Canada’s Constitutional ‘Crisis’
United Front Campaign for Working–Class Independence
The 26 October 1992 pan–Canadian referendum on constitutional reform provided the Bolshevik Tendency (BT) a chance to present its program to wider audiences in both Quebec and Ontario, in conjunction with several Quebec–based left groups. This was the first public political work undertaken by the BT in Quebec.
The initiative originated with tentative political discussions between members of a Maoist group (Action Socialiste—AS) and Montreal sympathizers of the Trotskyist League (TL) in June 1992. In the course of the summer one of these comrades, who was meanwhile won to the BT, maintained contact with AS. On 6 September, AS called a meeting to discuss the proposed constitutional referendum. Comrades from the BT, as well as the TL and Mobilisation (a regroupment of former cadre from the 1970s Maoist organization, En Lutte, and Action Socialiste) attended. Before the meeting began, some 35 Nazi skinheads staged a provocation outside the hall. All the leftist groups present cooperated in preparing to defend the gathering and, after the arrival of the police, the fascists eventually departed.
At the meeting Action Socialiste proposed a united front to undertake an independent working–class campaign against both the YES and NO camps in the upcoming constitutional referendum. In the weeks that followed the Regroupement progressiste pour l’annulation/Progressive Coalition for Annulment was formed by Mobilisation, AS and the BT, while the Trotskyist League opted to call for a NO vote.
In the weeks leading up to the 26 October referendum, the members of the coalition campaigned for workers and the oppressed to spoil their ballots. Over 25,000 leaflets were produced in both English and French, which were distributed in a dozen cities and towns in Quebec and Ontario. Thousands of posters were pasted up, and coalition members intervened at union meetings, campus debates and rallies. In Montreal, the coalition organized a protest against Preston Manning, leader of the right–wing populist Reform Party, when he was campaigning for a NO vote at Concordia University. This demonstration received national media coverage. Another protest was organized on 12 October in front of the Teleglobe Canada building, where the televised debate between Quebec premier Robert Bourassa, for the YES coalition, and Parti Quebecois leader, Jacques Parizeau, for the NO, was broadcast.
Numerous individual union, student and left activists, as well as the unemployed and welfare rights group, l’UNION, subsequently joined the Regroupement progressiste campaign. Public meetings of the Regroupement were held in both Montreal and Toronto. The Trotskyist League attended both of these meetings and tried to make a case for voting NO. They shrilly denounced the coalition, and particularly the BT, as capitulating to “Anglo chauvinism.” Their interventions, if not exactly elevating, at least provided an illustration of how choosing sides in an intra–bourgeois wrangle can politically disorient leftists.
Despite the serious political differences in program and historical traditions that separated the coalition partners, there was sufficient convergence on the importance of providing a working–class alternative to the YES/NO bourgeois camps to allow for productive collaboration, and, given our very limited resources, a successful agitational campaign. It allowed the participating organizations to demarcate themselves politically from both the nationalist, class–collaborationist labor bureaucracy in Quebec, which plunged into the NO coalition, and the business/labor YES coalition in English Canada. The NO forces in English Canada took on quite early a chauvinist coloration with anti–Quebec, anti–aboriginal appeals, whereas bourgeois nationalists in Quebec fueled the fires of linguistic and ethnic tension with demagogic appeals in order to rally their vote.
In Quebec, where the working class is generally more militant than elsewhere in North America, the coalition had the most forces and made the greatest impact. There were many more spoiled ballots in Quebec (90,000) than anywhere in English Canada. In Ontario, where the margin between the two camps was only 10,000, 28,000 people elected to spoil their ballots.
The referendum debate produced a series of sharp, and some rather dull, polemics within the left. One of the heated exchanges took place between Action Socialiste and the Trotskyist League. The AS launched a broadside against the “Trotskyism” of the TL as well as Gauche Socialiste/Socialist Challenge and Jack Barnes’ Communist League/ Ligue Communiste (who no longer even claim to be Trotskyist), all of whom called for a NO vote.
We take no responsibility for Action Socialiste’s political views, nor do they for ours. Our joint initiative was a conjunctural bloc around certain limited common perspectives. But for the TL it was a “propaganda bloc” aimed at politically uniting a nest of “totally repulsive” provocateurs on the one hand, and cowardly Quebecois federalists and “capitulators to Anglo chauvinism” on the other.
IS Backed Mulroneyite Deal
The 4 November 1992 Montreal Gazette published the following account of the referendum by Allan Gotlieb, a former Canadian ambassador to the U.S.:
“In a period of 35 days, ending on October 26, 1992, the Canadian people were asked to agree to 51 pages of amendments to their constitution. For the most part, these changes reflect the demands of regional politicians for more power. By a substantial margin, Canadians from every region of the country said ‘No’….Their No vote constituted a stunning rejection of the political class in Canada….
“…The prime minister, premiers, bank presidents, chief executive officers, ‘high purpose’ cultural figures and media elites all warned—certainly in good faith—that a No vote would lead to the breakup of Canada and cause great economic harm.
“What we witnessed instead was a staggering act of protest against the whole Canadian establishment—the peasants’ revolt Canadian–style. The coalition that mobilized almost overnight around the NO option gave voice to the concerns of those who felt alienated and disenfranchised by the Canadian establishment….”
This is all common knowledge among informed observers of Canadian politics, a category which apparently does not include most of those who write for the papers of Canada’s leftist organizations. Many of the latter are more interested in making the facts fit their own preconceived notions.
While most of the fake–Trotskyist currents grumbled that the “deal” cooked up in Charlottetown did not have enough in it to make it worth supporting, the International Socialists (IS) surprised everyone by actually endorsing Mulroney’s constitutional “reform” The post–referendum Socialist Worker (November 1992) advanced the following argument:
“Any sober assessment of the No victory in the referendum must acknowledge that it represents a setback for working class unity. Millions of workers in English–Canada bought into anti–Native, anti–Quebec arguments. Divisions among oppressed groups have been deepened by the success of the No campaign.
“It is because we understood this reality that Socialist Worker argued for a critical Yes to the Charlottetown Accord. We did so not because we were enamoured of the constitutional deal, but because we held that the principal duty of socialists in such a campaign is to challenge the bigotry that infects workers in the country’s dominant nation—English Canada.”
These arguments are worthy of the right–wing social democrats of the New Democratic Party. Marxists leave it to liberals and reformists to “oppose” racism and bigotry through candlelight marches, bogus constitutional tinkering and appeals to national unity. The duty of Marxists is to challenge the capitalist economic system which fosters every kind of social backwardness and the national bourgeois state which institutionalizes it.
This same issue of Socialist Worker complains that the bourgeois forces running the YES campaign were not aggressive enough:
“The failure of the Yes campaign to carry its argument was fundamentally because the dominant forces that had endorsed it had only grudgingly accepted its main elements. These were the partial recognition of the historic demands of Canada’s two oppressed peoples, the Quebecois and Native peoples….”
“It is time for the Left to learn the lessons. The tragedy was that the Yes campaign was left largely to the politicians. And they botched it royally.”
In order to justify calling for a YES, the preferred option of the bulk of the ruling class, the IS points to the rightist character of much of the opposition to the deal:
“It was the Reform Party and its kindred spirits in the Alliance for the Preservation of English in Canada (APEC), the National Citizens Coalition, COR and the Christian Heritage Party who defined the politics of the No campaign throughout English speaking Canada.”
The racist nature of the NO campaign as portrayed in IS publications is the standard “lesser evil” argument which opportunists traditionally use to rationalize political support to one capitalist politician over another. The NO vote was a rejection of the political status quo, as Gotlieb relates. It was not purely an expression of reaction, as the IS would perhaps like to imagine.
If, as the IS asserts, the defeat of the Charlottetown corporate agenda of decentralized federalism constituted a “setback for working class unity,” then a YES vote would presumably have qualified as a victory for the oppressed. Action Socialiste is far too generous in describing the IS call for a YES vote as an indication of “superior political sensibilities” to the dangers of Anglo chauvinism. In reality, it was a reflection of opportunist appetites in the direction of the radical–liberal milieu that constitutes the left wing of the NDP. Socialist Worker’s praise of the NDP for having “challenged the racism and the Reform Party’s bigoted arguments from the left” is an indication of a certain sensibility, but hardly a superior one.
It is simply not true, as the IS claims, that the only way to challenge the racist Reform Party campaign was to vote YES to Mulroney. Our campaign for an independent class–struggle opposition to the corporate constitutional reform agenda, and the reactionary Quebec nationalist/Anglo–chauvinist NO campaign, is proof of that.
Mandelites in the NO Camp
The Canadian supporters of Ernest Mandel’s pseudo–Trotskyist United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USec) professed to find it “shocking to see the IS…give critical support to the ruling class constitutional plan” (Socialist Challenge, December 1992). Having seen the IS celebrate the victory of counterrevolution in the USSR, we are not shocked. But things stand a bit differently with the members of Gauche Socialiste/Socialist Challenge who stood with the IS on Yeltsin’s side of the barricades. A small dose of opportunism shocks them, and leaves a bitter taste in their mouths, but they can swallow counterrevolution whole without flinching.
In a mild polemic directed against the IS’s support to the constitutional package, the December 1992 issue of Socialist Challenge whines that the IS:
“more or less completely ignores the need for radical democratic/institutional reform (constituent assemblies, equal representation for women and a system of proportional representation) which could create more favourable opportunity for struggle”.
This radical democratic/institutional reform of the Canadian imperialist state recalls the revisionist perspectives of Bernstein, Kautsky et al. that Lenin fought within the Second International. These pseudo–Trotskyist liberals have no intention of leading any revolutionary assaults, nor would they be fit for leadership were they accidentally swept along in any revolutionary upsurge. They can only mislead.
In the “What We Stand For” column printed in their newspaper, Gauche Socialiste/Socialist Challenge (GS/SC) proclaim:
“The capitalist class will employ its police, courts, bureaucracy and army to attack democratic and egalitarian change. Therefore, the capitalist state must be broken up and replaced by democratically elected institutions of the working class and its allies.”
So which is it? Do they want to defend the bourgeois state or overthrow it? Leftists within SC/GS no doubt tell themselves that they don’t really believe all the social–democratic drivel that their leaders put out about the constitution, but that it was a smart tactical move to adjust their arguments in accordance with the prevailing social–democratic prejudices of the masses. The road to reformism is paved with such “smart” tactics.
TL Worries About the Future of Canada
In arguing for a NO vote, Socialist Challenge/ Gauche Socialiste ended up advocating the strengthening of the regulatory powers of an imperialist state. The Trotskyist League, which also called for a NO vote, contended that the Charlottetown Accord was an instrument designed to strengthen, not weaken, the federal Canadian state.
The TL’s international leadership has begun to voice concerns about the future of the Canadian state, and in a recent document speculates that: “the country itself may be about to fall apart” (Spartacist, No. 47–48, Winter 1992–93). The Robertsonites view this prospect with some alarm and pledge in advance that:
“if defeat for the accord produces the much–predicted disintegrative effects on the federation, we would oppose the break–up of English Canada which at present could only strengthen the power of U.S. imperialism against the working people of North America and the world.”
—TL statement, 30 September 1992
So it would seem that the Robertsonites are toying with the national–Trotskyist tradition of Ross Dowson. This is of a piece with their attempt to rewrite their position on the 1988 Free Trade deal between Ottawa and Washington (see below). For our part we do not consider that Canadian workers have a vital interest in holding their “own” imperialist country together.