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Henry Milner (1978) Politics in the New Quebec

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Henry Milner


Politics in

the New Quebec

Un document produit en version numérique par Mme Marcelle Bergeron, bénévole

Professeure à la retraite de l’École Dominique-Racine de Chicoutimi, Québec

Courriel :

Dans le cadre de: "Les classiques des sciences sociales"

Une bibliothèque numérique fondée et dirigée par Jean-Marie Tremblay,

professeur de sociologie au Cégep de Chicoutimi
Site web:
Une collection développée en collaboration avec la Bibliothèque

Paul-Émile-Boulet de l'Université du Québec à Chicoutimi

Site web:

Un document produit en version numérique par Mme Marcelle Bergeron, bénévole,

professeure à la retraite de l’École Dominique-Racine de Chicoutimi, Québec.

Courriel :

Henry Milner.
Une édition électronique réalisée à partir du texte de Henry Milner. Politics in the New Quebec. Toronto: McLelland and Stewart Ltd., 1978, 257 pp.

[Autorisation accordée par l'auteur le 28 mai 2006 de diffuser ce livre dans Les Classiques des sciences sociales.]

Courriel :
Polices de caractères utilisés :
Pour le texte : Times New Roman, 12 points.

Pour les citations : Times New Roman 10 points.

Pour les notes de bas de page : Times New Roman, 10 points.

Édition électronique réalisée avec le traitement de textes Microsoft Word 2003 pour Macintosh.

Mise en page sur papier format

Lettre (US letter), 8.5’’ x 11’’)

Édition complétée le 21 mars, 2007 à Chicoutimi, Ville de Saguenay, Québec.

Henry Milner
Politics in the New Quebec

Politics in the New Quebec

With up-to-the-minute information on how the Parti québécois functions within Quebec's political framework, here is a thorough examination of Quebec's political system and the forces that shape and sustain it. A foremost expert on the subject brings his informed perspective to the present and immediate past to clarify the structures and processes of Quebec politics. He includes appropriate sketches of the historical, social, and economic contexts. There are chapters on Quebec nationalism, the Quebec state, its economy, social classes (especially the new middle class), the political right, the Liberals, the Parti québécois, labour, the strongly entrenched extra-Parliamentary left, municipal politics (Montreal) and, finally, current conflicts and concerns – especially the complex question of Quebec's and Canada's relationships with each other.

Henry Milner is Professor of Political Science, Vanier College, Montreal, and is Quebec correspondent for the Chicago weekly newspaper In These Times. He is co-author of The Decolonization of Quebec.



Chapter I. The Evolution of National Consciousness

Chapter II. Economy and Social Class

Chapter III. The Quebec State

Chapter IV. The Crisis of the State and the New Middle Class

Chapter V. The Right in Quebec Politics

Chapter VI. The Quebec Liberals

Chapter VII. The Parti Québécois

Chapter VIII. Quebec Labour in Politics

Chapter IX. The Extra-Parliamentary Left

Chapter X. New Politics in Montreal
Epilogue. Quebec and Canadian Unity
Selected Readings

To Danny and Paul


To table of contents

Among the various reactions the publication of this book may invite, one is certain. It will bring relief to a score of my friends and colleagues. They are finally spared from any further appeals for assistance of the kind they have become accustomed to receiving from me these past eight months.

Among those whose editorial assistance and advice on content and style proved both invaluable and timely are : Jon Alexander, Hugh Armstrong, Arthur Milner, Gerry Tennenbaum, Pat Armstrong, Peter Findlay, Linda James, Abe Limonchik, Arnold Bennett, Marsha Hewitt, Marcel Rioux, Andy Lawless, Carla Lipsig, John Mumme, David Payne, Bill Freeman, Stephen Schecter, David Walter and Dorothy McIntosh. Diana Swift was a great source of strength in her editorial capacity with McClelland and Stewart, and Debbie Pion was steadfast and patient in typing the several drafts of the manuscript-ably assisted on occasion by Linda Alexander and Mary Cannizzaro.

The responsibility for any errors and omissions of course lies entirely with the author. (Nevertheless, if there is anything glaring, you'd think one of them would have caught it.) Errors aside, what really matters is that the final product prove worthy of their contribution ; for I could not have done it without them.

Henry Milner


December 1977


To table of contents

Quebec Politics keeps forcing its attentions upon us. This is nothing new ; it goes back at least as far as 1837. But until not too long ago the pattern was one of an explosion of one kind or another, followed by many years of quiet.

These days, the explosions seem continuous. First it was FLQ terrorism, then constitutional confrontations, then battles over language, then trade union struggles, then independentist political campaigns, then more trade union militancy, more language problems.... Finally, in November 1976, Quebecers elected a Parti Québécois government committed to independence for Quebec. And that didn't quieten matters by any means : no sooner was the new government installed than it launched the latest phase of the battle over the French language. Now that this controversy has (temporarily) subsided, Quebecers are getting ready for the great independence debate in preparation for the referendum scheduled for 1979. What next ?
For these last ten years, Quebec has forced its attention upon the author of this book who has been, in his own small way, a participant in some of the activities, and, more generally, an observer on the political scene. In 1973, Sheilagh Hodgins, Milner and this writer looked at Quebec's social history in The Decolonization of Quebec. 1 In its overall approach, this book takes off where Decolonization left off, only now the subject is Quebec politics. And a great deal has happened in Quebec in the intervening five years.
In addition, Decolonization was written by sympathetic observers who were, for all practical purposers, outside of the developments described therein. This is not quite the case here. Direct personal involvement in Quebec politics, however limited, is an undeniable aspect of the experience underlying the present work. Through that experience the writer has come to take positions on certain concrete political questions, and these positions cannot but emerge, especially in the later chapters of this book where the subject matter most closely parallels that experience. But how can that be ? Are we not all objective students of politics ? Isn't this, after all, a work of social or political science ?
The answer to that question is yes and no. This is indeed a work of social science ; but there is no such thing as objective or "value-free" social science. This is not to say that social analysis cannot be scientific. Quite the contrary. We have at our disposal standards of measurement and means for verifying and testing hypotheses so as to separate genuine social analysis from fantasy, distortion, and propaganda. One should not confuse scientific methods with objectivity. These methods determine neither what the analyst chooses to study, the analytical framework he or she will use, the relationship of the researcher to the individuals or groups being investigated, nor, finally, the use to which the results are put.
Because social science in general and political science in particular concern the lived-in world of man, a world we know to be divided into opposing classes and characterized by exploitation and sometimes by struggle, it cannot be "objective". As long as the underlying causes of class conflict exist, a social science that claims to be value-free is either mistaken or trivial. Meaningful social and political analysis enters the experiential world and takes sides. The only real distinction is whether the process is a conscious one or not. For us, the point of acquiring and disseminating meaningful knowledge about the world, as Marx put it so succinctly, is not merely to interpret the world – but to change it.
Ultimately, all social science must come down on one side or the other as a consequence of the analytical perspective or position it chooses to adopt. From the mainstream or "establishment" position, social reality is taken as presented ; it is explained, and hence justified, in terms of the status quo and thereby in the interests of those who benefit from that status quo. From the opposing or critical position one looks at the world not from the point of view of groups fundamentally satisfied with the status quo (and social scientists today in North America generally occupy a comparatively privileged position), but as it could be, voicing the anger and aspirations of the oppressed and exploited. The latter finds injustice and contradiction where the former sees a properly ordered universe. The critical observer looks upon the given situation not as something acceptable if at times a little regrettable, but with an intolerance for injustice and a deeper sense of hope. Critical analysis begins explaining a given social "problem" or political question in terms of the structure of interests served by the particular configuration of events and relations. Ultimately, it seeks to cast the analytical findings as instruments available to those exploited under the prevailing conditions in their struggles to change them.
Mainstream social science always appears objective because it is based upon the very assumptions built into the everyday lives of people in the existing system. Because critical work must challenge these assumptions, it is easily dismissed as biased or propagandistic. In fact, critical analysis per se is neither less nor more scientific than mainstream social science. There are no objective scientific criteria to determine from what perspective we are to view reality. Unlike mainstream social science – which assumes that what is is what should be and places the burden of proof upon those who feel otherwise – critical analysis looks at what is in terms of what can be and places the burden of proof on those who seek to justify existing conditions. The scientific validity of analyses from either perspective depends on the extent to which the explanations offered correspond to the facts as they are uncovered.
Critical analysis is clearly something that does not come naturally, especially to analysts trained in North American educational institutions. Simply to aspire to oppose establishment approaches is an insufficient basis for critical analysis. A clear break with the dominant mode of thought is required, and this is possible only through an alternate analytical framework. For us, it is in Marxism and the socialist critique of contemporary capitalist society – a critique that is by no means complete – that the germ of the framework required for our time and place is to be found.
A few centuries ago, liberalism, as expressed by the French philosophes, by Locke, by Jefferson, and others, had in it the seeds of a world view based on individual freedom that challenged the prevailing world order – an order based on land ownership and family and religious title. But that critique has long since worn thin. Liberal individualist ideas now primarily serve to legitimate the new contemporary corporate capitalist world order. And the individual right most carefully defended is the right to exploit.
Nor can we return to a "Platonic" conception for our inspiration, with its classical ideal of an organic community made up of different orders of humanity each playing their carefully laid out part and contributing to the perfection of the whole. Whatever its aesthetic appeal, this view has also been co-opted into the corporate dream, in the form of the organization man and the "smooth" society. Like liberalism it fails to provide a basis for a genuine critical analysis.
In mainstream political science, a modern marriage of the liberal and the organic, i.e., pluralism, has been envisioned. 1 To the pluralists, society is composed of competing groups operating within a broad consensus. The consensus results from the continued maintenance of societal equilibrium through the regulation of group activities and the settling of group differences. And the agent of such compromise is the "neutral" state apparatus, the government. A few years ago, pluralist society was envisaged by many established social scientists as history's answer to the ultimate questions – the basis for a modern utopia that lay at the "end of ideology." The widespread unrest that rocked these Western "utopias" – including Quebec – in the 1960's and early 1970's, put to rest the notion that oppression was coming to an end. In what (according to pluralist theory) should have been the most consensual of Western societies, the established political, economic, and cultural forms were challenged. And though this challenge has now subsided as a public force, the underlying weaknesses and problems have intensified and have become even more widely recognized.
The pluralist ideal, now severely tarnished, has not yet been replaced in contemporary political science : no more suitable theoretical basis for justifying the system in its own terms has yet emerged. Though it is no longer fashionable to speak of an end of ideology, the assumptions and preoccupations remain much the same. North American social science generally serves to legitimate and perpetuate the status quo. We are trained to see social reality in terms of itself, to seek reform only from within. But what if the system cannot be reformed from within ? Only by stepping outside the pluralist liberal-organic assumptions of mainstream social science can we escape the logic of the system and provide analysis and insight capable of serving to challenge existing power. This is true in general ; it is also true in relation to the question of Quebec.
This is why we must turn elsewhere for the required theoretical basis for a critical perspective. We have suggested that within the Western tradition Marxism provides the necessary alternative, attempting as it does to see the world dynamically – through the eyes of that class of people whose material conditions are such as to make them both exploited as well as potentially capable of overcoming that exploitation through concerted action. By stressing the material conditions of human existence and explaining their evolution over history, and by elaborating the socialist project for the ending of exploitation and the transformation of the existing order, Marxism escapes the categories of mainstream social thought.
The Marxism stripped of its critical edge that is today used to justify the ossification and bureaucratization of certain nominally "socialist" countries is unworthy and essentially irrelevant. Socialists must be on guard against those who would turn Marxism into a mechanistic dogma from which to defend a given ruling class or pseudo revolutionary group claiming to constitute a vanguard of a predetermined revolutionary upheaval. There is no inevitability in history : hopes for fundamental change are realized only when and because the mass of the people seize the possibilities inherent in a particular historical situation.
For our purposes, then, critical analysis within a Marxist theoretical perspective serves as a basis for explaining not only "how" but "why." It places us within the process of history and helps us to understand events and perhaps even anticipate them. And should we, as Marxism presupposes, choose to participate in that historical process through concrete action, it constitutes the framework for our "praxis," the process by which theory and practice are constantly tested against each other.
Critical political science breaks down disciplinary barriers and suggests the end of political science as we know it. 1 The increasing compartmentalization of mainstream social science is itself both evidence and consequence of its limitations. The maintenance of disciplinary frontiers effectively limits the possibility of genuinely critical social research and analysis. By its very definition, the study of politics from a Marxist perspective transcends such boundaries. And this book too thus contributes to the end of political science. Economics, sociology, and history are other academic disciplines directly touched upon by this work ; and, hopefully, it will be of use to those studying Quebec within one or another of these specializations.
Nevertheless, the primary focus of this book is Quebec politics. Historical and economic facts are considered as a means to this end. But to say this is merely to raise again the central theoretical question – only in a more concrete manner – for politics must itself be understood from within a critical perspective. Indeed, talk of a Quebec politics takes on a specific and subversive meaning as well. This becomes evident when our work is contrasted with the usual approach taken.
The standard political science text dealing with the politics of a given community starts out as a rule by assuming (as legitimate) the legally-sanctioned national status quo. When (infrequently) taught as a separate subject, Quebec politics is presented as concerning the particulars of one province or subunit within the Canadian nation-state or, to use the current jargon, the Canadian political system. There is no need to justify Quebec's subordinate status or the denial of its nationhood ; that is built into the analytical perspective and thus (unconsciously) assumed and placed beyond question. Of course these days Quebec nationalism is by no means ignored ; it is treated as constituting a serious problem of instability for the Canadian political system. In this specific case we see how mainstream Canadian political science simply reflects the conventional wisdom of the status quo. The problem of instability in the political system is merely academic jargon for the "threat to national unity," constantly evoked by established political figures.
This theoretical bias has concrete effects. First of all, it makes work in Quebec politics – like that in provincial politics generally – quite unattractive to students of political science. It is both incredible and yet perfectly understandable (and, incidentally, a motivating factor behind the writing of this book) that practically no systematic analytical works or even conventional textbooks on Quebec politics are to be found either in French or in English. This situation is particularly shocking when set against the growing number of important sociological, economic, and historical works. Second, and more generally, the built-in, status-quo orientation of the discipline has served to distort the reality it has portrayed. A dynamic collectivity is trapped in the static language of mainstream social science.
Another way of seeing this distinction is in terms of the (explicit or implicit) definition of politics with which one operates. The standard definition refers to politics as having to do with authoritative decision-making. Built into such a definition is the implicit identification of the unit of analysis on the basis of the authority of existing nation-states, that is, within the framework of the status quo.
This need not be the case if one adopts a different conception of politics. We too are concerned with decisions, that is choices among alternatives, but we start with the decisions taken by citizens as citizens. Citizenship is here conceived not as a legal concept but a social one : to be a citizen is to identify as a member of a collectivity or community. To take decisions as a citizen means to make choices, or attempt to, in the name of the collectivity, and in the public (political) arena that is created and maintained by the historical social existence of the collectivity. What makes decisions, and the actions around them, political is not their legal authority but the fact that the action is taken (or attempted) in the public arena and in the name of the collectivity. Because so much of this public activity has to do with the selection and actions of "legally constituted" governments, politics, for us as for other observers, has a lot to do with governments – but the relationship is an empirical one, not an a priori one.
Hence we begin to talk about politics only by situating the collectivity through the actions and consciousness of its people. For Quebec, as for all communities whose history is one of colonization 1 in one form or another, the very act of definition thus becomes subversive of existing authority. Let there be no doubt about it : the collectivity in question is a real national community. To put it simply, the study of Quebec politics is no other than the study of the politics of the Quebec nation. A nation in this context is understood, as Stanley Ryerson noted, as a "community of people linked by a common cultural linguistic historical experience of living and working together, whether or not in possession of their state". 2
The nation of Quebec has a clear territorial basis dating back to the early settlements on the shores of the St. Lawrence. The great majority of the members of this community live within the confines of the region roughly corresponding to the provincial boundaries and they make up the great majority therein. To those who would object that French Canada exists outside of Quebec as well, "coast to coast," let us note that however convincing this may be in principle – and it is less and less so in Quebec – it is being empirically disproven. In most parts of (English) Canada there is little of the vibrant infrastructure of a national community among those of French Canadian origin. Less than half of them today speak French at home, and the percentage varies directly with age, going down to one third in the youngest category. 3 Hence, the proportion of French Canadians living in Quebec has been steadily rising and may be expected to continue to do so. Demographer Jacques Henripin has predicted that by the year 2000, 92 to 95 per cent of all French Canadians will live in Quebec. 1 We shall thus regard the territory and population of the province of Quebec as being that of the nation of Quebec. The total population of Quebec at last count in June 1976 numbered 6,243,000 of which approximately 80 per cent were of French mother tongue, 12 per cent of English, and 7 per cent of other mother tongues.
Empirical studies repeatedly find confirmation of Quebec's national reality in the popular consciousness concluding, for example, that Quebecers demonstrate "more positive affect toward the provincial than the federal government", 2 or that, when asked their own nationality, "English students call themselves Canadians, while the French students prefer to set themselves apart as 'French Canadians' ". 3 Those uncertain as to whether there is a shared national identification among Quebecois need only immerse themselves for a short period in Quebec society to find out. They would have seen, for example, how the victory of the independentist Parti Québécois in November 1976 brought this underlying reality to the surface. It evoked an unmistakable national pride of accomplishment among the Quebecois – including many among the 59 per cent who voted for other parties and remained fearful of independence. Even for them, despite what they saw as probable negative practical consequences, the victory of the PQ constituted a victory for the Quebecois. It had resolutely asserted Quebec's collective reality. As the staunchly pro-federalist Quebec writer and publisher of Montreal's La Presse, Roger Lemelin, put it : "Many people had tears in their eyes and could not tell why”. 4
While the above point affirms Quebec's right to self-determination (the right of the nation to decide upon its own future), it is not in itself an argument for independence. Nevertheless it does place the burden of argument, if anywhere, on those who wish to retain the status quo rather than those who wish to change it. Such an approach flies in the face of the traditional, almost universal, negative attitude of (English) Canadians – the irritated "what does Quebec want anyway ?" stance. Fortunately, it appears that November 15, 1976 has done a great deal finally to shake this attitude.
The discussion begun here is continued in Chapter One where we outline the evolution of national consciousness in Quebec from its earliest days. We shall show that the expression of Quebec nationalism – its "we" (or rather nous) feeling, while taking various forms throughout the course of Quebec's development, was a constant and irreducible factor.
Starting out this way brings us back to our analytical perspective. How can a work claiming to be Marxist use the concept of the nation as a starting point ? Why have we concentrated on the Quebec nation in this discussion ? Have we not already stated that it is classes, groups of people in a particular relationship with the system of production of a society, that are the determining actors in the historical process ? Let us consider these questions. Social classes do in fact constitute the primary causal agents throughout the richness of history. We shall see in Chapter One that all the various forms of national expression that have emerged in Quebec have a specific class configuration, and that attempting to conceive of them outside this class configuration is to fall into an idealist trap – to assume that ideas enter our world in and of themselves, divorced from the real conditions of human existence. To say this, however, is not to condone the opposite fallacy. We have already cautioned against the reduction of Marxist analysis into a sterile determinism. In this instance, such a fallacy takes the form of simply reducing the expression of national aspirations to ideologies manipulated entirely and at will by certain classes. 1 Social classes give to the expression of nationalism its specific content, but they do not fabricate it out of nothing. Quebec's national reality is understood as an added dimension beyond that of class, in principle separate and distinct and yet in practice deeply interwoven. Most political struggles in Quebec have taken a national guise, not simply because it served the interests of a particular class (which it did) but because these class interests were set within the objective reality of colonization. As Ryerson noted,
While it is inseparable, historically, from class-structure and modes of production, the nation-community is more than just an 'aspect' of any one of them. This is so, because the nation-community embodies an identity, linguistic and cultural, that is not simply an 'effect' of class, however closely its evolution may be interwoven with the shifting patterns of class relations and struggles. National differences both antedate and postdate the era of the capitalist mode of production.... Maxime Rodinson argues that class and nation are inseparably operative : Both factors exist concurrently, and their respective potency has to be evaluated for each period, each zone, in the light of the concrete conditions. 2
To shelve the national question as irrelevant is, as Fernand Dumont points out, to fall victim to the kind of logic voiced in a speech in 1969 by J. B. Porteous, outgoing president of the Montreal Board of Trade that "we cannot consider the spread of language, religion and culture until Quebec's economic survival has been assured". 1 Dumont’s response, though characteristic idealistic, gets at the underlying germ of truth. "It is a little as though you told someone you would like to see working harder that in order to do so he must forget, for the moment, the very reason why he is working : his love for his wife and children, his faith, his highest motives for living. Would he work any harder ? The same is true of communities". 2
The discussion of the nation and nationalism is a prelude to the deeper theoretical treatment of class and state in Chapters Two to Four. But this theoretical discussion would in turn be abstract and removed from Quebec's historical development were it not informed of the national dimension. In Chapter Two, which outlines the general economic and class structure of Quebec, special attention is given to the national-linguistic element within it.
Chapter Three provides an analytical and descriptive introduction to the state in Quebec and, as such, develops a major conceptual theme of this work. The Quebec state will be shown to have become the chief instrument of Quebec nationalism, and, at the same time, to have emerged as the central arena for contestations between classes. As such, it is the key contemporary link between the Quebec nation and the politically relevant social classes.
Chapter Four links state and class – and therefore, indirectly, nation as well – by examining the resulting contradictions in the role the state must play in contemporary Quebec, and, in particular, the pivotal place of one stratum in it : the "state middle class." Our understanding of the nature of the state middle class and its relationship to the complex dynamic of class/nation/state explored in these early chapters, enables us to proceed logically and directly from the wider theoretical treatment therein to the more straightforward and factual discussion of political parties and groups that follows.
Chapters Five to Seven portray Quebec's political parties. Employing our insight into the relationship between Quebec politics and social classes, particularly the state middle class, we seek to explain the rise of the PQ and the social bases of its major factions (Chapter Seven), and the crisis situation the Liberals encountered in office from 1970 to 1976 (Chapter Six). In Chapter Five we investigate the apparent persistence of right-wing phenomena on the Quebec political spectrum.
Chapters Eight to Ten focus on political activities outside the boundaries of the provincial political parties. In particular, we look at the trade unions' contribution (Chapter Eight), and the part played by new parties on the urban political scene in Montreal, notably the Montreal Citizens' Movement (Chapter Ten). Chapter Nine provides a rather brief account of the main participants and events among the many and varied activities that have characterized extraparliamentary politics on the Quebec left.
The author's own political experience, as mentioned earlier, comes out most clearly in the discussion in Chapters Eight to Ten, and no doubt the tone and language will reflect this. One consequence of this, which the reader might take into consideration, is the possible over-emphasis on Montreal, the author's place of residence, as the scene of political action.
The concluding chapter looks at future prospects for Quebec and possible implications for the rest of Canada. Specifically, we shall take up certain immediate and topical questions (among them language, the referendum, the role of the trade unions, constitutional reform and political strategy) by casting upon them the light of conclusions reached in the earlier chapters. If our analysis is substantially correct, then, apart from making some sense out of the present and the recent past, it should provide us with an orientation toward the future.
But, as the truism goes, the only thing that is constant is change. And this is surely true for Quebec insofar as specific points are concerned. No doubt the several-month interval between the writing of this book and its appearance in print will see certain of the facts cited to have been superseded by events. This is inevitable. Nevertheless, if our analysis is correct, then the thrust of the work as a whole should stand well beyond the immediate present. Ultimately, the validity of our framework and analysis will be subjected to the most "objective" of all evaluations : the test of time and experience.
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