Defend Nycole Turmel as well as Quebec's right to self-determination

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Jack Layton, Nycole Turmel, and Olivia Chow during the federal election campaign in April 2011. Photo: Nycole Turmel/flickr

Just days after being named interim leader of the New Democratic Party, Nycole Turmel has become the target of a vicious attack by the mainstream media in English Canada. Her crime? Supporting Quebec's right to self-determination. Until this latest media assault, Turmel had also been a member of Québec solidaire -- a progressive sovereigntist party in Quebec -- and previously she was a member of the Bloc Québécois.

These facts are nothing new for Quebeckers. The Bloc had dominated federal politics in Quebec for the previous 20 years, and attracted widespread support from people opposed to the Conservative and Liberal agendas, especially the latter's scandal-ridden history in Quebec. During Turmel's campaign to become the NDP MP for Hull-Aylmer, Liberal incumbent Marcel Proulx tried to smear her for her public support for Québec solidaire during the 2007 Quebec election. For the record, Turmel defeated Proulx by a margin of nearly 300 per cent: 35,194 votes to 12,051.

In 2006, the Ottawa Citizen, itself having endorsed Harper's Conservatives and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, attacked Turmel and the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) for endorsing Bloc Québécois candidates in the 2006 federal election. In her response, Turmel wrote: "I suggest that your acknowledgement of a fiscal imbalance and lack of support for measures to ameliorate it will do more to undermine workers and businesses, including the Citizen, whose livelihoods depend more on a strong federal government than on the endorsement and democratic election of a Bloc MP."

The current frenzy against Turmel reveals a corporate elite in Canada desperate to undermine support for the NDP by portraying her as a "traitor" to the Canadian state and unfit to lead a national federalist party. This strategy hopes to bolster the loyalty of working people in English Canada to Canadian pro-business Conservative and Liberal politicians while simultaneously weakening prospects for working-class resistance to the accelerating austerity agenda. Effective resistance is predicated on unity between English and Québécois workers, which is why Canada's ruling elite is so determined to break it.

University of Calgary professor Tom Flanagan, a former advisor to Stephen Harper and right-wing pundit, expressed this sentiment clearly in comments to the Globe and Mail:

"It was bad enough that she represented public-sector unionism... Now we learn she was a separatist, or at least willing to make common cause with them. The issue is not changing parties per se; it's what you stand for."

The fact that Turmel is a former national president of one of Canada's largest unions -- the Public Service Alliance of Canada, with over 170,000 members inside and outside Quebec -- is an asset for all those who want to defend public services against Harper's neoliberal assault.

Like Flanagan, all mainstream news outlets -- from the Toronto Star and the National Post to CBC and CTV -- played the anti-Quebec card, joining in the condemnation of Turmel and sending a green light to bigots everywhere. Online comments went even further accusing Turmel of "not knowing English." Turmel's English is excellent, having effectively led a pan-Canadian union for years, but this is beside the point.

The kind of bigotry on display in recent days fuels racism and xenophobia against First Nations, racialized communities and newcomers, and weakens solidarity between English and Québécois workers. Progressives -- especially those outside of Quebec -- must support Quebec's right to self-determination and stand up against any bigoted attacks on either Turmel or the NDP.

But the NDP as a whole must also stand up against English chauvinism and reassert its support for Quebec's right to self-determination. Failing to do so will be a capitulation to bigotry, and will undermine the NDP's support in Quebec -- the heart of its new-found electoral success. It would risk driving Québécois workers into the arms of its own pro-business ruling class. Indeed, Bloc Québécois MP Louis Plamondon baited Turmel by suggesting she can't be believed when she denies being an advocate for Quebec's separation. The Bloc is positioning itself to benefit from increased English chauvinism and counting on the NDP to distance itself from supporting self-determination for Quebec, thereby alienating its new Quebec base.

Turmel became acting leader of the NDP when its federal council unanimously endorsed her. Jack Layton had recommended Turmel as his interim replacement when he announced he would be stepping down temporarily to focus his full attention on his health.

Turmel is a strong choice for acting leader. As president of PSAC, Turmel has been credited with initiating the union's turn toward social unionism, with a focus on poverty reduction, international solidarity and First Nations issues.

She has a reputation for being a strong trade unionist with deep roots in the Quebec labour and social justice movements. As such, she has a first-hand understanding of Quebec as an oppressed nation within Canada and this insight should be used to help arm the NDP with the arguments to cut against English chauvinism in the rest of Canada.

The selection by the NDP federal caucus of Turmel allowed the party to side-step a more contentious choice between the two NDP MPs who share the title of deputy leader: Libby Davies (Vancouver East, B.C.) and Thomas Mulcair (Outrement, QC). Davies represents the left of the NDP while Mulcair, a Liberal party member until 2007 and a cabinet minister in Jean Charest's government, is perceived as reflecting the party's right wing. Given the size of the Quebec NDP caucus (59 MPs), there was no doubt that the acting leader would need roots in Quebec. But choosing a rookie MP from Quebec with Turmel's credentials sends a message that, with or without Layton, the NDP is willing to acknowledge trade unions, stand up for social justice and seriously grapple with the issue of self-determination for Quebec.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Quebec voted NDP during the last federal election -- and not just because they liked Layton. They were attracted to the party's move towards recognizing the legacy of oppression by the federal state in Quebec as expressed in its Sherbrooke Declaration. But just as importantly, they were also expressing their solidarity with ordinary people in English Canada -- a real gesture of unity -- in their opposition to the Harper agenda. This is the kind of unity that progressives should support, not the false unity peddled by the likes of Stephen Harper, cloaked in the Canadian flag. Indeed, opposition to austerity is the basis of a common struggle that truly unites English and Québécois workers.

That's why all progressives -- including those critical of the NDP -- must stand up to oppose the right-wing attack on Turmel, and on Quebec's right to self-determination.

Pam Frache is a trade union activist in Toronto. This article will appear in an upcoming issue of Socialist Worker.

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