Confederation and class struggle

A history of resistance in Quebec from British conquest to the 2012 student strikes and beyond
May 1, 2017

After a long period of colonial subjugation, the 18th century witnessed the establishment of independent states in the Americas. Latin American revolutions and the fight for independence in the United States eradicated colonial power while developing various more or less atrophied forms of the republican state. In the case of Canada, however, history took a different turn. Unique in the Americas, the colonial state and monarchy imposed by the British Empire on Canadian territories at the turn of the 18th century was not overthrown.

After conquering the lands inhabited by colonists of French ancestry in 1760, the British Empire withstood upheavals resulting from conflicts with the United States. It also faced internal resistance. The colonial economy, based on the plundering and exploitation of resources, was extremely profitable, while the Empire's administrative costs remained relatively low. A subordinate class of British colonists formed quite a powerful barrier against Francophone peasants and Aboriginal communities, who constituted a majority demographically but were powerless due to the dismantling of their national and governmental structures. Another factor working in the Empire's favour was the fact that Francophone clerical elites were won over to the colonial power by being given residual power over the people with respect to language, religion and the legal system. As Gilles Bourque explains (translated):

By overthrowing the external economic structure of the French colony, the change of regime disrupted the class structure of French Canadian society. It caused the disintegration of the French Canadian bourgeois class and put in place a reactionary elite unsuited to capitalist development, the clerical aristocracy, whose economic resources were based on real property. This new situation would result in an imbalance that directly affected the French Canadian population, which consisted of a peasant class and an embryonic proletariat. It would lead to economic and intellectual stagnation, thereby increasing the hardships the population would in any case have suffered from the Conquest.

But the conquest gave rise to new contradictions, too. In the first half of the 19th century, a burgeoning local elite, both Francophone and Anglophone, began to develop. The reformist faction of this elite was particularly strong along the shores of the St. Lawrence. Beside it there existed a vast and increasingly landless peasantry and an urban multitude forced into the towns by rural misery. These social groups began to join forces around 1830. 

Despite the best efforts and hopes of the Empire, the turmoil turned into a storm. A powerful popular coalition called for “responsible government,” i.e., transfer of the spending power to the elected assembly where the Patriote party of Louis-Joseph Papineau, a representative of the French Canadian elite, held sway. The aims were quite moderate at first, but they took a more radical turn in the face of an inflexible Empire and its local supporters. The latter were comprised of wealthier English merchants who had taken control of the local economy, backed by a multitudeorganized into armed bands in urban centres, including Montreal and Quebec City. The colonial authority also benefited from the unwavering support of the local Catholic hierarchy, which was extremely hostile to the Patriotes' aspirations. 

After repeated attempts at negotiation, independentist and anti-imperialist sentiment took hold among a majority of the Patriotes. It should be noted that the movement forged links with some (minority) factions among British colonists in Upper Canada (beyond the Ottawa River), as well as Irish colonists, who were fleeing, in great numbers, the misery imposed on Ireland by the Empire. The Patriotes formed a coalition around a project aimed at ending privilege and discrimination (including against Aboriginals), abolishing the seigneurial system, the separation of Church and State, and, above all, the end of colonial power. Gatherings of several thousand people took place in Montreal and its northern and southern suburbs. The demands of the Patriotes became the centre of a genuine mass movement (see box).

Battle of St. Eustache, a painting by Lord Charles Beauclerk (Dec. 14, 1837).

The appeal of the Patriotes

“We declare that the people of Lower Canada are absolved of any allegiance to Great Britain; Lower Canada must take the form of a republican government; that under a free government, all citizens shall have the same rights; the Aboriginals…shall enjoy the same rights as other citizens; any union between the Church and the State is declared abolished, and every person has the right to freely practise the religion and belief that his conscience dictates; feudal or seigneurial tenure is abolished; imprisonment for debt is abolished; there shall be full and entire freedom of the press in all public matters and affairs; the French and English languages shall be used in all public matters.”

~ Extract (translated) from the proclamation of independence, February 1838

Although it had deep roots and broad appeal, the rebellion in Lower Canada was defeated. Hopes it might be joined by republican movements in Upper Canada (around Toronto's popular mayor William Lyon Mackenzie) were not fulfilled. Moreover, in Lower Canada, the Empire, then at the height of its power, had undeniable military superiority. 

On the Patriotes' side there were divisions. One part of the movement hoped to negotiate with the colonial power by minimizing its demands and relying on the support of reformist elements within the Empire. The radicals were ill prepared. The masses were ready to participate, but their networks were poorly organized. Meanwhile, the leaders of the rebellion naively counted on support from the United States, whom they assumed would be attracted to an opportunity to weaken British power.

For the Empire there was no question of compromise. It was never going to negotiate the creation of an independent, republican state with a Francophone majority, since this would have broken up the colony and supplied an example that other peoples under British rule might try to emulate.   

Divide and rule: the British North America Act

After eliminating the republican threat, the Empire made efforts to change the demographic situation by accelerating the arrival of English, Scottish and Irish colonists to Quebec. At the same time, the colonial power united Lower Canada and Upper Canada, which had an English-speaking majority, into a single colony. In doing so, Britain created a firewall against the aspirations of the Francophone masses.  

After the harsh repression that was visited upon the St. Lawrence Valley, the popular classes were considerably weakened and the Patriotes increasingly divided. Meanwhile, the British Empire was consolidating its hold over vast territories in the west and dealing with various Aboriginal rebellions. After consulting widely, Britain, under pressure from English reformists (the Whigs), accepted the concept of “responsible government,” provided colonial interests were safeguarded with respect to commercial and geopolitical matters. In this regard, Bourque writes (translated):

Caught between British imperialism and the formidable development of American capitalism, the colonial Canadian bourgeoisie, dominated by commercial and banking interests, was driven to the creation of a national state. It had to find a national market, and this involved not only the development of trade within the national space, but also the domestication and reproduction in situ of a work force that found the American factories very attractive. 

These events set the stage for the British North America Act of 1867, from which Canada emerged as an independent state, but one strongly linked to the Empire. This new state was founded by the British colonial elite, which was in the process of becoming a capitalist bourgeoisie. 

The "divide and rule" strategy fragmented the subjugated populations by co-opting one faction of the elites, even if it meant granting them subsidiary powers. This compromise was acceptable also because the new Canadian institutions (the Dominion) remained within the tradition of colonial and monarchical authoritarianism, where power is concentrated in the federal state. “All the major sources of tax income were handed over to Ottawa,” writes historian Alfred Dubuc (translated). 

For those in Quebec who subscribed to this project, such as George-Étienne Cartier, the creation of Canada appeared to protect the Francophone elites by granting the new province autonomy in matters of language, the legal system (civil law) and religion. In reality, Confederation enshrined subjugation. As Stanley Bréhaut Ryerson explains: 

The British monarchical configuration of the colonial dominion proclaimed a British (and Anglo-Canadian) ascendancy; the demographic pattern (since 1850) of an English-speaking majority and a permanent minority position for the French Canadians was reflected in limited linguistic-religious concessions to the latter as a "cultural minority" and denial of political recognition as a national entity; while the economic thrust of expansion through railway-building and manufactures, which the unitary state structure was to subserve, tied the society in its growth to the English and United States capitalist markets—with both of which English Canadians possessed the kindred connections that French Canadian business lacked. The "business democracy" of 1867 was weighted in favour of the Anglo-Canadian capitalist class that was its architect. 

A state of exception

In all the years that followed, the mandate of the new state was to manage a permanent state of exception that gave the federal government exorbitant powers. This state did not hesitate to use violence against the population, as in the west against the Métis people (1869 and 1884). The Dominion of Canada, moreover, continued to back up the Empire in its military adventures abroad, as in the Boer War, and later the imperialist butchery of 1914-18. The First World War gave rise to powerful demonstrations that were suppressed by the army in the very heart of Montreal. In general, the state had no tolerance for unions and disrupted them by repression (as in Winnipeg in 1919). 

Outside of Quebec this intolerance took on an anti-Francophone-minority character as communities lost their schools and independent cultural institutions. At the same time, and despite the "compromise" negotiated by the Francophone elites, the powers of the provinces atrophied. This hindered the process of nation-building. The dominant English Canadians were unable to develop a real Canadian identity. In Quebec, Francophones, despite the defeat of 1837-38, continued to harbour aspirations with regard to their identity that, while certainly altered by the clerical and bourgeois elite, stood in opposition to the Canadian state. 

Meanwhile, capitalism, by developing unequally, gave impetus to regional bourgeoisies in Quebec and other peripheral regions of Canada. These businessmen attempted to expand their spheres of acquisition while trying to oppose not only the federal state but also the large monopolies that developed in Toronto and Montreal. The result, according to Bourque, was that “the Canadian state was divided, i.e., it allowed for the strengthening of multiple regional bases of acquisition that slowed the deepening and broadening of pan-Canadian capitalist acquisition” (translated).

The federal power, exerted through a subordinated political class, was eventually challenged in Quebec by a disparate alliance of nationalists, reformists and conservatives, spurred on by Action libérale nationale. The power of the Canadian and Quebec elites was still strong, particularly since the Catholic hierarchy hindered the development of social movements. Furthermore, a kind of neo-nationalism arose in the form of a retrograde and conservative ideology inspired by Catholic circles on the right. This group was not afraid to associate with movements taking inspiration from Franco and Mussolini. 

All this culminated in the election of Maurice Duplessis and the Union nationale in 1936. His coming to power had multiple consequences. Immediately, Duplessis consolidated repressive power based on the clerical apparatus. By adopting a nationalist rhetoric, he blocked a possible intersection between national demands and social struggles. This was aided by the fact the political left, both in Canada and in Quebec, remained unresponsive on the national question. The creation of the Quebec identity became part and parcel of the defence of the reactionary values of "God-Family-Country." 

Duplessis in 1957 (Bilan du Siècle, University of Sherbrooke)

For the Canadian ruling classes this turn of affairs was a godsend. Despite squabbles between Ottawa and Quebec, the state apparatus contained Francophone demands within a reactionary frame. A provincial quasi–police state in Quebec ensured law and order to the benefit of a handful of English Canadian capitalists who dominated the economy. During this “great darkness,” the people of Quebec were mired in poverty, ignorance and dependence. Repression against social movements, especially the unions, was at the heart of the ideological system sustained by the powerful structure of the Church and reaching into all components of civil society. The development of capitalism in Canada pursued its course. Little by little, the Canadian state gained independence from a declining British Empire. An English Canadian bourgeoisie diversified its interests through industrialization and resource exploitation.  

In large measure, Quebec was the poor sibling of this consolidation of capitalism. The clerical elite feared the effects of a modernization that seemed intrinsically linked to industrialization and urbanization, since its social base remained rural and farm-based. In this context, the federal state focused its resources on the economic development of Ontario, which became the centre of heavy industry and, soon after, a powerful financial hub, relegating the Quebec economy to a subordinate position. According to Dorval Brunelle, this kind of development involved: “a twofold articulation between the U.S. economy and provincial resources on the one hand, and between U.S. policy and Canadian policy on the other. Federal policy guaranteed the expansion of a continental economy whose power brokers were in Washington” (translated). 

New fractures, new struggles 

After the Second World War, a period of accelerated acquisition for Canadian capitalism opened up in the wake of the new American empire, with its powerful economic, political, military and cultural resources. This development, and the Keynesian policies underlying it, involved adjustments in the method of public administration. With the rise of an industrial sector, Canada’s economic structure became more diversified. However, the class composition of the popular sectorswas altered by proletarianization and urbanization. For the Canadian ruling class, reforms were necessary so that this new system of controlwould include the popular classes in the revival of acquisition, while preventing political losses to the left.  

In Quebec, however, the situation got out of hand. First, the clerical-reactionary elite was destabilized. New bourgeois factions took their place in the development of government structures, allying themselves with rising elements among the lower bourgeoisie. This convergence created the new leadership of the so-called Quiet Revolution, which captured provincial power under the banner of the Liberal Party (1960). Soon the reformism of the équipe du tonnerre of Jean Lesage and René Lévesque revived nationalism on a new foundation, where demands were presented in the context of modernizing the state and popular empowerment.  

Canadian elites believed it was necessary to defeat this new Quebec neo-nationalism. To this end, the Canadian government accelerated reforms. The political establishment was refreshed around the charismatic figure of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who claimed to be preserving Canadian unity by giving new impetus to the policies of bilingualism, multiculturalism and the integration of Francophones into the federal government. In Quebec, social resistance rose to new heights on the back of bitter strikes by workers and students. In October 1970, Trudeau lost credibility by sending in the army on the pretext of an “apprehended insurrection.” Then, in the 1976 election, the Parti Québécois (PQ) took office.  

Immediately, the PQ reassembled a broad class alliance. Its leadership came from a small, rising bourgeoisie, yet its base was populist, both in the urban centres and rural areas, where social concerns joined with the cause of national emancipation. Far from retrograde nationalism, people were resisting the evident consequences of subjugation by a bourgeois Canadian elite: systemic discrimination, overexploitation, underdevelopment of infrastructure, and a disdainful symbolic and cultural system wherein Francophones remained half-civilized in the view of Canadians. 

At the start of the PQ government, reforms were adopted to respond to these popular aspirations. Meanwhile, the bourgeois sectors of Quebec did not join the coalition, despite encouragement from the PQ leadership, which wanted to make the Quebec state the lever for building a national capitalism. In fact, as Bourque framed it, the PQ wanted "to deepen the base of acquisition in Quebec without challenging imperialism and without dismantling Canadian space." Despite this attempt to find a compromise, the project came up against fierce opposition outside Quebec. The federal government embarked upon a wide-ranging strategy to defeat the PQ, which it succeeded in doing in the 1980 referendum.  

In reality, two processes came together in the federal government's strategy. The clash with neo-nationalism was especially important due to the fact capitalism, both in Canada and around the world, was beginning a long decline. The ruling class initiated a thorough reorganization that involved the dilution of Keynesian policies. This necessitated bringing societies to heel, to make them accept, willingly or by force, the switch to neoliberalism. Squeezed by these pressures, and the reduction of its financial resources, the PQ government reneged on a large part of its social commitments. The PQ's rhetoric also changed, as during the constitutional negotiations of 1982, but this in no way reduced the determination of the ruling classes to destroy the party.  

The Canadian elite was convinced that controlling the entirety of its territory was indispensable to the power of the state and to Canadian capitalism as a whole. This conviction was shared by an imperial U.S. government, which, despite the attempts of PQ leaders to present sovereignty as a "safe" project, remained solidly allied with the Canadian state. The 1982 negotiations, which took place without the participation of the PQ government, produced a new Constitution supported by Trudeau, but with little legitimacy in Quebec. 

At the turn of the 1980s, the PQ lost its cohesion, allowing the Quebec Liberal Party to return to power. On the national question, this party, in concert with the new Conservative government in Ottawa, tried once and for all to defeat hopes for independence by proposing a new constitutional compromise: the Meech Lake Accord. The federal government hoped the defeat of the national movement would open the door to co-optation of the elites, especially the provincial bourgeoisie the PQ had courted without success.  

While disposing of the national question, the federal strategy aimed to accelerate the dismantling of Keynesianism by downloading various social functions to provincial governments, thereby mollifying Quebec nationalism. This failed due to opposition from part of the Canadian political class (the Trudeau faction of the federal Liberal Party, as well as the NDP), which feared that decentralization of the federation would weaken the federal state. The federal Liberals returned to power in 1993, determined to oppose Quebec's demands.  

Final efforts toward sovereignty  

In 1994, the constitutional impasse produced another PQ victory at the polls. A new coalition was formed that included Quebec’s unions. The response from the regional bourgeoisie was tepid. In the wake of major transformations, this group was interested mainly in becoming part of the North American market. Considering its weaknesses (compared to the wider Canadian and American bourgeoisie), it knew it needed the Quebec government, but not to the point of provoking a destabilizing rupture.  

Meanwhile, the federal government and Canada’s ruling factions acted in the same way as they had in 1980—by ensuring, through threats, intimidation and manipulation, that the free choice of Quebecers could not be exercised. The PQ emerged from its 1995 defeat even more weakened than from the first referendum, enabling a conservative political operative named Lucien Bouchard to take control of the party. The PQ, said Bouchard, had to “be a good manager,” which meant administering the nostrum of neoliberalism. In 2003, the party’s populist base collapsed and the Quebec Liberal Party, led by ex-Conservative Jean Charest, returned to power.

  Protest against austerity in Montreal, April 2015 (Eduardo Fonseca Arraes) 

At the federal level, the government intensified neoliberal policies during this time, including massive cuts to provincial transfers for health and education programs, and closer alignment with the United States in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Meanwhile, the federal Liberal Party set in motion a gigantic campaign to neutralize nationalism through schemes involving corruption and manipulation.  

At the turn of the new millennium, confrontations again shook up the elite consensus in Quebec. Hundreds of popular and union demonstrations took place after the return of the Liberals to the national assembly in Quebec City. A major student strike in 2005 enjoyed wide popular support. In 2012, more student action led to the largest citizen's movement of the contemporary era. The Liberals were defeated in that fall's election, but the PQ could only take a minority of seats in the national assembly. A new leftist party, Québec Solidaire, tripled its popular vote in that election and continues to grow. As always, the class struggle is bound up with political conflict, where aspirations for social emancipation are inextricably linked with those for national emancipation. 

The situation today, however, is quite static. Since regaining power in 2014, the Quebec Liberal Party has returned to its authoritarian and neoliberal ways. But it has been forced to put water in its wine because of pressure from unions, who formed a broad public sector front in 2016 that does not appear to be backing down, even if it is having difficulty finding new paths of activism. The ecological movement has the most momentum, particularly in opposing pipeline projects endorsed by the Trudeau government (despite the Prime Minister’s promises to green the Canadian economy). There will be new and larger confrontations in 2017. For the moment, the national question is on the back burner, simmering. If history is our guide, we can expect it to boil again before too long.

Pierre Beaudet teaches at the University of Ottawa and is the editor of Les Nouveaux Cahiers du socialisme, where a version of this article first appeared in 2013. It was translated for the Monitor by Frank Bayerl.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.