A grassroots perspective on the Québec elections

The history of Québec makes clear that la beauté est dans la rue. This is where real hope can be found in the face of another neoliberal government.

In many respects, nothing has changed following the April 7 Québec elections. Big business remains in power, only its colour has altered from light blue to a Liberal shade of red.

Profits, not party stripes, are what concerns the shareholders of Québec Inc. That said, the political landscape has altered in some important respects since the 2012 student strike.

The emergence of a reactionary right-wing is now coupled with one of North America’s most militant left-wing movements, adding substance to the claim that the centre cannot hold. Québec faces an uncertain future with real peril and promise.

Indigenous movements and Québec

Indigenous concerns and treaty relations are first to be forgotten in provincial and federal elections. Any recognition of Indigenous communities is due to movements like Idle No More Québec and strong voices from women and men in Kahnawake, Inuit communities and the 11 First Nations across Québec.

Some version of the Liberal Plan Nord is likely to be taken off the policy shelf again, with direct consequences for the Indigenous territories it seeks to “develop,” argues Idle No More Québec organiser, Widia Larivière.

Moreover, the Liberals were the only party that did not respond to an electoral questionnaire circulated by the Coalition pour les droits des peuples autochtones au Québec, Widia noted.

“Beyond all this nonsense, it is still and always for justice and self-determination of Indigenous peoples at all levels that I will continue to fight,” Widia said. “Because no matter what political party is in power, Indigenous peoples do not fully recognize the current political system, both at federal and provincial levels.”

“Any political party wishing to partner with us, not in a colonialist manner, will have no choice but to interact with us as equals and recognise us as distinct peoples,” Widia said. “To decolonize our political institutions would not be beneficial for Indigenous but for all citizens in general.”

Party politics are class politics

Political parties basically represent class interests. The newly elected Liberal majority government is led by Philippe Coulliard, a driving force behind healthcare privatization in Québec.

His former employer is Persistence Capital Partners (PCP), “a private equity fund exclusively focused on high-growth opportunities in the healthcare field,” according to their own website.

Street politics will invariably emerge in response to an aggressively neoliberal government intent on carrying out the Liberal legacy of destroying the environment and whatever social gains were made during the 1960s Quiet Revolution.

Liberal containment of street politics

The Liberal victory is an insult to tens of thousands of students who sacrificed their academic careers and wellbeing to carry out the 2012 general student strike, not to mention Indigenous movements challenging the Plan Nord.

How the Liberals will navigate the highly effective “combative syndicalism” at the core of Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante’s (ASSÉ) organising ethos remains to be seen.

ASSÉ is a militant force capable of challenging right-wing programs, but the Liberals will have learned from 2012. The government may not want to risk broad class warfare in the streets again, but they will pursue a right-wing agenda that can easily ignite the fast-moving fires of a social movement.

The other political grouping that has learned from 2012 is the police, and it is clear what side they are on. They have become increasingly repressive and violent since the strike, adopting a zero-tolerance policy for effective street politics, with the approval of municipal governments.

Street politics between elections

The most noticeable change from the 2012 election is the lack of a student strike and a correspondingly broad social movement. Grassroots militancy was strong leading up to the 2012 elections, and the Left was principally focused on getting people on the streets.

The 2012 elections had their desired effect, breaking an already strained social movement. Students had been on strike for months, facing police batons and pepper spray on a regular basis.

With the elections, student unions affiliated with the more reformist FEUQ abandoned any pretense of a strike and shifted to getting out the vote.

The movement fizzled back onto campus organising once the PQ came to power and cancelled the Liberal tuition hike, despite the fact that PQ education policies amounted to a modest decrease from the Liberal tuition fee proposal.

With no sustained and broad movement around, party politics had far more visible presence on the Left this election.

The rise of Québec solidaire?

Discourse around Québec solidaire was muted in 2012 because of the strength of grassroots militancy. Things were noticeably different this election.

Just as FEUQ executives like Leo Bureau-Blouin and Martine Desjardins drifted to the PQ after the student movement, some ASSÉ executives involved in the strike gravitated toward Québec solidaire.

There was a real difference of emphasis between the street politics of 2012 and the electoral politics of 2014. Québec solidaire went from two to three seats, but what was more significant was their stronger visible presence in the absence of a broad movement.

A number of unions also publicly shifted from endorsing the Parti Québécois to Québec solidaire. What the PQ’s partial collapse and ongoing rightward shift means for the future of Québec solidaire remains to be seen, but the party will have an enlarged and altered base come 2018.

Racism: secularism’s bedfellow?

The PQ charter of values will not be adopted as legislation, and that is a relief. The charter was an electoral tool crafted to tap into conservative nationalist fears of ‘the other’ in search for the nectar that all parties crave—power.

But tapping into that nationalist root has allowed something far more insidious to seep out, making the election result a concern in some respects. Harassment and attacks of Muslim women had already gone up with the PQ charter, but a bitter swathe of charter-supporters are now disillusioned and without their majority PQ government as a release valve.

A disturbing omen, an axe was thrown through a mosque window on elections day with a note reading “fuck Liberals” and “we will scalp Muslims.” That this racism will manifest itself more bitterly outside of the National Assembly is a real concern, and points to the need for anti-racist and feminist organising.

Racism: neoliberalism’s bedfellow

Whether secularism can be decoupled from racism remains to be seen, but race most certainly cannot be decoupled from neoliberalism.

Many liberals were incensed by the charter, yet women and people of colour have been losing their jobs and watching job security and wages decrease for decades under Québec’s neoliberal governments, as a friend reminded me.

In this sense, the charter should not be looked at in isolation, but as part of a broader rise of the right following the 2007 Great Recession. Racism and austerity are making good bedfellows across the world, and the best response is solidarity. Again, that the centre cannot hold is a maxim that seems to be ringing true.

Secularism and the Québec Left

Lastly, the charter will have ongoing consequences for the Left. Québec solidaire’s own charter-lite was a serious sticking point for many activists, and there is some indication that party members will try to alter the existing Québec solidaire charter.

“Even Québec solidaire hasn’t directly challenged the racist framework underlying the so-called secularism debate,” said Joël Pedneault, part of the Ensemble contre la Charte xénophobe collective and a queer organizer in Montréal.

Secularism and notions of “un état laïque” are now deeply racialised in Québec, yet integral to broad segments of the Left and visions of a sovereign nation. Tensions around secularism will remain an ongoing point of contention, opening the door to division on the Left and racism in Québec.

Beauty in the street

In the face of a resurgent Liberal majority, neglect of Indigenous concerns and expanding racism, one need only recall key extracts from the 2012 CLASSE manifesto, hastily-written in the midst of an emerging and very unquiet revolution.

“Democracy, as viewed by the other side, is tagged as ‘representative’ – and we wonder just what it represents. This brand of ‘democracy’ comes up for air once every four years, for a game of musical chairs. While elections come and go, decisions remain unchanged, serving the same interests: those of leaders who prefer the murmurs of lobbyists to the clanging of pots and pans.”

“The way we see it, direct democracy should be experienced, every moment of every day. Our own voices ought to be heard in assemblies in schools, at work, in our neighbourhoods.”

“This is the meaning of our vision, and the essence of our strike: it is a shared, collective action whose scope lies well beyond student interests. We are daring to call for a different world, one far removed from the blind submission that our present commodity-based system requires.”

The history of Québec makes clear that la beauté est dans la rue. This is where real hope can be found.

Matthew Brett a social justice activist and publishing assistant at Canadian Dimension magazine. This piece can be reproduced without further permission, provided attribution is given to Matthew and Canadian Dimension magazine.