Most activists in English Canada are unaware of its significance, but a new political party has emerged in Quebec that, in many respects, offers the greatest hope for left politics in generations. At issue is independence, but not only of Quebec from Canada. Also under discussion is the question of independence for left parties from the crushing orbit of neoliberal ideas, and mainstream politics’ stifling parameters. This article builds upon the valuable analysis of Pierre Dostie in past issues of Canadian Dimension and attempts to further acquaint English-Canadian readers with the emergence (and importance) of Québec solidaire.
Left Parties in Quebec Politics: The Historical Challenge
While Quebec has been a site of considerable militancy, with a political culture highly sympathetic to progressive causes, radicals have until quite recently experienced great difficulty in capturing this mood through mass political parties. The political upturns in Quebec have seen not the Left, but rather the provincial Liberal Party (PLQ) - and other splits to its left and right - capture the stage, often with ambiguous agendas.
In May, 2004, David and other D’abord Solidaires activists made good on their promise to found a feminist political party. The new party - Option citoyenne (OC) - set out to popularize sustainable development, feminist principles, participatory democracy and unity among Left activists. This last goal would find a sympathetic audience in the UFP, which had begun to realize its limited electoral reach.
Merger discussions between OC and the UFP began in December, 2004, after considerable debate by activists on both sides. Some UFP activists appeared leery of OC’s rather ambiguous position on Quebec sovereignty. Other OC members worried about far-left elements in the UFP and the actual record of equity-seeking groups in the party, despite its well-meaning ambitions. Still other activists unaffiliated to either group worried that the entire exercise avoided larger questions about the nature of global capitalism and gradualism as a political strategy. It suffices to say that much remained undefined as the UFP-OC discussion took shape.
Importantly, however, both parties committed themselves to being driven by (and being accountable to) their grassroots memberships, and declared their open opposition to neoliberal restructuring. Both utilized decentralized party structures built around participatory democracy, with all policy decisions made after regular membership meetings and widespread debate.
The UFP and OC emerged from the 2003 election determined to challenge the Charest government, which had wasted no time in declaring war on Quebec’s welfare programs. After successive mass protests, it appeared that the momentum was with the anti-Charest contingents, but the lack of an overall strategy helped Charest to continue to move forward with his agenda. The costs, however, were considerable. Polls in 2005 indicated more than 77 per cent of voters disapproved. Moreover, some of Charest’s reforms were opposed successfully - most notably by students, who waged a successful general strike in early 2005.
Around this time, the UFP published a perspectives document pledging to continue the party’s orientation toward the street and the ballot box, urging a left party opposed to neoliberalism. OC would follow a similar course with its publication in 2004 of Françoise David’s book, Bien commun recherché: Une option citoyenne. Both documents found a sympathetic following, as demonstrations took place against the Charest government between 2003 and 2005, and UFP/OC activists emerged as prominent spokespersons.
Rebellion in the PQ?
Yet, as the Charest government’s crisis deepened, controversy persisted among sovereignists surrounding the OC/UFP strategy to outflank the PQ. In 2004, a group emerged under the name Syndicalistes et progressistes pour un Québec libre (SPQ-Libre, or Trade Unionists and Progressives for a Free Québec), headed by Pierre Dubuc, editor of the widely-read l’aut’journal. Dubuc claimed that sovereignists should reform the PQ’s top-down approach to sovereignty, and called for activists to re-assert themselves inside the party. Following the June, 2005 resignation of PQ leader Bernard Landry, Dubuc declared his intention to run for the PQ leadership and called on activists within and outside OC/UFP to support his efforts.
Soon thereafter, the Quebec Right - both federalist and separatist - issued its own challenge. On October 27, 2005, twelve high-profile individuals published a manifesto with the clear aim of influencing the PQ leadership race scheduled for November 17. A Manifesto for a Clear-Eyed Québec (Manifeste Lucide) cited Quebec’s aging society and an increasingly competitive world economy as reasons to embrace a more aggressively neoliberal model of development. Endorsers included former PQ leader Lucien Bouchard, centrist economist Pierre Fortin and media luminary Sylvie Lalonde. The Manifeste Lucide, however, drew only tepid popular support - but where it did resonate, it proved important. André Boisclair, the only candidate to endorse the Manifeste Lucide, went on to win the PQ leadership with the full backing of the party establishment. In contrast, Dubuc finished with barely one per cent of the vote, and later announced SPQ-Libre’s support for Boisclair.
On November 1, 2005, an alliance of left-leaning individuals and Quebec social movements issued a response to the Manifeste Lucide entitled For a Québec Based on Solidarity (Manifeste Solidaire). For these authors, the issue at hand was not Quebec’s demographic trends, unmanageable government debt, or issues relating to China or India. Exacerbating the impact of these challenges, they insisted, were poorly conceived policy choices that prioritized limitless growth, blind competition and capitulation to the whims of transnational firms and “global markets.”
The impact of the Manifeste Solidaire was felt almost immediately, as sympathetic media coverage widely transmitted its claims. Khadir and David figured prominently in this coverage, with David taking the lead in announcing a different vision for Quebec’s future. This vision, David argued, was inspired by the collectivist tradition of Quebec’s social programs and the “creative” responses to globalization employed in many regions of Latin America and northern Europe. Pushing aside dramatic claims about a future “demographic crunch” and stifling government debt, David pointed out that Quebec was creating record levels of wealth with fewer workers. At issue, she claimed, was the poor distribution of this wealth and the sustainable development practices necessary to ensure a viable Quebec for future generations.
The Manifeste Solidaire provided a fitting segue to the conclusion of merger talks between OC and the UFP. By the end of 2005, these had received full approval from both memberships after thirteen “merger negotiation” meetings. Controversy remained about the merger, most notably around the attention given to Quebec sovereignty as a goal, the role of democracy within the new organization and how it intended to balance electoral and extra-parliamentary approaches. Moreover, a joint report issued to the memberships of OC and the UFP also indicated a willingness to channel the radical goals of both parties into “plain language” demands that were “responsible, achievable, and absolved of unrealistic promises.” Some activists worried openly about the intent of these statements: Was the call for “responsible demands” an argument for diluting radical goals? Did the insistence upon “achievable demands” mean accepting a policy framework shaped by neoliberal ideas? Would abandoning “unrealistic promises” mean a rejection of the idealism many had embraced in events of contemporary anti-capitalism?
February, 2006: The Merger Conference
Nonetheless, an abundant sense of goodwill was palpa-ble at the OC/UFP merger conference of February 3 to 5, 2006. The proceedings took place in a large university hall filled almost to capacity, with over 980 delegates and about 100 observers. In attendance were key activists who had built many of Quebec’s most successful social movements. Accompanying David were an abundance of delegates from Quebec’s feminist movement, but also present were the ranks of anti-neoliberal, anti-war and student activists who had been prominent at radical events of recent Quebec history. Various groups of the far Left were also on hand, all of whom appeared buoyant in a larger pool of progressive actors and thinkers.
The conference began with warm greetings from members of the OC/UFP negotiating committee, who emphasized the necessity for honest and respectful debate during the weekend. Delegates were reminded that the negotiating committee had generated a draft statement of principles and bylaws, both of which espoused a vision of radical idealism and a participatory approach to party democracy. The statement of principles articulated a brief yet clear ecological commitment to sustainable development, and called upon Quebec to be a world leader in curbing the destructive practices of modern industry. The statement continued with a declaration of sympathy for progressive ideas and support for the universal public provision of all social services. The statement also announced a feminist concern to challenge patriarchal assumptions inside and outside the party and to embrace the diversity of Quebec politics, including the sovereign rights of Aboriginal peoples as nations in themselves, as well as the minority rights of Anglophones and Allophones. Most importantly, the statement embraced the anti-neoliberal rhetoric of contemporary anti-capitalism and declared its common cause with social-justice movements the world over. In contrast to the neoliberal, elite-led PQ vision of sovereignty, it identified a sovereign, radically democratic Quebec as an anti-capitalist alternative. All of this was made plain from the statement’s first few sentences:
“A new party has arrived on Québec’s political scene offering a progressive alternative to other existing political parties. A large and united alternative which is rooted in all regions of Québec. An alternative capable of carrying and realizing the hopes for change of so many women and men in Québec! An alternative enabling us to build a world which fits our dreams. Our party completely devotes itself to defending and promoting the public interest [le bien commun]. In other words, it puts the interests of the whole population before those of a greedy minority. It focuses its energy in searching for equality and social justice, in respecting individual and collective rights. It recognizes the interdependence of human beings and of nature. This demands a profound transformation of Québec. For our party, this means opposing neoliberalism, a modern version of capitalism, which dominates our societies and bankrupts our future as well as the future of our planet.”
Delegates were reminded that the proposed bylaws were designed to enhance the participation of equity-seeking groups, and this commitment was also obvious during the conference. In particular, gender-specific microphones were assigned during larger plenary sessions to encourage interventions by women. This interest in enabling member participation also went beyond gender. The proposed bylaws put a strong accent on the role of local party associations, and vested top decision-making authority with bi-annual party congresses. Between congresses, the party’s work would be coordinated by a 16-person “National Executive,” in which nine positions would be held by women. The party would not have a single official leader, but would instead have two National Executive “spokespersons” (one female, one male) to communicate the party’s views. The bylaws confirmed the rights of internal groups and tendencies of any number of forms. Internal groups were required to respect party bylaws and the views of other members, but beyond this, space was assured for them to play an active role in shaping party debates.
Further on this theme of inclusion, the conference witnessed a notable moment when Amir Khadir insisted that the new party’s doors were open to Anglophones, Allophones and non-white minorities. For him, as for many in the room, the order of first importance was building a successful bulwark against neoliberalism in Québec; but for Khadir, this meant appealing to Leftists outside the sovereignist movement to form a progressive alliance against the Québécois establishment.
Beyond Neoliberalism: A New Identity in Quebec Politics
In the end, the most memorable moment of the conference occurred when delegates were asked to choose a name for the new party. There were four possible options: Québec solidaire, Union citoyenne, Union citoyenne du Québec and Union des forces citoyennes - each of which had come forward after a process initiated four months earlier. Ultimately, a sea of red voting cards welcomed the name Quebec solidaire, a result that surprised some leaders in the room, given the earlier debate that had taken place on this issue. Ecstatic clapping, hooting, but also “twinkling” - evidence of the various activist cultures in the hall to acclaim the new party’s identity.
In a frank discussion with the English-Canadian media, Khadir pitched Québec solidaire’s vision of independence: “We’re here to replace the debate around social issues, economical issues, environmental issues, instead of always talking about the flag.” A poll taken soon after the merger conference indicated that over 20 per cent of Quebec voters were persuaded by this message. To expand on this impressive start, Québec solidaire has redoubled its efforts, and recently won 22 per cent of the vote in a recent Montreal by-election. This is a positive sign, prior to the 2007 Quebec elections.
Whether the party can find that elusive balance between street politics and electoral campaigns, of course, remains to be seen. Activists in English Canada would be wise to take notice of Québec solidaire and its implications for their work. A better Left is indeed possible, but it begins by left parties rejecting neoliberalism and building the new solidarities capable of presenting an inspired alternative.
This article appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension (Oil Sucks!).