A divided Canada

From the July-August 2011 issue of News & Letters:

A divided Canada

Following the May 2 federal elections, Canadians woke up to a very different Canada. In this “new” Canada the polarization of Canadian society has finally fully revealed itself, polarized by social class, between English-speaking and French-speaking, and between the “Right” and “Left” ends of the political spectrum. The Conservatives, a true right-wing Party under Stephen Harper, are firmly in power for the next four years, with 166 seats out of 308 in Parliament. The Liberal Party has shrunk to insignificance on the federal level, and the Bloc Québécois even more so. The social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP/NPD) is now the official opposition for the first time in history, with 103 seats. Many French-Canadians see the Conservative victory as a racist result, and working people across Canada see the situation as very dangerous for them.

Despite this surface appearance of hopelessness, a lot of movement and change is in the air. Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal leader who championed the Iraq War and vaunts his aristocratic roots, is out of the picture. It is an indication that the Canadian people may be tired of “public intellectuals” like him, super-financed by corporate, government, or other multi-millionaire “silent partners.” This is one way that Canada’s rulers keep their grip on power, by sending academicians-for-hire into the fray to muddy the public discourse, much like the “confusionist” philosophers of the former Soviet Union.

The other hopeful sign is that the NDP/NPD victory may open up the possibility for new cooperation between English- and French-Canadian workers.

The NDP/NPD is now thoroughly integrated; over half of its Members of Parliament are from Québec (59, to 44 in all of the other provinces). Most of Québec went for the NDP/NPD, but so also did many ridings in the Toronto area, especially inside the city itself, and there were a large number in British Columbia.

The question of the “two solitudes,” French and English, of whether there will be equality across Canada or sovereignty for Québec, is more urgent than ever. The error of the Bloc Québécois, a social democratic party, may have been tail-ending the provincial Parti Québécois, and failing to address the concerns of the large numbers of French-Canadians who now work outside of Québec in bilingual provinces.

The war on the French language by Canada’s rulers continues unabated, but the real reason for their use of racism against Québec may be economic, and it may really be the prelude to an all-out war on English-Canadian workers. In Canada, the destruction of the “middle class” has not been as intense as in the U. S., and especially not in Québec. In Québec, 40% of workers are unionized, one of the highest rates in the world, and the social safety net continues to be the best in the Western Hemisphere, despite its imperfections. The dimension of racism against French-Canadians and against Indigenous people remains key to Canadian history, and that pustule needs to burst soon. However the question of equality/sovereignty turns out, this new possibility of English, French, and Indigenous Canadians working together for greater equality, in what on the surface looks like a grim situation, may give us a glimpse of what a new, truly human and free society, might be like.

–D. Chêneville, Bay Area, and P. J., Québec City

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