Volume 46, Issue 5: September/October 2012

Changing of the Guard in Québec

Early this month, in the wake of the longest, hardest fought student strike in Canadian history, Québec voters went to the polls to ambiguous effect. The immediate outcome was the election of a minority Parti Québécois (PQ) government led by Pauline Marois, now Québec’s first woman premier.

The defeat of the Charest Liberals after more than nine years in power can only be welcomed. It was past time for Quebecers to say good riddance to an anti-democratic, environmentally hostile government ever ready to accommodate the demands of transnational capital. Its policies have made Québec a less humane society and its corruption has enriched criminals. Its arrogant and aggressive attitude towards the students did not endear it to voters, undoubtedly contributing to the party’s worst showing since 1878 and the defeat of Jean Charest in his own riding.

Another encouraging result of this election was the victory of a second MNA for leftwing party Québec Solidaire (QS), already represented in the Assemblée nationale by Amir Khadir. The new QS member is Françoise David, the party’s co-spokesperson with Khadir and a well-known feminist and social activist. With about 13,000 members, six percent of the popular vote, two elected representatives and a strong media presence, QS’s showing puts the party firmly on the political map. All the more reason, then, to roundly condemn the plans of the NDP, recently floated by Thomas Mulcair, to revive the party’s provincial formation in Québec. Such a move, calculated to cater primarily to anglophone anti-sovereignists, can only divide and weaken the left, at a time, moreover, when the social question takes precedence over the national question among many progressive-minded Québec citizens.

Overall, however, the 2012 election is far from a good news story. First, with a respectable voter turnout of nearly 75 per cent, the Liberals and the right-of-centre Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec (CAQ), which ran on a populist platform of anti-corruption, smaller government and tax relief for the middle class, together came away with a majority of the seats and the popular vote: The Liberals obtained 50 seats with 31.2 percent of the popular vote (as against the PQ’s 54 seats with 31.93 percent), while the CAQ won 19 seats with 27 percent of the popular vote.

Second, there is little uplifting about the advent of a PQ government. Although the party projected a progressive image — with prominent candidates such as Marois sporting the red square for a time in pursuit of the student vote — the political record in recent decades shows that in practice the PQ is not any kind of real alternative to the Liberals, but is rather inclined to carry out essentially the same neoliberal, anti-labour, anti-social policies. It’s a sure bet that the only voice for social justice and ecological responsibility in the Assemblée nationale will be that of Québec Solidaire.

With the election having been triggered by the student strike, it is worth pondering whether the tens of thousands of students involved in the strike carried their opposition to the Charest government to the ballot box. And if they did, how did they vote? Writing only hours after the election, we don’t have enough data to draw definite conclusions. On the one hand, many students took part in the PQ and QS campaigns. But unlike newly elected MNA Léo Bureau-Blouin — one of the three most prominent student leaders who ran for the PQ, winning his seat to become the youngest MNA in Québec history — a segment of the student left remained skeptical of the relevance of participating in the electoral process. As the former CLASSE student spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said rather cagily when asked just a few weeks ago about his position on this election, politics is a boat and it’s social activism that keeps it afloat.

Another question we might ask is whether the social activism of recent months will translate into a resurgence of enthusiasm for sovereignty among students and young people more generally. Although many on the Québec left wish for such a revival, it’s hard to say, especially since the PQ’s precarious status as a minority government makes it very unlikely that Marois will press the sovereignty issue.

Finally we can at least hope that this changing of the political guard will help to rally Québec opposition to Stephen Harper’s ongoing program of ecological, social and cultural destruction that is as ddevastating to Québec as it is to the rest of Canada.

-Andrea Levy is an historian and a member of the CD editorial collective; René Charest is a community organizer and longtime union and political activist. He was one of the coordinators of Amir Khadir’s campaign team both in this election and the last.