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The shadow of Jacques Parizeau

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The man that almost brought Quebec to sovereignty back in 1995 is still alive and kicking. Every week or so, he lashes left, right and center. This week, he made another splash by affirming that Quebec francophone schools were in shamble. Not so subtly, the spin was against Pauline Marois, the current head of the PQ, who had initiated before the PQ was ousted a reform in education that created a big debate. In short, Marois was siding with «modernists» who have been argumenting that the old style carrot-and-the-stick approach with kids based on «penalties» and rewards» through marking is not necessarily the best thing to do. That reform was mostly attacked by the right who said no, the same system has to continue because it distinguishes the sheep from the goat and allow the «best» students to move ahead. The untold storey was of course that the «best» students are always from middle and upper-middle class background, therefore reproducing through schooling and marking class differentiations.

Parizeau is angry not only because of «reformist» changes in the schools (he argues that it validates mediocrity and increases drop-out rates). He thinks that various «reformist» policies put forward by the PQ in the last years are a «deviation» from the «sacred cause» of independence. Another former minister of the PQ, Jacques Brassard, also came out last week attacking the Bloc for becoming a «clone» of the NDP. All of this reveals serious rifts in the nationalist family.

Back in the 1970s (the «golden era» of nationalism), Parizeau's dream was to build an independent «normal» state well anchored in the western world, able to make its own decisions. His battle was against the Canadian domination of Quebec which subjugated the people, but also the economy and stifled its potential. Parizeau knew that no «ordinary» bourgeoisie in Quebec could confront this reality because the Anglo elite did not allow them to take their place. He would therefore «create» this bourgeoisie out of a strong public sector (from the tradition of Hydro Quebec). He would recalibrate Quebec's capitalism through a mix of Keynesian interventionist policies. Be aware of this, Parizeau is a Keynesian, not some sort of rightwing extremist as he is presented in the Anglo media most of the time.

This by the way was the cornerstone of the PQ at that time and when in was elected in 1976, everyone thought, this is the moment. Popular and middle classes specially the organized sectors were in their vast majority agreeing with that perspective, to the exclusion of a small but active left who dreamed of moving Quebec otherwise. Exactly in the same mood, by the way, of every nations aspiring for independence as a platform for social progress and emancipation.

Well, we know that this independent-bourgeois-Keynesian state project was defeated by the Canadian state with the quasi unanimous support of the different political and social factions in English Canada. For Canadian elites, this was an unacceptable challenge. They succeeded in convincing the ordinary person in the streets of Toronto and Vancouver, including trade unionists and NPD supporters, that it was a sinister plot.

Forty years later, the show goes on but this time, the correlation of forces is much more favorable for the Canadian elite, which might explains Parizeau's frustration. The Quebec «bourgeoisie» (in bracket) is trying, with difficulties, to incorporate itself into the «wonderful world» of globalization. But they are weak, always threatened by the big financial sharks, including those from Toronto. Nevertheless, the time is not for them to get in what they consider «political adventures» and they are happy with the promises of Harper (and Mulroney) that they will be somehow protected.

The nationalist «dream» is then fading out, at least seen from that perspective. Parizeau and others in this context have little to say. But they are against a soft of «left wing» turn that is advocated by sections of the PQ and the Bloc. They certainly do not like Duceppe's attempt to present himself as the champion of the «anybody-but-Harper» conservative threat. They do not like the PQ flirting with anything that would make it evolve from the «normal» bourgeois independence ticket to something undefined. And in this, they are not comfortable with the debate on «identity» that has reflourished recently. «Civic» nationalism calling for the incorporation of «everyone» living in Quebec (and therefore immigrants and Anglophones) is not what they call for because they still think that «national» or «ethnic» nationalism is for them the «solution» to bring together the «real» Québécois together.

Many current PQ and especially Bloc leaders are keen to develop a new, civic nationalism. Then this creates another line of fracture. The left, including Quebec Solidaire, and social movements in general, also argue for civic nationalism. But they say that the PQ and the Bloc, even with their ««reformed» views have lost their legitimacy. They are past and have to be replaced by more affirmative, forward-looking perspectives, clearly, implicitly, straightforwardly, for a civic, republican, all-inclusive program of social and national emancipation.

For Canadian readers, the spin is to avoid two «mistakes» in perception and political attitude. Firstly, not understanding where Parizeau and the traditional nationalist project comes from is leading to a dead-end which is to consider Quebec nationalism as intrinsically somber, if not sinister. Second, not seeing the present evolution of its main trends, including its contradictions, also does not help understanding the situation. All in all, I believe that Quebec nationalism will evolve positively, but with lots of internal crisis and breakdowns. It will take time however ...


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