Quebec election: a seismic shift within the independence movement?
Québec solidaire, as the only party that links independence with a progressive social project, will be an important player in the fight for a national movement.
A version of this article was first published on Fidler’s blog, Life on the Left.
The defeat of the Parti Québécois and the election of a federalist Liberal party government in the Quebec general election of April 7 raises important questions about the future of the Quebec movement for sovereignty and political independence. And it poses some major challenges to the left party Québec Solidaire, as it seeks to position itself in the developing struggle for the direction and programmatic content of the Québécois national movement.
Thanks to the undemocratic first-past-the-post system, the Liberals with far less than a majority of votes won a majority of seats in the National Assembly, displacing the Parti Québécois government after only 18 months in office.
The election of a Liberal majority government has been widely interpreted, especially in English Canada, as a major victory for the federal regime and quite possibly the death knell of the fifty-year-old mass movement for Quebec independence.
It was certainly a crushing setback for the PQ. The party’s percentage of the popular vote was the lowest since its first election campaign in 1970. Seven of its 26 ministers lost their seats, including Premier Pauline Marois. Among the PQ’s defeated candidates were two leaders of the student upsurge of 2012, Léo Bureau-Blouin (elected in 2012) and Martine Desjardins.
But other pro-sovereignty parties were unable to capitalize on the PQ’s decline in support. Québec Solidaire made only modest gains, increasing its overall vote by about 60,000 and barely managing to elect a third member to the National Assembly. Option Nationale (ON), a right-wing split from the PQ in 2011, got less than 1 percent of the popular vote and again failed to elect any of its candidates.
The PQ defeat cannot in itself be attributed to its formal support for Quebec sovereignty. Many other factors were at play, not least the disappointment with the PQ’s short record in office among many environmental, trade union and student activists who have traditionally constituted the party’s social base. Véronique de Sève, the general secretary of the Montréal Council of the Confederation of National Trade Unions, spoke for many union militants:
“It is astonishing to see people like Martine Desjardins, the former student leader, embrace the PQ project when it gave birth to a mouse with its Summit on Higher Education and indexed university fees. Or to find comrade Pierre Céré [a leader of the unemployed] at the side of Pauline Marois; in 2007 he was denouncing the PQ’s “ethnic Nous” in its proposed Quebec citizenship bill. I would be surprised to hear him now on its Charter of Secularism.
“But the most recent star to enter the lists is of course Pierre Karl Péladeau…. Need we remind ourselves that this notorious anti-union boss of Québec Inc. has 14 lock-outs in his roster? Remember the one at the Journal de Montréal, the longest labour conflict in the history of Quebec media, in the winter of 2009….
“In 18 months of governance, the PQ failed to abolish the healthcare tax, it indexed university fees and approved the increase in electricity rates….”
In addition, it had failed to introduce new income tax brackets modifying the tax on some capital gains, and had removed from its platform its promise to strengthen anti-strikebreaker provisions in the Labour Code.
De Sève noted that her labour council had voted in favour of a political alternative “like that of Québec solidaire…. It advances feminist, ecologist and democratic values. It seeks a fair, green and free Quebec, an inclusive country…. It seems to me that the social agenda advanced by Québec solidaire is more like what [PQ founding leader] René Lévesque was proposing in 1976,” the year his party first took office.
Although the national CSN, like the other labour centrales, urged its members to “vote strategically” among candidates in light of the CSN’s program, without endorsing any party, a special general assembly of the Montréal CSN voted that of all the parties Québec Solidaire was “the only one with values corresponding to those of the Central Council” of the CSN. This overall endorsement was a first for the new party, although in past elections the labour body had endorsed some individual QS candidates.
A charter of division
A cynical piece in the PQ’s election strategy was of course its proposed “Charter of Quebec Values,” with which it hoped to curry support among voters uneasy with the growing plural ethnic composition of Quebec. These xenophobic fears, fed by the mass media, are largely directed at symbolic targets — for example, the clothing favoured by those of minority religions and cultures such as the headscarf worn by many Muslim women. Among the Charter’s provisions was a ban on the wearing of religious insignia by employees of the state and state-funded institutions such as schools and childcare centres — a violation of the very principle of state secularism and neutrality, the purpose of which is precisely to protect freedom of religion and belief including the right of individuals to express their beliefs in public. During the election campaign, Marois admitted that the Charter would result in the dismissal of many workers; critics noted that the prohibition would affect women in particular, who are concentrated in the social services, and would constitute yet another obstacle to the integration of immigrants and ethnic minorities into Quebec society.
In practice, the few controversies over minority dress codes, dietary requirements, or other customs have been reasonably accommodated in public institutions through private negotiations among the parties. The Charter essentially offered a “solution” to a non-problem. Its apparent lack of appeal among the voters (both the PLQ and the CAQ, as well as QS, opposed these provisions) is an indication that social solidarity continues to play an important role in Quebec notwithstanding the economic and ideological ravages of neoliberalism.
The divisive nature of the Charter was underscored by the presence of some notorious Islamophobes among the PQ candidates. In addition to Djemila Benhabib, author of provocative books warning that “Islamic jihadists” threaten Quebec, there was Louise Mailloux, a columnist in the left PQ monthly L’aut’journal, who campaigns against the concept of “open and inclusive secularism” advanced by Québec Solidaire; she ran, unsuccessfully, in Montréal’s Gouin riding against its sitting member, QS leader Françoise David.
The ethnic nationalist Charter was emblematic of the PQ orientation in this campaign, which was aimed primarily at winning support to its right among “soft nationalists” of the CAQ, a party that originated in the 1990s in the Quebec Liberal party but now includes many dissident péquistes, including the CAQ’s leader François Legault. The PQ objective was to win enough votes from the CAQ’s constituency to give it majority government status in the National Assembly.
PQ loses momentum on sovereignty
The PQ’s recruitment of media tycoon Pierre Karl Péladeau (“PKP”) was designed to prove the party’s acceptability to big business notwithstanding its historic commitment to Quebec sovereignty. This new addition to the PQ leadership alienated the unions, a long-standing social base for the party. And the strategy backfired when PKP told his introductory press conference that he wanted to make Quebec “a country,” pumping his fist in the air to emphasize the point.
From that point on the PQ’s standing in opinion polls declined and a promising lead at the outset of the campaign melted away, to the benefit of the federalist Liberal party led by Philippe Couillard, a former cabinet minister.
The corporate media seized on Péladeau’s statement, and Marois’ explanations in support (for two days only), to make Quebec independence a key issue, stoking widespread fears among many voters (including many PQ supporters) that the party might attempt a third referendum on sovereignty that would in present conditions almost certainly result in a third No vote, yet another historic setback for Quebec independence.
Why do so many Québécois fear another referendum? Most Québécois are well aware by now that any move by Quebec toward independence faces ferocious opposition by the central government. And there is understandably little confidence in the PQ’s ability to counter that opposition and to win a convincing majority for the Yes in a referendum on sovereignty.
The decisive referendum defeat in 1980 and the narrow defeat in 1995 are still fresh in the collective memory. Each setback was followed by central government moves to isolate Quebec and curtail its right to national self-determination — in the 1980s through depriving it of a right of veto over constitutional change and engineering a new constitution that, among other provisions, eroded Quebec’s legislative power to protect the French language; and after the 1995 referendum defeat, through the federal parliament’s adoption of the Clarity Bill, which made Quebec independence following a referendum Yes vote contingent on acceptance by Ottawa and the other provinces.
In fact, since the 1995 referendum the PQ has stopped promoting sovereignty and chosen, when in government, simply to defend Quebec autonomy while hoping that at some point popular opposition to some provocation by Ottawa would create the “winning conditions” for a successful referendum Yes vote. This approach reflects the party’s enduring illusion that Quebec independence can be achieved in a “cold” process without mass mobilization for national liberation and without a “projet de société” or social program that offers a credible progressive alternative to the federal regime.
This was underscored by Marois’ initial response to the federalists’ anti-referendum campaign. A sovereign Quebec under PQ leadership, she insisted, would retain the Canadian currency and even seek a seat on the board of governors of the Bank of Canada! In other words, its economic policy would be essentially determined by that of Canada. Some “sovereignty” that would be! As Postmedia columnist Andrew Coyne cynically noted, the PQ “offers a vision of independence that, more and more, looks an awful lot like dependence.”
Requiem for a country?
Does the election result portend the end of the independence movement? That’s the almost universal view of commentators in English Canada. But some prominent péquistes have raised similar doubts. Typical was former PQ cabinet minister Louise Beaudoin:
“I was not anticipating the scope of this defeat. Was the idea of independence that of a single generation? Have we failed to transmit the desire for a country to the youth? … In a context of globalization, collective dreams are no longer present. …
“I think the identitarian project [of the Charter of Quebec Values] is fundamentally progressive, but today’s youth sanctify individual rights.”
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a leader of the 2012 student upsurge, was quick to respond.
“To transfer responsibility for an election defeat to the youth when it is her party that is mobilizing around themes that do not attract them seems insane to me. It’s really special to say such a thing after our experience in the spring mobilization of 2012!”
It is not independence that is the culprit but “souverainisme,” the PQ’s concept of “sovereignty,” he told Le Devoir.
“Since the beginning of the PQ, this idea is a failure. It says we will have a country after a referendum. Except that in the meantime, we will destroy it by developing petroleum, making any kind of decision without thinking about what we want to do later? …
“Social justice, the environment and culture were at the heart of the spring 2012 mobilization…. The PQ presented itself in the elections of September 2012 as the political relay for these ideas, but it did not embody them at all. It is not surprising that it now mobilizes so few youth….
“They tell us that they will achieve independence, but that nothing will really change…. But, on the contrary, we should have the courage to say that we are going to achieve it so that things change!”
Nadeau-Dubois’ reaction was shared by others interviewed by Le Devoir. Lamine Foura, an aeronautical engineer who hosts a radio program on Middle East issues, agreed that there is a generation gap within the independence movement:
“I think a certain conception of independence is outdated. Young people are no longer going to mobilize by talk about economic oppression. It’s not accidental that they have migrated from the PQ to Québec solidaire; the youth have ideals, they respond to values that go beyond the economic sphere alone. Sovereignty is not simply a matter of transferring powers from Ottawa to Quebec City!”
And here is Jérémie Bédard-Wien, another leader of the 2012 student strike:
“It is ironic to see Ms. Beaudoin deplore our individualism two years after the rise of the greatest social movement of contemporary Quebec. From its general assemblies to its demands, the movement against the increase in university tuition fees was collective to the marrow. Although it did not directly address the national question, the strikers’ line of division was obvious: the border between Quebec and Ontario.
“For many of these youth, the Parti Québécois’ country has become toxic. Once a tool of social, cultural and economic emancipation, it is now the project of one of the worst bosses in Quebec…. It is now associated with a discriminatory charter that deregulates racist speech and stigmatizes the cultural communities….
“It is high time that we thought of sovereignty as indissociable from the other ‘collective dreams’ of Quebec youth, by making Quebec a country of the left, in which social values come before nationalist values; a country in which secularism is not a mere political manipulation.”
A harsh assessment of the PQ defeat came from veteran sovereigntist Jean Dorion, a former Bloc Québécois MP and former president of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society. He told Le Devoir that it was the PQ’s re-election, more than its defeat, that would have definitively buried the dream of a country:
“This result is disturbing for many, but it is a lesser evil, for personally I think the idea of sovereignty would have suffered even more. If there is a possible salvation for the independentist movement, it is by adapting to pluralism, for the youth are more open to this diversity. We cannot become set in a uniformism that is outmoded and will be even more so in the years to come.”
An incomplete nation
By harping on the question of identity, the Parti Québécois is reopening a wound that has largely healed in recent decades. By dint of hard-fought struggles, the Québécois have greatly enhanced the status of the French language; French is now, as the Charter of the French Language (Law 101) proclaims in its preamble, “the normal and everyday language of work, instruction, communication, commerce and business.” To a large degree, the historic sharp disparities in income and status between Francophones and Anglophones within Quebec that existed even within living memory have been reduced if not eliminated entirely. French predominance is of course under constant threat and attack from the courts, which have used the federal Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to overturn some provisions of Law 101. But that is a problem that will only be solved when Quebec becomes a sovereign country with unfettered jurisdiction over its distinctive language and culture.
And that is just the point. Quebec politics continues to evolve within a primarily national, Quebec framework. Since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, Quebec has developed a deeply rooted identity as a Francophone nation that is quite distinct from the Canadian nationalism of the “Rest of Canada.” Most progressives in Quebec are pro-independence, as is the left alternative to the PQ, Québec solidaire. And although pro-sovereignty support waxes and wanes (while seldom falling below a 40% threshold), it takes very little to disrupt the present apparent calm around “national” issues, and for major crises to develop without warning, resulting in sharp increases in national and independentist fervour.
Underlying this reality is the fact that all the decisive powers of government — banking and finance, foreign affairs, the military, trade and commerce, criminal law and control of the senior courts and judiciary, etc. — are held by the federal state, which above all has the duty to protect the territorial and institutional integrity of the state and forestall any challenge by Quebec to that integrity. In view of this central contradiction, it is legitimate to ask for how long can Quebec remain “a province like the others”?
Much of the apparent quiescence on the national front is in fact due to the calming effect of winning reforms. Law 101 and the struggles associated with it, for example, have changed the terms of the language debate. And Ottawa has demonstrated many times its ability to accommodate some Quebec pressures for distinct treatment within the federal union. But this is an age of long-term austerity, neoliberalism and counter-reform. This can only mean — as a long-term trend, not all at once and on all issues — increased resistance in Quebec to further reforms by Ottawa and its attempts to reverse the previous gains. And that resistance will unfold within a primarily national, Québécois framework, although its ultimate success will require the assistance of powerful social allies in English Canada.
The struggle for the direction of the national movement and to define its content is intensifying in the wake of the PQ’s election debacle. And Québec solidaire, as the only party that links independence with a progressive social project, will be an important player in this contest.
Québec Solidaire’s campaign
I was not personally involved in the Québec solidaire campaign. However, it is my impression that the eight-year-old party’s election effort was the most ambitious and the best organized to this date. Thanks to recruitment during the “printemps érable” upsurge of 2012, QS now boasts almost 15,000 members — three times its membership at its foundation in 2006. With two MNAs in the previous legislature it had more state funding, which it used for such things as a campaign bus for its leaders’ travel, more advertising, and a somewhat greater coverage in the mass media (although only Le Devoir assigned a reporter full-time to the QS campaign). The de facto QS leader, Françoise David, was able to debate the other party leaders in two television debates.
The QS election platform, an expanded version of its platform in the 2012 election, featured many demands with an anti-neoliberal and potentially mobilizing content, among them:
- A reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% of 1990 levels by 2020, and by 95% by 2050
- Development of a strategy to abandon the use of fossil fuels by 2030
- A ban on additional exploration and production of fossil fuels and nuclear energy
- A ban on the transportation over Quebec territory of non-conventional oil and gas (shale oil and gas, tar sands oil), whether by train, pipeline, boats or trucks
- Free education at all levels
- Rejection of the free trade agreement with the European Union
- Major expansion of childcare facilities
- Elimination of the health tax, creation of a state drug purchasing agency Pharma-Québec, doubling of the budget for home care support
- Free public urban transit within ten years
- Complete or partial nationalization (with majority state participation) of firms in the energy, natural resources and transportation industries
- Creation of a public bank
- A minimum wage pegged to the low income threshold (about $13 an hour in 2013 for a 35-hour week)
- A ban on lockouts and injunctions, multi-employer union certification, minimum three weeks paid vacation
- Construction of 50,000 social housing units
- Priority hiring of members of cultural communities and immigrants in the public service
- A constituent assembly with equal male-female representation, followed by a referendum to adopt it
- A detailed proposal for proportional representation in the National Assembly, right of recall, a municipal right of veto over mining projects
- Abolition of laws and by-laws limiting the right to peaceful assembly, creation of an independent agency to investigate and oversee police activities
- Extension of the Law 101 to firms with 10 or more employees
- Achievement of food sovereignty, labelling of local and GMO products.
The party published a number of attractive brochures addressed to important parts of the QS platform, among them a 23-page “Plan for eliminating petroleum 2015-2030.”
Furthermore, the documentation available to members and candidates on the party’s intranet was much more extensive than in previous elections. A series of “election memos” included detailed explanations of the reasoning behind most of the demands in the platform with hyperlinked references to further documentation and the positions of the capitalist parties. Taken as a whole, these thematic memos — totalling well over 100 pages — constituted the most extensive internal educational effort undertaken by the party to date, and if they had been published on the public QS web site could have enhanced its usefulness. (These are largely conjunctural analyses; QS has yet to organize educational seminars and public forums exploring systemic critiques of capitalism.)
The QS critique of the Parti Québécois was on the whole sharper in its focus than in previous election efforts. The adherence of PKP to the PQ elicited the comment by QS leader Françoise David that an elected member of Quebec solidaire would “never sit beside Pierre Karl Péladeau” in Quebec’s national assembly. His ascension appears to have put an end, at least for now, to the repeated efforts by David and co-leader Amir Khadir to re-open the QS membership’s rejection, in two separate conventions of the party, of any election alliance or agreement with the PQ.
Another notable feature of the campaign was a four-part debate in the pages of L’aut’journal, the unofficial organ of the PQ left caucus SPQ Libre, between QS candidate Alexandre Leduc and SPQ Libre leader Pierre Dubuc on such issues as how to achieve a sovereign Quebec, the PQ’s charter, the PKP candidacy and the QS environmental program. The constant attacks on Québec Solidaire in L’aut’journal throughout the campaign revealed the extreme discomfort of SPQ Libre with the PQ’s evolution and their concern at the potential threat QS posed to the PQ’s hegemony in the broader independence movement.
An important weakness of the QS campaign, in my view, was the support given by its leadership, especially Françoise David, to the enactment of a charter of secularism, albeit not the Charter of Quebec Values proposed by the PQ. The programmatic position of Québec Solidaire on secularism was hammered out at a convention of the party in November 2009; it does not advocate elaboration of a formal charter (nor did the party’s election platform) but situates the incidents cited in the media in the correct framework of efforts to accommodate the particular needs of religious and ethnic minorities as part of a strategy of integrating them as full members of the Quebec nation. However, David’s position of qualified support to a charter, particularly in the TV debates, contradicted what should have been a clear position in opposition to the PQ’s sectarian and divisive charter and reflected a disturbing trend on her part to improvise her own positions even when they do not reflect the program and policies democratically adopted by the QS membership.
As noted earlier, there are indications that the QS campaign, and the slippages of the Parti Québécois leadership, stimulated greater interest in Québec Solidaire among trade union militants. The challenge now is for the party to find ways to give some careful thought to organizing the intervention of its members in the unions and to engage them directly in the debate that is sure to open over the longstanding support to the PQ of most of the labour leadership. As it is, Québec Solidaire has only a marginal presence in the unions; of its 125 candidates, only 10 were listed by the party as trade union members; among them were a number of well-known militants including Claude Généreux, the former president of the Quebec section of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).
A party of the streets?
The QS leadership statements since the election have been primarily self-congratulatory and focused on the preparations of the party’s three MNAs for the forthcoming session of the National Assembly. But much of the post-election analysis among QS activists has focused on the obvious need for the party to give much greater emphasis to its extra-parliamentary activity, the “streets” side of the QS self-description as “a party of the ballot boxes and the streets.” In this regard, the party would in my opinion benefit from reviving and debating a draft proposal on “Québec Solidaire and the social movements” that was submitted by the QS Policy Commission for discussion at a QS convention a few years ago; it was then withdrawn from the convention agenda ostensibly for later debate but since then shelved indefinitely. I append to this article my English translation of the document in question. I think it presents some valuable ideas on how the party might structure its intervention in the social movements, including the trade unions.
Another aspect of Québec Solidaire’s campaign that merits review, in my opinion, is its approach to Quebec independence. Although the party, in an attempt to attract disillusioned PQ and ON supporters, gave greater emphasis to its support for independence in this campaign than it has previously, it treats independence as just one of its demands instead of placing its program within the framework of the struggle for political sovereignty. This has a number of negative effects.
One is that QS tends to campaign as a provincial party, its proposals largely limited to what Quebec can do as a province within the existing federal framework — a sort of left version of the PQ’s concept of “sovereigntist governance” within the federal regime.
This limits the ability of QS to present a credible programmatic perspective of “another Quebec,” one in which a sovereign Quebec could implement radical anti-capitalist measures such as nationalization of banking and finance, demobilization of the military and creation of a popular militia for home defense and disaster relief, establishment of new relations of solidarity with progressive governments in Latin America and elsewhere (QS has yet to develop a program on international relations), and adoption of radical ecosocialist approaches to the environmental crisis.
A related problem, in my view, is the way in which the party presents its strategy for achieving independence. QS calls for the formation of a democratically elected Constituent Assembly (CA) that would hold an open-ended debate on Quebec’s constitutional future, much in the manner of the Bélanger-Campeau Commission that met in the wake of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord in the early 1990s. The B-C Commission, composed primarily of Liberal and PQ supporters, was predictably unable to reach a consensus on constitutional reform. And although QS insists it would fight for sovereignty within the Assembly, what assurance is there that in the present political climate of retreat of the social movements the delegates would come up with a clear proposal for a sovereign Quebec constitution, to be put to citizens in a decisive referendum? Independence must be seen as more than simply an option for democratic decision-making. It should be a central framework in Québec Solidaire’s program and strategy.
It seems to me that the critique of the QS position by many independentists hits the mark when they point to the need for a massive educational and mobilizing effort in support of independence prior to a popular referendum verdict and a subsequent process to establish the constitution of an independent Quebec. It is worth recalling that the constituent assemblies that have recently met to reformulate the state structures in a number of Latin American countries, often cited by QS spokespeople as their precedent, all took place in countries that won their formal independence as states some 200 years ago. Quebec is one of the last national territories in the Western Hemisphere yet to declare its political independence, a prior step to the adoption of a new constitution.
However, as the post-election comments by a number of young independentists cited earlier in this article illustrate, this too is a debate that will no doubt develop within the coming months and years as the Québécois reflect on the seismic shifts in party alignments and perspectives revealed by the April 7 election.
Québec Solidaire and the social movements – section 3.6 of the original proposal submitted by Policy Commission, now withdrawn for later debate.
3.6 Québec Solidaire’s relations with the social movements
This section poses the question of the concrete meaning that Québec Solidaire intends to give to the phrase “party of the ballot boxes, party of the street.” The contributions we received argue that Québec Solidaire should respect the organizational and political autonomy of the social movements and promote their break with the Parti Québécois and its social-liberalism, which has been a factor of retreat and demobilization. From this perspective, Québec Solidaire, as a party and as a government, should seek to strengthen the capacities of the social movements, encourage their unity in action and participate in them on the basis of a program of social transformation.
Indeed, only if it is part of a broad mobilization of the social movements could Québec Solidaire, when it takes power, confront the implacable pressure of Capital and its allies and thereby transform its program into durable achievements. Recent history demonstrates that without the active support of strong social movements, and their extra-parliamentary mobilization, the government of a party of the left has only two possibilities: to retreat from its program, or to be driven from office by legal and, if necessary illegal, means.
Therefore, Québec Solidaire cannot be content with simply welcoming social struggles or echoing them on the institutional and parliamentary terrain. It must offer an alternative left-wing project that lies at the very core of the popular resistance movements. How is this to be done? The proposals in this section attempt to offer some responses. But one thing is clear: if Québec Solidaire is to adopt such tasks, it is because it adopts the perspective that the workers will be the principal subjects of their own emancipation, and in no way does it claim, as a party, that the transformation of the living and working conditions of the vast majority of the population will be made from above without the persons directly involved being themselves the artisans of these transformations. The construction of a party of the left and the development of the social movements are, in this sense, inter-dependent processes.
Proposals for action in regard to the social movements
i. Use the electoral struggle to defend the demands of the workers, popular, ecologist and feminist movements; promote the expression of popular resistance movements in the very course of election campaigns.
ii. Defend the rights of the social movements and promote their influence.
iii. Defend the organization, political and ideological autonomy of the social movements.
iv. As a party of government, promote the reinforcement of the capacities for organization and action of the social movements.
v. Work to promote egalitarian relationships between the trade-union movement and the other social movements.
vi. Work on the development and establishment of a project for social transformation in a reciprocal relationship with the social movements.
vii. Defend the necessity of a social and political front of popular resistance and participate in its construction.
viii. Host meetings where QS and the social movements can share their experiences.
ix. Encourage networking within the party of the QS members who belong to the various social movements.
Richard Fidler is a lifelong socialist with a special interest in the Quebec national question and its crucial meaning for progressives in the rest of Canada.