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Collection « Les sciences sociales contemporaines »

The decolonization of Quebec: an analysis of left-wing nationalism (1973)

Une édition électronique réalisée à partir du livre de Henry Milner and Sheilagh Hodgins Milner, The decolonization of Quebec: an analysis of left-wing nationalism. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973, 257 pages. Collection: Carleton Contemporaries. Une édition numérique réalisée par Marcelle Bergeron, bénévole, professeure retraitée de l'École polyvalente Dominique-Racine de Chicoutimi. [Autorisation accordée par l'auteur le 28 mai 2006.]


As we write these words, Quebec has just passed through its latest "crisis" – this time in the form of a public service strike and its aftermath – and people are wondering about the form of this year's "fall offensive" which usually comes after the summer as the next step toward political and economic self-determination. For over ten years now, English Canadians have been asking "What does Quebec want from us?" What Quebec wants from them today is nothing: finally, the people of Quebec are simply responding directly to their colonized existence. 

The issue of Quebec can no longer be attributed, no matter what our politicians may say, to the cries in the wilderness of a few separatists or the subversive propaganda of foreign ideologues and ideologies. What is happening in Quebec is actually the product of concrete, objective conditions, coupled with a growing critical awareness of these conditions. Simply put, Quebec has produced a popular and powerful movement united by aims fundamentally opposed to the continuation of the socioeconomic status quo. An independent, socialist Quebec is a goal, for many Québécois, and a seriously considered possibility for perhaps a majority. These facts become significant, even staggering, when we compare Quebec to the United States, and incredibly so when we remember the Quebec of the thirties and before. 

Quebec has recently witnessed the largest strike in Canadian history, one which sent more than 210,000 public and para-public employees onto the picket lines, striking for job security, a minimum wage of $100.00 a week, and fair salary increases. The strikers came from professional and manual laboring groups, and every sector in between. The strike action impelled the formation of a cohesive common front of the three major trade union federations. When, after two weeks, the workers were legally forced back to work – and the leaders of the common front jailed for disobeying court injunctions – a weeklong revolt broke out spontaneously throughout the province. Spontaneous actions by workers in every kind of job (including private industry) virtually closed down the province. In the end, the actions died down, but the militancy and sense of purpose shown by the workers remained, and no one can guess how long the calm will prevail this time. And these are by no means isolated actions, but rather the culmination of a decade of growing ferment in the ranks of labour, and of a growing class analysis among its leaders, activists and thinkers. This ferment constitutes the latest stage in a struggle that has been gradually intensifying. 

What makes this sequence of events all the more remarkable is that in the thirties, when the rest of North America turned toward the left and was swept by a current of radical innovation, Quebec stood unaffected, more strongly than ever the traditional society it had always been. While the political elite sold out Quebec's resources (and workers' interests) to American and English-Canadian capitalists, the people were kept in check by an ideological elite, at the centre of which was the Church. Because this group controlled thought through education and practically all media outlets, it was able to contain frustration and anger within the local community, to brand progressive reforms as immoral, and to channel any excess resentment upon scapegoats such as the Jews. While English North America's opinion leaders preached (though seldom really practiced) New Deals and One Big Union and a New Society, Quebec's elite glorified a feudal theocracy – an ideal which, however noble it might have sometimes been, remained irrelevant to the causes and solutions of the desperate problems of the Depression. 

In the sixties, the pattern came to be almost reversed. While the U.S.A. and Canada have both been the scene of important and well-publicised radical activities, the effect of the movement which arose in this period has been limited by its inherent weakness. Its appeal has been restricted, basically, to students, youth in general, some women's groups, intellectuals and certain elements among Black and Chicano Americans. It has been unable to win significant middle class and, especially, working class support. Organized labour has been particularly cold to this movement and has mostly opposed its struggle against the war in Vietnam and its goal of participatory democracy. This attitude was manifested and symbolized in the extreme by the "hard hat" mentality of some construction workers. When the centre of the movement left the campus in the late sixties in an effort to find roots in the communities, it met with meagre success; and now much of that energy is going into the establishment of new communities and counter-institutions. In the long run, these kinds of alternative structures and the cultural critique they evoke may prove to be instrumental in guiding reconstruction of a system which will have become ecologically desperate; but for now, English North American capitalism has survived the onslaught. It survived because its contradictions were felt to be intolerable only to a marginal group; its masses have found in it, if not fulfillment, at least sufficient distraction for them to remain docile. 

Among Quebec's youth a similar, if somewhat more restrained, cultural revolution took place in the sixties, influenced greatly by North American and even world-wide developments. In addition, there was the same move toward community organizing and a corresponding proliferation of citizens' committees and welfare rights groups, etc. But there was something more. The movement in Quebec, as was nowhere else the case in North America, crossed class lines and grew strong in the ranks and cadres of (of all places) organized labour. 

When in 1971 students and some teachers at the Université de Montréal launched a campaign against the university's Institute of Criminology because of its role in the training of police in Brazil and in other countries, they received the support and even active participation of some university workers. When the University's 1 500 workers went on strike the same year for better working conditions, students refused to cross the picket lines, and it was this solidarity which forced the administration to make major concessions. In Quebec, many students who had become politicized on the campus in the mid-sixties found alliances and some even found jobs with trade union centrals and locals. The Montreal Council of the CNTU led the fight for the release of revolutionary "terrorists" Pierre Vallières and Charles Gagnon; for an analogy, one might (try to) imagine the AFL-CIO intervening on behalf of the "Weathermen." 

In 1972 the Société St. Jean Baptiste, the patriotic semi-establishment and very traditional French-Canadian order, met in June, and, among other things, extended fraternal greetings to the union movement – one which had just engaged in actions that led establishment figures to accuse the movement of trying to topple the government and institute an independent socialist Quebec. In sum, the change in Quebec has been a profound one; the movement has done very little to divide workers from students, and it has narrowed rather than widened the gap between the intellectuals and the masses. 

We do not wish to glorify les Québécois; nor do we wish to imply that the situation here is fully ripe for the introduction of a socialist system. There are still numerous differences, still uncertainties, still internal conflicts. Yet the fact remains that in the past forty years, and especially in these last ten years, the people of Quebec have come to an awareness of their exploited condition under international capitalism and are developing a determination to oppose it and build something new. 

Why? Why here and not elsewhere? Two facile answers immediately present themselves and each is partially correct. First, the cultural revolution of Quebec's youth took place at the same time as, rather than some thirty (and more) years after, the growth of organized trade union militancy among workers. Having noted this, however, we are still far from an adequate explanation. Second, there is the often-made assertion that the old quasi-feudal mentality of Quebec, since it lasted so long, was never really replaced by the culture of economic liberalism, or individualism, which dominated English North America. Thus, Quebec could move almost directly from the social solidarity of a traditional, hierarchical, peasant society to the class solidarity of a socialist collectivity without being trapped at the stage of competitive laissez-faire capitalism and its concomitant cultural and social patterns. 

Again, there is some validity in this argument, but it is hardly sufficient either. A complex process of change took place in those forty years and only by understanding this process in its depth and specificity can we begin to account for the direction this movement has taken and will take. Furthermore, these changes must be seen as the concrete responses to the objective situation in which les Québécois found themselves – how they came to understand their condition and to understand that it had to be transformed and transcended. 

What is crucial is Quebec being a colony, not in the political-geographical sense of the term, but in the human, social and economic senses. It is an entity controlled from outside, a society which can act and decide only within limits circumscribed by the colonizer. This has been the reality of Quebec since its founding; this has been its reality, though more subtly, after the gradual takeover by American-based capitalism in this century. 

One can generally discern roughly three stages in the history of a colonized people. The first is the old order under which the people find solace in their traditions and culture and collectively submit to socioeconomic inferiority and powerlessness. This is followed by a far briefer stage where progressive elements of the colonized group attempt to deny their collective origins – instead calling for individuals to integrate themselves to the colonizing society in order to win the benefits of integration. A third and deeper stage emerges when the demand for individual equality is exposed as illusory and a more realistic assertion of the right to collective equality and self-determination comes to the fore. 

Among American Blacks, the three stages can be sharply identified: one, with the terrorization and consequent submissiveness of the coloured people in the early days; two, with the Negro civil rights movement for desegregation in the fifties and early sixties; and, three, with the appearance of a "Black Power" movement and the growing demands by Blacks for control of the most important social and economic institutions in their neighbourhoods. The latter sections of this book explore each of these stages as they developed among the "White Niggers of America," les Québécois. 

The book is divided into two parts. The first is an analytical statement of the effects of imperialism on Quebec's economy and culture. We attempt, in some detail, to describe Quebec's economy, its strengths and weaknesses, patterns of trade and ownership. We also take a look at the socioeconomic status of French Canadians in Quebec and its evolution.

The second part might be labelled an historical analysis of the interrelation between ideas and events, from the thirties to the present. It provides a description and analysis of the major factors which gradually have led to the development of a nationalism on the left in both the ideas and actions of contemporary Quebec. 

This book is not put forth simply as scholarship, but rather as a contribution to the very struggle described (not in the form of propaganda, though we may be accused of this) by providing theoretical analysis which may allow people involved in the struggle or related struggles to reach a better understanding of the roots and strategic possibilities. Most of all, it is written for people on the fringes of the movement, who are perhaps somewhat sympathetic to the movement, but harbour doubts and fears – to the many English-speaking people in Quebec who are not part of nor linked to the English business elite, and to all Canadians who, justifiably, think the events and lessons of Quebec will be crucial in the future political directions of Canada. 

Finally, we are convinced that the attitudes of English Canadians (especially those in Quebec) and the future role they will play will be important in the directions the movement will take, and perhaps will significantly affect its achievements; and we sincerely hope that, if nothing else, readers of this book will subsequently approach the present condition of Quebec and its liberation efforts, both more critically and sympathetically – and with greater understanding.

Retour au texte de l'auteur: Jean-Marc Fontan, sociologue, UQAM Dernière mise à jour de cette page le lundi 12 mars 2007 15:18
Par Jean-Marie Tremblay, sociologue
professeur au Cégep de Chicoutimi.

Saguenay - Lac-Saint-Jean, Québec
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