It's All about Democracy -- Not Sovereignty

By Dobbin, Murray | Canadian Dimension, November-December 2002 | Go to article overview

It's All about Democracy -- Not Sovereignty


Dobbin, Murray, Canadian Dimension


While the Canadian Dimension collective is to be congratulated in its commitment to prod the Canadian Left into confronting and debating the serious political and philosophical questions of the moment, it seems to me that they have missed the mark in their opening piece, entitled "Focus on Sovereignty" (July/August, 2002). The article, in effect, sets out the argument that progressive forces in Canada should be determining their actions and strategies based on the assumption that "the issue of multiple sovereignties within the Canadian state has emerged as a live and increasingly contentious issue."

Nationhood No Longer An Issue For Either First Nations Or Quebecois

I see very little if any evidence of this assumption and, in fact, much that is contrary to it. Quebec politics is hardly marked by a "persistent desire ... for some form of nationhood." The evidence is that most Quebecois are tired of the question and so put off by the notion of another sovereignty referendum that they are protesting in the tens of thousands by parking their votes with the extreme neoliberalism of Mario Dumont and his Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ). This trend away from sovereignty was clearly in evidence at a September colloquium on social movements and left political action in Quebec, held at the Universite du Quebec Montreal (UQAM) and attended by 300 trade-union and social activists. According to one report by Judy Rebick in rabble.ca, the issue of sovereignty did not even arise. The debate was around the questions of running Left candidates versus mobilization to counteract the influence and popularity of the ADQ.

And while it may be true that most Canadians support some form of First Nations sovereignty, the trend among ordinary First Nations people is that they would prefer to see some immediate social and economic progress on their reserves. Discontent on the reserves, led mostly by Aboriginal women, is also directed at corrupt and inept band councils. The history of the demand for self-government can be traced back to the Trudeau era, when federal government bureaucrats (implementing Trudeau's obsession with the constitution and his desire to "put Quebec in its place") made it crystal clear that no monies of any kind would be made available to Aboriginal organizations unless their demands were cast in constitutional terms. The resulting legalization of Aboriginal politics effectively killed the grassroots Native movement of the 1970s and, with it, any hope of building effective connections with non-Aboriginal social and labour movements.

The negotiations over self-government could well rake another 20 years simply because Ottawa completely controls the self-government agenda. As it stands, Aboriginal people have no political power to change that situation. There is no grassroots Aboriginal movement in Canada, just the bureaucratic remnants of movements co-opted by government funding 25 years ago. Until there is such a movement that non-Aboriginal social-movement organizations can work with, their role will remain one of making pro-forma and ineffective statements about supporting self-government.

The Core issue Is Democracy, Not Sovereignty

There is no question that the issue of sovereignty is a critical one in the era of free-trade and investment agreements and, indeed, the anti-globalization movement long ago recognized that globalization has "emptied politics of the concepts of sovereignty and nation." This was a major and persistent theme of the movement against the first free-trade agreement in the mid-to-late eighties, and has continued until today.

What we had been slower to recognize is that the neoliberal agenda -- both its ideology and its material expression -- were a systematic and deliberate assault on democracy. This recognition is now so widespread that it is virtually universal wherever the antiglobalization movement finds expression. The debates about where the anti-globalization movement should go next, especially since September 11, have focused primarily on the issue of democracy. …

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