Issue 195 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review
Canada is often seen as a country with strong economic growth and harmony between the classes. In fact, as John Bell explains, recession, austerity, nationalism and strikes are the order of the day
Last year, about this time, the United Nations named Canada the best country on earth in which to live. On 31 October 1995 almost 49 percent of the people of Canada's second most populous province, Quebec, voted to separate.
In early February Prime Minister Jean Chrétien mused publicly about resolving the issue of Quebec nationalism through partition along ethnic lines, and the possibility of civil war. Comparison with the former Yugoslavia and ethnic cleansing was unavoidable.
What a difference a year makes!
Not that the UN thumbs up was ever that convincing. For years the lives of Canadian working people have worsened. Where North Americans used to believe that the lives of their children would be better than their own, now polls tell us we look to the future with gloom.
Politically this plays out in electoral volatility. In 1993 Brian Mulroney's Tories went from holding the largest parliamentary majority in Canadian history to two seats. Today Mulroney stands accused of receiving kickbacks for government deals, and uses his spare time launching libel suits to cover his ass.
Then Ontario voters threw out their provincial New Democratic Party (NDP) government (a Labour style social democratic party with a 'new realist' bent) and gave a strong majority to the Ontario Conservatives, small town, right wing ideologues of the Thatcher school. They campaigned with a combination of scapegoating the poor and immigrants, and promises of petty tax refunds which are now looking unlikely ever to appear.
All these things and more have left mainstream observers at a loss. Canada's carefully crafted image of grey, plodding middle class stability lies in tatters. This is partly due to an economic crisis similar to that gripping the rest of Canada's G7 buddies, and partly due to the unique wild card of Quebec nationalism.
We are told we are enjoying an economic recovery. Some indicators of economic performance are superficially rosy but it is usually a good news/bad news situation for the Canadian corporate class. The good news is the six biggest Canadian banks had a banner year, making a record $5.4 billion in profit.
The bad news is that much of the profit comes from paying off Canada's debts and deficits.
Good news: the Toronto stock market has set record high levels.
Bad news: in the words of one financial analyst, 'Canadian stocks should do well because of the miserable state of the domestic economy... Domestic weakness is spurring the Bank of Canada to cut rates, and low rates are underpinning the market's rally.'
Good news: major corporations are also showing hefty profits.
Bad news: ledgers are showing black ink in part because of massive layoffs. The Bank of Montreal used the same press conference to announce record profits and to lay off 1,000 more workers.
The list goes on.
The Canadian economy is like a host that is inhabited by a tapeworm--it seems to have a healthy appetite but it just can't seem to pack on any pounds.
And through it all employers and government have succeeded in driving down working class living standards, though not nearly as low as they'd like. From 1977 to last year real wages declined 15 percent on average. For workers with only high school education wages have been knocked down 29 percent.
Workers are feeling their backs are to the wall, and the middle class is rapidly disappearing under the pressure. During the 1990s the gospel of deficit reduction has led to frontal assaults on social services by governments of all political stripes, at every level. Ideas like 'workfare' and prison labour chain gangs have moved from the right wing fringe to the centre of the spectrum.
Closures, layoffs and user fees for formerly universal services are at every hand. The Ontario government is now in the vanguard of the corporate assault on workers' lives. It has repealed laws which prevent the use of scabs, just in time to force a strike on its own provincial employees. It has announced plans to sack one fifth of the Ontario public service, and the ruling class across the country is awaiting the outcome with bated breath.
But all is not miserable. The rising wave of opposition to these cuts shows a glimmer of the resistance that is possible.
In Canada the rate of unionisation is much higher than in the US, around 30 percent, even after decades of attacks on union rights. As a result, there is an almost schizophrenic divide in the consciousness of most workers. They can vote for a right wing conservative government like that in Ontario, and then find themselves picketing against it just a few months later.
Take for instance, a demonstration of 37,000 teachers. The Catholic schoolteachers' union which organised the event had expected only a fraction of that number to show up. The teachers came mostly from smaller cities surrounding Toronto, the hinterland that voted for the Tories.
The very day the Ontario Tories were sworn into office, they were met with a demonstration over 10,000 strong. People who had been politically quiescent for a decade showed up that day, to give notice they wouldn't take the attacks sitting down. Loud and forceful, the demonstration was attacked by club swinging cops, and blood flowed on the steps of the legislature.
The trade union brass were under pressure from their membership for a general strike to defend services and union rights. They organised a one day walkout in a small southern Ontario city called London. On one of the coldest days of the year 40,000 workers walked off their jobs and 15,000 marched through the streets of London--the biggest day of action by organised labour in Ontario since 1976.
Union leaders were split over calls for rotating general strikes, building to a province wide shutdown. Some, terrified over the potential for militancy shown by London, insisted on no more strikes. But the pressure is mounting.
However, so far the resistance is well under the control of the union brass.
One of the great props of the Canadian ruling class is the divide between workers in English Canada and in Quebec. The official histories of Canada assert that it is a nation created through dialogue and consensus. The reality is that the nation was founded on the violent conquest of the francophone Québecois and the native Indian populations.
The particulars of the story of Quebec, from the conquest of 1759 to the referendum over sovereignty of 1995, would require volumes. Suffice it to say, the violent oppression of the Québecois is not ancient history. It was only in 1970 that the liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau used the rise of Quebec nationalism, and the actions of a small Maoist inspired organisation called the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), to declare martial law.
More than 5,000 raids were conducted, ostensibly to root out the FLQ and their supporters. In reality, the attacks were on trade unionists, student groups, and any organisation with left or nationalist leanings. As many as 465 union militants, students, socialists, artists and intellectuals were arrested and imprisoned without charge, some being held for weeks.
The FLQ enjoyed the sympathy of masses of Québecois. But the man political expression of their national aspirations was the Parti Québecols (PQ). The PQ has twice been elected to govern the province, both times launching referenda for one or another form of Quebec independence. Until the 1960s francophones were an oppressed group even in their own province. The language of management and ownership of industry was English. The language of the poor and working class was French.
Since then the so called 'Quiet Revolution' has changed much. French has become the dominant language of Quebec and recognised, at least ostensibly, as one of Canada's two official languages. Francophones occupy management positions, and the middle class professions are no longer closed to them.
This does not mean anti-Quebec racism has ended, or that Quebec is no longer oppressed within the Canadian state. Attacks on Quebec and the official policy of bilingualism are everyday occurrences throughout English Canada.
When Trudeau repatriated the Canadian constitution from Britain in the 1970s, it was ratified by all the provinces except Quebec. Until some recognition of Quebec's special status and history is included in the constitution, no provincial politician would dare endorse the constitution. Brian Mulroney attempted to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold, with his Meech Lake Agreement. This would have enshrined the phrase 'unique status' next to Quebec's name in the constitution in hopes that a mushy phrase would appease the people of Quebec and the nationalistic wrangles.
The result was a carnival of reaction across English Canada. Right wingers held rallies to wipe their feet on the Quebec flag. Municipalities passed motions banning French in their towns. Meech Lake spelled the end for Brian Mulroney, whose mighty parliamentary majority was based on an unholy alliance of conservative Quebec nationalists and free enterprise loving yahoos from western Canada.
The destruction of Mulroney's coalition has created two new parties on the nationalist stage. Today jean Chrétien's ruling Liberals are followed by the Bloc Québecois, the federal version of the PQ. The Bloc, by the slim margin of two seats, holds the position of 'loyal opposition' in parliament.
The rednecks from the west moved into the Reform Party, a right wing populist party led by Preston Manning, the geeky son of a radio evangelist. Manning now has the third largest party in the national parliament.
Which brings us back to 31 October 1995. That night 49 percent of Quebec voters said 'oui' to separation. A shaken Chrétien had to admit he ruled a nation racked with crisis and division.
Chrétien has appointed an unelected academic named Stephane Dion to his cabinet. Dion has pushed the idea that Quebec can be partitioned along ethnic lines. Chrétien has agreed that the cantonisation of Quebec is a possibility.
The far right is having a field day. Brent Tyler, head of an anti-sovereignty group called the Special Committee for Canadian Unity, told one Toronto paper, 'We're the weirdos of Canadian unity but now we've got the prime minister on, our side.'
Readers might be scratching their heads at the seeming contradictions in this situation. A francophone prime minister raising the spectre of ethnic cleansing and civil war in Quebec. An electorate in English Canada which swings from party to party, looking for a real alternative to the crisis.
What is clear in all this is that none of the political organisations of the Canadian capitalist class can offer any way forward, except to make workers pay for the crisis. And Canadian workers, in and out of Quebec, are beginning to serve notice that they are not willing to foot the bill.
Thousands demonstrating in Montreal to keep hospitals open. Hospital workers on wildcat strike in Edmonton, Alberta, to save their jobs and defend health care. Workers look at each others' struggles, their victories and defeats, and the differences melt away. 'Solidarity' is one word which can be understood in both languages.