movement, which is increasingly global in orientation yet tied more closely than ever to social, cultural, and political realities.
As I see it, feminism in Quebec has been framed, to a large extent, by understandings of feminist movements outside of the region. But the Quebec movement has not followed the same trajectory as the English- Canadian and American movements. Women in Quebec, for example, received the vote in 1940, relatively late in comparison with other Western societies.
The reasons for the distinctiveness of Quebec feminism are many; they are related to the social, cultural, linguistic, political, and structural characteristics that distinguish Quebec from the rest of Canada and the United States. As stated by Micheline Dumont in an article on the history of the Quebec women's movement, "The dates and structures of the history of Quebec women [simply] do not coincide with the dates and structures of English-Canadian women."
The influence of the Roman Catholic Church has also been cited as slowing the development of feminism in Quebec. Although the church long played a dominant role in Quebec society, women were not without a voice during the period of its dominance. Women workers have been involved in strikes against inequalities in the workplace since Quebec's industrialization. Also, through networks of women's circles around the province--some of them supported by the church--women met in study groups to discuss social, cultural, labor, and religious issues of importance to them. One influential group, the Catholic Union of Women Farm Workers, for example, numbered more than thirty thousand in 1950.
During the three hundred years preceding the secularization and modernization of Quebec society that took place in the 1960s, women occupied positions of authority in the fields of teaching, nursing, and social services, both as nuns and as laypersons. All the while, a feminist perspective was developing. Contemporary feminism has incorrectly been cited as a mere by-product of the modernization of society. The modernization of Quebec may indeed have opened the way for a second wave of feminism, but this was nonetheless a feminism particular to Quebec's social and cultural reality.
Feminism and Quebec nationalism
Founded in 1966, the FFQ works on behalf of all women in Quebec. It promotes women's equality, dignity, and fair treatment before the law and elsewhere. "Our commitment," according to Fran?oise David, the federation's president, in a comment reported in La Presse on October 15, 2000, "is to keep the fire burning, the fire that was lit 30 years ago and rekindled in 1995. This is the fire of unity, solidarity, of pro-active feminism, and of the Left."
The federation initiated the 2000 march globally and coordinated its organization in Montreal. It goes about its regular work in a variety of ways. It organizes public meetings, participates in government consultations, and publishes documents on issues of importance to women. A crucial advocate for women in Quebec, FFQ speaks in defense of women's interests, critiques government policies that affect women, and generally acts as a pressure group to improve the conditions of women's lives.
In fact, the federation is not one group but rather an umbrella organization for local, regional, and national (Quebec) groups and more than seven hundred individual members. At the time of its formation, the thinking was to unite different groups of women in Quebec, David has explained to me, rather than to affiliate with women's groups on the federal level.
Nationalism has been an important aspect of the Quebec women's movement. Feminism and nationalism solidified during the 1970s around shared tenets, such as concerns for wage parity, access to professional training, and political power. Tensions continued to exist, however, between feminists and male nationalists over the role of women in society. The tensions between feminism and nationalism came to a head during the 1980 referendum for Quebec sovereignty. Many women preferred to vote "woman" rather than oui (yes) or non (no). There was no easy answer, and Quebec feminists were split, sometimes in divisive ways. The federation, which then had about fifty thousand members, remained neutral.
I met with David in Old Montreal, at the Maison Parent-Roback (named after Madeleine Parent and Lea Roback, two important feminist activists). Dubbed "the nerve center of the collective force of the women's movement in Quebec," the building houses ten nonprofit organizations. These include a feminist press, a documentation center, and provincial offices for a variety of women's associations in addition to the FFQ offices. I asked David about the links today between feminism and nationalism. "Most leaders of women's groups in Quebec," she replied, "like the union leaders and the leaders of social movements, favor sovereignty."
Why was that? I asked. "A lot of these leaders believe that we can more easily construct a truly progressive society if Quebec is a sovereign state," she replied. "Evidently there is no guarantee, but there's a fair number of people who believe so."
After consulting with its members, the federation supported the oui position in the 1995 referendum for Quebec sovereignty. "This does not necessarily mean," added David, "that we said yes to the Parti Quebecois."
Nevertheless, the current Parti Quebecois government has done a lot of good for women. David mentions pay equity legislation, assistance to working families earning less than $25,000, and $5 a day day care, among its contributions. "At the same time," she comments, "they have made terrible cuts in the areas of health care and education, and to social assistance programs." Indeed, since 1995, the Parti Quebecois has let down a lot of women by cutting programs for the poorest in society. "I obviously don't accept that," she said.
"The government," according to David, "has also become increasingly neoliberal in the way that it works with big business." It refuses to raise the minimum wage, leading to increases in the numbers of working poor. In 1997, at a meeting of the FFQ's administrative council, it decided to restart the consultation process if there is another referendum. "The outcome would probably be less certain," said David. "Nowadays, the federation has more members from anglophone and other cultural communities, and it's no surprise that they tend to be federalist. The debate would not be an easy one. And it's possible that our members would prefer to remain within Canada. I don't know. One thing that is certain is that the position taken in 1995 was for 1995."
As I looked around during the march, I was somewhat surprised by the diversity of the crowd, in particular the community and regional groups. In the "Facilitation Guide to the Quebec Demands" produced by FFQ (and available at www.ffq.qc.ca), march organizers write that "our primary objective is to facilitate the process of developing ownership of the issues by as many women as possible."
Judging by the variety of groups present at the march, the process was a success. In the months prior to the event, women from both urban and rural regions had a chance to develop their own sense of ownership of the issues through public meetings held in neighborhoods all over the province. Organized groups and community organizations--ranging from women's centers to international solidarity organizations to church associations--met to raise awareness of the issues and propose solutions and group responses.
One participant in these consultation processes spoke to me about her experience. Josee Lecomte is a graduate student in sociology at McGill University. Her role in a local consultation group was dual, as a researcher and participant. Some of the community groups, Lecomte remarked, had never worked together before. Arriving at an understanding of different cultural perspectives was difficult and sometimes contentious. That dialogue itself far exceeded the demands to address other community issues.
The symbolic emotional charge of the march, both in Quebec and globally, was quite strong, according to David. "It represents women's desire to become more educated, to better know each other, to learn to work together, even if we come from very different environments." The challenge will be to determine how to respond to the desires of individual women as they continue the process of education and raising awareness begun in the consultation process.
"What I realize," said David, "is that if we only take the march and our demands, we don't have much. In fact it's almost a failure." But, she explained, the march's success cannot be measured by its visible portion, the event itself. "When we assess the results in all the regions of Quebec, no one speaks of failure," she concluded confidently.
Is globalization women's best friend?
A newspaper article appearing in Montreal's English-language daily, the Gazette, recently caught my attention. Its author, a columnist with the Toronto-based National Post, argued that globalization will help feminist causes. Economics, writes the columnist, will force the adoption of "equality of the sexes policies." The author reasoned that globalization would lead to the improved education of women around the world, especially in the poorest countries. This would further empower women to work outside the home and become entrepreneurs, businesswomen creating pools of capital through savings. In this respect, women's liberation and education represent any country's No. 1 competitive advantage, the article argued. By increasing women's participation in education and the economy, a nation could increase its "collective economic IQ." Educating women would therefore create massive national wealth.
Critics of globalization might also argue that the education of women creates wealth in the world but for obviously different reasons. Globalization has caused Quebec's feminists to become aware that it was in their interest to affiliate with women in other parts of the world, work together on common issues, and become more educated about each other. "Globalization has obliged us to realize this. I believe it is a question of education, a question of awareness, of consciousness raising," explained David. "As women from the North, it is not just a question of solidarity with women from the South, which our countries often exploit. We have also realized that we need women from the South; we need mutual solidarity to win our struggles in the South and in the North. We could no longer continue isolated one from the other. It has taken us, like other women around the world, a while to realize this, by becoming more educated. We have advanced a lot in the past five years."
David expected the Summit of the Americas, scheduled for Quebec City in April 2001 [after this essay goes to press: ed.], to be a follow-up to the 2000 march, at least for some women. Many from different regions of Quebec hope that the summit will be an opportunity to learn more about globalization in a Pan-American context, as well as to understand more deeply how globalization might affect them personally. It will also allow women to express their discontent and confront any new threats or forms of poverty and inequality that globalization might bring.
"In five years," David added, "feminism in Quebec will have changed a lot as it becomes more global. At the same time, as we talk of uniting more and more with women from other parts of the world, there are many francophone women who insist that we have to begin by uniting with women in Quebec, whether francophone, anglophone, or allophone. It's not the first time we've said this, but it's becoming more and more pervasive."n
Jeanne Schoenwandt works in the Communications Department at McGill University in Quebec.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: A Fire of Unity - from Feminist Nationalism to Global Feminism in Quebec. Contributors: Schoenwandt, Jeanne - Author. Magazine title: The World and I. Volume: 16. Issue: 5 Publication date: May 2001. Page number: 194. © 1999 News World Communications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.