CANADA: Quebec's new united left party

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

BY RICHARD FIDLER

OTTAWA — The past year has been a busy one for a new left-wing party, the Union des Forces Progressistes (UFP — Union of Progressive Forces) in Quebec, Canada's French-speaking province.

Founded in 2002, the party fielded candidates in 73 of the province's 125 electorates in the April general election. It campaigned around a radical program centred on opposition to the US-led war on Iraq, support for Quebec sovereignty, against capitalist austerity in Canada, for the expansion of social programs and defence of immigrants and workers. Although none were elected in Quebec's first-past-the-post system, UFP candidates won an average of almost 2% of the vote in the electorates the party contested, and as high as 18% in one.

Since its electoral debut, the UFP, which styles itself as a "party of the streets and the ballot boxes", has embarked on an ambitious set of campaigns and activities aimed at building its influence and support within the mass movements.

The UFP is developing in a province where there is no labour or social-democratic party and where support for Quebecois national independence is again on the rise. The Parti Quebecois (PQ), the pro-sovereignty bourgeois party that has governed Quebec with support from a wide range of trade union and nationalist activists for 18 of the past 28 years, is now in crisis following its defeat in the election. The right-wing agenda being implemented by the newly elected Liberal government is beginning to meet with mass opposition.

The initial impetus for the formation of the UFP came from an informal coalition of left-wing organisations — the Rassemblement pour l'alternative Progressiste (RAP), the Quebec Communist Party and the Parti de la Democratie Socialiste (PDS), all of which became affiliated "entities" or formal tendencies within the UFP. The RAP, a left pro-independence party, has since dissolved as an independent current within the UFP.

The PDS — a radical remnant of the Quebec wing of the New Democratic Party, Canada's labour party, and which included Gauche Socialiste, the Fourth International section in Quebec — is now the "Quebec Socialiste" entity.

More recently, the International Socialists have affiliated, and IS leader David Fennario was a UFP election candidate in April.

However, most of the UFP's 2000 or so members are not aligned with any of these formations. Many are activists in the anti-war and altermondialiste (anti-globalisation) movements.

The UFP's structures reflect both the regroupment process that led to its creation and the admiration that many members feel for Brazil's Workers Party, which likewise has a federated structure.

In addition to the organised "entities", commissions or caucuses are allowed "on the basis of common affinities" and are entitled to a delegate on the party's governing council.

International solidarity

At conventions held in June 2002 and February 2003, the UFP hammered together a platform with around a dozen or so major themes, including:

  • Opposition to neoliberal globalisation and support for international solidarity; rejection of free-trade agreements, including the Free Trade Area of the Americas; cancellation of Third World debts; support to the Palestinian people; opposition to the economic blockade of Cuba; and respect for the right of self-determination of all peoples.

  • Massive reinvestment in health, education and other social services; integration of private schools and health clinics into the public sector; free public education, including at the university level; free quality child care; and a massive program of public housing construction and renovation.

  • Comprehensive environmental controls; collective ownership and management of all natural resources; adoption of the "polluter-pays" principle; investment in alternative energy; sustainable agriculture and the phasing out of industrial farms; and priority for public transport.

  • A 35-hour maximum work week without loss of income; support for trade union rights; and protection for self-employed and unorganised workers.

  • Opposition to all discrimination against immigrants and special assistance to refugees.

  • Right of First Nations (aboriginal peoples) to self-determination, "up to and including their independence".

The February convention unanimously adopted a platform proposed by the UFP women's commission, which was largely based on the demands advanced by the World March of Women. It includes demands for pay equity and fully paid maternity and paternity leave, expansion of women's shelters, an end to discrimination against lesbians, transsexuals and prostitutes, and free access to abortion and contraception.

National question

Although the UFP has yet to develop a rounded position on the Quebecois national question, its platform states that "the solution to this question will necessitate the obtaining of sovereignty" by Quebec.

"Independence", it states, "is not an end in itself for those who promote it, but a means for realising our social agenda. Popular sovereignty will be exercised through the creation of the Constituent Assembly...

"The UFP supports a modern concept of the nation, defined as the human community living in Quebec, having French as the official language of communication in its institutions and at work, sharing a set of laws and social conventions, and enriched by its cultural diversity."

The UFP recently won an important victory when the Conseil de la Souverainete (Council on Sovereignty, CS), a coalition of Quebec sovereignty groups established under the aegis of the PQ to campaign for a sovereign Quebec, was forced by public pressure to reverse its initial exclusion of the UFP and allow the fledgling party to designate a representative on the council. The first public forum organised by the CS, held in Montreal on November 17, included Amir Khadir, a UFP leader, as one of the panelists.

PQ governments have held two referendums on sovereignty. The first, in 1980, registered 40% support for Quebec's sovereignty, coupled with a form of subsequent association with the Canadian state. In 1995, on a similar question, the "yes" side almost won, with 49.2% of the vote, including a substantial majority among the French-speaking population.

Since then, the federal government in Ottawa has sought through court rulings, legislation, the exercise of its spending power and media campaigns to undermine support for independence and to rule out Quebec's ability to achieve even minimal recognition as a distinct nation under the Canadian constitution.

The PQ government's failure to mount an effective response to this offensive was a major factor in its April election defeat — PQ support fell by almost 500,000 votes and by almost 10%. The abstention rate was the highest since the 1920s.

Public opinion polls in recent months have confirmed that pro-sovereignty sympathy remains substantial, however, with support for the question put to voters in the 1995 referendum almost as high as it was then. Support for Quebec independence is highest among young people, and is gaining among those of immigrant and Anglophone origin educated in the French-language public-school system.

Campaigns and activities

At its November 1-2 meeting, the UFP's council took stock of its current campaigns and mapped out its major activities in the coming months. At the top of the list is the issue of electoral reform, a major issue in Quebec.

The PQ advocated proportional representation, but in government its ministers scuttled a draft bill to implement it. The new Liberal government has promised to introduce limited proportional representation next year, but it is already clear that its bill will fall short of the recommendations adopted earlier this year by a broad coalition of grassroots organisations.

The UFP has launched a province-wide information tour on the issue, featuring Paul Cliche, one of the party's founding leaders and author of a major book on proportional representation. The party is also circulating a petition calling for public consultations on the issue, proposing male-female parity in representation, regional weighting and speedy implementation of electoral reform.

On October 21, Jack Layton, federal leader of the New Democratic Party, held a joint news conference with the UFP to express his solidarity with the UFP's campaign for proportional representation.

The UFP is an officially recognised party in Quebec, and half of its election campaign expenses will be reimbursed by the state as its popular vote surpassed the requisite threshold.

Another major activity is a continuing campaign on the need to unify and coalesce what the UFP refers to as the "social and political left". During the Quebec election, the UFP signed a non-aggression pact with the Parti Vert (Green Party) although half the PV's 36 candidates ran in electorates contested by the UFP.

In November, the UFP participated in meetings sponsored by D'abord Solidaires, a group of activists from the women's and social movements, to encourage them to join with the UFP in building an "independentist, feminist, ecologist and internationalist political left capable of resisting the neoliberal offensive".

The UFP is an active component of the broad coalition, Echec a la Guerre (Block the War), that organised the huge demonstrations of more than 200,000 in Quebec earlier this year in opposition to the war on Iraq. It calls for unconditional withdrawal of the occupation armies and the withdrawal of Canadian and other foreign troops from Afghanistan.

Other major UFP campaigns include participation in the mass opposition movement developing against the Liberal government's cutbacks in social services, health and education, in favour of mass public transport expansion and against the planned privatisation of water supplies.

A particularly thorny question in the next period is the government's proposal to allow municipalities that were amalgamated into major cities to hold referendums to recreate separate towns and cities. Since many of the municipalities wanting to "defuse" are predominantly Anglophone, the "defusion" issue is a veiled expression of the longstanding proposal by Anglo extremists to "partition off" ethnic enclaves as part of "Canada" in the event of Quebec secession.

The UFP opposes defusion except in the case of outlying municipalities where the issue is not language or tax avoidance for the wealthy but simply democratic representation.

For more information on the UFP, visit <http://www.ufp.qc.ca>.

From Green Left Weekly, December 10, 2003.

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