The fall election in Québec represents a turning point in Québec’s history, which saw five decades of alternation in government between the federalist Québec Liberal party and the sovereignist Parti Québécois. On October 1, both parties suffered historic defeats at the hands of the Coalition Avenir Québec led by François Legault.
Like the Liberals, the CAQ is a federalist party beholden to capital and committed to a neoliberal economic agenda, but it demarcates itself by its pandering to ethnic nationalism and xenophobia. Where the Liberals have long been the electoral choice of immigrants, the CAQ deliberately appealed to anti-immigrant sentiment, promising to reduce immigration levels, subject new immigrants to draconian values and language tests, and forbid public service employees from wearing visible religious symbols — a measure understood to target veiled Muslim women in particular. This demagogic catering to fear of the Other is also part of what sets the CAQ apart from the right-wing populism of the gang of Ford in Ontario.
Seeing the appeal of this kind of politics of fear and exclusion and its instrumentalization by the CAQ, the PQ and even the Liberals had stooped to placating nativist sentiment in recent years, but the credibility of their respective claims to represent the interests of the voters had already worn dangerously thin and the strategy failed for both parties.
On the economic front, the CAQ, while certain to expand the scope of their predecessors’ programs of austerity and privatization, will not wield the hatchet in the wanton and malicious way we are seeing in Ontario. For the time being at least, that would not play well in Québec, where the State as an institution is not viewed with the same suspicion and there is no appetite for the crass bluster and buffoonery of a Doug Ford.
Another crucial difference between the political developments in Ontario and Québec is the surge of support in Québec for a countervailing force in the form of Québec solidaire, a party that campaigned on a clearly left platform centred on combating climate change, reinvigorating and expanding Québec’s public health care system, introducing the $15 minimum wage and many other enlightened policy proposals (see the article by Richard Fidler in this issue).
Québec solidaire rivalled the PQ as the choice of broadly left voters and supporters of Québec independence, especially in Montreal, where the PQ was wiped off the map.
One of the great strengths of Québec solidaire, and what makes it unique in the political landscape in both Québec and Canada, is its rootedness in and ability to engage with social movements — not so much the labour movement, which has, in the 12 years since QS was founded, by and large supported the PQ (although that may be changing), but in the 21st century expressions of the new social movements: from feminist groups to antipoverty groups, from tenants’ rights groups to anti-extractivist groups, and perhaps most significantly, the student movement. Here the connection is incarnated by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the leader of the most radical of the student associations during Québec’s momentous student strike in 2012. Nadeau-Dubois joined the party in 2016, becoming one of the cospokespersons (QS has no leader) and his entry into the parliamentary arena saw a big spike in the party’s membership. The other co-spokesperson is Manon Massé, a gender non-conforming community organizer who is the antithesis of a professional politician. The party is also driven by an active membership, so far not yielding to the kind of professionalization and narrow parliamentarianism that engenders sclerosis. All this helps to explain QS’ popularity with younger voters. Now, however, with a larger caucus (the party won an additional seven seats for a total of 10), it will be a challenge for the party organization to limit the autonomy and power of the parliamentary wing and keep QS true to its aim of being “a party of the ballot box and the streets.”
The breakthrough of Québec solidaire is cause for celebration, especially in the current political climate. Hundreds of thousands of voters sought a genuine alternative to the stale items on the traditional political menu and found it on the left, in a party committed to system change. But that change can only be achieved through sustained mass mobilization.
In the last 40 years, rather than taking the lead in social struggles, the labour movement has been mostly on the defensive. One of the many and most critical challenges for QS is to generate enthusiasm, hope and active support for a renewed left political project among the union rank and file as well as all the other forces of social transformation, while avoiding the pitfalls of its own growing success – all this while mounting a fierce and compelling opposition to a right-wing government bent on sapping what remains of Québec’s social state after decades of neoliberal corrosion. This is a titanic task and Québec solidaire requires and deserves good will and solidarity from allies near and far, including the Left in English Canada.
Andrea Levy and André Frappier for the CD Coordinating Committee.
This article appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Canadian Dimension (An Unjust Justice System).