Québec Redux: Settler Coloniality and Reactionary “Decolonialism”

An original variant of the the theses in this article was first published by me on my old blog, The Speed of Dreams, in 2011 under the title Some Thoughts on the Québec Sovereigntist Movement. An updated version was later published here in 2013, with the title Settler-Colonialism in Disguise: An Indigenist Critique of Québécois Nationalism. Given my own political development since that time towards a more explicitly decolonial politic, away from purely Leninist conceptions of anti-colonialism, and in light of the Bloc Québécois’s surge in October 2019 canadian Federal election and commentaries written by ostensibly socialist Québec indépendantistes such as Québec Solidaire, I have decided to return to them, revise them as necessary, and align them with the present moment.

The Québec indépendantiste movement, and québécois nationalism in general, is something that has always stuck out in my mind as a notable phenomena. While I did not grow up in Canada, I distinctly remember watching the news of the 1995 referendum on Québec independence with my father in our living room, on a TV that only got fourteen channels. I did not really know about Canada back then. That it is north of the United States and its flag has a red maple leaf on it was about the extent of my knowledge of the country, so this news of a closely contested referendum, with the option of “sovereignty-association” did not mean much to me. After I moved to this country when I was eighteen-years old, now just over 15 years ago, and knowledge of the place I would come to call home seeped in, it slowly began to make sense to me, if a kind of perverse sense. Though I am still sifting through it, which is what brings me here again; again sitting in front of a keyboard trying to figure out what exactly is going on with this thing we call Québec, this other thing we call Canada, and the place within it all of the movement in this country that claims as its mantle the overturning of all oppressive and exploitative social conditions.

I was not involved in politics much directly back then, when I moved to Canada. I had declared myself an anarcho-syndicalist in senior school. We had, for my for my International Baccalaureate history class, been learning about the two-phases of the Russian Revolution, and in learning of that period, and how those forces had been to the left of the Bolsheviks, that was how I naturally felt my politics aligned. But there was no real development or content there, just a feeling. Bermuda, the tiny island that it is, does not much have a thriving revolutionary left scene, much less movement. There are individual actors here and there, but nothing substantial. Most who I know are aligned, in one fashion  or another, with the Progressive Labour Party, the island’s economically centre-left but socially conservative party that at one point stood for socialism and independence from the United Kingdom. I do not think I have ever met an avowed Bermudian marxist-leninist or maoist.

So it was not until I moved to this country, and began to really study and give form to my politics, that I became involved in any kind of meaningful way with left-wing politics. When I did become involved explicitly though, and began to learn much more about the country I would come to hold as my residence, and began to interact directly with socialist, Marxist, and anarchist individuals and organization in Canada, I was struck by the seeming broad support for the Québec indépendantiste movement within left-wing formations in Anglo-Canada.

This shock, or bewilderment, in hindsight, was likely an effect of my youthful naïveté. I am Indigenous. I am Menominee. Though I was not raised in Omaeqnomenew-ahkew, I was raised by Menominee who struggled for our self-determination. And because of that, I always held to basic form of what we might call pro-Indigenous politics, though they were certainly in a state of underdevelopement at the time. However because of this, in my more youthful exuberance for left-wing, in particular Marxist, politics, I simply assumed that the left supported Indigenous liberation. While years of experience since those early days has firmly dissuaded me of that notion, and rendered me somewhat jaded and cynical vis-à-vis the left within the northern bloc of settler colonialism, at the time this struck me because, as unformalized as my politics were, I perceived an antagonism between support for Indigenous self-determination, a programme of decolonization, and the Québec indépendantiste movement.

The Canadian Left and Québéc

As I said, support for the Québec indépendantiste movement is the norm within Anglo-Canada. A brief survey of extant organizations in this country bears that out. Many trotskyist organizations, for example, make such a politics apparent: the NDP Socialist Caucus, Socialist Action (which plays a “leading role” in the the NDP Socialist Caucus), the New Socialists (formerly the New Socialist Group), the International Marxist Tendency’s canadian-section Fightback, the Socialist Project, Socialist Voice, Socialist Alternative (the canadian-section of the Committee for a Workers’ International), and the International Socialists, who are of course affiliated with the International Socialist Tendency, all support, even if in a nominally critical fashion, the Québec indépendantiste movement. Towards that end, many of them choose to not directly organize in Québec, but rather have partner organizations within the province: Alternative Socialiste and Socialist Alternative, Socialisme Internationale and the International Socialists, Tendance Marxiste Internationale and the International Marxist Tendency, and Gauche Socialiste and the New Socialist Group, to name but a few. Many of the Québec partner organizations also have taken up positions within the big-tent social-democratic party Québec Solidaire.

However, this is not a peculiarly trotskyist phenomenon it must be noted. The ancient and aged, long-time settlerist Communist Party of Canada promotes the creation of a new (socialist) canadian constitution which would include the right to separate for Québec, though the Party states that it is against independence in the current conditions. The moribund ex-hoxhist come castroist Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist)—better known by its electorally enforced name the Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada—supports a more explicit pro-independence position. Despite these differences though, they remain superficial as the both of canada’s marxist-leninist formations recognize an oppressed québécois nation whose struggle against a supposed regime of anglo-canadian imperialism must be supported as a principle of proletarian and socialist internationalism. Like the trotskyists, both of these marxist-leninist formations also have autonomous Québec partner organizations: the Parti communiste du Québec and the Parti Communiste du Québec (Marxiste-Léniniste) respectively.

It goes without saying that most of the left particular to to Québec itself—such as Réseau de Résistance du Québécois, the electoralist Québec Solidaire, and the defunct Front de libération du Québec—see the québécois as an oppressed nation in need of a national liberation struggle. To the surprise of precisely no-one I am sure.

The only left-wing canadian formation of note with a differing perspective on the Québec indépendantiste movement as it exists today are the maoists; both Revolutionary Initiative and the Revolutionary Communist Party. For the canadian maoists the québécois nationalist project is not to be supported because it is a dead one. The Revolutionary Communist Party, the largest settler maoist organization, says on Québéc that “as a nation, Quebec is no longer subjected to any form of oppression that would prevent its own development and would then justify––as some people still want us to believe––a national liberation struggle,” and that québéc “is not on the side of the dominated countries, but on the side of the dominating countries” (2007).

Of course, the canadian maoists have their own array of ideological and programmatic problems. In many ways their own programme assumes a continuance of settler colonialism, and projects settler futurity. This is, for example, embedded in the nature of their demands for full linguistic equality between the French and English languages. Likewise, in my own personal interactions with PCR-RCP affiliates over the years, it has been somewhat akin to pulling one’s own teeth to extract an actual programmatic commitment to anything specific regarding what Indigenous liberation and decolonization means to them. One can also read their nonsensical calls for “new democracy” for Indigenous peoples, rooted in the assumption that “Indigenous proletariat, active and inactive,” has an interest in “the development of Indigenous social productive forces,” and the confusing of the specific modality of domination that is settler colonialism with feudalism and semi-feudalism (2008). This is itself because the maoists forces in canada can only make sense of the situation that faces Indigenous people within their own inherited and dogmatic ideological canon, insufficient as that apostolic lineage is.

However, while a full discussion and dissection of the programmatics of canadian maoism, and its failure to truly understand settler colonialism and the call for an Indigenous decolonial politics is worthy of a full article in its own right, it is well beyond the limits of this sort, informal essay. So we will have to shelve the discussion for another time.

The utlimate point here is that, with the exception of maoist enclaves, and, I might add, many anarchists I know, support for the Québec indépendantiste movement is broadly held to within the milieu of the canadian left. In fact it is so much so the normative outlook with regards to what we might call the “Québec Question” that to hold a position other than it is to immediately mark oneself as distinct.

Trying to Make Sense of Things

Bouncing back, because my politics were largely underdeveloped back during my early years, as a I nomadically moved between (post)trotskyist, (post)maoist, and other marxist groupings, trying to find a footing, I never deeply examined the contradiction that I here sensed. Eventually however I was forced to try and make sense of it.

When I first sat down to try and give form to my thoughts on Québec, the Québec indépendantiste movement, québécois nationalism broadly, and its left-wing proponents in that province and supporters outside of it, two principle events sat the forefront of my mind. The first was a matter of personal interaction. At the time, now close to a decade ago, I was a member of the now-defunct group-blogging project People of Color Organize. At some point, a representative of the organization called Réseau de Résistance du Québécois, a left-wing québécois nationalist organization came to us begging Indigenous support for the Québec indépendantistes. Their line of argument was that both Indigenous people and the québécois were united in struggle against the oppression of Anglo-Canada. They attempted to bolster this approach by repeating what is a founding myth of québécois nationalism in particular, and francophone settler nationalism more broadly: that the francophone settlers who came to what we now call Canada lived in harmony with Indigenous nations in a spirit of brotherhood, and that this was disrupted by the imperialist machinations of Anglo-Canada.

The second even regarded canadian politics writ large. The event was near total the obliteration of the Bloc Québécois—the federal indépendantiste party that runs, as one could expect, only for seats in Québec—during the 2011 canadian Federal elections, largely at the hands of a surging New Democratic Party.

Both of these events lead me sit down and attempt to distill my thoughts on the “Québec question” within Canada. Reflecting upon this again now, we are faced with a reversal of events, as the Bloc Québécois’s has surged in the October 2019 canadian Federal election, which, combined with gains made in the 2015 election, has done much to undo the losses that they accrued in 2011. Reflecting upon this, close to decade after I first sat down to write on it, what I want to focus on are the commentaries that sprung up in the wake of the BQ’s surge, and in particular the article The Federal Election and the Resurgence of the Bloc Québécois, by Xavier Lafrance that appeared on the website of the posttrotskyist New Socialists.

Taking the Québec indépendantiste movement as a backdrop, and the recent surge on the Bloc Québécois in particular, I want to briefly discuss the implications of, and settlerist politics that undergird, Lefrance’s arguments. I want to do this as a demonstration of what happens when a socialist or marxist left that understands neither decolonization, nor decoloniality, attempts to grasp at the term “decolonial” because they perceive it as currently being in vogue. This is the not the first moment of this. Indeed I have previously commented on my curiousity towards the phenomenon, and it is something that I, and a few others Natives I regularly interact with, have noticed as we have quietly surveyed the landscape of left-wing politics within the northern bloc of settler colonialism. It is also not restricted to any one of the contititive elements of the settler-colonial polity. Both canadian and american, as well as evidently québécois, leftists are party to this emergent phenomenon. Particularly, insofar as it has been evidenced through behaviors exhibited on various social media platforms, there has been a growing trend of individual marxists, as well as a handful of collective marxist organizations, representing a number of nominally differentiated tendencies and subtendencies, appending the signifier “decolonial” to their autobiographical blurbs and 140 character summaries of their politics. Even more curious has been the proliferation of the term neologism “decolonialism” amongst the same online milieu.

Looking at his new practice broadly amongst anarchists, marxist-leninists, maoists, trotskyists and just about everything in between, the best that I, and the same few Natives I speak with, can come up with is that there is an assumption within these tendencies to hold to “decolonial” as a new synonym for “anti-colonial”. Being generous, I might say that this is perhaps because well meaning marxists want to support Native struggles and see more and more of use speaking in that kind register, and because “anti-colonial” becomes “anti-colonialism,” then “decolonial” must have its own paired -ism, “decolonialism.” What is worse though, and what I am not inclined to believe in my chronically jaded and cynical state of being, I will discuss towards the end of this article.

But let us actually focus on this article as our teachable moment. Its author, Xavier Lafrance, is a member of Québec Solidaire, the big-tent “socialist” party in Québec that I mentioned above, and it is published without comment by the New Socialists. It is probably worth noting that back during my wandering years I was a member of what was then called the New Socialist Group, and at the time Gauche Socialiste, one of the collectives that makes up Québec Solidaire, was their partner/sister organization in Québec, though I am not sure what the current relationship is. Regardless, its publication by the New Socialists without comment leads me to assume that its position is endorsed by that network, or at least is not meaningfully contested or criticized. This assumption is also based on what I discussed above concerned the politics of the canadian left with regards to Québec. So I do not believe that the assumption is without merit.

Lefrance in this article provides an account of the Bloc Québécois’s emulation of the provincially-governing right-wing Coalition Avenir Québec’s notion of nationalisme identitaire, and their subsequent deployment of francophone-peculiar expressions of white nationalism, towards the end of achieving its recent electoral surge this past October. Broadly speaking, he is not incorrect. For example, notions of laïcité (secularism) as they have been deployed in Québec in recent years have been in transparently white nationalist, xenophobic, and islamophobic manner. As Lafrance observes:

The party (the Bloc Québécois) adopted “Québec is us” (as opposed to whom?) as its slogan, and the core of its campaign revolved around “laïcité” and the defense of Law 21, which bans Muslim religious dress for some public sector workers, including teachers. The Bloc consistently relayed the demand formulated at the start of the electoral campaign by CAQ leader and Québec premier François Legault that federal parties abandon any attempt to launch a judicial challenge to Law 21. The Bloc also supported the CAQ’s restrictive immigration policy. In especially vile fashion, the Bloc’s leader Yves-François Blanchet also refused to expel four Bloc candidates who publicly made Islamophobic comments (2019).

This notion of laïcité, entangled as it is with the concept of nationalisme identitaire parallels recent trends across the Atlantic in the imperial motherland of Canada’s francophone settlers. It is nakedly white nationalist in its character. While many within Canada’s eurocentric marxist left excuse the roots of laïcité in Québec as an understandable reaction to the dominance within québécois society of the Roman Catholic Church, one would have to be quite genuinely foolish to not believe that its current iterations, most especially Law 21, are not primarily based in francophone-settler islamophobia, xenophobia, and white reaction to changing demographic characteristics in a society that see as historically, currently, and rightfully “theirs.”

The environment fostered by Coalition Avenir Québec, the Bloc Québécois, and the idea of nationalisme identitaire is precisely the environment of white colonial hatred of the colonized that made space for naked, undisguised, and unapologetic white, francophone-settler, nationalist terrorism to attack the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City. I am sure no one needs reminding that that event took the lives of six, injured nineteen, and permanently altered the course of countless others.

Thus, I would content that there indeed little doubt that the Bloc Québécois’s storming back to its former place of prominence in this most recent canadian Federal election, which came largely at the expense of the social-democratic settlerist New Democratic Party, who had previously itself made great strides at the cost of indépendantiste seats in Federal parliament, had much to do with the xenophobia and white reaction that now, fully exposed before the entire world, governs that province. As much as I myself do not vote, partly because I cannot vote, and party because as a decolonial Indigenous communist I believe in electoral abstensionism, I have absolutely zero doubt the nationalisme identitaire of Québec profoundly influenced the reception of New Democratic leader Jagmeet Singh, an open practitioner of the Sikh faith, by the settlers of that province, and impacted the outcome of the election as much as could be expected.

Settler Coloniality and the Becoming-Metaphor of Decolonization

So the assessment of Lefrance about the source of the Bloc Québécois surge is largely correct. Thus, as insightful as it certainly may be, it is not what I find to be notable about Lefrance’s article, at least in terms of what concerns me in my revisiting of this subject. What is notable to me is how he chooses to close discussion of the recent election, which is with a call for a marrying of the indépendantiste project with the development of multiracial working-class solidarity, political capacities and ambitions, and an explicit orientation to socialism. Lafrance states that to succeed and provide a meaningful vision of future indépendantiste movement must shift away from its current orientation towards francophone white ethnonationalism.

Key is this statement, right at the very end, where the Lafrance states that such a project:

must be inscribed in a pan-Canadian and internationalist strategy developed against dominant Anglo-Canadian nationalism, while embracing a clear decolonial perspective and supporting First Nations’ fight for self-determination (2019).

Lefrance’s perspective is not itself unique. As Pierre Beaudet notes, writing for the Socialist Project in 2017, notes, “the fact that the French themselves dispossessed the First Nations complicates the story,” and as such the “Québécois have also to reinvent their project as their emancipation cannot be rebuilt unless they recognize and support First Nations rights.” This position is at the very least more correct than that of David McNally, who in writing the principle document on the “national question” for the New Socialists twenty-three years ago in 1996, glaringly only discusses Indigenous people and the québécois as the two principle colonial situations in contemporary Canada. He only briefly alludes, in bracketed-off fashion, to the position of the New Socialists as one in which support for the Québec indépendantiste movement “does not mean that we accept the right of the Quebec government to deny that same right to the native peoples in its midst” (1996). Completely occluded in the writings of McNally and the New Socialists is the very recognition made by Beaudet that came Québec, as itself, came into existence by dint of genocide and the violent dispossession of Indigenous peoples of their territories and self-determination.

But even then, for Beaudet, as his politics, and this kind of politics generally, necessitates, an equivocation must be made between the matter of Native elimination and dispossession with the incorporation of Québec into the rest of Canada following Britain’s defeat of France in their inter-imperialist contest for colonial hegemony in this part of the hemisphere. He claims that in that moment of succeeding British colonialism that franchophone “colonizers became colonized (a situation that is not unique in the world’s history)” (2017).

Regardless of rhetorical gestures of any given magnitude, the problem ultimately that must be confronted is that the kind of political project that is the Québec indépendantiste movement—no matter how “multi-racial,” or working-class, or “socialist” it aims to be—can only contain an inherently reactionary character, and is thus, as a matter of due course, inherently non-decolonial. This is for the simple fact that Québec qua Québec is, fundamentally, a settler-colonial social-political formation. The fact that Québec largely speaks the language of France rather than that of England, that it, historically, largely adhred to the Roman Catholic Church’s version of institutional christianity rather than Protestant variants, and that its juridical order was based on the French rather than British common law does not change this.

As Beaudet himself begrudgingly observes in a footnote, the fundamental precondition for the existence of Québec as such is the elimination and dispossession of Native nations, such as the Cree, the Algonquins, the Mi’kmaq, the Mohawk, the Inuit, and others. It must be grasped that it is this point, not Québec’s relationship to Anglo-Canada, that most fundamentally and essentially determines its basic character as a settler-colonial nation-state, or sub-nation-state.

It is for this reason that the Québec indépendantiste movement, and anglo-canadian support for it, and the struggle for Native liberation—for decolonization and decoloniality—are inherently at antagonistic in relation to oneanother. Indeed, any movement that seeks the structural transformation of Canada broadly, and not just Québec, into some sort of Federal Worker’s Republic (or whatever it would be called) is inherently antagonistic with a struggle for decolonization. It does not matter if that project is lead by trotskyists, maoists, marxist-leninists, or anyone else, or some combination of all-of-the-above under the signifier of left-unity or left-refoundation.

Against this, a properly Indigenous decolonial politics necessarily requires the end of settler-colonial nation-states as its basic condition, and its most fundamental call to action. This includes the U.S., Canada, and Québec, without exception. A Québec indépendantiste movement, regardless of claims to being socialist, multi-racial, and, even, decolonial is a radically antithetical, irreconciliable, and incommensurable ethical-political commitment to any decolonial, or abolitionist, project. Such a political commitment is one that seeks, necessarily by the very nature of Québec as a settler-colonial (sub)nation-state, to project, protect, and extend québécois futurity, which is a futurity of whiteness and settlement, again regardless of calls for multi-racialism. The structural integration of non-white peoples into a fundamentally settler-colonial structure of power, and a political project that cannot be seperated from its central character as one that is driven to eliminate and disposses Native nations, cannot alter that basic fact.

Support for a Québec indépendantiste movement, regardless of its guise under rhetorics of socialism, communism, marxism, or whatever else, while also claiming to utter support for Indigenous decolonization, in fact neutralizes the latter. In short, a Québec indépendantiste movement disguised a socialist, working-class, and even multi-racial, is a disguised call for settler-colonial socialism, which we might as well call what it actually is: national socialism, plain and simple. Indeed it is in the eliding and the evacuating of the content of a genuine decolonial political commitment, in order to render it legible, and this internalizable, within settler marxist and leftist rhetorics, that the horseshoe between settler socialism and open fascism can be most clearly seen and articulated.

This is what is at the very heart of the Lefrance’s disjointed thinking that the Québec indépendantiste movement can be reconfigured such that can be rendered able to embrace “a clear decolonial perspective” and be reconcilled with “supporting First Nations’ fight for self-determination.” Thinking through this in the fasion of heterodox French theorist Georges Bataille (1991), this seems to me to be a move to, in a colonial fashion, confront the radical danger that Indigenous decolonization presents to both the Québec indépendantiste movement in this specific instance, and any calls for québécois or canadian structural readjustment and reconfiguration along socialist, marxist, or leftist lines generally. While the canadian left historically has largely rejected calls for decolonization, covered-up as it often has been with countless contentless declarations of support Indigenous self-determination (while directly occluding the question of actual land rematriation), now with the re-emergence of Indigenous movements rooted firmly and openly in a politics of resurgence, refusual, insurgence, decolonization, and decoloniality, the settler left is forced by the conditions it finds itself in to move to neutralize and then internalize what is decolonial, and to cynically redeploy them within rhetorics and programmatics that do not disrupt the continuance of settler colonialism as the basic condition of this society.

By this I mean that the decolonial, in the move to reconcile it with a settler (socialist) futurity, is radically stripped and derprived of what distinguishes it as a decolonial politic. It is only by this stripping away of everything that is radical about the decolonial—its challenge to the complex of modernity/coloniality, it confrontation of left-wing eurocentrism, its perspective rooted in subalternized and epistemocided knowledges, and, in the case of settler colonialism, its demand for territorial rematriation—that it can be reconcilled with, and internalized by, a traditional marxist, socialist, and anarchist programmatics. To speak in the terms of Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, it is the transformation of decolonization into a metaphore (2012), and to think of it in a Baudrillardian sense it presents a simulacra of the decolonial, a reflected image with no meaningul content (1994).

In short, rather than the forward movement of the decolonial, it signals its death through absorbtion into the settler marxist sphere. This is why it is necessary to push back against the radically settler analysis of Lefrance, McNally, and Beaudet.

Bibliography

Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor, MN: University of Michigan Press.

Bataille, Georges. 1991. The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, Vol. 1: Consumption. New York, NY: Zone Books.

Beaudet, Pierre. 2017. “The Canadian Left and the Quebec Question: The Dilemma That Won’t Go Away.” The Socialist Project.

Lefrance, Xavier. 2019. “The Federal Election and the Resurgence of the Bloc Québécois.” New Socialist.

McNally, David. 1996. “Marxism, Nationalism and National Struggles Today.” New Socialist.

Revolutionary Communist Party of Canada. 2007. “Against National Oppression! Against Nationalism and Chauvanism! Fight for Absolute Equality for all Nations and Languages!” In Programme of the Revolutionary Communist Party.

—. 2008. “Can ‘Red Power’ Exist in Canada?Arsenal 8.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization is Not A Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 1 (1): 1-40.