Friday, December 8, 2006

Québec Solidaire Adopts a Program for Government

First published in Socialist Voice, December 10, 2006

By Richard Fidler

MONTRÉAL – Quebec’s new party of the left, Québec solidaire, held its first policy convention here on November 24-26. The 320 delegates — 48% of them women — debated, amended and adopted a draft platform for the next general election in Quebec, expected in 2007.

Québec solidaire has grown rapidly since its founding in February of this year. It now boasts 5,100 members in some 70 local associations organized on an electoral constituency basis, as well as student groups on the major college and university campuses. It is registering between 4% and 8% support in province-wide opinion polls, and in by-elections this year its candidates garnered up to 22% of the votes.

The February convention had adopted a declaration of principles identifying the party’s key “values”— social justice, equality between women and men, viable development, antiracism, pacifism, and international solidarity, as its statutes proclaim — but not a formal program. So this was the first opportunity for the members to begin spelling out what the party stands for. The adoption of a limited election platform was seen as the initial step in an ongoing process to develop a more comprehensive program for the party.

The overall theme chosen by the QS central leadership, the national coordinating committee, was addressed to what the party proposed to do in the “first 1,000 days of the Québec solidaire government”. While this might seem like an ambitious goal for a party that has yet to elect a single member to the National Assembly, it expressed a positive commitment to build a mass party that can fight for political power in Quebec City.

The convention laboured under severe time constraints. Many draft proposals could not be discussed and consequently were referred for further consideration and adoption to the party’s policy commission — over the objections of many delegates who argued that this unfinished business should be debated at a forthcoming National Committee meeting open to all interested members.

Social policy reforms

Some of the major resolutions that were adopted, as amended, are summarized in the accompanying article. With the exception of the proposals related to the Quebec national question and aboriginal self-determination, they amount to a rather modest set of social policy reforms not substantially different from the kind of progressive reform agenda and Keynesian wealth-distribution concepts once advocated by the social-democratic NDP in the English-Canadian provinces.

The limited content of this platform may seem surprising in a party that has united cadres from various socialist and left nationalist currents with prominent feminists and community activists. The explanation for the platform’s limited nature may lie in part in the current political context.

Québec solidaire resulted from a fusion between the Union des forces progressistes (UFP) and Option citoyenne (OC). The UFP was a coalition of the political left that developed amidst the unitary dynamic of the “altermondialiste” global justice mobilizations of trade-unionists and youth that peaked in Quebec City in 2001 and the massive antiwar movement that mobilized up to a quarter million in a march against the Iraq war in February 2003. Option citoyenne was formed in 2004 by leaders and activists in antipoverty organizations and major popular mobilizations such as the March for Bread and Roses (1995) and the World March of Women. (Background: Socialist Voice #30, Socialist Voice #55)

However, while its founding components originated on the crest of mass mobilizations in the early years of this decade, Québec solidaire was born amidst a serious decline of mass actions by the broad social movements over the last two years, and in the wake of some major defeats of Quebec’s trade unions following massive strikes and demonstrations waged in opposition to the vicious right-wing offensive unleashed by the Charest Liberal government immediately after its election in 2003. Even the student movement, which waged the biggest student strike in Quebec history in early 2005, is today in a relative lull.

The women’s movement has been placed on the defensive by the Charest Liberal government’s moves to undermine childcare through increased privatization of services and huge cuts in funding. The antiwar movement is largely demobilized. Environmental activists are reeling from Charest’s moves to privatize Mount Orford parkland and corporate stratagems such as lawsuits designed to muzzle opponents of the proposed liquefied natural gas terminal near Quebec City. As for the trade unions, they are barely present on the political landscape. These setbacks appear to have negatively affected the new left party’s conception of what is possible in the current context. In any event, the platform also reflects a deliberate policy choice.

A minimum platform, but linked to a broader perspective?

In a remarkably frank directive sent to the members in late spring, François Cyr, the chair of the policy commission, outlined the QS leadership’s objectives in developing the election platform. “We are no longer a splinter group or an ideological pressure group but we are still very far from a party of government,” he wrote. The task is to develop “a limited number of proposals . . . conceived in terms of a governmental project that is immediately realizable in the present framework — that is, provincial and neoliberal.”

Aware that this restriction would not sit well with many party activists, Cyr offered a mollifying thought. “However, we should link each proposal for immediate realization with a broader perspective opening the door to profound structural changes.” As an example, he suggested, “we may propose a large immediate increase in the minimum wage and paid vacations, but we should also commit to opening an extensive public debate on work, its remuneration, its increasing insecurity in our society including the notion of minimum wage, reconciliation of work and family responsibilities and a reduction in the work week.” In the adopted platform, however, Cyr’s example is reduced to the following trite phrase: “Québec solidaire will undertake a consultation on the various options to reduce poverty in a sustainable and respectful way, such as, for example, the citizenship income [revenu de citoyenneté — essentially a guaranteed annual wage].”

To begin the process, the QS National Committee appointed a dozen or so “theme commissions”, each to develop policy on a particular program topic. All party members were invited to participate in the work of these commissions, which met through the summer. In mid-October, their discussion papers were published on the QS intranet; they totalled more than 100 pages!

In early November, the national leadership released a draft election platform that purported to synthesize the key ideas in the theme commission reports — a 38-page document including texts outlining the thinking behind each proposal. QS members in the local associations discussed this platform, adopted amendments and elected delegates to the convention. The final compendium of proposals with literally hundreds of proposed amendments, an 88-page document, was handed to the delegates as they arrived at the convention.

Attempts to strengthen platform

Needless to say, it was impossible for the delegates to fully digest or process this mass of materials in two days of deliberations. However, the convention debates did indicate a clear desire by the membership to strengthen the final document by incorporating some key demands advanced by trade unions and the women’s, student and other social movements — many of which had been expressed in the theme commission reports but ignored in the draft platform.

For example, while the draft said a QS government would “reduce” school fees and state subsidies to private schools, the delegates voted to “eliminate” fees at all levels of education and stop private school funding. The draft’s proposal to create a new corporate entity, Éole-Québec, to develop wind-turbine power did not address the role of the privately owned companies, which are now busy signing contracts with the government — a much-disputed issue in Quebec. The convention voted in favour of nationalization of this sector of the power industry, a popular demand that is put forward by major trade unions.

On the other hand, some proposals to radicalize the platform failed, often by narrow margins, after debate. For example, many delegates wanted to nationalize the entire pharmaceutical industry, a major industry in Quebec; however, the adopted proposal to create a state-owned agency, Pharma-Québec, would limit its role to drug purchase, research and partial production of (generic) drugs while leaving intact the multinational drug companies. Proposals to implement a $10 per hour minimum wage immediately, not gradually, and to extend access to free drug care to all low-income Quebecers, not just those on welfare, were defeated when party leaders argued it would be precipitous and “cost too much”.

What about Afghanistan?

There is a striking omission in the adopted platform: its lack of an international dimension.

The theme commission on international questions had proposed that a Québec solidaire government would support the antiwar movement, quit the imperialist military alliances NATO and NORAD, abolish the army and replace it with a “civil force of territorial surveillance to protect national sovereignty but not intervene abroad”. It called for withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan, no participation in the “supposed war on terrorism alongside the United States”, conversion of the war industry to civilian production, abolition of security certificates and opening Quebec’s doors to “refugees fleeing the war or objecting to participating in it” as well as to victims of sexual violence and sexist or homophobic persecution.

The commission, in a discussion of “the globalization we want”, suggested that a QS government would, among other measures, “consolidate relations of cooperation with progressive governments” and create an international agency to promote endogenous development based on food self-sufficiency, fair trade, and economic development focused on co-operative principles and local production. It called for a government review of existing international trade and investment agreements such as NAFTA, although it did not call for their repeal.

This international dimension was missing from the draft platform. Because debate in the membership and the convention was confined to the draft, there were no amendments and no real discussion of these issues and demands at the convention. It seems that the determination to limit the platform to what is possible within a “provincial and neoliberal” framework is being interpreted quite narrowly.

That orientation by the QS leadership is surprising, however. International issues figured prominently in the last Quebec general election, in April 2003. Two months earlier, up to a quarter million Québécois had marched against the impending invasion of Iraq — the largest antiwar demonstration in the history of Canada. Antiwar sentiment was so strong that the leaders of all three capitalist parties sported white ribbons, the symbol of opposition to the Iraq war, on their lapels. The fledgling UFP made the war a central issue in its election campaign.

A major issue in Quebec politics today is the Canadian army occupation of Afghanistan. The majority antiwar sentiment in Canada is highest in Quebec. The Quebec-based Royal 22nd Regiment is now being sent to Afghanistan, and soon the caskets will be returning to Quebec towns and cities. Shouldn’t a Québec solidaire government have something to say about that?

. . . and capitalist globalization?

Also in the 2003 election, then Premier Bernard Landry of the Parti québécois made his party’s support for the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) a central plank in his campaign. The PQ has consistently supported NAFTA, the FTA and other neoliberal trade and investment deals in the belief that improved access to foreign markets and foreign investment would open up more elbow room for a sovereign Quebec. The UFP argued strongly to the contrary, noting that further subordination to the dictates of capital undermined democracy and national sovereignty.

One conceivable response to capitalist globalization was indicated in a recent issue of Résistance, a magazine published by the International Socialists. QS member Benoit Renaud suggested that Québec solidaire advocate in its platform Quebec’s participation in ALBA, the agreement for barter arrangements and low-price exchange of badly needed goods and services between the revolutionary governments in Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia. “We could send buses, trains, planes and inexpensive drugs to the other three countries in exchange for oil, natural gas, sugar, medical personnel . . . and thousands of Spanish teachers!”

The failure of the QS platform to address such issues seems inconsistent with the party’s goal to be a political voice for the grassroots organizations and mass movements from which it has emerged.

When some delegates sought to amend the draft platform to include opposition to imperialist military alliances and capitalist trade and investment deals, QS leader Françoise David opposed the motion as “premature”, saying the party needed more time to debate these questions. But the QS leadership has in fact addressed international questions — as it should — although not altogether coherently. For example, David and co-leader Amir Khadir, in an article published in Le Devoir March 18-19, criticized the “hijacking” of the Canadian army’s “mandate” in Afghanistan, but expressed Québec solidaire’s support for Canadian participation in “a genuine UN peace initiative . . . to counter the influence of the warlords”. After the federal NDP convention adopted a resolution calling for withdrawal of Canadian forces from Afghanistan, the QS National Council in late September echoed the NDP’s call for withdrawal. But the Council, in the same resolution, endorsed the David-Khadir call for Canadian participation in a military force under UN rather than NATO auspices. These contradictory positions have not been debated, let alone adopted, by the membership.

For a Constituent Assembly

The platform’s position on the Quebec national question is another contentious item. Although the national question was addressed in only one of the five “themes” in the draft platform, it was a defining issue in the creation of Québec solidaire. The fusion of UFP and OC was programmatically based on the latter’s evolution toward the UFP’s pro-sovereignty position. As the declaration of principles adopted at Québec solidaire’s founding convention stated:

“Quebec must have all the powers necessary to its full development socially, economically, culturally and politically. It is denied this within the federal framework. Our party is therefore in favour of sovereignty. Although it is not a guarantee, sovereignty is a means of providing Quebec with the tools it needs to implement its social agenda and to fully develop as a people.” [An English translation of the declaration is posted on the QS website.]

The election platform’s position on the national question is centered on the proposal for a specially elected assembly to lead a vast public consultation and discussion on Quebec’s political and constitutional status and draw up a proposed constitution for a sovereign Quebec. This draft constitution would then be submitted for adoption in a referendum. The initial draft of the platform, however, omitted any reference to sovereignty in its call for a constituent assembly, sovereignty being mentioned only as a defining “value” in the preamble to the platform as a whole. A sovereign Quebec was inserted as a specific goal on the eve of the congress, in response to numerous amendments to that effect from local associations.

There are in fact lingering differences among QS members over the role and importance of Quebec independence or sovereignty in the party’s program. Some, possibly a majority, favour an independent Quebec and many would cast the party’s entire program in the framework of a national liberation struggle. Others are more diffident or uncertain on the question and a few are opposed to Quebec sovereignty. In many ways, these differences reflect similar differences within the population as a whole and the fact that sovereignty as it has been predominantly defined by the Parti québécois is seen by many as little more than a change in constitutional status not clearly linked to meaningful improvement in the social conditions of most Québécois. To some degree the QS platform’s focus on process — the constituent assembly — rather than the objective, sovereignty or independence, bridges these differences.

“Beyond provincialism”?

That said, the concept of a constituent assembly is a powerful feature of the platform. It radically demarks Québec solidaire from the PQ’s “étapisme”, or stages strategy — first “sovereignty”, then (maybe) later we define the new country — in which Quebeckers are simply asked to vote yes or no to a constitutional formula, devoid of social content, “astutely” cooked up in government backrooms with little if any possibility of themselves influencing the content of the question.

Québec solidaire, in contrast, starts from a profoundly democratic perspective of what it terms “popular sovereignty”, a process through which the masses of Québécois can themselves determine the kind of country they want to build. It has deep roots in Quebec history, going back to the demands of the Lower Canada rebels in 1837 and reflected more recently in the popular Estates General organized by nationalist organizations in the late 1960s.

The QS approach has the potential to appeal to many sovereigntists frustrated by the PQ’s inability to create “winning conditions” around that party’s neoliberal program. Moreover, it points to the need to go beyond the “provincial and neoliberal” context. Even the modest reforms projected in the QS platform may not be “immediately realizable” without a major shift in the relationship of forces, both within Quebec and between Quebec and Canada.

As a number of speakers noted in the convention debate, compelling support for Quebec independence will be won only through a vast “pedagogic exercise” in which a strong majority of the population can begin to see the relevance of state independence to their own liberation from exploitation and oppression.

Given the differing political dynamics between Quebec and the rest of Canada, it is clear that no program of fundamental social change, still less socialism, could be implemented in Quebec today without a radical change in Quebec’s constitutional status — freeing it from the constraints of limited provincial jurisdiction, residual and largely unfettered federal spending power, and ultimately the federal courts, military and police authority. This reality is the driving force behind the quest for an independent Quebec among Québécois progressives. These issues were strongly addressed in the report of the theme commission on sovereignty, which advocated “going beyond provincialism” and spoke of “defining our proposed society in the framework of economic and social liberation”.

Beyond electoralism?

Québec solidaire is attempting to fill a wide space that exists to the left of the three capitalist parties (Liberals, PQ and ADQ) that now dominate the Quebec political landscape. But will it be filled by a small party that offers little more than a kinder, gentler version of the neoliberal PQ and yet another, but smaller, pro-sovereignty alternative to the other capitalist parties?

Like its predecessor the UFP, Québec solidaire has sometimes defined itself as “a party of the streets and the ballot boxes”. But it is the party’s electoral aspirations that have prevailed since its founding. This convention confirmed the electoralist orientation. The exclusive focus on the general election is problematic, however.

For one thing, it is unlikely that any QS candidate can be elected in the forthcoming election, given the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system. The Charest government has yet to table its promised electoral reform bill, but the prevailing sentiment in the National Assembly is to limit any semblance of proportional representation to parties with at least 15% of the popular vote — far more than the opinion polls attribute to QS. And even this limited reform is not slated for implementation until the next decade.

If the party bases its entire activity on hopes for an electoral breakthrough within the next few years, it risks seriously disorienting and disappointing many of its members and supporters.

More fundamentally, if Québec solidaire confines its appeal, electorally or otherwise, to the neoliberal and provincial context, it may undermine its potential to build a strong base among union militants, néo-Québécois, and young people looking for a fighting alternative to environmental destruction, capitalist repression, racism, and national and gender oppression, and offering a realistic perspective of “another world” free of oppression and exploitation.

A work in progress

At this point it is not easy to define the new party. To be sure, its values are feminist, ecologist and sovereigntist. But it is not clearly anticapitalist or even consistently anti-imperialist. There is a wide spectrum of views within the party, and an unresolved and still not clearly articulated tension within it between a social-democratic current, predominant in the leadership bodies, and a more militant and largely anticapitalist left.

This leadership, to give it its due, has immense authority and respect among the party’s membership. It has managed, through hard work and dedication, to merge two quite distinct “corporate cultures” — the remnants of an often fractious left with a feminist movement that privileges dialogue and consensus — into a new party in which the founding components no longer simply coexist but are united around a compelling vision of social solidarity. This is a major achievement, unprecedented in Quebec and Canadian history.

Québec solidaire is perhaps best viewed as a work in progress. It has assembled much of the “political left”. The party has attracted older militants from the Mao-Stalinist and Trotskyist parties and groups of the past. And it has made room for groups like Gauche socialiste, the International Socialists and the Quebec Communist Party to join as “collectives”, although these collectives are not given formal representation in the leading bodies. The collectives have not to this point functioned as overt political tendencies within the party. Nor have they projected a clear alternative to the party’s present course that can help to transform the party into an effective vehicle for anticapitalist mobilization. However, many of the more progressive amendments to the draft platform were proposed by QS associations in which the radical collectives are well represented. These included Taschereau and Jean-Lesage ridings in Quebec City, Mercier in Montréal and Outaouais in Gatineau.

A truly remarkable feature of the party is the high proportion of the membership who are women. This was very evident at the convention. The prominent presence of women members in the debates and chairing the proceedings seemed to create an atmosphere of genuine dialogue and a lack of demagogy that has been very uncommon in other left-wing organizations. This is an extremely positive feature of Québec solidaire.

Another promising feature is the participation of students and other young activists in the party. The younger delegates at the QS convention contributed an infectious enthusiasm to the proceedings and they were often the sponsors of the more progressive amendments.

However, the party has been less successful in winning wider layers of the “social left”. In particular, it has almost no presence in the trade unions in a province with the highest rate of union membership (almost 40%) in Canada. Among the delegates to the QS convention were Arthur Sandborn, president of the Montréal Central Council of the CSN; André Frappier, a leader of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (and a former federal NDP candidate); and Serge Roy, Québec solidaire candidate in Taschereau riding and former president of the Quebec civil servants’ union (SFPQ). But the party as a whole pays little attention to developments in the unions. And there is a small layer of union activists who have chosen instead to join SPQ-Libre, a left ginger group now a recognized “political club” within the Parti québécois — the party supported by most politically-minded union members and leaders.

Equally important, Québec solidaire does not appear to have much influence in Quebec’s minority ethnic and immigrant “cultural communities”. There were very few non-white faces at this convention, a glaring contrast to the multi-ethnic composition of Quebec today, particularly in Montréal where QS has its strongest presence.

To overcome these and other limitations, QS might be well advised to pay less attention to what is “immediately realizable” in a “provincial and neoliberal” context, and focus its attention more on becoming a tribune and mobilizer for all those social forces that are seeking a way to challenge and go beyond provincial status and neoliberalism.

Clearly, the members of Québec solidaire have only begun to tackle the difficult task of building a broad party of the left that can present a viable alternative, both “at the ballot boxes and in the streets”, to capitalist exploitation and national oppression. This convention, for all its limitations, marked an important initial step in this long march. Socialists in English Canada and elsewhere have every interest in following closely the development of this new party with concern, sympathy and solidarity.

Québec solidaire’s 25 “concrete and realizable commitments”

The adopted platform is grouped around five themes, each theme including five major proposals for the program of a Québec solidaire government in its first term of office. Here are some of the key proposals. Click here for the full platform.

Governing together

  • election of a constituent assembly “to consult the people of Quebec on their political and constitutional future”. Based on this consultation, the assembly will draft proposals on Quebec’s constitutional status and political institutions. A referendum will then pose two distinct questions: “one on Quebec’s political and constitutional future, the other on a Quebec constitution”.
  • recognition of the right to self-determination for the 11 aboriginal nations already recognized in Quebec law; nation-to-nation negotiations on autonomy and aboriginal claims to resources and territory; measures to improve the living conditions of native peoples living off the reserves.

Growing together

  • adoption of a comprehensive family policy including payment of a universal parental allowance; tax deductions for parents working full-time in the home care of preschool and school-age children to the age of 12.
  • gradual elimination of school fees and private schools, and adequate funding to guarantee everyone a free, secular and quality education; elimination of student debts and establishment of a public financial assistance program for students corresponding to their needs.

Living together in a Quebec without poverty

  • gradual increase in the minimum wage to $10 an hour indexed to the cost of living; increase in social assistance to cover all essential needs; abolition of waiting periods for immigrants’ access to medicare; construction of 8,000 units per year of ecologically produced social housing; free drugs for social assistance recipients.
  • establishment of Pharma-Québec, a “public pole for the purchase, research and production of pharmaceutical products”.
  • a national campaign to counter violence against women, including state financial support for women’s groups.

Building together in a just Quebec

  • full taxation of capital gains and greater taxation of dividends, adjustment of personal income tax brackets to tax the wealthy more and the poor less; lowering the RRSP contribution limits; lowering the Quebec sales tax on critical consumption goods while raising it on luxury products.
  • repeal of the anti-union legislation imposed by the Charest Liberal government; promotion of trade-union organization and access, especially in sectors occupied primarily by women; reform of the Labour Code to allow trade union organization and bargaining by sectors and industries with more than one employer.
  • three weeks of vacation after one year of employment, five weeks after five years, and a broad debate on how to reduce hours of work.

Living together in a green Quebec

  • nationalization of wind-power to create Éole-Québec, a publicly owned company like Hydro-Québec.
  • establishment of local forestry committees, non-profit agencies to manage ecologically the province’s public forests, collect royalties and promote value-added transformation industries in the forest industry.
  • massive investment in public transit and energy efficiency to fight climate change and go beyond the Kyoto protocol limits. Promotion of renewable energy sources in place of fossil fuels.
  • fighting privatization of water by making water a public property under the Civil Code.
  • mandatory labelling of genetically modified organisms and a moratorium on their cultivation; increased support to organic farmers and implementation of green technology practices.

In and around the convention

Québec solidaire has a web site and an intranet site for members, but has no other publications. This void has been filled to some degree by independent publications that are sympathetic to the party. The major one is À Bâbord (the name roughly translates as Portside), a large-format professionally produced bimonthly magazine founded in 2003, which carries extensive news and debate on Quebec and international developments from a generally socialist and feminist perspective. Another is Presse-toi à Gauche (PTàG, “Quick, to the left”), an on-line “tribune” initiated earlier this year by QS members in Québec City, many of them identified with Gauche socialiste, a collective within the party.

PTàG produced an 8-page print version for the convention, and its editors say they plan to start publishing a monthly newspaper next year. In the period leading up to the QS convention, PTàG was the only medium that provided a forum for public debate of the draft resolutions.

Another publication that supports Québec solidaire is Résistance, produced by the Quebec wing of the International Socialists.

Both the IS and Gauche socialiste maintained literature tables in the convention foyer, GS distributing an introductory pamphlet and selling copies of Inprecor, the international French-language publication of the Fourth International. In addition, the QS women’s commission sponsored a used-book sale featuring many old classics of the Quebec workers and feminist movement.

Will NDP split Quebec left?

Québec solidaire leader Pierre Dostie writes in the November-December issue of Canadian Dimension that the Quebec section of the federal New Democratic Party is contemplating the launch of a “provincial” wing of the party that would compete with Québec solidaire. Dostie briefly reviews the tangled history of previous attempts to found a Quebec NDP — none with lasting success — and warns that “if the NDP ventures onto the Quebec provincial scene, this may seriously harm the unity process currently underway within the Quebec Left.” He asks:

“How would the creation of a Quebec NDP contribute to the unity of progressives across Canada if it divided the Quebec Left? The simple adoption of a resolution recognizing Quebec’s right to self-determination is not enough to rehabilitate the NDP in the eyes of Quebecers. At several points in its history, the CCF-NDP has recognized this right — only to abandon this position under pressure from various sources in the party.

“The credibility of the federal NDP in Quebec depends not only on a clear position that will link Quebec’s national question to social questions, but also on the party’s subsequently sticking to this position over time! Wouldn’t it be better for the NDP to invest in a process that developed alliances with existing organizations in Quebec? These kinds of relationships would offer a good opportunity to put the principles of self-determination and asymmetry into practice.” [Not on line. French version in Presse-toi à gauche]

In fact, a convention of the Quebec section of the federal NDP in mid-November rejected a resolution to found a provincial NDP. The resolution is reported to have won the support of some 40% of the delegates, however. And its supporters are maintaining a web site to agitate for their position.]

The debate among NDP members over whether to “go provincial” and compete with Québec solidaire is being pursued there and on two other sites: the official Quebec NDP’s, and on

As these debates indicate, a “provincial” NDP would be distinguished from Québec solidaire primarily by its support of the federal regime — hardly the basis on which to construct any kind of alternative to the capitalist parties. Previous attempts over the last 75 years to mount a federalist party of the left in Quebec have all failed.

An overdue apology

Last summer Ginette Lewis, a leader of Québec solidaire and of Gauche socialiste in Quebec City, was widely denounced in the corporate media when, in a speech to a demonstration protesting Israel’s assault on Lebanon, she defended the “staunch resistance” of the Lebanese led by Hezbollah. Party leaders Françoise David and Amir Khadir issued a press release dissociating the party from the comments attributed to Lewis. While conceding that there had been “an overabundance” of bombing by Israel, David said the left must consider “all of the victims” — apparently an allusion to Israeli casualties. The local party leadership was told to investigate the matter, and there were hints of possible disciplinary sanctions against Lewis.

At a plenary session of the QS convention, party president Alexa Conradi went to the podium and expressed a public apology to Ginette Lewis on behalf of the party’s national executive. “Unacceptable things” had been said by some party leaders, she said. The delegates spontaneously rose in a standing ovation for Lewis.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Ontario’s ‘Sharia Law’ Controversy: How Muslims Were Hung Out to Dry

These articles were first published in Socialist Voice, May 9, 2006, and subsequently in MRzine, May 27, 2006

By Richard Fidler

“A lie can travel halfway around the world,” the American writer Mark Twain once said, “while the truth is putting on its shoes.” That statement could apply to the recent phony debate over “sharia tribunals” in Ontario.

Odds are that if you consulted the average man or woman in the street on the matter, you would learn that the largest province in Canada had come within an inch of allowing fundamentalist Muslims to institute mandatory “sharia” law, bypassing legislation designed to protect the rights of women and children, eliminating the separation of church and state, and possibly exposing Canadians to the harsh legal punishments found in some Islamic countries. The Muslim scheme, you would be told by many, was turned back only by a vast campaign spearheaded by secular Muslims, feminists, labor unions, and progressives who forced the government to retreat and to ban all resort to religious leaders or principles in resolving legal disputes. It was a great victory for progressive public opinion, a major defeat for reactionary Muslims.

That’s more or less the official story, reinforced by the mass media and believed by many on the left, as well. But it is largely fictitious. And it is important to understand the true story, both because the issues at stake in this controversy may well arise in new and similar contexts and because the stench of the anti-Muslim prejudice stirred up by the “anti-sharia” campaign lingers on. The Islamophobic campaign against “sharia tribunals” has undermined efforts to build a firm alliance with Muslims and other minorities in the fight against imperialist war and domestic war-induced repression, much of it directed first and foremost against members of the Muslim community.

Was “sharia” law the issue?

Despite the claims by some participants, there was no issue involving criminal law or the kinds of state constraints on individual action that are subject to scrutiny by judges for compliance with the Charter of Rights or other human rights legislation. Rather, the issue was simply whether Muslims were entitled to avail themselves of procedures long available in Canadian law to any couple seeking to resolve difficult and intimate questions related to marital disputes and marriage breakdown.

Under Canadian law, couples are free to make their own arrangements both for cohabitation and for separation. In the latter case, where consensus and mediation prove impossible they may resort to private third-party adjudication, choose their own arbitrators, and apply any religious and cultural principles they wish so long as these do not harm others or conflict with the laws of Canada. Or they may decide to take the matter to court and let a judge decide. Which course they adopt is their choice, and no one else’s.

Family law arbitration is strongly supported by family law lawyers, marriage counsellors and other professionals involved in resolving difficult marital issues. It allows disputes to be resolved in an atmosphere of privacy and confidentiality, drawing on the services of expert mediators and arbitrators chosen and trusted by the parties. Arbitration costs less and decisions are issued more quickly than in the court system, where proceedings may drag on for years.

Faith-based arbitration (FBA), conducted by members of minority communities and informed by religious precepts, has long been engaged in by some Jews, Christian evangelical groups and even some Muslims, until now without notable dissent. FBA is favoured in particular by couples for whom deeply-held religious precepts are vitally important to their personal culture and self-definition. Ontario Jews, for example, have been arbitrating family disputes in their Beth Din courts for over a century; such private arbitration has been recognized in Ontario law since the late 19th century. By using the procedures laid down in the Arbitration Act, the parties can have a court enforce the arbitration decision, thus ensuring that the terms of the decision are legally binding. The Act provides minimal safeguards to ensure free informed consent to arbitration.

The courts retain their power to intervene and set aside arbitration decisions, as they can separation agreements, where the “best interests” of children are not honoured or where the decision is “unconscionable”. Similar legislation now exists in a half dozen other Canadian provinces, all of it modeled on a draft law drawn up years ago by the Uniform Law Conference of Canada following extensive discussions.

The controversy in Ontario arose when a Muslim lawyer, Syed Mumtaz Ali, proclaimed his intention to establish a “shari’a court” that would function under the Arbitration Act, thus making its decisions, like all decisions under the Act, legally enforceable.

The campaign unfolds

Mumtaz Ali’s proposal was reported with great sensationalism by some media, most notably the Toronto Star. Media reports took as good coin his misleading reference to “sharia” and highlighted statements by a variety of groups who warned that “sharia tribunals” would impose patriachal Islamic fundamentalist norms on vulnerable women and children. Although most of the opposition clearly reflected anti-Islamic prejudice, some critics, in an attempt to appear even-handed, discovered that they opposed arbitration altogether; many now professed a surprising confidence in the ability of the courts and judges to accommodate the private and intimate concerns at issue in marriage breakdown.

This “anti-sharia” campaign unfolded against a backdrop of anti-Muslim propaganda related to the Iraq war, the growing threats to Iran, and Israel’s ongoing repression of the Palestinians as well as Canada’s increasing military involvement in Afghanistan. (To sense the odour of the campaign, see the article below on the “anti-sharia” opposition.)

Ontario’s Liberal government, headed by Premier Dalton McGuinty, responded to this campaign by asking Marion Boyd, a former Attorney General in Bob Rae’s New Democratic Party government in the early 1990s, to carry out a broad consultation and make recommendations.

Boyd consulted a wide range of supporters and critics of faith-based arbitration. “Sharia law,” she concluded, was a misnomer when applied to the Ontario context. Even Muslim critics of FBA, such as the Canadian Council for Muslim Women, Boyd noted, distinguished between sharia and Muslim family laws, sharia being a much broader concept.

Most of the Muslim supporters of FBA, Boyd reported, thought Islamic family law was compatible with Canadian family law; what they wanted was to apply Canadian law using Islamic principles. They also acknowledged procedural defects in their existing informal arbitration procedures and saw compliance with the Arbitration Act as a means of overcoming these problems. (See below for accompanying article, “Faith-based arbitration – a Muslim Perspective.”)

Boyd endorsed this perspective and proposed a broad set of legislative reforms to enhance the quality of decision-making and ensure that parties to private arbitration of family law disputes (especially vulnerable women) would be more fully apprised of their rights under Canadian law. (For more on Boyd’s report, see “McGuinty’s Ban on Faith-Based Arbitration: No Victory for Women’s Rights”, Socialist Voice #52, October 9, 2005.)

Boyd’s 180-page report was endorsed editorially by the province’s major newspapers, including the Toronto Star. But it failed to stem the “anti-sharia” campaign. The media reported little about Boyd’s proposals while continuing to feature prominently the misleading propaganda of the opponents of FBA, who if anything became even more strident. The NDP broke with its former attorney general, denouncing her report and calling for an end to all family law arbitration. It was joined in this by many trade unions and civil liberties organizations. The Quebec National Assembly chimed in, unanimously voting to reject “sharia tribunals” even though no such proposal had been made in that province, where a distinct statutory regime quite different from Ontario’s governs family law.

Just as a real public debate on the substantive questions discussed in Boyd’s report was getting under way, however, Premier McGuinty chose the fourth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks to announce that “there will be no sharia law in Ontario.” His brief statement was immediately greeted as a victory by FBA opponents. The Muslim threat to our freedoms had apparently been turned back.

Bill 27 – What does it really say?

Since almost no one was seeking to implement “sharia” – even Mumtaz Ali admitted to Boyd that using the Arbitration Act for a limited number of personal law issues is not the same as having a “system” of justice – it remained to be seen what McGuinty would do.

Although McGuinty’s September announcement was widely interpreted as rejecting all faith-based arbitration and Boyd’s approach, his government’s legislative response to the Muslim proposal – Bill 27, introduced in November – actually reflects a relatively subtle and nuanced appreciation of the underlying issues. It retains the option of private family arbitration under Ontario legislation. More significantly, while stating that family arbitration must be “conducted exclusively in accordance with the law of Ontario or of another Canadian jurisdiction,” Bill 27 does not, on its face, foreclose the application of Islamic or other religious principles by arbitrators in their interpretation of Canadian family law.

Bill 27 implements Boyd’s major proposal, to make family mediation and arbitration agreements domestic contracts under the province’s Family Law Act and thus subject to the same laws that cover separation, domiciliary and paternity agreements. All of these laws allow couples to make their own arrangements for property division, custody, and support of dependent children and spouses, etc. Such arrangements are subject only to court intervention where such agreements are “unconscionable” or contrary to “the best interests of the child” or where there was insufficient disclosure of significant assets or liabilities or a party did not understand the nature or consequences of the contract.

Bill 27 also adopts Boyd’s proposal to add to the list of professionals required by law to report a child in need of protection “a religious official, including a priest, a rabbi and a member of the clergy; a mediator and an arbitrator” – implicitly acknowledging the role of religious officials in such capacities.

What the amendments will mean in practice is still not entirely clear, as much depends on the regulations yet to be enacted by Cabinet. These will cover such vital matters as the training and certification of arbitrators (e.g. will a law degree be required?), standard provisions of family arbitration agreements, etc. Until those regulations are enacted, the amendments are not yet proclaimed in force. And there is evidence that the McGuinty cabinet is consulting FBA opponents and not proponents as it grapples with these issues.

However, the bill’s incorporation of Boyd’s major proposals testifies to their basic reasonableness. More importantly, it underscores the irrationality – and, it must be said, Islamophobia – of much of the “anti-sharia” lobby. These critics, apparently satisfied with McGuinty’s earlier disavowals of “sharia tribunals”, appear to have paid little attention to the actual content of Bill 27. No surprise there. It was apparent from their attacks on “sharia tribunals” that few had made any attempt to understand what faith-based arbitration actually entails. The bill passed the legislature in February after only a couple of days of public hearings.

In part because the bill itself is silent on who may conduct arbitrations – it neither prohibits nor provides for the conduct of private family arbitration by religious authorities – the response by FBA proponents has tended to be uncertain and tentative. For example, all three Jewish organizations that appeared before the MPPs in committee were critical of the bill’s ostensible ban on any arbitration not “exclusively” conducted in accordance with Canadian law. But they did not flatly oppose the new legislation and suggested some amendments.

Only two Muslim organizations made representations on the bill. One, the Muslim Canadian Congress, a secular Muslim group, supported the bill and said little about its contents. The other, the pro-FBA Canadian Islamic Congress, stated that it opposed the bill and confined its remarks to a general defence of faith-based arbitration without addressing any of the bill’s specific provisions. In fact, to date there has been very little public reaction to the new legislation by pro-FBA Muslim organizations. Some have told me they are still considering their approach and weighing their options.

In my opinion, the dearth of public reaction to the bill by Muslim organizations also reflects the intimidating effect of the “anti-sharia” campaign on their community. The scars of the “anti-sharia” campaign will long endure. One of the most damaging results was the deep division it created between Muslims and the predominantly non-Muslim left and labour movement. Among the most outspoken opponents of FBA were the Canadian Labour Congress and the NDP. The anti-FBA campaign sharply undercut the developing alliance between Muslims and non-Muslims in the movement against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In effect, the Muslims were stigmatized by a phony campaign against “sharia” and FBA that had no real basis in fact or law. Yet none of the major anti-FBA critics has acknowledged their error.

In fact, the public debate on these issues, cut short by McGuinty’s September statement, never really resumed. Once Bill 27 was tabled, it was as if there was a conspiracy of silence between the government, the official opposition and the media (and even the NDP, while opposing Boyd and Bill 27, did not campaign against either). In effect, it appears to have been decided to allow FBA subject to certain constraints, but to pretend that the proposal had been defeated. At no point has any acknowledgement been made that allowing Muslims the choice to engage in faith-based arbitration of private family disputes was in fact generally consistent with good public policy. So the Muslims, having been savaged in the media and among wide layers of left and progressive feminist opinion, have been left to twist in the wind. Their stigmatization remains.

April 28, 2006

Some Canadian critics of “sharia tribunals”

Among the more moderate statements issued in opposition to the Boyd report was a “Declaration on Religious Arbitration in Family Law” that actually opposed all use of arbitration in family law issues. It was signed by more than 50 organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress, the Ontario Federation of Labour, the YWCA, and many other women’s and feminist organizations. It stated that “even with Ms. Boyd’s ‘safeguards,’ the amendments she proposed would effectively put at risk decades of legal reform in keeping with an equality and equal rights framework.”

Many critics were more inflammatory. Among the most vociferous of the “anti-Sharia” opponents was Homa Arjomand, a Toronto-based transitional counselor and refugee from Iran. She is the Coordinator of the “International Campaign Against Shari’a Court in Canada,” which claims a membership of 87 organizations from 14 countries with over a thousand activists. Much of the material on its web site ( is outrageously Islamophobic.

One such piece, by Elka Enola of the Humanist Association of Toronto, sketches a startling “Worst Case (but probable) Scenario” of the effect of allowing Muslim FBA, starting with “Stage One — Using the Arbitration Act, the Shari’a courts appear to get legal sanction” and ending with “Stage Three — Muslims now outnumber Christians and the majority rule of democracy is turned on its head as the majority Muslims make Shari’a the law of the land.” It concludes, “We must protect Canada from such a scenario.”

Not surprisingly, the Humanist Association of Toronto proclaimed Arjomand its “Humanist of the Year” in 2005.

More typical of the opposition, perhaps, is a pamphlet published by Rights and Democracy, the Montréal-based International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, a federal government-funded agency that promotes the Canadian government’s “human-rights” agenda around the world and especially in countries where Canada intervenes militarily such as Afghanistan and Haiti. Entitled “Behind Closed Doors: How Faith-based Arbitration Shuts Out Women’s Rights in Canada and Abroad,” it is mainly a polemic against Mumtaz Ali’s “sharia tribunals,” a concept that Marion Boyd explained had little if anything to do with the reality of faith-based arbitration under the Arbitration Act. Like other such statements, the pamphlet condemns the Boyd report but fails to address her specific recommendations. And it is riddled with factual misstatements.

For example, it says: “While it is true that the Orthodox Jewish and Ismaili Muslim communities operate their own tribunals under the Arbitration Act, the vast majority of cases handled by both are commercial disputes. Furthermore, the Ismaili tribunal does not apply religious laws in arbitration.” In fact, Boyd describes the Ismaili Muslim Conciliation and Arbitration Boards (CABs) in detail. She reports, citing their figures, that 63% of their cases are “matrimonial,” 29% commercial, and 8% “other (including inheritance cases).” And she adds: “The CAB system is grounded in the ethics of the faith….”

“Behind Closed Doors” preaches reliance on Canadian courts and state institutions; it assumes that women will be victimized under any system of private law. The entire approach is paternalistic, opposed to choice for the oppressed. It is not hard to see why this is the favoured approach of Rights and Democracy, which implements such reasoning worldwide.


Faith-based arbitration – a Muslim perspective

[Excerpts from an article by Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress. Full text at]

… [T]he term “Shariah-based arbitration” is a misnomer and the cause of much unnecessary and divisive confusion. The proposed implementation of Marion Boyd’s recommendations was designed simply to establish parity for Muslims in Ontario who desire equal opportunity with other religious groups to participate in consensual faith based mediation and arbitration.

The real issue at hand is that governmentally recognized faith based arbitration could be regulated to everyone’s benefit. It could establish standards for licensing and/or accrediting both men and women (yes, women!) mediators; and it could determine the number and makeup of arbitration teams. For example, a government-supported faith based arbitration system could determine that specific teams be assigned to Muslim community issues; perhaps a team consisting of an elder, an Imam, a woman, a Canadian-trained Muslim lawyer and a social worker….

Faith-based mediation and arbitration are as old as faith itself. Long before Canada existed as a modern state, our First Nations peoples practiced both styles of resolution and still do.

Seeking faith based mediation and arbitration is voluntary. If it is also regulated, participating arbitrators must document fully the fact that all parties involved are engaged in this process of their own free will, as a legitimate alternative to the secular civil court system.

Mediation is usually attuned to the conflicting wants and needs of two parties in family/marital disputes, while arbitration is concerned first with the rights of the opponents and their children, if any. Both processes, however, must follow the laws of the land — a provision made very clear by the Boyd Report but too often dismissed by its opponents.

Western culture has traditionally treated faith-based mediation and arbitration with suspicion. This is because the secular world generally views all conflicts as battles in which one side wins, only because the other side must lose. In such an adversarial culture, superior value is placed on holding one party (often male) wholly responsible for the conflict. Thus, agreeing to any form of mediation and arbitration, faith-based or not, is usually equated (often by women) with giving up one’s rights, power and safety.

But faith, any faith, treats family conflict resolution first and foremost as a type of meditation; that is, restoring peace of mind to those who once shared a mutual partnership of peace within their relationship.

Faith-based mediation and arbitration in Islam are no different than in any other faith group. Along with their Jewish and Christian brothers and sisters, Muslims believe it makes perfect sense to engage in mediation (and meditation!) along with arbitration to resolve family matters, right here in Canada. Here are some key reasons:

1. In matters of family conflict, our Canadian legal system often does more harm than good, as it is based on the premise that in difficult times the other person becomes an adversary, or opponent. Our litigious society — aided and abetted by the professional legal system — has promoted the notion of winners and losers to an absurd degree. In most cases of family conflict, the “winner” may be awarded more money, or gain some satisfaction in being proven “right,” but the conflict has not been resolved, and may never be.

2. In family conflicts, one must deal with all kinds of pain. Faith based mediation and arbitration can inject a major dose of healing into the resolution process. But it is virtually impossible for secular Canadian courts or family lawyers to provide any amount of emotional or spiritual healing. Community leaders who practice faith based mediation and arbitration do not consider themselves lawyers, or marriage and family counselors (although they may be members of these professions), but rather see their roles as being primarily healing ones.

3. Faith based mediation and arbitration have the advantage of allowing the parties in a conflict to agree upon their selection of the impartial third party/parties and even the methodology of how to select those individuals. In Islamic family law, for example, both husband and wife can each select one or more persons to be on the mediation and arbitration panel.

4. Faith based mediation and arbitration cost the conflicted parties much less, both financially and emotionally, since conflicts are generally resolved much faster than if taken through the adversarial justice system. This offers a great advantage by freeing up seriously over-taxed court resources, which have resulted in large case backlogs. For example, it now takes years to complete a divorce settlement anywhere in Canada. The negative financial, social, and spiritual impact on families of such extended delays is far too high. Some judges now advise Muslim couples to seek faith-based mediation and arbitration first before they will hear their pending divorce cases.

5. Mediation and arbitration, faith based or not, offer a positive forward step toward conflict resolution. They are complementary processes that should be an integral part of any justice system; they cannot be outlawed or dismissed.

6. Structured and professionally licensed faith based mediation and arbitration processes can provide valuable legal and social resources to faith-practicing Canadians, as well as potentially attracting many lapsed or non-practicing believers, from within and without all mainstream faith groups.

7. It is far better to regulate faith based mediation and arbitration and to accept them as an integral part of our Canadian justice system, than to reject their present and potential value by marginalizing or suppressing them.

September 15, 2005

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Kirpan Ruling: A Victory for Public School Integration

This article was first published in Socialist Voice, March 14, 2006

By Richard Fidler

On March 2, the Supreme Court of Canada overruled a Montreal school’s ban on a student’s right to wear the Sikh ceremonial dagger, or kirpan, on school property.[1] The judgment was not just a victory for freedom of religion. It was also a major step forward in the ongoing struggle to integrate non-Francophone ethnic and racial minorities as full citizens of the Quebec nation through the public school system.

Gurbaj Singh Multani was rapidly learning French as a student in the École Sainte-Catherine-Labouré in 2001 when he accidentally dropped his kirpan in the school yard. His parents were told by the school authorities that he could not wear this symbol of his orthodox Sikh faith, which is normally concealed in his clothing, on school property. In response, they pulled him out of the French-language public school system and enrolled him in a private school that allowed the kirpan, and that also happens to be Anglophone — with the result that Gurbaj Singh Multani speaks almost no French today.

“I like learning French,” he told a press conference following the Court’s judgment. “But this affair prevented me from doing so. Now that we have won this case, the young [Sikhs] like me will have no further problems. They will be able to learn French.”[2]

Gurbaj’s parents had initially agreed to an accommodation with the school board that would allow him to wear the kirpan sealed inside his clothing. This was rejected by the school. The Quebec Superior Court supported the Singh Multanis, but the Quebec Court of Appeal upheld the ban. The case then went to the country’s highest court.

The Supreme Court judgments (there were three separate opinions, although all eight judges concurred in the result) were limited to the conclusion that the school’s ostensible reason for the ban — that wearing the kirpan violated the school’s ban on carrying “weapons” — was not rationally supported by the evidence. After all, some judges noted, “there are many objects in schools that could be used to commit violent acts and that are much more easily obtained by students, such as scissors, pencils and baseball bats.”

The Singh Multani judgment was a victory for the principle that public schools cannot exclude students who wear symbols of their personal religious beliefs. But there are broader implications as well.

The kirpan case is the latest event in the ongoing efforts in Quebec to build an integrated public school system that does not impose religious beliefs — or non-beliefs, in the name of a supposed “secularism” — on minorities. Until recently, under the Canadian Constitution, Quebec had two distinct public school systems distinguished by religion, one Catholic (and largely French), the other Protestant (and largely English). Non-Christians and non-Francophone immigrants overwhelmingly sent their children into the Protestant stream, where they were educated mainly in English and in many cases emerged with little or no knowledge of the mother tongue spoken by more than 80 percent of the province’s population.

Declining demographics of native-born Quebecers and rising immigration levels tended to increase the influence within Quebec society of English, long the language of privilege of a wealthy economically dominant minority based in Montreal. The divisions in the public school system reproduced and reinforced the distinctions between the linguistic solitudes.

Establishing a unilingual French public school system became a key goal for the rising nationalist movement and a major component of Quebec’s efforts to modernize and enhance its educational system beginning in the 1960s.

A major step toward that goal was achieved in 1997, when the Constitution Act, 1867 (formerly the British North America Act) was amended to exclude Quebec from the requirement to maintain “denominational” (sectarian) public school systems. Since then, there is one, secular or non-denominational public school system in Quebec, although there is a sub-component of English schools within that system for children with at least one parent who was educated in English. All other parents must send their children to a French public school or, failing that, to a private school at additional expense to them.

The reform is still incomplete. Apart from the “grandfathering” rights of Anglophone parents, the Quebec government still provides generous funding to the province’s private schools. Just a year ago, Quebec Premier Jean Charest announced the government would give full public funding to private Jewish schools — only to abandon his plan a week later in the face of massive public opposition. Religion classes are still an option in some public schools, although they are being phased out.

But since the mid-1970s two generations of immigrant children and many from old-stock English families as well have been educated in the French-language public school system. This has produced a broad layer of young Québécois adults of non-Francophone ethnic origin who are fluent in French and comfortable in a French Quebec. They are often referred to as the “Bill 101 generation,” after the legislation, the Charter of the French Language, that required most Quebec students to attend French-language schools. This has been one of the great achievements of Quebec’s nationalist upsurge since 1960, a cornerstone of the new multi-ethnic Quebec nation in which French is the common language of public communication and discourse.

Accommodate, don’t discriminate

Underlying the school integration movement, as it was known, was the understanding — or at least the implicit logic — that religious beliefs and practices are fundamentally individual matters, and that in modern, pluralistic, democratic societies the majority has no right to impose its religious beliefs on others. This principle of separation of church and state, or secularism as it is often described, is strongly supported by most progressive-minded people in Quebec and Canada.

Much less understood, however, is its corollary: that a democratic society, in the interest of integrating minorities with full rights into the larger society, must be prepared to accommodate particular beliefs and practices of minorities that the latter consider vital to their cultural self-definition, provided those beliefs and practices do not threaten the rights or safety of the society as a whole. Many such beliefs and practices are all too often singled out as grounds to ghettoize and otherwise discriminate against minorities, especially visible minorities.

The kirpan incident illustrates how progressive secularism can work in practice, allowing room for the expression and practice of individual beliefs within public institutions in order to ensure that those institutions are responsive and available to all.

Implementing this principle requires developing a knowledge of how and where to draw the line between public and private. What are legitimate concerns of the collectivity, and what are not? When the Montreal school characterized the kirpan as a “weapon,” that is, a threat to society and not a religious symbol, it made a false distinction. Although the Supreme Court judges do not speculate on the school authorities’ motives, it is not hard to detect the odour of racism in the school’s decision.

Judging from the furor over the Court’s ruling that is being expressed on hot-line radio shows and in letters to the editor, many Québécois are having a hard time understanding and accepting these implications of an integrated public school system. But imposing “secular” dress codes could drive many immigrant kids away from the French school system and point Quebec backwards to the ethnic self-identity that divided its population and ultimately tended to undermine the status of French as the common language of the nation.

It must be said that the Canadian Court’s verdict compares favourably with such manifestations of imperialist arrogance as the French government’s recent ban on the wearing of ostensible religious symbols of personal faith in the schools, otherwise known as the “hijab ban.” In effect, the French state told staunch Muslims that they must abandon or redefine their religion if they wish to join French society. This is what goes by the name of “secularism” in contemporary France and indeed in much of Europe. The violent protests that shook France’s immigrant ghettos last summer were surely fuelled in part by resentment of this xenophobic contempt for the beliefs of a beleaguered minority.

Closer to home, many feminists and otherwise liberally-minded individuals were quick to line up last year in opposition to a modest proposal by some Muslims to bring their faith-based private family arbitration system under the ambit of Ontario’s Arbitration Act. Advocates of this proposal argued that not only would it respect the particular religious beliefs of many Muslims, but it would help protect vulnerable women and children and reinforce the rights of all parties engaged in private arbitration, especially when coupled with the recommendations in a report by Marion Boyd, a former Attorney General, to reform the Act and related legislation.[3]

Opponents of the proposal warned darkly that it would undermine family law reform and be the thin edge of the wedge to impose “sharia” tribunals in place of Canadian courts.[4] Even the Quebec National Assembly weighed into the debate with a motion unanimously supported by federalists and sovereigntists alike condemning the Boyd report and the proposed reform in Ontario — although none of the honourable members had evidently read the report or knew anything about the real issues involved!

Feminist opposition to faith-based arbitration was particularly troubling, in my view. Feminists understand the importance of choice in other contexts (e.g. a woman’s right to abortion). Why deny Moslem women the option of faith-based arbitration of private family matters where they so wish?

In the end, wiser heads prevailed. The McGuinty government’s Bill 27, which just passed the Ontario legislature (the NDP opposed it), effectively implements the bulk of the Boyd recommendations.[5] There is nothing in the bill that would bar Muslims from conducting arbitrations under the reformed Arbitration Act, provided they are duly certified as having the requisite knowledge of the applicable Ontario and Canadian laws. That was in fact what most of the Muslim advocates of private family arbitration were asking, as Boyd’s report clearly documented.

The Supreme Court’s kirpan judgment and Ontario’s Arbitration Act amendments are a useful reminder that those who control the vital institutions of the Canadian state are more sophisticated than many on the left are often prepared to acknowledge. While the rulers are certainly willing to inflame racist passions where it is useful to them, and are thoroughly committed to loyal participation in imperialist ventures around the world — witness their current military and police operations in Afghanistan and Haiti — they also have a well-honed understanding of the need to accommodate difference within the body politic where such difference does not threaten their class rule and where the recognition and calibrated accommodation of difference can reinforce citizens’ sense of identification with the state. It is their skill in navigating the shoals of these social tensions that earns them their status as a “ruling class.”

Those of us who aspire to build a movement that can some day replace that class and institute a government truly of the people and by the people would be well-advised to study the lessons to be learned from incidents such as the kirpan ban or the Muslim family arbitration issue. And to learn how to build effective bridges of solidarity around such issues with our Sikh, Muslim and other sisters and brothers who are now, through immigration, becoming an increasingly important part of the working class in this country.

We need to demonstrate, in action, that their real allies are not the capitalist rulers, who concede such rights only reluctantly, but the working people, who can only gain in strength and political consciousness through identifying with these struggles.


[1] Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, 2006 SCC 6,

[2] Le Devoir, 4-5 March, 2006,




Sunday, January 8, 2006

Federalist NDP No Alternative in Quebec

from Socialist Voice, January 8, 2006

By Richard Fidler

Editors’ note: Socialist Voice #59 (“Election Challenge to the NDP”) condemned the New Democratic Party for lining up with the federal state against the national rights of Quebec but did not discuss the character of the NDP campaign in Quebec. That omission is made good in the following article by Richard Fidler, which completes his analysis of the elections in Quebec begun in Socialist Voice #61. We agree with Richard’s conclusion that the present federal NDP campaign in Quebec does not advance the cause of independent labour political action and is not worthy of support.—Roger Annis and John Riddell

In 2004 NDP leader Jack Layton, campaigning in Quebec, came out against the Clarity Act, Ottawa’s legislation arrogantly asserting its right to dictate the terms of a successful Quebec referendum on sovereignty. He was quickly disavowed by members of his own parliamentary caucus and some provincial NDP leaders.

In this election campaign, Layton has come out foursquare in defense of the Clarity Act. Speaking in Montreal on December 7, Layton said he had reversed his opposition to the Act and now considers it “acceptable”. He said, “It follows directly from the principles laid out by the Supreme Court….”

Layton’s comments were made in a speech setting forth the NDP’s conditions for supporting a minority government in the next federal Parliament. A key condition is the enactment of some system of proportional representation (PR).

Layton is careful to point out that PR will limit the representation in Parliament now enjoyed by the “separatists”. He told the Hamilton Spectator last August 24: “We think that with proportional representation in Canada, and in Quebec, you’d never have a referendum on separation again.” (Quoted in Le Devoir, December 16)

More recently, Layton has begun echoing Liberal leader Paul Martin’s warning that a Tory minority government will ally with the Bloc Québécois to help “to dismantle the Canadian state”, as he told reporters January 4.

For his part, Quebec NDP leader Pierre Ducasse, instead of appealing to Quebec nationalists to support the NDP as a party that fights for Quebec rights, is openly appealing to Liberals to support the NDP as the appropriate federalist alternative to their scandal-ridden party.

Indeed, any appeal to Quebec nationalists would be precluded by the statement adopted in 2005 by the Quebec Council of the NDP, “La voix du Québec: la voie d’un Canada différent (Fédéralisme, social-démocratie et la question québécoise)”:

This nine-page document resurrects the NDP’s “cooperative federalism” position of the 1960s, in the early years of the Quiet Revolution. It is ahistorical and abstract, containing virtually no references to the actual evolution of federal-provincial relations, the federalist offensive against Quebec (which is far more than the sponsorship scandal), and the real confrontation that now exists and is continuing to develop between the independence movement and the federal regime.

  • The document presents the Bloc québécois as the obstacle to “the emergence of a united left in Canada.”
  • It puts the Quebec NDP squarely within the federalist camp (“The NDP … will promote a united Canada”), and says most of its positions can be implemented within the present constitutional framework without any changes.
  • It presents a “vision” of “asymmetrical federalism” that completely overlooks the real record of federal intrusions on Quebec’s constitutional powers. It cites the “Social Union” agreement of 1999 (signed by NDP premiers) as its model of cooperative federalism, although that agreement was widely criticized in Quebec, and even subjected to sharp criticism by some Liberals such as Claude Ryan for violating Quebec rights. The agreement was not signed by Quebec.
  • It talks about “good faith” negotiations between Quebec and Ottawa, but fails to stake out a negotiating position or point of departure for Quebec. No trade unionist would want to enter negotiations on that basis.
  • Quebec is a nation, the document says, but the NDP thinks it is not necessary or useful to legally or constitutionally formalize the right of self-determination.
  • In a referendum on Quebec’s constitutional status, it says, fifty percent plus one is a sufficient mandate for change. But the statement is silent on the Clarity Act; the federal government’s responsibility, it says, is to “determine its own process”.
  • It mentions that Quebec has not ratified the 1982 Canadian Constitution, but ignores the fact that the federal NDP and the NDP provincial governments did ratify it.

This statement, featured by Ducasse on his web site, appears to mark the definitive triumph of the Layton leadership over any residual autonomist stirrings in the Quebec NDP rump.

The NDP’s hostility to Quebec self-determination has placed it in frontal opposition to the national consciousness of most Quebec working people. As a result, the party’s popular support in Quebec is marginal and its ties with the labour movement almost non-existent. Although some individual NDP candidates in Quebec may hold differing views, their campaigns are inevitably burdened by the party’s official policies on Quebec and do not advance the cause of independent labour political action.

Bloc’s Election Challenge Reflects Changing Face of Quebec Politics

By Richard Fidler

From Socialist Voice, January 8, 2006

Editors’ Note: The following is the first of a two-part analysis, by Richard Fidler, of the federal elections in Quebec. The second part, “Federalist NDP No Alternative in Quebec,” is published in Socialist Voice #62. –Roger Annis and John Riddell

The pro-sovereignty Bloc Québécois is poised to win its fifth consecutive majority of seats in Quebec in Canada’s January 23 federal election. The party is on track to win almost all of the ridings with a French-speaking majority, and possibly more than 50% of the popular vote — an electoral first for a party promoting Quebec independence.

With few seats in Quebec, neither the governing Liberals nor the rightist Conservative Party may be able to form a government with a parliamentary majority.

In Quebec, the Liberals and Conservatives are fighting over what remains of the federalist vote. The Tories are serving up former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s “flexible federalism” (although outside Quebec their slogan is “Stand Up for Canada”). The Liberals warn that a Tory minority government will ally with the Bloc and help break up Canada.

A minority government without significant representation in Quebec is an unsettling prospect for Canada’s ruling elite. Quebec is headed toward an election in 2007 that is widely expected to result in a victory for the sovereigntist Parti québécois (PQ) followed by a referendum that may well produce a majority vote for secession from Canada. Adding to these destabilizing trends is the ongoing social ferment in Quebec as unions and students continue to mobilize in militant opposition to the Quebec Liberal government’s austerity policies.

Dress rehearsal for the next referendum

This federal election is in fact shaping up as a pre-referendum. The Bloc, which held 54 of Quebec’s 75 seats in the last Parliament, clearly has the political initiative. It is campaigning as the party of all Quebecers around a program that condemns the corruption and mismanagement of the federal Liberal government and attempts — as BQ leader Gilles Duceppe puts it in his introduction to the party’s published platform — to “show what a sovereign Quebec might look like”. (See Plateforme électorale, Campagne 2005-2006,

The Bloc’s slate of candidates reflects the changing demographic face of Quebec. A half-dozen or so candidates are from the “cultural communities”. The “children of Bill 101”, educated in the French-language public school system, are now much more integrated within Quebec society than previous generations of immigrants, and many view themselves as primarily Québécois, not Canadians. The Bloc’s parliamentary contingent has already included MPs of African, Chinese and Chilean origin. An aboriginal Bloc MP, Bernard Cleary, is up for re-election in Québec City.

The Bloc has the support of the Quebec Federation of Labour. Luc Desnoyers, Quebec director of the Canadian Auto Workers, has put the union’s jacket on Duceppe. A number of Bloc candidates are members of trade unions or the UPA, the farmer’s union.

At its origins in the early 1990s, the Bloc saw itself as little more than a watchdog in Ottawa for the Parti québécois (PQ), in anticipation of a successful Quebec referendum. Today, it  campaigns around a detailed 250-page platform that could be implemented by the National Assembly of an independent Quebec.

While the PQ has historically advocated some form of “association” between a sovereign Quebec and Canada, the Bloc’s platform avoids any such reference. It does not mention the divisions between the PQ and the Quebec Liberal government of Jean Charest, but purports to represent the interests of Quebec, full stop. The platform indicts the federal regime’s policies and priorities and, in doing so, indicates how a sovereign Quebec would perform differently.

What Quebec wants, and does not want, according to the Bloc

The Bloc platform restates themes long voiced by Quebec nationalists. A focal point is its critique of the “fiscal imbalance” — Ottawa’s use of its taxation powers to pile up huge budget surpluses while starving Quebec and the other provinces of the funds they need to manage social policy and other programs within their jurisdiction. “Half of the taxes paid by Quebecers are controlled by a government that refuses to recognize the Quebec nation,” it says. “The federal government uses these taxes to multiply intrusions, weaken the Quebec state and impose Canada’s choices. A viable and effective democracy cannot exist in these conditions.”

The Bloc cites federal cutbacks in areas crucial to regional development and redressing income inequality. A notorious example is the changes in Employment Insurance. Ottawa’s tightening of eligibility means that only 46% of workers paying into it can get benefits when they lose their jobs. And the federal government continues to manage the surpluses in the EI fund — now totaling $46.2 billion — as its own money, to spend in areas not under its jurisdiction.

Federal transfers under shared-cost programs, which once covered 50% of post-secondary education, are now down to 18% while costs have increased exponentially. Meanwhile, Ottawa initiated the Millennium Scholarship fund for individual students as a means of raising the federal profile, although education is not a federal responsibility.

It was the fiscal imbalance, the Bloc says, that forced Quebec to raise the cost of its exemplary childcare plan, a key component of its family policy, from $5 to $7 a day per family. When Ottawa finally introduced its own program — which, unlike Quebec’s, is not universal and is much less generous — it took a further 16 months to concede full and unconditional financial compensation to Quebec for declining to participate.

Ottawa’s spending priorities are seriously skewed, the Bloc charges. For example, Quebec’s energy resources — a key environmental concern — are hydroelectricity and, increasingly, wind power. However, over the last 30 years Ottawa has spent $66 billion in direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industries (coal, natural gas and oil) and only $329 million to renewable energy. Similarly, it has given billions to the Ontario automobile industry. The taxpayers are being used to prop up the most polluting industries in Canada, says the Bloc.

The Bloc program cites many instances of federal mismanagement of its authority over major Quebec industries, such as its failure to prevent the destruction of fish stocks along the Atlantic coast caused by overfishing. It castigates Ottawa for failing to mount an adequate defense of the farm supply management system (including Quebec’s huge dairy industry) at the World Trade Organization talks.

While Quebec, since 1985, has recognized the existence of a dozen aboriginal nations on its territory and has negotiated a number of treaties — most recently, the Paix des Braves with the Grand Council of the Crees — Ottawa has yet to negotiate similar agreements with the Crees under its jurisdiction, the Bloc notes.

Twenty-five years after Quebec adopted anti-scab legislation, Ottawa has yet to enact similar provisions in the Canada Labour Code. They could have been of decisive assistance recently to the striking workers at Videotron, Radio Canada and Secur, all of whom are under federal jurisdiction, says the Bloc.

The now-notorious sponsorship program is of course a prime target for the Bloc. As the recent inquiry by Justice John Gomery documented, Ottawa spent $332 million on this patronage-plagued effort to raise the federal profile in Quebec. Forty-four percent of that money went to ad agencies, which then kicked a portion of the funds back to the federal Liberal party. The Bloc platform points out that the party raised questions about the sponsorship program for years before the federal Auditor General got around to examining it.

The Bloc’s election platform repeatedly identifies Quebec’s lack of national status under Canada’s constitution as the basic problem underlying all others. For example, Quebec assigns great importance to its ability to attract and integrate immigrants as a means of countering the relative decline and ageing of its population. Fifteen years ago it managed to get the federal government to allow it to select about half of its immigrants. But the federal government continues to impose restrictions on family class and refugee applicants. Quebec’s low visibility abroad (it has little consular representation) means many immigrants are unaware of its potential as a place of residence.

Quebec has developed a concept of citizenship focused on French as the common language of public life. But the status of the French language — always fragile in the North American context — is constantly subject to challenge under Canada’s constitution, especially since the 1982 patriation amendments that Quebec’s National Assembly unanimously refused to ratify.

What the Bloc wants

While socialists can sympathize with the Bloc’s positions on these and many other issues, other planks in the Bloc platform — and some silences — underscore the party’s pro-capitalist nature.

Most notable is its international policy. At its November convention, the Bloc endorsed membership of a sovereign Quebec in the NATO and NORAD military alliances. Although the election platform does not mention that decision, it does laud the NATO invasion and Canadian troops’ occupation of Afghanistan.

The Bloc supported Canada’s participation in the overthrow of the Aristide government in Haiti, and the platform calls for a priority “long-term commitment… to participating in the United Nations mission” in Haiti.

The Bloc platform misleadingly states, more than once, that Canada “has no foreign policy”. In reality, the Bloc’s foreign policy is fundamentally indistinguishable from that of the Liberals and Tories.

Missing entirely from the platform is any expression of solidarity with other movements for national sovereignty in countries oppressed by imperialism. In Latin America, the Bloc endorses the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), not the rival and increasingly popular Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean (ALBA) proposed by the revolutionary nationalist Venezuelan government.

Like the PQ, the Bloc is an enthusiastic supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement  and advocates a similar trade and investment deal with the European Union. Its support of free trade in lumber exports will alienate ecologists who have campaigned against irresponsible timber exploitation, the “erreur boréale” publicized by musician and film-maker Richard Desjardins.

The Bloc health care platform is silent on private health insurance, a key issue in Quebec in the wake of the Supreme Court Chaoulli decision. Similarly, it fails to address the danger to medicare from escalating patent drug prices, probably because of the cozy relationship between the Quebec government and the pharmaceutical giants based in the province.

On Canada’s participation in the “war on terror”, the Bloc advocates “balancing” civil liberties against security concerns, but does not call for repeal of the repressive anti-terrorist laws.

Overall, the Bloc’s “sovereign” Quebec is little more than a Quebec-centered replica of Canada as we know it: a “normal” state, as the Bloc says, that would essentially substitute Quebec jurisdictions for Canada’s but does not indicate a major new departure toward a more just and egalitarian society, let alone socialism.

Quebec, not Ottawa, looked to for social change

Yet the popular appeal of the Bloc, it should be clear, lies not in its “normality” but in the promise it holds out that an independent Quebec can do better. When the Bloc inveighs against cuts in federal transfers for health care and education or when it protests cutbacks in employment insurance and other federal policies that harm workers, farmers, fishers and aboriginal peoples, it is addressing problems facing all who inhabit Quebec, regardless of ethnic origin, skin colour, religion or even mother tongue — in short, the Quebec nation. And for a growing number of Québécois, the solutions to those problems are conceived in a Quebec, not Canadian context. The Canadian state is no longer seen to be the most appropriate framework for working out the solutions to these problems. In fact, it is increasingly viewed as an obstacle to their solution.

As the Bloc’s mixed ethnic and class composition and support indicates, this party — initiated in 1990 by Tory and Liberal MPs disillusioned by English Canada’s rejection of the Meech Lake Accord — now attracts support from a wide cross-section of Quebec’s population. It is a manifestation in the federal electoral and parliamentary arena of the new Quebec nation that has been forged over the last four decades, a Quebec that is less divided linguistically and culturally than ever before even as it is more class-divided and ethnically diverse.

However, the Bloc is also the antechamber for the Parti québécois, Quebec’s dominant sovereigntist party, which does not contest federal elections. The PQ, during its 18 years in office, enacted some progressive reforms, most notably in the area of legislation to protect and enforce French-language rights. But it also implemented capitalist austerity programs, attacked the unions, rolled back wages of public sector workers (in one instance, by 20%) and failed to lead mass extra-parliamentary struggles even in support of its own rather modest complaints about the limitations of existing fiscal and jurisdictional arrangements.

PQ governments in recent years enforced federal spending cutbacks by applying a “zero deficit” policy that devastated many social programs and further impoverished low-income workers, the unemployed and welfare recipients.

The PQ’s support of capitalist trade and investment deals has alienated many activists in the labour movement and disoriented many in English Canada who had been sympathetic to Quebec’s national demands in an earlier period.

In fact, it is the consistently procapitalist and pro-imperialist outlook and policies of both the PQ and the Bloc that most decisively demark them from the national liberation movements in the “third world” countries subordinated to U.S. and world imperialism.

As often as not, the PQ has proved to be an obstacle to building a mass movement for national affirmation and political independence. Its record in office has produced great ambivalence about the party and even the independence project itself among many workers.

Quebec workers party yet to be built

Neither the PQ nor the Bloc can be looked to for leadership in the fight to build a Quebec governed by and in the interests of its working people.

In early February, activists from the women’s movement, the antiglobalization movement, the student movement, unions and grassroots community groups will gather in Montreal to found a new left party. Initiated by the fledgling Union des forces progressistes and Option citoyenne, which are now merging, the new party will have an initial membership of three to four thousand who will attempt to build a mass progressive sovereigntist party independent of the capitalist parties that now dominate the political landscape in Quebec.

However, neither the UFP nor Option citoyenne is running candidates in the present federal election. There is no party in this election that advances a distinct working-class agenda. The federal New Democratic Party has nominated candidates in all 75 Quebec ridings. But the NDP, instead of championing Quebec rights and forging an alliance with Quebec supporters of sovereignty, is competing with the Liberals and Tories for its share of the declining federalist vote. Its hostility to Quebec self-determination precludes the party from consideration as a major contender.

A mass workers party has yet to be built in Quebec. But the Bloc’s current hegemony in working-class constituencies is a further reminder that the path to independent working-class political action in Quebec is inseparable from defense of the right to self-determination.

Richard Fidler edited Canada, Adieu? – Quebec Debates its Future (Oolichan Books and Institute for Research on Public Policy, 1991, 328 pages), a commentary on and translated excerpts from briefs to the Bélanger-Campeau Commission on the Political and Constitutional Future of Quebec.