Canada: how to fight the religious symbols ban in Quebec

After years of debate, state discrimination against religious minorities has been enshrined in law in Quebec with the adoption of Bill 21. Unfortunately, opposition to this bill has been confused to say the least. While the left and the workers movement have generally opposed this law, no one seems to know what to do. Up until March last year, Quebec solidaire was arguing for a compromise position and others have been appealing to the courts. Meanwhile, many people claim that any action from those outside of Quebec infringes on the right of self determination of Quebec. But how can we effectively fight against Bill 21?


Not a Quebec issue

This law is not a Quebec issue. As former Parti Quebecois leader, Jean-François Lisée pointed out, European courts have upheld similar laws passed in European countries. When looking at the European example one thing becomes clear: reactionary laws don’t respect borders. While the first law of this kind was passed in Belgium in 2010, similar laws were subsequently passed in France, Holland, Germany, Austria and Denmark.

While Quebec nationalists as well as many English Canadian politicians like to delude themselves into believing that a ban on religious symbols purely concerns Quebec, it is clear that if this is allowed to be normalized, it threatens to spread elsewhere. As Lisée highlighted, Bill 21 is also fairly popular outside of Quebec at around 40% support.

In Canada, polls have shown that there is significant support for a similar law across the rest of the country. According to a Global News poll in September 2019, 52 per cent of Canadians said they would oppose a bill that would restrict or ban religious symbols or clothing, leaving 48 per cent who support or somewhat support such a law. According to the same poll, 63 per cent of people in Quebec support Bill 21, with support for the bill in Saskatchewan and Manitoba at 53 per cent, followed by Alberta and Atlantic Canada at 45 per cent, British Columbia at 43 per cent, and Ontario at 42 per cent.

We should not forget that the Harper Conservatives tried to exploit such racist sentiments with their “barbaric cultural practices” hotline and their proposed ban on face coverings for citizenship ceremonies. Racism is by no means confined to Quebec or Quebecois politicians. If Bill 21 becomes normalized in Quebec then it is sure to cross the Ottawa river and similar laws will be implemented in the rest of Canada. Laws similar to Bill 21 in Quebec will not be passed in other provinces simply because of polling numbers, but because ultimately these laws serve the interests of the ruling class. It is therefore vital that we build a united working class movement against this law to stop it in its tracks.

But how did we get here?

While the debate surrounding banning religious symbols has been going on for well over a decade in Quebec, the issue really took centre stage when the Parti Quebecois government in 2013 proposed a Charter of Quebec Values. This charter proposed banning religious symbols for public employees with the so-called goal of ensuring the secular nature of the state.

Right from the get go, the opposition to this was at best weak and confused and at worse non-existent. The parliamentary caucus of Quebec solidaire responded by welcoming “several guidelines proposed by Minister Drainville,” and proposed their own discriminatory charter, banning religious symbols for police officers, judges, prosecutors and prison guards.

david21 Image public domainFrançoise David and Amir Khadir, who presented their Secularism Charter in autumn 2013 / Image: Radio-Canada

Françoise David, MNA and spokesperson for the party explained at the time: “A strong charter on secularism is needed, because the rise of fundamentalism and religious conservatism, including in North America, makes secular institutions an important issue. Women, in particular, know that their rights are much better protected in a secular state, sheltered from religious conservatisms that want to control their bodies and their lives.”

David’s comments mirrored arguments from right-wing nationalists about “protecting women from the Muslims” and provided left-wing cover for what was essentially a reactionary and divisive debate brought forward to divide and distract workers and youth in Quebec. This confused position was argued by the parliamentary representatives of Quebec’s left party in spite of the fact that QS’s program clearly states that “The state is secular, not the individuals.”

In English Canada, the NDP and the labour movement were relatively silent on this issue as well. As we explained at the time: “Not only is the QS leadership failing to expose the bourgeois roots of the PQ, but they are not doing enough to condemn the discriminatory and divisive policies of the Marois government and the effect this can have on the unity of the Quebec working class. Quebec solidaire needs to clearly show that they are not simply the left rump of the PQ. The same critique can also be leveled at the federal NDP who, up until very recently, had barely mentioned an opinion on the “Charter of Quebec values”. At both the provincial and federal level, the Liberals have taken the opportunity to wrap themselves in the banner of “multiculturalism” in an effort to attract immigrants and working-class Anglos who are disgusted by the provincial government’s charter and feel marginalized by the government’s actions. The refusal by QS and the NDP to adopt a clear class line against the populist and distracting actions of the PQ is giving the Liberals new life in Quebec, particularly in Montreal. Instead of joining QS or the NDP, these workers are joining a party that represents the same class interests as the PQ, and who will continue the assault on their rights and living standards. More than ever, the labour movement, Quebec solidaire, and the NDP need to be putting forward demands that call for the unity of all workers and youth, from across all national lines, against the austerity of the PQ, the Conservatives, and the Liberals.”

At the time, there was a mass movement which developed against the Charter with thousands of people marching in the streets of Montreal. As the details of the law became known, support for the charter plummeted in the polls, particularly in Montreal and Quebec city. This led to Maria Mourani, one of four Bloc Quebecois members of parliament to be expelled from the Bloc for opposing the law.

Unfortunately, the leaders of QS and the unions did not associate with this movement. They did not participate in the demonstrations and were generally seen to be agreeing with the PQ and the CAQ. This allowed the traditional party of the Quebec capitalists, the Liberals, to successfully position themselves as defenders of religious minorities and the only real opposition to the PQ’s charter, defeating the PQ in 2014 and winning a majority government. Effectively there was no force arguing a working class perspective in this debate, allowing bourgeois interests, arguments, and tactics to predominate.

Due to the lack of any principled working class opposition, this debate ravaged Quebec politics, proving useful for bourgeois politicians who were looking for a way to divide and distract workers and youth who were becoming increasingly militant. Indeed, we saw the fantastic 2012 Quebecois Spring, the first construction workers’ strike in 20 years in 2013, the 2015 public sector general strike and the construction workers’ strike of 2017 which was only brought to heel through the use of back to work legislation.

In this context, even the Liberals who had been pretending to be the defenders of religious minorities bent to the pressure and put forward Bill 62 in the fall of 2017, banning face coverings for those giving or receiving public services. While this bill was ultimately defeated in the courts the following year, QS failed to call this bill out for what it was: racist and Islamphobic and they only opposed it for being inapplicable and inconsistent because it did not also remove the crucifix from the National Assembly. The party leadership continued to put forward their position of compromise, arguing for the banning of religious symbols for some public sector employees.

Meanwhile, mass mobilizations occurred in the streets of Montreal which was ignored by the leadership of QS, the NDP and the major unions. From the QS leaders, it was argued that the party needed to reach a “compromise in the National Assembly” so that this divisive debate we could be put behind us. The result of this approach was a complete failure. François Legault and his new party the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), became the leading party advocating for a new law to “resolve” this question. Due to there being virtually no mainstream ideological opposition, support for this grew and along with it, the support for the CAQ in the polls leading to their crushing victory at the polls in the fall of 2018. The week after the election, thousands marched in the streets of Montreal against the newly elected government.

genmanifestationcontreracisme 16x9 WEB 1024x576 Image TVA NouvellesDemonstration of 7 October 2018 / Image: TVA Nouvelles

This leadership of QS, which prides itself on being super democratic, avoided allowing this to be discussed amongst the members of the party until 2019, right before the law was introduced by the CAQ in the National Assembly. Fortunately, a grassroots movement of QS members succeeded in defeating the position defended by the leadership at the National Council meeting in March 2019 by a crushing majority. As well, some of the major trade unions came out against to the law, most importantly the teachers’ unions. In addition to this, many municipalities in Montreal and two school boards came out, denouncing the law.

What was drastically needed throughout this entire saga has been a united workers’ movement against this law to force the government to retreat. Unfortunately, the unions, city councils and school boards who oppose this law have simply stated that they would challenge this law in the courts and have not developed any plans to build a mass movement of civil disobedience in the workplaces and on the streets to make this law unenforceable.

No faith in the bourgeois courts

Up until very recently, the fight against Bill 21 has been restricted to legal challenges in the courts. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Council of Canadian Muslims launched a legal challenge against the Bill, as had the English Montreal School Board (EMSB). More importantly, a lawsuit against the bill was more recently filed by the teachers’ union Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE) in Quebec. The legal challenges are centered on the constitutionality of the Bill, arguing that the Bill violates Charter rights to freedom of religion, that it violates rights to gender equality because it impacts mostly women, and that it violates minority language education rights.

But the legal case against this law is very weak and the first case was already defeated in the Quebec Supreme Court and again in the Quebec Court of Appeals. The entire point of the law is to be discriminatory. In fact, this discrimination is perfectly acceptable via the use of the notwithstanding clause by the Quebec government. Therefore, the law cannot be challenged on the basis of its violation of freedom of religion. Judge Dominique Bélanger explained that: “The use of the notwithstanding clause means that we must refuse to suspend the law, even if a person…suffers serious and irreparable harm and his or her rights are violated.”

In their struggle, we believe that the victims of Bill 21 are entirely justified to use all the means at their disposal. However, we cannot have any confidence in the justice system to defend the oppressed. We should not forget that the ban of the burqa from public spaces in France was approved by the European Court of Human Rights, and it seems unlikely that the courts in Quebec or Canada will be prepared to suspend the legislation. The justice system, the courts, and the law are the tools in service of the ruling class and are not made to defend the rights of workers and oppressed.

The courts, the government, and legislation are institutions and tools created by the ruling class to enforce its rule, which is precisely why they cannot be relied upon to protect the interests of the oppressed. This is why reactionary laws must be fought with working class methods of struggle – solidarity, demonstrations, work stoppages, pickets, and strikes.

Besides, even if the courts should decide in favour of the oppressed, which cannot be ruled out and does happen on occasion, this takes the struggle out of the hands of the masses and does not require mobilization for struggle. The working class has won democratic rights historically not through the courts, but against them through struggle on the streets. This is why, while we defend the right of the oppressed to use legal means if they so choose, we emphasise action in the streets and workplaces as far more powerful and likely to succeed.

This was the problem for example with the postal workers strike in the fall of 2018, when the Canadian Union of Postal Workers filed an injunction against back-to-work legislation. While it was perfectly acceptable for CUPW to file an injunction to gain time and to try to stop the legislation, this should have been combined with continued and escalating workplace actions – pickets and strikes, including wildcat actions.

Unfortunately, it was argued that illegal job action would threaten the validity of the legal injunction. This may be true, but the injunctions did not succeed in any case. The courts are the weapons of the ruling class, thus the real weapon in the hands of the workers is workplace action, work stoppages, pickets, and strikes, which will put more pressure on the bosses than any injunction that is unlikely to succeed anyway.

The result in this situation was another humiliating defeat for the postal workers. Even if the law is eventually defeated in the courts, the strike has already been defeated and the damage has been done.

Federal Election

In the recent federal election, Bill 21 was pretty much the only issue that threatened to be interesting in an otherwise boring election campaign. In the end what became most interesting about the potential debates on Bill 21 was that none of the federal leaders really wanted to talk about it, and when they did they proved not to have much to say.

Justin Trudeau tried to present himself as the protector of minority rights and vaguely claimed that he “might have to intervene on this”. Trudeau scrupulously chose his words, saying: “We are looking at if and when the federal government should get involved.” And: “We are not closing the door to a possible intervention because it would be irresponsible for a federal government to choose to shut the door on a matter of fundamental rights.” During the debate in early October, he criticized Jagmeet Singh for not being open to a legal challenge against the law.

Legault Trudeau 1024x655 Image Jean François Nadeau Le DevoirTrudeau is bluffing to be able to falsely pose as a defender of oppressed minorities / Image: Jean-François Nadeau / Le Devoir

Socialists must oppose any such action by the leader of the Liberal party. In the context of the historical oppression of the Quebecois people, for the Prime Minister in Ottawa to step in to overturn the law via the courts would be seen as a massive violation of self-determination. In fact, Legault knows this and is counting on it as a defence of the Bill. The hypocrisy of the Liberals knows no bounds. For Justin Trudeau to present himself as some kind of defender of minority rights just a few weeks after the blackface scandal was galling in the extreme, not to mention his hypocrisy on the question of Indigenous rights.

Trudeau’s comments were also dishonest, as he has absolutely no intention of going to the courts against Bill 21. The “Right Honourable” Prime Minister was acting like his corporate lawyer friends, speaking of a “possible” intervention. In fact, it is practically ruled out that Trudeau will do anything against Bill 21. As we already mentioned, the legal avenues are narrow and are unlikely to succeed.

The only real option to block Bill 21 is the disallowance clause of the Constitution, which allows the federal government to invalidate or disallow any provincial legislation that encroaches on federal jurisdiction or conflicts with the national interest. Disallowance has not been used since 1943 when the federal government blocked legislation in Alberta restricting land sales to Hutterites (who the legislation also declared to be “enemy aliens”). While technically still on the books, according to precedent the disallowance clause is considered obsolete, and its usage by the federal government would most likely result in a crisis in federal-provincial relations and crisis of the federation as a whole.

Trudeau is bluffing to be able to falsely pose as a defender of oppressed minorities. Trudeau knows too well that such a manoeuvre is guaranteed to trigger an unprecedented political crisis, possibly of the entire federation, and could very well give a boost to the independence movement in Quebec (and indeed elsewhere such as Alberta).

Unfortunately, New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh also missed the mark in his response. Correctly stating that if he were elected Prime Minister he would not turn to the courts (with the exception of some confused answers to journalists after the English language debate), he appeared to have no answers on how to defend minority rights.

Statements Singh made in French and commentary by Quebec NDP MPs have not helped either. Singh said, “I recognize the competence of the Quebec government to legislate on this”. More explicit is the statement by former senior Quebec NDP MP Guy Caron, who said that the “notwithstanding clause is allowing [the provincial government] to do it and we have to respect the Constitution”. These arguments that hide behind the Constitution and division of provincial vs. federal powers are in reality excuses to do nothing, and justify a lack of action.

As well, while Singh ruled out going to the courts if elected, it was a mistake, to recognize the competence of the right-wing CAQ to enact legislation that violates the rights of a section of the Quebec working class. An injury to one is an injury to all, and any attack on one part of the working class is an attack on all workers, regardless of jurisdiction or whether or not constitutional rules allow it.

We cannot rely on bourgeois law to fight the attacks of right-wing governments – that would be playing the game by their rules – instead we rely upon class struggle methods to defy and overturn such laws. We fight them in the streets, in the workplaces, and we aim to change the opinion of workers en masse.

Opposition in English Canada

While the main political opposition to this law occurred in Quebec earlier in 2019 when the Bill was being debated, the reaction from the English Canadian left has generally been delayed which gave the initiative to Liberal and Conservative politicians. After the Bill became a major issue during the federal election, various city councils passed motions condemning the law, such as in Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Mississauga, and Toronto. Brian Pallister, the conservative premier of Saskatchewan also criticized the law, taking out advertisements in French media in Quebec, inviting civil servants threatened by Bill 21 to move to Manitoba. He has also said that his government is considering joining court challenges against the law.

Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi has been a central figure in the municipal government opposition to Bill 21, but he views it through the lens of constitutionality and employer rights. Aside from constitutional arguments about the rights of the individual, etc., one of his arguments against the Bill is that “Bill 21 is also an extraordinary encroachment by a provincial government on municipal rights. They are telling cities who they can and cannot hire. That’s ridiculous.”

The B.C. NDP passed a resolution against the law at its fall convention and the Ontario NDP has also recently come out against Bill 21 and managed to get a non-binding motion condemning the law passed in the Ontario legislature. Though both the B.C. and Ontario New Democrats have restricted their opposition to intervening in any potential Supreme Court cases, the federal NDP has for all intents and purposes adopted a “stay in your lane” approach.

Self determination and the fight against oppression

Unfortunately, both Jagmeet Singh of the federal NDP and Manon Massé of Quebec solidaire oppose this law solely on a legal-parliamentary basis and have basically expressed that this was an issue for Quebec to deal with. While Singh said “I recognize the competence of the Quebec government to legislate on this,” Massé said “I think that the issue of Bill 21 belongs to Quebec, it belongs to Quebeckers, and in that sense, I think that the federal government should stay away from it.” She then said that “Once we’re in power, we’re not going to renew the clause,” referring to the notwithstanding clause which Legault enacted to suspend Charter freedoms and allow the implementation of this law. But until then, what are oppressed minorities supposed to do? No one seems to have any answers.

bloc21 Image fair useJagmeet Singh of the federal NDP and Manon Massé of Quebec solidaire oppose this law solely on a legal-parliamentary basis and have said that this is an issue for Quebec to deal with / Image: fair use

Some on the left have even suggested that the fight against Bill 21 is overblown, and that workers’ and other organizations outside Quebec joining the fight are somehow violating Quebec’s right to self-determination. This is an extreme “stay in your lane” position, which leads to indirectly defending the reactionary, racist policies of the CAQ government in the name of “self-determination”.

It is however sheer reductionism to argue that fighting Bill 21 amounts to violating Quebec’s right to self-determination. If you argue that Bill 21, the division of constitutional powers, and the notwithstanding clause which protect it are expressions of Quebec’s self-determination, and defending these is more important than defending workers under attack, you are making a grave error and find yourself on the wrong side of the class divide.

It is indeed possible to walk and chew gum, and thus it is possible to fight against Bill 21 and still defend the right of self-determination of Quebec. There are workers and youth inside and outside Quebec who on the basis of correct class instincts want to fight this reactionary law. The goal should be to unite them. Telling these workers and youth that such a fight is a violation of the self-determination of Quebec represents a line of reasoning that stands against the very notion of international working-class solidarity.

One of the most powerful weapons the working class has in the class struggle against the bosses is solidarity. Capitalism is a global system, the class struggle is global, and thus solidarity must be international. In a certain sense, every act of international solidarity by the working class violates the self-determination of a given nation, i.e. the class struggle violates borders and international solidarity itself violates the self-determination of the nation’s bourgeoisie to attack the working class. International solidarity and revolutionary action on the part of the working class cannot be restricted to the national or provincial borders determined historically by the ruling class. In fact, socialist revolution will not be possible without international solidarity, without violating the legal restrictions and borders imposed by the ruling class.

Class Struggle and the National Question

The national question is extraordinarily complex. The reason for the complexity of the national question is that it is really a task of the bourgeois revolution, and is something that should have been resolved a long time ago with the rise of the capitalist nation state. However, in many areas of the world, the bourgeoisie was unable and/or unwilling to complete this task fully, and in other areas it was unable and/or unwilling to complete the task at all.

National oppression has always been a part of capitalism. Thus, the task of resolving the national question has fallen to the working class, and the question of the right of nations to self-determination will be resolved by the socialist revolution.

Things are rarely cut and dried when it comes to the question of the self-determination of nations. The national question can be a minefield for revolutionaries, precisely because of the class divide. With regard to the question of self-determination, for example you can have a bourgeoisie with a program for self-determination that is largely reactionary, but because of the historical particulars, may contain some progressive elements. And likewise, the working class can have a program for self-determination that is largely progressive, but also because of historical particulars may contain some reactionary elements. Both reactionary and progressive elements can and do exist in the same movement.

The task of revolutionaries is to separate the progressive from the reactionary elements of a given program and assess the given particulars of a given national question to determine whether a national movement or a particular question such as Bill 21 is reactionary or progressive.

Lenin spent considerable time on the right of nations to self-determination, and his writings on the question are vital reading for all revolutionaries. Lenin explained that the starting point for Marxists when analyzing the national question must be the independent interests of the working class.

In 1903 he wrote the following:

“The Social-Democrats will always combat every attempt to influence national self-determination from without by violence or by any injustice. However, our unreserved recognition of the struggle for freedom of self-determination does not in any way commit us to supporting every demand for national self-determination. As the party of the proletariat, the Social-Democratic Party considers it to be its positive and principal task to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations. We must always and unreservedly work for the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities, and it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state or to the substitution of a looser federal unity, etc., for the complete political unity of a state.” (Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 6, page 452)

When Lenin is here talking about the self-determination of the working class, we should understand that he does not mean that the workers should set themselves up as their own nation, but rather he is talking about the class interests of the working class taken independently of the “national” interest, i.e. the interests of the ruling capitalist class. Sometimes the interests of the working class will coincide with a nationalist movement, and sometimes they will be in contradiction, the point is to look at each concrete circumstance in its particularity. Lenin stressed again and again that the starting point must be the interests of the working class as a whole, and this must be considered independently of the national interest or the interests of the bourgeoisie. He later wrote the following:

“The Social-Democratic Party’s recognition of the right of all nationalities to self-determination most certainly does not mean that Social-Democrats reject an independent appraisal of the advisability of the state secession of any nation in each separate case. Social-Democracy should, on the contrary, give its independent appraisal, taking into consideration the conditions of capitalist development and the oppression of the proletarians of various nations by the united bourgeoisie of all nationalities, as well as the general tasks of democracy, first of all and most of all the interests of the proletarian class struggle for socialism.” (Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 19, page 244)

And again he later wrote:

“The bourgeoisie always places its national demands in the forefront, and does so in categorical fashion. With the proletariat, however, these demands are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle… While recognising equality and equal rights to a national state, it values above all and places foremost the alliance of the proletarians of all nations, and assesses any national demand, any national separation, from the angle of the workers’ class struggle.” (Lenin, Collected Works Vol. 20, page 410-411)

Our starting point is the interests of the working class, not the nation. If the working class is constantly diverted into fighting for the “national” interest, i.e. the interests of the national petit-bourgeois or bourgeois ruling class, it would be unable to develop a program based on its own class interests. Once the independent interests of the working class have been determined, we must then also consider how any given question will impact the broader class struggle.

Lenin was very clear that the right to self-determination is a negative right. We are opposed to any and all oppression. Marxists do not cross the boundary of being opposed to oppression to being in favour of any one ethnic group or nationality against another. In addition to being a negative right, against oppression, self-determination is a relative right such as all other democratic rights. For example the democratic right of freedom of speech is a right we uphold, but we do not uphold the freedom of speech of fascists. All democratic rights are weighed against the interests of the working class as a whole.

If we take the interests of the working class as our starting point, independently of the interests of the nation or the bourgeoisie, then we can see that the working class and its organizations in Quebec and English Canada must be opposed to Bill 21.

The right to self-determination pertains to the right of an oppressed people to be freed from oppression, which includes many things, up to and including separation. This does not mean respecting the right of a bourgeois government of an oppressed nation to oppress a section of the working class. Self-determination does not mean upholding the structures of the capitalist state within that oppressed nation that perpetuate both the national and class oppression of workers.

The defence of Quebec’s right to self-determination is not the defence of the right of a right-wing capitalist government in Quebec to implement reactionary legislation with impunity. The fight against the oppression of the Quebecois is not the defence of the right for the CAQ to oppress religious minorities.

Division of Powers

One question that has also created some confusion on the left is the question of the federal government and the constitution. If the federal government should move to block Bill 21 in some fashion, either through the constitution or the courts, what should our attitude be? Should such a move by the federal government be supported, or should provincial rights be upheld, etc.? In Quebec, the question of provincial vs. federal powers attains an even greater importance as it becomes not just about provincial vs. federal rights, but intertwined with the historic oppression of the Quebecois and their right to self-determination.

In general, the working class should not be overly concerned with the Canadian Constitution and the division of federal-provincial powers. The Constitution and the courts are bourgeois institutions by definition and were created precisely to defend the bourgeois order and ensure the rule of the capitalists. While there have been progressive changes in the Constitution when we consider its history and political developments in the country from 1867 to the present day, it remains on the whole a reactionary document that makes it practically impossible to get rid of the unelected Senate, the monarchy, etc. Thus, even in terms of consistent democracy, nevermind socialism, the Canadian Constitution cannot be considered progressive.

Historically, constitutionalist-legalist arguments about federal vs. provincial jurisdiction more than often have been used against radical action on the part of the working class. When radical propositions are raised, such as the expropriation of the energy sector in Alberta, or expropriation of manufacturing plants being shut down in Ontario and Quebec, the argument against are often purely jurisdictional, saying that it is impossible because such and such governmental body does not have the jurisdictional powers etc… But this is precisely the point, the revolutionary struggle of the working class to change society will not be successful if it remains within the legal confines of the society it is trying to overthrow. Moreover, upon coming to power the working class will have to completely overturn these structures and laws, and create new revolutionary structures and institutions, ushering in the socialist transformation of society.

But how should we approach this question of provincial vs. federal powers in general? There is nothing inherently progressive in either form, it is the content that is important. Therefore there can be no principled defence of either the central powers of the federal government or decentralizing powers to the provinces.

Therefore, when it comes to the question of the federal government intervening legally or constitutionally in provincial politics, what we should be concerned about is not the jurisdiction or division of powers itself, but rather we should be concerned with determining what side represents the more progressive option and what outcome best serves the interests of the working class and the class struggle.

We can use a couple of hypothetical examples from Alberta to illustrate this. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the Albertan government put in place a eugenics project, sterilizing certain people for having “undesirable” genes. In the late 1990s, the victims of this program launched a series of lawsuits against the government of Alberta. In response, the Klein government introduced Bill 26, which included the notwithstanding clause, to limit the amount of money that could be awarded in these cases. The bill was passed, but there was such public uproar that it was revoked the very next day.

In this case the federal government did not intervene. But let’s imagine it had, either through some constitutional measure or a court challenge, to overturn this law and protect the rights of victims of Alberta’s eugenics program. There would be no basis here to support the provincial government on the grounds that its rights had been violated, and certainly no reason to support its jurisdictional powers over the rights of the victims of eugenics. Nor would there be any constitutional or jurisdictional reasons to support the federal government.

It would come down to the side that represented the more progressive option and best furthered the interests of the working class. In this case, one would have to support the striking down of this legislation and support the victims of Alberta’s eugenics program. All things being equal, this would mean supporting, in however limited a fashion, the federal government. Naturally, our position would not be full support for the federal government, but extremely critical support in this one case, while naturally not forgetting that our focus would be on mobilizing for action on the streets to defend the rights of victims.

klein21 Image Creative CommonsWhen the Klein government tried to block gay marriage in 2000 and the federal government challenged it, the most important thing was supporting the struggle for equal rights. With Bill 21, the question of the self-determination of Quebec and how this question relates to the broader class struggle plays an important role / Image: Creative Commons

In 2000, the Klein government passed Bill 202, amending the marriage act to only allow heterosexual marriages, again using the notwithstanding clause. It had already been determined by the Supreme Court that only the federal government could legislate on matters in relation to marriage and the Klein government’s legislation was essentially meaningless with the passing of the federal Civil Marriage Act in 2005.

When the Civil Marriage Act was passed federally, the Klein government was actively and loudly seeking ways to get around it and maintain its effective ban on gay marriage. The Alberta government made jurisdictional arguments that the federal legislation was encroaching on the province’s powers over the solemnization of marriage and even played with the idea of opting out of solemnizing marriages entirely.

In the end nothing came of it, as the Klein government had no legal way forward. But let’s imagine that the Klein government had passed legislation to block anything other than heterosexual unions and the federal government had challenged it. There would have been no basis for supporting one side or the other on jurisdictional grounds. The most important thing would have been to support the more progressive outcome, which would mean supporting the struggle for equal rights, and support for the overturning of any discriminatory legislation. Again, all things being equal, this would mean again supporting the federal government in this case.

When it comes to Bill 21, however, the question of the self-determination of Quebec and how this question relates to the broader class struggle does play an important role, and must be taken into consideration. To ignore this would be a massive blunder. Bill 21 is undoubtedly an attack on the working class and furthers the interests of the bosses, and must be opposed. However, in this concrete case, we would not be in favour of a federal intervention over Bill 21, because ultimately this would not further the class struggle in Quebec.

As we have mentioned, given that Bill 21 remains popular in the polls in Quebec, federal interference via the courts or the constitution would be viewed as an anti-democratic move and a massive violation of Quebec’s self-determination. Those that support the bill would be driven into the open arms of Legault and the CAQ, bolstering the right wing and the reactionary nationalists. The CAQ would then be in a good position to transform the debate on Bill 21 into a discussion on Quebec’s rights a nation, and the struggle against the racist law would find itself in a difficult situation.

Bolstered support for the CAQ and a rise in reactionary nationalism would put a damper on the class struggle in Quebec, and give all the momentum Legault needs to implement his austerity program and attacks on the working class. Thus, while we fight against Bill 21, in this case we would not support interference on the part of the federal government, because in these concrete circumstances such an intervention would have an adverse effect on the class struggle and thereby not further the interests of the working class.

How to fight Bill 21

While support for Bill 21 remains high in Quebec, the reason for this is that there has been no real opposition or consistent arguments from the left against it. Opportunism both in Quebec and English Canada has played a pernicious role where organizations are reluctant to take a stand for fear of electoral repercussions. As well, the opposition has taken the form of a parliamentary/legal opposition. Unfortunately, this fall, QS released its three main priorities in the fall of 2019 which did not include a struggle against bill 21. While QS has said that they will not renew the notwithstanding clause if elected, they seem to have accepted that it has passed into law. And the NDP in Ontario seem to be banking on pushing the bigoted Doug Ford into supporting legal challenges!

While QS, the NDP, the unions and many city councils and school boards oppose this law, it is clear that a mass campaign against this law would have a huge effect. This could be combined with action on the ground in the form of demonstrations, workplace occupations etc… There have already been important protests against Bill 21. In early April 2019, protesters formed a human chain around a school in Westmount. In the summer, several school boards declared that they would not enforce the law. Teachers’ unions and immigrant rights organizations inside and outside Quebec have a specific interest in opposing Bill 21 and it is vital that they take up this campaign to unite all workers in the Canadian state. We have also seen the beginnings of a university student strike movement opposed to the law. This would be an encouraging development if it takes off and becomes generalized. Such a united campaign could cut the ground under the feet of both the Quebec nationalists who defend the law and are trying to get the Quebec workers on their side, and the Anglo-chauvinists who want the Federal state to intervene or who try to make it a “Quebec” problem.

Loi21 Image Paul Chiasson The importance of Bill 21 is not confined to Quebec. With the coming crisis of capitalism and more and more people looking to fight against the establishment, the capitalists and their politicians will need a scapegoat / Image: Paul Chiasson/La Presse canadienne

In a press release about the NDP’s non-binding motion condemning Bill 21 being passed in the Ontario legislature, Andrea Horwath said that “words are not enough.” By this she unfortunately did not mean a mass campaign of action against Bill 21, but rather that the NDP would join any challenges before the Supreme Court. Workers are being attacked under Bill 21 right now, and the victims of this racist law do not need an ally who will only show up in court, which will be too late anyway. Action is urgently required now, and yes, words are not enough. QS, the unions, in alliance with the NDP, both federally and provincially, should form a united front on this question and organize a mass campaign against this law and participate and organize protests and workplace actions against this attack. All sectors of the workers’ movement have an obligation to take militant action to turn public opinion and make the law a dead letter.

What is really needed in the fight against Bill 21 is a mass movement of civil disobedience in all workplaces, schools and municipalities. Every trade union that has taken a stand against Bill 21 must now turn their words into action and mobilize in defense of religious minorities. A concrete plan of civil disobedience must be organized. This should take the form of work stoppages and strikes in solidarity with targeted employees and mass demonstrations. For every case where a public servant is refused a job or threatened with the loss of their job because of a religious symbol, we should organize solidarity action, whether it be walkouts, demonstrations, or any other action that can overturn the decision. The law must be made inapplicable by the workers themselves through active solidarity. And this solidarity must spread to English Canada as well.

If the passing of Bill 21 is allowed to happen without serious resistance, we will have a horrible precedent to deal with. Reactionary governments in Quebec, in other provinces, on the federal level, and elsewhere in the world will point towards Bill 21 to justify other racist laws. The importance of Bill 21 is not confined to Quebec. With the coming crisis of capitalism and more and more people looking to fight against the establishment, the capitalists and their politicians will need a scapegoat. Blaming oppressed minorities for the problems of the system is an insidious tactic to weaken the workers’ movement. They have done it in Quebec for years; they will do it elsewhere. We must campaign in Quebec and in English Canada for a mass movement against this law. This is how we can cut across the divisions that the CAQ are trying to foment, and expose the Liberals who try to present themselves as the most staunch defenders of minority rights. This is how we can fight the racism used by the ruling class to distract us, and strengthen working class unity.

Originally published 27 February by FightbackRead in French |

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