Putting the “Union” back in “Union Station”

I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to have a rally in Union Station in Toronto in the middle of rush hour. I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to wear picket signs and hand out union flyers either. But there they were, Friday May 25, at 4pm – a good two dozen or so striking employees of CP Rail, members of the Teamsters, doing all of the above. The picket signs were big and bold, saying “Leave my pension alone,” and the picketers, instead of being thrown out, were being welcomed warmly by the VIA, GO and TTC employees who were in Canada’s biggest transit hub that day. Something had changed in Toronto since I was last here.

Maybe it was the issue. The employer is after these workers’ pensions. Just two of the bullet points on the leaflet being distributed were:

• CP wants to reduce pension income for active employees … in some cases by as much as 40%;

•  CP wants to reduce Retirement Health Care benefits and eliminate benefits at age 65, a reduction of over $20,000 per member (TCRD Division 821 2012).

Those are both important issues for many workers in both the public and private sector. Everywhere there is pressure to reduce pension benefits. Everywhere there is pressure to reduce health care benefits. Everywhere, in other words, Main Street is being asked to accept a lower standard of living, to deal with economic problems caused by Bay Street and Wall Street.

But another explanation comes to mind, to explain this confident picket in the middle of rush hour, and the warm reception from the traveling public. Maybe a little of the spirit of Quebec has come to Toronto?

After all, just two days before, what is being described as “the single biggest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history” had taken place, in Montreal. Our sisters and brothers in Quebec are up against the draconian Bill 78 which puts very severe restrictions on the right to assemble for political purposes. The massive crowd which defied that law might have been 250,000 strong. The lowest estimate was 75,000 (Mennie et al. 2012).

When a quarter of a million stand up to defy an unjust law, it gives all of us confidence to stand up. The 4,800 CP rail employees now on strike – members of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC) – are certainly doing just that. TCRC president Rex Beatty said that the “railway’s demands were unacceptable because while workers are seeing their pensions decimated, managers are seeing their benefits increase. ‘CP management … shouldn’t underestimate our members. This is an important issue and we’re going to see this fight through to the end’ ” (Teamsters Canada Rail Conference 2012).

A picket sign at union station put the matter in more colloquial terms. “CP touched my ‘No No’ place”. These workers who are saying “No” to cuts in pensions and benefits deserve our support. And in all of our struggles, we need to keep front and centre the story of the magnificent movement in Quebec which is inspiring students and workers all over the world.

© 2012 Paul Kellogg


Mennie, James, Katherine Wilton, Andy Riga, Chris Curtis, Max Harrold, Roberto Rocha, Jan Ravensbergen, and The Gazette. 2012. “Peaceful Day March, Heated Night Demo.” The Gazette, May 23, montrealgazette.com edition. .

TCRD Division 821. 2012. “Why Is There a Strike at CP Rail?

Teamsters Canada Rail Conference. 2012. “TCRC President Stands Behind Striking Canadian Pacific Workers.

Breakthrough for Québec solidaire

DECEMBER 9, 2008 – Amir Khadir, one of the two spokespersons for Québec solidaire (QS), has won a seat in the Quebec National Assembly. Among the many excellent aspects of the Québec solidaire platform, is a call for the Quebec government to pass a motion opposing “any Canadian imperialist intervention in Afghanistan.”[1] The QS success represents an important advance for the social justice and anti-war movements in both Quebec and English Canada.

Khadir’s victory was not just the victory of one individual. In his riding of Mercier, QS won 8,861 votes, 38.06% of votes cast, defeating Daniel Turp, a star candidate of the Parti Québécois (PQ) by 872 votes. But in the ridings surrounding Mercier, QS also did extremely well. In Gouin, the other co-spokesperson for QS, Françoise David, came a very close second to the PQ winning 7,987 votes (31.95%). In ridings adjacent to either Mercier or Gouin, QS won 2,963 votes (13.01%) in Laurier-Dorion, 2,228 votes (11.43%) in Outremont, 3,009 votes (15.22%) in Saint-Marie-Saint-Jacques, 2,502 votes (12.91%) in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, and 2,470 votes (8.24%) in Rosemont – more than 30,000 votes in total in these seven ridings on the Island of Montreal.

There were also important results in other parts of Quebec, QS candidates polling 2,241 votes (8.42%) in the Quebec City riding of Taschereau, 1,995 votes (8.78%) in the Outaouais riding of Hull, 439 votes (5.04%) in the vast northern riding of Ungava, 1,413 votes (5.77%) in the “near-North” riding of Rouyn-Noranda-Témiscamingue, and just shy of 2,000 votes (6.46%) in Sherbrooke, the riding of Liberal premier Jean Charest.[2]

QS was formed at a convention, February 3, 4 and 5, 2006. Institutionally, it was the coming together of l’Union des forces progressistes (UFP) and Option citoyenne (OC). What this fusion accomplished was to provide a space for the expression of the hopes and dreams of two generations of struggle in Quebec. Those who attended the 1,000 strong opening rally, will never forget the emotion – a video showing the history of struggle in Quebec reaching back through the tumultuous decades of the 1960s and 1970s, from the War Measures Act of 1970 and the General Strike of 1972, to the women’s movement of the 1980s and 1990s, and the anti-globalization and anti-war movements of the 21st century.[3] There was a feeling of history being made.

With a seat in the National Assembly, QS has a new tool to add to the historic commitment of the UFP to be a “party of the street and of the ballot box.”[4] The visibility that comes from having a sitting member will propel QS into the public eye in a new way.

There were some other encouraging results from the election. In particular, the right-wing Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ), which had soared to second place in the 2007 election, saw its vote collapse by a stunning 694,487, leading to the election night resignation of leader Mario Dumont.

But there remain many challenges, of which QS members are very aware. Celebrations of Khadir’s victory were tempered by disappointment over Françoise David narrowly failing to join Khadir in the National Assembly. In addition, the overall result was a majority government for Jean Charest and the Liberal Party, a leader and a party who are a known commodity in Quebec politics – committed to defending the interests of corporate power.

More worrying, in an election which saw 720,000 fewer voters turn up at the polls than in 2007, it was the two traditional parties – the Liberals and the PQ – which saw their votes increase, 49,137 for the Liberals and 13,639 for the PQ. While QS saw its overall percentage increase slightly (from 3.64% to 3.8%), and while it displaced the Green Party as the fourth party in the election, its overall vote total actually declined by more than 20,000, dropping from 144,418 to 123,061.[5] (See table here for complete figures.)

The spectre of an economic crisis is a factor in this. Fear of recession in the absence of mass struggle means many in the electorate are looking for “safety” in the face of a stronger Liberal government. And it is probably the case that an increased number of people turned to the PQ in disgust at the federal Tories Quebec bashing in the context of the current national political crisis.

Given these huge currents in the economy and in mass politics, it is remarkable that QS did as well as it did, and that Khadir was able to win a seat. There is now a more visible progressive voice that can express the concerns of working people in the face of recession and layoffs, and be a voice against war in the face of parties like the federal NDP quietly putting Afghanistan on the shelf as the price for its coalition with the federal Liberals.

The story of QS needs to be given much more visibility in English Canada. Our sisters and brothers in Quebec have taken up the challenge of forging a united alternative to the traditional parties of politics, and have had some real success. Sometimes it seems that in English Canada we know more about events of this sort in Germany, Britain or France than we do about events down the 401, just across the Ontario border. Hopefully the presence of Amir Khadir in the National Assembly will give QS more visibility, not just in Quebec, but in English Canada as well.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

Publishing History

This article has been published as Breakthrough for Québec solidaire,rabble.ca, 12 December; “Quebec: Breakthrough for Québec solidaire,Links, 9 December.


[1] “Engagements 2008 de Québec solidaire,” www.quebecsolidaire.net, English version available here
[2] All electoral results from Le Directeur Général des élections du Québec, “Cartothèque: Cartes individuelles des 125 circonscriptions électorales provinciales,” www.electionsquebec.qc.ca
[3] Québec solidaire, “Historique”, www.quebecsolidaire.net
[4] Richard Fidler, “Canada: Quebec’s new united left party,” Green Left on line, December 10, 2003, www.greenleft.org.au
[5] Figures for 2007 from “Tableau synoptique des résultats pour l’ensemble des circonscriptions,” www.electionsquebec.qc.ca, for 2008 from “Élections générales: Résultats préliminaires,” www.monvote.qc.ca

Harper’s Tories: Attacking Quebec to Save Neoliberalism

(Article 1 of 4) Stephen Harper won a seven week reprieve December 4, the Governor-General granting his request to prorogue Parliament until January 26. But the events of the past week have pushed him into a corner and he is fighting for his political life. The fight has revealed something many people already knew. Behind the fuzzy sweater donned during the last election, behind the “fireside chat” chumminess that he was trying to cultivate, behind this façade of polite civilized behaviour, there resides the same man who was cadre for the Reform Party and Canadian Alliance. That political formation built itself on a combination of polarizing attacks on Quebec and neoliberal dogmatism. Harper in a corner, with his fangs bared, has showed himself not to have changed one iota.

The anti-Quebec politics he has unleashed are appalling. In Question Period December 3, Tory member after Tory member repeated the same two words over and over again – “separatist coalition” – 36 times to be exact, if the official record is to be believed.[1] Harper used the same language in his address to the nation December 3, saying that a time of crisis is “no time for backroom deals with the separatists.”[2] At various times, Tories were using the words “treason,” ” and “deal with the devil” as they carried their polemic against the proposed coalition.[3] This was clearly a planned, coordinated strategy, the most blatantly open anti-Quebec politics to come from the federal stage in years.

Just a few months ago, Harper was trying to woo the voters of Quebec, hoping to re-create the Brian Mulroney coalition of the 1980s. He had surprisingly supported the idea of calling Quebec a nation – something that angered many of his old Reform Party comrades. But pushed into a corner, he needs to rally his base – and nothing energizes the old Reform Party more than attacks on Quebec.

“In the space of just a few days” said one commentator, “the phobia of ‘separatists’ has reappeared in Ottawa and in English Canada, with a force we haven’t seen in years, since the referendum in 1995, since the Meech Lake controversy.”[4] It has become legitimate again to speak about Quebec with outright hostility and bigotry, made legitimate by the irresponsible rants of Harper and the Tory caucus.

Harper is aware just how inflammatory is his language. In the French version of his address to the nation, he translated the loaded word “separatist” into the much less value-laden “souverainiste”.[5] But this transparent ruse is unlikely to fool the people of Quebec, who are rightly recoiling in shock at the display of venom coming from Harper and his followers. As one radio commentator put it, the price for Harper rallying the troops to his anti-Quebec flag, was to put “scorched earth” between the Tories and what had been their developing base in Quebec.

Harper’s target is the Bloc Québécois (BQ), which has indicated it would support the proposed coalition between the Liberals and the NDP. Harper’s attack is ridiculous. First, the BQ is not part of the coalition – it has only indicated that it will give the coalition 18 months to govern. Second, this is not unusual. The BQ was, after all, central to keeping Stephen Harper’s last minority government alive in its early months. And these parliamentary details are beside the point. The Tories are focussing on the fact that the BQ supports sovereignty. That is their right. They are also the party supported by 1.3 million Quebeckers in the last election. The BQ is a legitimate part of the political spectrum in Canada. It has a long record of operating in the House of Commons – including being the official opposition in 1993, a party which has “contributed to debates outside matters of Quebec’s status and powers, on everything from climate change and Afghanistan to efforts to repatriate Omar Khadr” as even the editorial writers for The Globe and Mail have to admit.[6]

But Harper is teetering on the edge of losing his office, and will use every weapon at his disposal to say in office – even if that means fanning the flames of anti-Quebec bigotry. What brought Harper to this impasse was his stubborn commitment to neo-liberal orthodoxy, even in the face of the economic storm sweeping the world economy. In country after country, governments have turned their back on the neoliberal allergy to the state – and begun the process of rediscovering Keynesianism and state intervention – indispensable in the face of the horrors of the unfettered free market. But Harper and his finance minister Jim Flaherty – the latter trained in the neo-liberal era of Ontario’s Mike Harris – had delivered an economic update that instead of stimulating the economy, would have further depressed it. They are dogmatic neoliberal ideologues, very reluctant to abandon the old, failed orthodoxy.

Flaherty has been trying to argue that he has already stimulated the economy through previously announced tax cuts. The Department of Finance depends on four firms to help with the preparation of budget documents. One of these is the Centre for Spatial Economics. Flaherty’s view “is a fantasy” according to the Centre’s Robert Fairholm, quoted in The Globe and Mail. “Most of the short-term stimulus from these measures have already boosted economic activity, and so will not continue to provide [a] short-term jolt to growth.” The tax cuts coming January, 2009 put $2.5 billion into the economy. But the update was going to cut $4.3 billion, “so the net effect is contractive, Mr. Fairholm explained.” In fact, instead of stimulating the economy, Fairholm estimates that the impact of Flaherty’s “update” would be to turn a 0.3 per cent annual growth rate to a decline of 0.1 per cent.[7]

Harper has revealed his colours – first as a neo-liberal dinosaur who has no understanding of how to respond to the economic crisis, second as a politician willing to go to any lengths – including irresponsibly provoking an anti-Quebec backlash in English Canada – to consolidate his base and keep his job. No wonder that his actions have disgusted thousands, and that the three other parties in the House of Commons are trying to push him out.

Read next:
Harper out of Ottawa, Canada out of Afghanistan

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] “40th Parliament, 1st Session: Edited Hansard: Number 012,” Wednesday, December 3, 2008, www.parl.gc.ca
[2] “Full text of Harper’s televised address,” www.thestar.com, December 3, 2008
[3] “Fanning anger toward Quebec,” The Globe and Mail, December 4, 2008, www.theglobeandmail.com
[4] Translated from Vincent Marissal, “Situation désespérée, stratégie du désespoir,” La Presse, 04 décembre, 2008, www.cyberpresse.ca
[5] Graeme Hamilton, “Old bogeyman usurps real crisis,” National Post, December 4, 2008, www.nationalpost.com
[6] “Fanning anger toward Quebec,” The Globe and Mail, December 4, 2008, p. A22.
[7] Cited in Heather Scofield, “Flaherty’s plan prolongs the pain, forecaster says,” The Globe and Mail, December 4, 2008, p. A4.

Louis Riel Day

The children of Manitoba are more astute than the professional politicians who rule Ontario. Those politicians, in their wisdom, decided that Ontario’s new long overdue February holiday would be called “Family Day”. By contrast, when 100 schools in Manitoba were given a choice, among the random and funny holiday names submitted (ranging from “Bison Break” to “Winnipeg Jets Day”), fully eleven schools chose “Louis Riel Day”.[1] And so today, February 18 2008, Manitobans get a day off in honour of a man, who on November 16, 1885, was executed[2] for standing up against the first expressions of Canadian imperialism.

The Canadian state – effectively a sovereign state from 1848 – officially came into being in with Confederation in 1867. Its first project was a straightforwardly imperialist one – expand into and conquer the western lands, so Europeans could settle them, with or without the consent of the people’s inhabiting those lands. An interesting history of this period dubs these lands west of Lake Superior as “Canada’s First Colony.”[3] Forget what you have read about Canada being an “oppressed” neo-colony. Canada emerges into history as a capitalist and imperialist power.

Riel’s people were the Métis, who, as Riel wrote just before he was hanged, “have as their paternal ancestors the former employees of the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest companies; and as their maternal ancestors Indian women belonging to different tribes.”[4] Riel’s people “made up the majority of the population in the Red River settlement” in what is today Manitoba. “[T]hey were kinsmen of the Cree and Sarcee, the Saulteaux and Blackfoot.”[5] Their territory was part of the “North West” – a vast territory that was a protectorate of Britain, who had “delegated all ruling authority in the region to the Hudson’s Bay Company”[6] which “imposed a ‘seigniorial despotism’ on the colony.”[7]

In the wake of Confederation in 1867, Liberal and Tory representatives of the new Canadian state were united in coveting these North West Territories. Liberal leader of the opposition, Alexander Mackenzie, said that because central Canada no longer had “vast tracts of fertile land,” he was “prepared to do all in his power to assist in the acquisition and opening up of the North Western territory.” Macdonald’s intentions were starkly revealed in his private correspondence. In a letter to J.Y. Bown, member of parliament from Ontario, he said that “the game was to establish calm with the ‘wild people’ of Red River by unspecified yet ‘considerable management’ until enough newcomers like Bown’s brother had moved west. “’In another year,’ he wrote, ‘the present residents will be altogether swamped by the influx of strangers.’”[8]

But Macdonald failed to take into account the resistance of the Métis. In October 1869, Riel was central in the formation of the “Comité national des Métis”. By August 1870, This Métis Committee had 500 armed horsemen, and was able to block access to their territory to representatives from Ottawa.[9] On December 8, the Métis leadership published the magnificent “Declaration of the People of Rupert’s Land and the North West.” “A people,” it said, “when it has no government, is free to adopt one form of government in preference to another …”[10]

The resistance of the Métis led to a major concession. The Manitoba Act, passed on May 12, 1870, established a new province giving equal rights to the French language. But secretly the Tories were at the same time, planning a use of military force to make sure that the new province was under theirs and not Riel’s control. Riel barely escaped with his life, was forced into exile, and the Métis moved west to what is today Saskatchewan.

Their reprieve was short-lived. Both Manitoba and Saskatchewan lay in the road of the great instrument of Canadian capitalism – the railroad. Stanley Ryerson, who is without peer as a historian of early Canadian history, describes the railways as “both an instrument of colonialism – extracting raw materials and semi-processed products required by the metropolis – and … engines of industrialization, stimulating the growth of local manufactures and of a home market.”[11] It was Macdonald’s life-ambition to secure Canadian sovereignty across the entire North West, that meant finishing the railway, and that meant imperialism and the use of force.

The military intervention against the Métis in 1870 had been stymied by the absence of the railway. But by 1885, rail lines had been pushed across Ontario, across Manitoba and into Saskatchewan. The coming of the rails and industrial capitalism brought with it also the military force of Canadian imperialism. So this time, when the Métis stood against the forces of Canadian expansion, 3,000 troops came down the rails to confront them – an overwhelming force against the few hundred poorly armed Métis. The rebellion was crushed, Riel was tried and hung, and – in the same month that the execution took place – the transcontinental railway was completed.

Studying this rebellion can teach us much. Resistance – even when unsuccessful in the immediate term – can spur important change. Macdonald, worried about keeping the Métis rebellion of 1885 localized, made major concessions, including “a diversionary franchise bill that included proposals for nearly universal suffrage for white men and extension of the vote to certain single women and the Six Nations of Loyalist Indians in Ontario.”[12] This in spite of the fact that, according to his biographer Joseph Pope, “Macdonald, until the last day of his life viewed universal suffrage ‘as one of the greatest evils that could befall a state … The idea that a man should vote simply because he breathed was ever repellant to Sir John Macdonald’s conception of government.”[13]

We can also learn that in Canada in 1885, the one place there was huge sympathy for this rebellion against imperialism was in Quebec. On November 22, 1885, reports one unsympathetic historian, “an enormous mass meeting of protest” was held “in the Champ de Mars, in Montreal … a total of thirty-seven speakers competed with each other in ferocious denunciations of the ‘hangman’s government’ at Ottawa.”[14]

The Quebec people identified with the Riel rebellions in part because the Métis spoke French. As one historian says, the goal of the Tories was to transform “the Quebec of the West into a new Ontario.”[15] But the people of Quebec – just like the kinsmen of “the Cree and Sarcee, the Saulteaux and Blackfoot” who rebelled in 1870 and 1885 – had also known rebellion and repression. It was just 1837 that Quebec’s own attempt at achieving sovereignty was crushed. In the aftermath, in 1838, the jails were “packed with prisoners.” Eventually, 58 prisoners were deported to Australia and 12 executed – including one 18 year old, two aged 20, and one just 23.[16]

So hats off to the school children of Manitoba – thanks to them, Louis Riel has a day in his honour (and John A. Macdonald does not). Thanks to them, Riel will be remembered, at least every February. And if we remember Riel, we just might get a clearer insight into the imperialist nature of the Canadian state – and of an absolutely inspiring history of resistance.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] “Manitoba’s new holiday: Louis Riel Day,” CBCnews, September 27, 2007
[2] Donald Creighton, John A. Macdonald: The Old Chieftain (Toronto: The MacMillan Company of Canada, 1973), pp. 438-9
[3] D.N. Sprague, Canada and the Métis, 1869-1885 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1988), pp. 19-32
[4] Cited in Stanley Ryerson, Unequal Union: Confederation and the Roots of Conflict in the Canadas, 1815-1873 (Toronto: Progress Books, 1975), p. 379
[5] Ryerson, p. 380
[6] Sprague, p. 19
[7] Sprague, p. 4
[8] Sprague, p. 30
[9] Ryerson, pp. 384-5
[10] Cited in Ryerson, p. 386
[11] Ryerson, p. 258
[12] Sprague, p. 176
[13] Cited in Ryerson, p. 355
[14] Creighton, p. 442
[15] Sprague, p. ix
[16] Ryerson, pp. 79-81