CUTTING THROUGH THE CONSTITUTIONAL SMOKESCREEN
Serai: Madame Parent, since you have seen so much and participated in so much that has now become Quebec’s past, could you describe your aspirations as a Quebecer from a broad, historical perspective?
Parent: I’m afraid we’re nowhere near coming to grips with the problem. Decades have been wasted. Petty politicians are using their powers to suit their own purposes and to enhance their own positions. Very wealthy people are the ones who hold the power in their hands. They are not addressing the problem. What is more Important than anything else is the issue of building a society and an economy in which people can make a decent living with decent jobs; where they can bring up their children in good health, and make good education available to them. Today nobody gets around to improving health services, so programs, and old age pensions. Prevention and child care are not dealt with. Care has to be given to the disabled providing them with a chance to heal and recycle themselves. What one should look for is a society in which human rights are properly defended, in which racism, sexism and all other kinds of discrimination are eliminated. To build such a society, it is necessary not to pursue the objective of greater wealth for a few. Take the free trade agreement, for instance: governments tried to achieve competitiveness at the cost of developing an economy that would provide jobs for people who are productive, not dependent.
We need progressive, not regressive taxation policy. Over the past decade the total burden of taxation has shifted in favor of the wealthy (who now pay relatively less) against the productive middle class, and the poor (thanks to the GST). It is a policy that results in cutbacks on social programs and other support systems. The UIC, for example, has been in existence for 50 years. It has now been cut back, and the federal government has withdrawn its contribution, further jeopardizing the program while washing its hands of the consequences.
There was an attempt made in 1985 to de-index old age pensions. This resulted in mobilization of senior citizens and with support from other organizations they managed to force the government to back off. But other programs were cut. We have got work with democratic organizations to develop coalition work, and to direct attention to the kind of society we want to live in.
At the national level we have the Action Canada Network and Solidarité populaire Quebec at the provincial level. The latter conducted a tour from November 1991 to January 1992. A series of meetings, very much like town hall meetings, were held all over Quebec. People from various democratic organizations were invited to state their opinions about problems in society, and to express their vision of a just future. The report is now out. Its theme is “Le Quebec qu’on veut batir.” We’ve been careful to avoid constitutional options for the sake of building a consensus and coalitions without excluding people. That report is a record of what was discussed, and is about to go back to the participating organizations for further study. Hopefully we’ll get together again to help build a non-partisan people’s program.
I’m not saying that people should not form political parties, but sometimes political parties are formed too hastily without reaching out to various democratic elements. They end up being a chapel, rather than a viable political organization.
Serai: Why do you feel political parties today run on single-issue agendas like sign laws, racism, violence against women and so on. Why do you think social change today is not observed as something beyond just one single issue?
Parent: Various parties are being forced by women’s groups to face these issues. By now the women’s movement has built such a case that it has to be taken seriously. Parties looking for votes jump on the bandwagon. If they didn’t do that they would come under violent attack. I must say however that the N DP (a party to which I do not belong) is a bit more serious than others about these issues.
There have been periods of social reform where there was a more humane and realistic approach. During these periods, the push came from the bottom, After the Quiet Revolution, for Instance, at the end of the Duplessis era. People had been living under an autocratic regime where the employers, the government and the church hierarchy worked together to keep people down. Behind the scenes, the Quebec government at the time was working with the federal government while pretending to be in disagreement with it. We don’t always recognize that the same thing is happening now as well.
People’s resistance to the oppressive Duplessis regime in the 40’s and 50’s blossomed into an urgent demand for improvement and social change in the 1960’s, when considerable reforms were made in health services, education social services etc. With it came the laicization of people working in these fields. Two thirds of the people working in these fields were, and still are, women. As working people, women gained a measure of independence and empowerment.
They organized into unions and they contributed to the building of the women’s movement. I attribute much of our social gains to the power of the women’s movement in Quebec.
It was my experience that women recognized the need to organize in the 1940’s. To cite one example, there was no provision at that time for maternity leave. A woman’s job would be in jeopardy each time a child was born to her. Women recognized therefore that they needed unions to establish these rights-unions where women had a voice. I remember how we would try to negotiate maternity leave by getting women together whenever one of them was pregnant. A party would be held in the factory to which the foreman would be invited. He would then be embarrassed into promising her job back in front of all the other women. This is just one example.
Then there was the battle against sexual harassment. You know how rampant this was and still is. At the time, it was not talked about. Women felt a need therefore to join a union, one strong motivation being to free themselves from sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination. This struggle fought more successfully in the Quiet Revolution, blossomed into the Pro-Choice movement with Henry Morganthaler taking up the cause, and being persecuted for it by the Bourassa government prior to the advent of the P.Q. in 1976. I might add that the Levesque government decided to put an end to the harassment after two juries had acquitted Morganthaler. The P.Q. set up clinics called CLSCs where abortions could be performed. This was in contravention of the federal criminal code.
To come back to the present… thanks to our leaders, our economy has tied itself to the American economy. Previously, in the 1970’s and 80’s there was a desire to develop exchanges with more countries of the world. But the economic policy of the Tory government has sacrificed the development of diversified exchanges in order to tie us to the American economy which is in deep recession that is not subsiding. We will go down with it and we will suffer more. Free Trade was originally expected to extend into Mexico, Canada and America. Now that the U.S. has us in its pocket, it is reaching out to Mexico to exploit its extensive labor power. Chile is expected to follow along with other Latin American countries. In order to increase the potential of large multinational corporations, exploitation of cheap labor takes place at the expense of people, their natural environment, and their national interests. Canadian natural resources have thus been exploited while our factories are being depleted. We are more and more at the mercy of large corporations that are being served by U.S. government policies and by the Canadian government’s policies. Instead of our being able to diversify our international commerce to maintain and develop jobs and as a result have a relatively productive society here, which would also consume our goods, our government policies are allowing people to be cast off as being unneeded to develop the kind of world scale economy our government leaders have in mind. Our welfare needs are increasing, and our people are worse off.
The French speaking people, who settled in Quebec long after the aboriginal people, settled in the St. Lawrence Valley and were later conquered by the British army. As with people elsewhere, the resentment and the effects of the conquest are still being felt. When I was passing through the Gaspe Peninsula, I stopped at a little church in Beaumont. There I read the proclamation made by Gen. Wolfe in 1760 when he declared to the people that their land was now under the control and protection of the King of England. He ordered them to submit and to remain quiet or else there would be trouble. In this church, a section of the British army had been bivouacked, and the people burned down the church.
In 1837, under Louis Joseph Papineau, a rebellion took place in Quebec. It was a real fight for independence, to have our own government recognized. The rebellion was crushed in blood, and a few of the leaders who did not exile themselves in the U.S. were hanged in the east end of Montreal, where Rene Levesque Boulevard ends today. A monument was erected there for “les patriotes” as they are called by our people. Subsequently, an attempt was made to divide Canada into Upper and Lower Canada, the latter being Quebec. This didn’t work out because of the colonialists’ desire to rule the whole land to suit their interests.
While building Confederation, the intent was for the most part to control the entire colony. There was never a democratic expression of our people that went into the building of confederation. And when the British government sent the army to crush the rebellion of the Metis in the west, and hanged Louis Riel, public sorrow expressed in Quebec was overwhelming. Again, when the federal government sent troops to the Boer war in Africa, there was great revulsion felt in Quebec. Conscription for overseas didn’t ever work in Quebec whether in the First or Second World Wars. Young men in droves took to the woods, to the mountains, and to the church where some became priests.
Serai: The church has played a crucial role in the past in providing such solutions, has it not?
Parent: Yes, but people stayed there under the most deplorable conditions. There have been instances, however, where local priests from small parishes have been closer to the people. But the hierarchy of the church has for the most part worked with the government. The Archbishop of Montreal, Joseph Charbonneau, was one who was with the people. He was subsequently removed by Pope Pius XII and spent his last years in practical exile in Victoria, B.C.
Serai: When was this?
Parent: In the late 1940’s. Accusations laid against him, prompted by multi-nationals like the Johns Manville Corporation (Asbestos), the Dominion Textile Corporation, were carried to the Vatican by two ministers during the Duplessis regime. Charbonneau was not even called to the Vatican to offer an explanation. He was summarily removed.
Again, during World War 2, conscription was denounced by many people of Quebec including my late husband. It was in violation of the promise made by Mackenzie King never to force Quebec people into conscription. Some of those who protested at the time were interned. Unfortunately, there has never been a democratic agreement with the federal government endorsed by the people of Quebec themselves.
Even when the Levesque government was in power, and the constitution was amended behind the back of our premier, Claude Morin was working with the RCMP against his own government. That is why it is so important to develop a ‘projet de societe” for the future where people themselves can develop democratically and securely with human rights and the rights of the minorities recognized along with the rights of the First Nations and the Women of the First Nations (most Chiefs deny them their rights). This has to be worked out. Because we’re always stabbed in the back by politicians with a lot of power – the whole area of the rights of minority people is not dealt with properly.
We’re trying to build those relationships, so that we might have a common vision of the future that will provide for everybody. But today, politicians use one group against the other. Look at Mulroney with his name-calling of those who oppose his Charlottetown deal. It has introduced all kinds of conflict into what should be a democratic discussion and debate. While all this debate is going on and on, and the governments are directing our attention to it, they are working out a free trade deal that will do untold damage to the economy and social progress of Canada. They will try to push this deal through very fast once the referendum is over, and will give us very little chance to debate a change.
Serai: The politicians will argue however that they spent a lot of time and energy on seeking public opinion through national and provincial commissions.
Parent: Yes, those five sessions with public representation were great. But the July proposal disregarded all the effort that went into them as though they had never taken place. Public discussion was used as a smoke screen to make people believe that the governments were listening. Many interesting things were said at these meetings. People from unions, representatives from democratic groups were all there. They were outspoken and clear in what they had to say. The idea was that the business circle would respond to them. But the business people did not want to face TV cameras In front of them. They did not want to cast themselves in the role of the bad ones. So they didn’t debate, as they never do. And the government was not going to act on what was discussed. A lot of this ‘democratic procedure’ therefore turned out to be a mirage, since it did not affect the outcome.
In the case of the Native people who have a very just cause, when the government felt obliged to deal with them, it chose to exclude the women. The government has been condemned for that in a federal court of appeal judgment handed out on August 20. The court agreed with the women who said that the government was wrong in not providing them with the necessary funds to consult with their members and to express their point of view and in denying them a place at the table; and that the government and the Association of First Nations were totally wrong In insisting that they be excluded. Subsequently, at the Charlottetown conference, however, that took place a few days after that, the women were there, but were left out.
Native women are known to be the ones most concerned about the welfare of their community. The government, since it feels it does not have to recognize their rights, prefers to deal with a number of Chiefs, and prefers not to deal in a democratic way.
Take the 1867 Indian Act – a discriminatory act that took status away from women who married outside the community, but granted status to women who married men within the community. Senator Walter Twin is a Chief in a small reserve in Alberta. He is extremely rich and is one of the strongest voices in opposing women’s struggle to regain their status. It is not surprising why he chooses to do this. He reigns supreme over the rich oilfields in that small reserve. Any other voice except his is seen as an intrusion into his domain,
Ovide Mercredi himself got back his Indian status shortly before being elected Grand Chief. He got this as a result of the struggle of Native Women and groups like the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the femmes autochtones du Quebec Inc. Mercredi, however, is accepted by the governments because they prefer to deal with a small elite to keep out the democratic process.
Native women’s organizations have been very involved in the whole campaign of male violence against women. They were asked to keep quiet so as not to make matters more complicated than they already were, and to allow the males to fight for autonomy. In the meantime however, nothing was done to eradicate the evil of violence in the community.
There is very wise leadership among the organizations of native women of this country. During the Oka crisis, when pressure from Bourassa was put over the federal government to send in the army, native women decided that they would not get into debate and argument, but make sure that food and essential supplies reached the communities blocked by the barricade. That’s all they did, and they were very successful despite tremendous odds. They negotiated with the army, the police, and the government in Ottawa. They were provoked by provincial police, and had trouble with the army. At times they went through the woods and over water to smuggle in food, and playing an indispensable role without entering into debate. I think this shows magnificent political maturity and social responsibility.
Serai: What do you think of Jacques Parizeau who claims that the Indians stand to gain more out of the Constitutional deal than the people of Quebec?
Parent: I think Parizeau is a most unfortunate choice for the political party. He was largely responsible for the swing to the right when the party was in power. That is why it lost support of the workers who had fought for it. He shows a lack of respect for native people and for minorities. But this is not felt by all.
Serai: If you could have everything you wanted for Quebec, what would you like to have. In other words, what, according to you, are the needs of Quebec?
Parent: There should be the recognition of the right to self-determination of Quebec, and the Native People, even if that right were never exercised. Today, one cannot hope for a democratic debate and choice since once again, prior to the referendum, we will be subjected to tremendous propaganda campaigns. But in the event that such a choice were possible, and the people chose federalism, an asymmetrical solution would be the process to follow. However, every time Quebec asks for more rights, in Immigration or cultural affairs or social programs, the federal government argues and concedes it to all the provinces. The federal government thus makes use of the demands of the people of Quebec to dismantle the state’s social apparatus to suit the needs of the corporations. There are differences, and what Quebec needs is not the same as what the other provinces need. I am speaking here in historical terms. In fact, we could have national differences in such a way that the rest of Canada operates as a more centralized state. In that context Quebec would be more obliged to maintain equally beneficial conditions as in the rest of Canada.
As for sovereignty, let me add, Rene Levesque’s position was sovereignty association. Trudeau and Chretien called it “Separation”, not the people of Quebec. Their propaganda made people believe that Quebec wanted to get out.
When I meet people in Ontario, they talk of separating, of getting out. They are all such negative terms and are contrary to the idea of sovereignty association which implies a measure of independence in association with the rest of Canada, especially in light of the threat of economic dependence on the US. However, nobody admits that this threat is posed by the US. They are all out for themselves.
When I look here at the discrimination against people who come here from other countries with all the prejudice springing from the idea that they are stealing our jobs, I feel it is all a great lie – as great a lie as saying that Columbus discovered America. He did not discover America, he initiated an assault. It sounds great, however, when one says that he discovered America.
Serai: Thank you very much Madame Parent for your time and your thoughts.
Parent: Thank you Nilambri. And please call me Madeleine.