Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Constitutional Politics of Labour: From Confederation to the Quiet Revolution - Part Seven

The Birth of the Parti Québécois

The creation of the Parti Québécois in 1968 from the fragments of smaller sovereignist parties had a significant impact on CLC-FTQ relations. One of those fragments, the Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale (RIN), founded in 1960, counted among its members a number of trade union activists. Under the leadership of Pierre Bourgault, the sovereignist RIN transformed itself into a political party and took a decisive turn to the left. However, this new political direction fractured the new party and precipitated the creation of a dissident right-wing group, which later merged with a sovereignist dissident group from the Ralliement des créditistes, to form the Ralliement National (RN). Combined, the RIN and the RN captured 8.8% of the popular vote in the 1966 Quebec provincial election, but no seats. The next year, disenchanted with the Quebec Liberal party’s stand on the National Question, former Quebec cabinet minister René Lévesque quit his party and established the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association (MSA). According to Garth Stevenson, “The basic purpose of the sovereignty-association concept was to reassure those who were sympathetic to independence in principle but apprehensive about its economic consequences.”[1] The RN’s poor electoral performance convinced it to merge with Lévesque’s MSA, paving the way for the creation of the Parti Québécois (PQ) in 1968. After the establishment of the PQ, Bourgault’s RIN disbanded and encouraged its members to join the new sovereignist party under Lévesque’s leadership. Lévesque gave enormous credibility to nationalist forces in Quebec. His experience as a cabinet minister, his nuanced approached to dealing with the National Question, and his pragmatic brand of social democracy all helped to attract an unprecedented level of support for the sovereignist project. The PQ successfully rallied the province’s nationalist forces around three common objectives: asserting Quebec’s national identity, upholding the dignity of the Québécois people, and eliminating the economic disparities suffered by generations of francophones in Quebec.

Not coincidentally, the terms of reference for the Gendron Commission, on the position of the French language and language rights in Quebec, were drafted in the same year that the PQ was launched. The Commission concluded:

"We have defined a socio-linguistic structure which proves beyond question that the domain of the French language is particularly characterized by inferior duties, small enterprises, low incomes and low levels of education. The domain of the English language is the exact opposite, that of superior duties involving initiative and command, and large enterprises, and high levels of education and income."[2]

These issues were forefront in the minds of Quebec’s labour movement. Lévesque first met with Quebec’s trade union leadership on February 6, 1968. He carefully laid out his vision for sovereignty-association and promoted the Parti Québécois as its vehicle. Although the province’s trade unions were initially lukewarm to the PQ’s stand on the National Question, they were receptive to Lévesque’s favourable policy bias towards organized labour.

The FTQ’s suspicion of the sovereignist option was well documented. Anti-separatist forces within the FTQ were led by Laberge who worried that the economic consequences of independence were too great for workers to stomach. Louis Laberge would routinely remind rank-and-file members of the FTQ about the dangers of sovereignty. In 1965, Laberge told delegates to the FTQ convention “Les intellectuals bourgeois nous combattent au nom du nationalisme comme le clergé nous a combattus dans le passé au nom de la religion.”[3] In December 1967, Laberge told reporters “If man cannot live by bread alone, neither can he feed solely on constitutional debate.”[4] He continued, “Constitutional debate is the only intellectual foodstuff being served up to Quebecers at the present time; it is meager nourishment indeed...”[5] One of the intellectuals referred to by Laberge was Pierre Vallières, a founding member of the infamous Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ).

Established in the early 1960s, the FLQ, espoused a revolutionary nationalist discourse and adopted terrorism as a political tool to advance its agenda. Vallières, author of the notorious Nègres blancs d’Amérique, acted as an intellectual leader of the organization, which emerged as the popular image of the separatist movement in the minds of English Canadians. Both a product and a reflection of the heightened radicalization of the 1960s, the FLQ’s ideology drew its inspiration from anti-imperialist struggles, student uprisings and the more militant factions of the civil rights movement in the United States. Throughout the 1960s, the FLQ carried out dozens of violent acts against symbols of anglo-capitalism and imperialism, including the Montreal Stock Exchange, McGill University, and a number of English-owned businesses. However, the organization’s most well-known terrorist act occurred in October 1970 when FLQ members kidnapped James Cross, the British Trade Commissioner, and Quebec’s Minister of Labour, Pierre Laporte. In response to the abductions, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, thereby suspending civil liberties and giving the authorities the unlimited right to arrest and take into custody suspected FLQ members and sympathizers. The day after Trudeau declared martial law, the FLQ announced that Pierre Laporte had been executed.[6] Both the PQ and the Quebec labour movement strongly condemned the kidnapping and assassination, but had equally harsh words for Premier Bourassa, and Prime Minister Trudeau’s decision to invoke the War Measures Act. The day after Laporte was murdered, Quebec’s trade union centrals released a joint statement which condemned the use of martial law[7] and argued that “la suppression des libertés civiles menace davantage la démocratie que le terrorisme.”[8] The October Crisis profoundly impacted the politics of Quebec labour and helped push the unions closer to the sovereignist movement. The fact that trade union activists represented between twenty and thirty per cent of all suspects detained under the War Measures Act only aggravated the situation.[9] Jean François Cardin has identified the implementation of the War Measures Act in Quebec as a defining moment in the relations between the PQ and the trade union movement. He argues that their common condemnation of Bourassa and Trudeau solidified their partnership and resulted in an influx of trade union activist into the party.[10]

While Laberge remained skeptical about sovereignty, other prominent trade union leaders associated with the FTQ were busy building support for the nationalist cause within their own unions. CUPE’s Quebec director, Fernand Daoust, who had run against Laberge for the Presidency of the Federation in 1964 was among the most ardent supporters of the PQ and was very open about his support for the sovereignist option. Over the years, he built a pillar of sovereignist support within the FTQ which acted as a counterbalance to Laberge’s support for the federal system. Little by little, Daoust and the nationalist wing of the FTQ were able to pull the Federation closer to the sovereignist camp.

[1] Stevenson (2004), 112.
[2] Gendron Commission conclusion as cited in William Coleman, “The Class Bases of Language Policy in Quebec, 1949-1975,” in Studies in Political Economy, (Spring 1980) no 3, 99.
[3] Fournier (1992), 154.
[4] Laberge quoted in the Montreal Star, (December 22, 1967).
[5] Ibid.
[6] In December 1970, the FLQ members responsible for the abduction of James Cross were able to negotiate safe passage to Cuba in exchange for the British Trade Commissioner.
[7] It should be noted that the FTQ’s condemnation of the War Measures Act was far from unanimous. Although the unions most closely associated with the nationalist wing of the FTQ (CUPE, Steelworkers, UAW) supported the FTQ’s position, the most anti-nationalist unions in the FTQ (Paperworkers, ILGWU, and the Machinists Union) publicly broke ranks with the Federation over the issue.
[8] Louis Fournier, Histoire de la FTQ 1965-1992 La plus grande centrale syndicale au Québec, (Montréal: Editions Québec/Amérique, 1994), 63.
[9] Rouillard (2004), 199.
[10] Jean François Cardin, La Crise d’Octobre et le movement syndical québécois, (mémoir de maîtrise en histoire, UQAM, 1985).