Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Nycole Turmel & The Media’s B.S. Loyalty Test

This is a story that isn’t a story.

NDP interim leader Nycole Turmel has a long history as a union activist and progressive. She was president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada for a number of years and can point to a significant victory for her members when PSAC won a $3 billion pay equity settlement against the federal government. That is why she has the right to run for and lead the NDP.

She also happens to be from Quebec and was, for five years, a “card-carrying member” of the Bloc Quebecois, before joining and running as a candidate for the NDP. She also donated a grand total of $235 to the sovereignist party over a period of five years. That works out to a grand total of... $47 per year. I pay almost twice that a month for a membership to a yoga gym. The fact that the Globe & Mail uses that old McCarthyist phrase “card-carrying” to describe someone who was the member of a legal electoral party, with members of Parliament and which was, until this year, the largest federal party in Quebec and was once the Official Opposition, speaks volumes.

The English Canadian media – and politicians – need to wake up to the fact that there is a sovereignist movement in Quebec that has mass – near majority - support. Amongst the left in Quebec, a sizable constituency, that support is even larger. That support deserves to be understood with thoughtful analysis and an examination of Canadian history - not the kind of demonization typical of Anglo commentary. The popularity of demands for Quebec sovereignty has nothing to do with “betrayal” of the mythical warm and fuzzy Canadian state. It has everything to do with the historic experience of national oppression by the Quebecois(es). Quebec was incorporated into Canada by force of arms; it has never been treated as the nation it was prior to conquest and which the majority francophone population still considers it. The linguistic rights of the francophone majority were also suppressed for generations, with all business, legal and governmental matters being conducted in English – a language that the majority of the population didn’t speak.

To raise any of this lived history and its continuing repercussions ought to be banal . In Quebec it is. But in English Canada it’s like taking the Lord’s name in vain in a Catholic Church. The Anglo elite simply cannot face reality for fear of losing their privileges – and not only to Quebec but also to the aboriginal populations in Canada.

Of course, the denial of reality, the presumption of the right to hold asymmetrical privileges, and the general bigotry towards the aspirations of the oppressed - particularly when those aspirations find a political expression in the form of a movement or a party - none of this is new. Our politicians and media plead fealty to the principles of equality but when the women's movement demands pay equity they are being unreasonable or man-haters. When aboriginal people's demand reparations, or treatment as a nation with the right to self-determination, or even access to the wealth generated by natural resources on land that was formerly (or even presently) theirs, they are labeled as militants and radicals (as thought that's a bad thing). Such lies and obfuscations are just part of the day to day operations of capitalism and of the Canadian state. They keep things running smoothly.

But you would hope that the media would have an ability to at least rise above the most obvious and pathetic hypocrisies of recent history. Apparently, as the Murdoch scandal demonstrates, you can't set the bar low enough for the sycophants, laggards and charlatans of sober thought to lift their foot over it.

Let me issue a small reminder, one that would keep the Tories - if not the media - quiet if they had any honour. Before there was the Bloc there was the Tory party of Brian Mulroney. Understanding that without a victory in Quebec the Tories could never win a majority government nationally. And understanding that the only way to seriously cut into the Liberal's mafia-like base in Quebec was to substantively deal with the fact that Quebec was excluded from the repatriated constitution by virtue of a Liberal (and NDP via Roy Romanow) betrayal. Brian Mulroney promised a "new deal" for Quebec and recruited a number of 'soft-sovereignists" into the party, granting some of them cabinet level positions, most prominently Lucien Bouchard.

The fruit of that "new deal" were the Meech Lake Accord in 1987 and then the Charlottetown Accord in 1992. Both of these were defeated, largely by a wave of anti-Quebec bigotry. The result was that the Tory party was badly split. In the west, Preston Manning - heir to the Social Credit/Tory dynasty in that province - launched the fake populist Reform Party out of the bigotry. In Quebec Lucien Bouchard led a number of Quebec Tories along with two Liberal MPs out of their caucuses after the failure of Meech Lake - and the move to water down its provisions in the lead-up to Charlottetown. So, the Bloc must first and foremost be seen for what it is: a creation of the Tory party; a result of Mulroney's failure to hold onto the soft-sovereignists whom he courted. The recruitment of Nycole Turmel - and other sovereignists - is really only the NDP following in the wake of a past Tory strategy but doing so on a left wing basis, founded upon the social democratic values of the NDP, rather than on the pro-business, right wing policies of Mulroney's Tories. Attempts to portray the recruitment of sovereignists to a federalist party as beyond the pale and unprecedented are utterly false and hypocritical.

It is however a bit disturbing that the NDP doesn't raises these points and that it shies away from speaking the truth - presumably in the interest of not alienating English Canadian voters. Turmel rather than using the opportunity to speak the truth about the experiences of Quebec, its history, etc. instead tries to downplay five years of party membership. This is bad enough but makes her look ridiculous when her letter of resignation and her financial donations were published.

“Enclosed is my Bloc Québécois membership card, which I wish to cancel. I wish to state that my request has nothing to do with the party’s policies, I am doing this for personal reasons,” Ms. Turmel wrote.
She then wished “good luck” to Ms. Lavallée, who went on to be defeated by an NDP candidate in the May 2 general election.

This kind of dishonesty will blow up in the NDPs face. Not only will it damage their support in Quebec, where support for sovereignty is not considered a mark of weakness or betrayal. In the rest of Canada working people will smell that she is spinning a lie. Of course, it's possible that coming out and openly stating the reasons for the wide support for sovereignty in Quebec might damage the NDPs popularity in the short term, it will strengthen it in the long term. We've already seen that telling the truth isn't necessarily damaging: after some hesitation, NDP Leader Jack Layton came out in support of the NDPs official position on a sovereignty referendum - that they would support a simple majority. The NDP has not collapsed in the polls and it has held firm in Quebec. There's a lesson here. It's only by being honest and principled that the NDP will be able to build a sustainable presence in Parliament in the wake of its incredible breakthrough this spring.
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