Is self-determination just a buzzword for the Canadian Left?

Catalans go to the polls on Oct. 1 to vote in a referendum on independence from Spain. To try and stop the vote, Spain has imposed severe repressive tactics: the Spanish Guardia Civil has arrested 14 senior officials and raided regional government offices; the Spanish government suspended a referendum law that Catalonia’s parliament recently passed; and this past weekend, Spain announced that Catalan police forces would be placed under the command of Spanish interior ministry.

Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy has scolded pro-referendum Catalans for being disobedient and Alfonso Dastis, the country’s foreign minister has accused Catalan pro-independence activists of using Nazi and Fascist tactics. The combination of rhetorical attacks and legal oppression haven’t worked: massive protests have swept the region.

The Guardian reports that 70 per cent of the 7.5 million people who live in Catalonia are in favour of holding a referendum, though not necessarily in favour of independence.

It’s not just Catalan. Today, Kurdish people living in Iraq are also voting on whether or not to form an independent Kurdistan. 5.3 million Kurds are registered to vote, and the outcome could have major implications on the Kurdish communities in Iran and Turkey.

The right to have a say in the organization of one’s country is a fundamental tenet of democracy, and yet, states worldwide are swift to stop people from having their say, through whatever means of repression they have available to them. Canada isn’t immune to this. Canadian progressives often express support for self-determination or national liberation, in particular as it relates to Indigenous nations, but rarely do we talk about how to fight the political repression that comes along with these kinds of struggle.

This is particularly true of English Canadian progressives, who see reformist changes to the current state as being a big part of the solution to the problems wrought by colonialism and neocolonialism. But there’s a limit to reforming the Canadian state. The changes that we need are revolutionary, and with those changes will surely come repression. Sadly, Canadian progressives are so far behind in developing strategies and anticipating repression that it barely registers as a critical location for action.

When we talk about self-determination or nation-to-nation negotiations with Indigenous nations, we necessarily must talk about the limits of the Canadian federation. That the heart of every problem experienced in Indigenous communities today is the Canadian nation state: from chronically underfunded health, education, social service and municipal infrastructure, to housing, to the legacy of Residential Schools, to the criminal system, to resource extraction, to language loss.

Not only do settler Canadians not have a collective plan to support self-determination, we barely talk about what it looks like in relation to the existence of Canada. We talk about reform; we talk about funding formulae; we talk about stopping pipeline projects. But the Canadian Left rarely talks about the need to undo and replace the Canadian federation.

The mainstream left: the NDP, union activists, social movement activists and so on, must confront this critical missing piece. For example, if the NDP calls for the full implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations, what do the constitutional and systemic changes necessary actually look like? Is equalizing funding really our only hope to decolonizing Canada?

Retaliation and oppression are swift when national liberation movements rise, and perhaps this is why so few progressive groups grapple with these questions in a serious way. The level of organization, coordination and support that exists for a sovereign Quebec has to be strong enough to withstand attacks. This was especially true in 1995, had referendum been successful.

Indigenous people fighting for liberation must have incredible strength and coordination to resist Canadian colonialism and it’s demonstrated every day in acts of survival, acts of resistance, acts of reclamation and acts that wholly reject the Canadian state to re-empower Indigenous people.

These are also often dangerous acts, criminalized by a system intended to eliminate entire peoples. The support required from settler Canadians in so many different ways reminds us why the lack of clarity and action from the Canadian Left is so unacceptable.

News about repressive tactics in Catalonia have flooded my Facebook feed these past days, but the distance between my friends sharing it and who aren’t isn’t lost on me: it’s nearly all progressive Quebecers who watch independence movements closely. And when my comrade and friend Krisna Saravanamuttu entered a recent discussion on my wall to say that the LTTE, the Tamil liberation movement, had met with the leaders of the Catalonia independence movement in the early 2000s, I was reminded of two very important lessons.

The first is that self-determination and internationalism are not just buzzwords, but important frameworks through which our work should happen. That if governments worldwide learn oppressive tactics from one another, that at the very least, we should be learning from the people actively resisting these movements for our own contexts.

But I also remember the critical importance for the Canadian Left to take action to defend and support self-determination. That requires risk, boldness and a reorientation of progressive mainstream politics. We don’t need to look further than Canadian mobilizations in solidarity with the national liberation movement in Sri Lanka, organized by the Tamil diaspora in Toronto in 2009. With consistent rallies of tens of thousands, including the evening that the Gardiner Expressway was blocked to put pressure on the Canadian government to speak out against crimes committed against Tamils, we have examples. We have teachers and lessons. What we’re lacking is the focus on our own state and a reckoning with our illegitimacy as a nation and as a people that cannot be reformed into being fixed.

Whether or not you think Canada is illegitimate depends on your relationship with the state. At the heart of believing that another world is possible is the understanding that the current system is actively hurting people, and those people are near certainly not going to pause when considering this question.

So the next time you find yourself expressing support for self-determination, stop and consider what action you can take that would put weight behind your words.

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Nora Loreto

Nora Loreto

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Writer and activist in Quebec City. Happy socialist but angry soccer player. Canadian Freelance Union — Unifor executive member.