Friday, November 25, 2005

PQ's rightward shift opens space for new left party in Quebec

First published in The Bullet, November 5, 2005, and subsequently in Socialist Voice and MRzine

Richard Fidler

Ten years after the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty, with its razor-thin victory for the No side, and 25 years since the first referendum, mass media and academics alike have been immersed lately in speculation on the likely result of a third such vote, which could occur as early as 2007.

This is not an easy exercise. For Quebec’s political situation today is characterized by a number of paradoxes. Not the least of these is the contrast between popular support for Quebec sovereignty and the relative lack of enthusiasm for the main sovereigntist standard-bearer, the Parti Québécois.

Public opinion polls and surveys indicate that support for Quebec sovereignty is at the 1995 level, if not greater, with at least one recent poll indicating that more than 40% of Quebecers would support an “independent Quebec” unqualified by “association” or “partnership” with Canada.

This nationalist sentiment is much stronger now among the 18-24 age cohort, who didn’t vote ten years ago, than it was among their counterparts in 1995. It holds firm among the Francophone working-class voters between the ages of 25 and 54, who opted by a substantial majority for sovereignty in 1995.

And support for sovereignty has increased substantially among the néo-Québécois “allophones”; it now stands at 27% among those in the labour force, according to a recent study1.

Political impasse

Behind these demographic patterns there is the ongoing political impasse in Canadian federalism. Jean Charest’s efforts to forge some new version of cooperative federalism more respectful of Quebec’s constitutional jurisdictions have been rebuffed repeatedly, first by Chrétien and now by Martin. Bolstered by its huge budget surpluses, Ottawa keeps trying to impose “national standards” in areas of social policy that fall within provincial jurisdiction.

Most recently, the Supreme Court of Canada has reinforced the federal government position in a judgment overthrowing Quebec’s attempt to spend employment insurance funds on its own parental leave program.

Quebec and federal ministers constantly wrangle in high-profile conflicts over issues ranging from responsibility for environmental policy to representation at international conferences. Ottawa turns a deaf ear to Quebec’s objections to the perceived “fiscal imbalance” between the provinces and the central government. It resists any suggestion for constitutional change to accommodate Quebec’s concerns, even from some Quebec federalists.

The Gomery revelations have stoked Québécois anger over the federal “sponsorship” program, Ottawa’s “plan A” response to the 1995 referendum results. Although the Gomery commission’s focus was on misappropriation of public funds, mainly to the Liberal party, the program itself was motivated by the contemptuous belief that Quebec’s national grievances could be countered by giving the federal flag greater prominence in the province, and an arrogant mindset that viewed the fate of the federal state as being inextricably bound up with the fortunes of the federal Liberal party.

The Clarity Bill, “plan B”, which proclaims Ottawa’s right to shape a future referendum question and to ignore the popular verdict it if wishes, remains a festering issue.

Heading the best-seller charts in Quebec these days is Robin Philpot’s new book, Le Référendum volé, an exposé of how the feds blatantly violated Quebec’s election law through massive illegal spending on the No side and such tactics as fast-tracking Canadian citizenship to tens of thousands of immigrants who could be counted on to vote for the No side. The evidence is mounting that in 1995 Ottawa “stole” the referendum, as Philpot documents, through money and ethnic vote manipulation. Sounds familiar?

Lacklustre PQ campaign

Yet notwithstanding the mass support for a new constitutional setup, the campaign for the leadership of the Parti Québécois has evoked little popular interest and still less enthusiasm. The reasons for this indifference are not hard to find. After a total of 18 years in office, the PQ is burdened by its past — a past marked by some progressive reforms, it is true, but above all by its failure to convince a majority of Quebecers that a sovereign Quebec under its leadership would be worth the sweat, toil and tears its achievement would entail.

Only its support for Quebec sovereignty distinguishes the PQ from the other capitalist parties, Charest’s Liberals and Dumont’s ADQ. Yet those who look to sovereignty as a framework for resolving the growing inequalities and injustices in Quebec society increasingly see the PQ as part of the problem, not the solution.

Significantly, support for sovereignty dipped temporarily to its lowest level over the last 10 years between 2001 and 2003, when the socially devastating results of Lucien Bouchard’s “zero-deficit” policy of austerity and cutbacks were becoming clear, and rebounded following the PQ’s defeat.

And although the PQ now registers far ahead of Charest’s PLQ in the polls, the party’s support ranks well behind the popular support for sovereignty, prompting this comment by a candidate in the party’s current leadership contest: “Thirty years ago, René Lévesque was more popular than the Parti québécois. The party was more popular than the option [sovereignty-association]. Today, the pyramid has reversed. The option is more popular than the party.”

The PQ appears trapped by its neoliberal perspectives, which would allow very little leeway for a sovereign Quebec to carve out a distinctly progressive path amidst capitalist globalization. Its federal counterpart, the Bloc Québécois, has underscored the fundamentally pro-imperialist orientation of these sovereigntists, voting in convention in late October to support NATO membership, an EU free-trade (and investment) agreement, and the development of a Quebec army and air force that would participate actively in international “peacekeeping”, as in Canada’s occupation of Haiti.

The Bloc’s support in the polls remains close to all-time highs, largely thanks to the unpopularity of the federal Liberals. But this doesn’t necessarily translate into support for the PQ; the Bloc is not a contender for government and is viewed more as Quebec’s insurance policy in Ottawa now that the illusions of “French power” fostered by Trudeau have dissipated.

The PQ is an ageing party; the majority of its members are more than 50 years old. Its feeble attempt at policy renewal, “La Saison des Idées”, launched in the wake of its election defeat, produced little in the way of creative thinking.

PQ leaders are usually chosen by consensus; Lévesque, Parizeau, Bouchard and Landry were all acclaimed. This time the party’s malaise is expressed in the presence of nine candidates, although most (judging from polls of the party members, each of whom has a vote) are far behind the leading contenders, former cabinet ministers André Boisclair (64% support) and Pauline Marois (18%).

Boisclair is campaigning on a platform that barely distinguishes him from the right-wing ADQ. (Although the revelations of Boisclair’s consumption of cocaine while a cabinet minister could reverse this lead, there is no evidence of this so far.)

The major difference that has emerged among most of the candidates concerns the timing of the next referendum, which all have pledged to hold at some point if elected premier. However, Boisclair in particular has come under fire for his apparent reluctance to put Quebec sovereignty at the centre of his program.

One candidate, Pierre Dubuc, editor of the left-wing newspaper L’aut’journal and founder of Syndicalistes et progressistes pour un Québec libre (SPQ-Libre), now a recognized “club” of “progressives” and a few trade-unionists within the PQ, has tried to inject some support for more radical policies into the campaign, but without notable success. He is credited with the support of 2% of the members.

SPQ-Libre, launched with great fanfare in 2004, boasts only 500 members in a party with a current membership of close to 150,000. Its call for progressives and especially trade union members to join the PQ to form a broad pro-sovereignty coalition has met with little response among the unions, although both the TCA (the Quebec CAW) and the Montréal blue-collar civic employees are openly pro-PQ and pro-BQ.

Do Boisclair’s ascendency, Dubuc’s rebuff, indicate that Quebec sovereignty is becoming a refuge for the Right? I think not. The conflicting trends within Quebec politics today were illustrated in a striking way by two recent events occurring within a few days of each other.

Conflicting trends

The first was the publication, on October 19, of a right-wing manifesto Pour un Québec lucide (For a clear-eyed vision of Quebec), by former PQ premier Bouchard and some other prominent péquistes but also by equally prominent Liberals. (See for the text.) It castigates “big unions” and calls for lifting the freeze on university tuition fees, raising electricity rates and consumption taxes, focusing on debt reduction, opening the doors further to private sector investment in public infrastructures and ending the “unhealthy suspicion of private business that has developed in some sectors”.

Quebec society, it says, is obsessed with “resisting change” in the face of declining demographics and increasing global competition from Asia. Yet these are the important challenges facing Quebecers, not sovereignty, it proclaims.

Although its release was clearly timed to influence the PQ leadership race, neither André Boisclair nor Pauline Marois has expressed any criticism of this much publicized manifesto. In fact, Boisclair has indicated he agrees with it.

In a contrasting development on the left, on October 22, just three days after publication of the “lucides” manifesto, the 300 delegates at the convention of a new left-wing organization, Option citoyenne, voted overwhelmingly to support Quebec sovereignty and unanimously to join with the Union des forces progressistes (UFP) to form a new pro-sovereignty party.

These votes culminated a year-long process of negotiations between the two groups and a lengthy internal consultation on the national question among OC members, many of whom had originally been ambivalent about making Quebec independence a part of their program. “While not a guarantee, sovereignty represents one of the means to provide Quebec with the tools it needs to implement a progressive political and social agenda,” the OC resolution states.

The OC’s turn to sovereignty removed the major obstacle to unity with the UFP, which has been independentist since its founding in 2002.

The merger next January of the two groups will result in the formation of a new pro-sovereignty party with an initial membership of between three and four thousand. (For background on the UFP-OC fusion, see “Quebec: Toward a New Left Party in 2005?” in Relay,

Thus, while the traditional pro-sovereignty parties are shifting further to the right and some prominent péquistes, like Bouchard and perhaps Boisclair, are retreating from their previous commitment to a sovereigntist perspective, there is a perceptible trend developing in the opposite direction on the left, which now tends overwhelmingly to see a sovereign Quebec as the framework for its social agenda.

Major challenges ahead

In the past, the PQ’s support for sovereignty gave it a radical image. Deprived of direct support by big capital, which is unanimously opposed to Quebec independence, the PQ had to pitch its appeal to the unions and popular movements. Today, notwithstanding the hopes of Dubuc’s SPQ-Libre, the unions, while generally sympathetic to sovereignty, are much more diffident about the PQ. This offers some important possibilities for the new left party, although there is little indication so far of movement within the labour movement toward a clear break with the PQ.

However, most of the Quebec left, including both OC and (to a lesser degree) the UFP, does not conceive of politics in class terms. Political debate is expressed in terms of conflicting “values”, not class conflict. A current example of this is the Manifeste pour un Québec solidaire, a response to the Bouchard manifesto initiated by UFP and OC leaders, which was published November 1 under the signatures of a wide range of personalities including some PQ and BQ parliamentarians. (See for the text.)

While offering a compelling point-by-point rebuttal of each of the hot-button demands in the Bouchard manifesto, it does not explain the class basis of the program of the “lucides” or present a clear anticapitalist alternative perspective. Its acknowledged inspiration is Scandinavian social-democracy, not socialism. Our vision of Quebec, it says, is “humanist, watchful of the environment and sustainable development, the common good and collective rights”. It sees the central economic issue as one of distribution of wealth, not control of its production.

It is noteworthy, however, that the manifestoes of both the “lucides” and the “solidaires”, as they are being referred to in the media, present their case in a uniquely Quebec context, without reference to Canada and the federal state. This is now the common terrain of political discourse in Quebec, where the interests of the Quebec nation are the overriding consideration and the various social classes present their differing perspectives within that conceptual framework.

The national question, in fact, gives a populist cast to left politics in Quebec and no working-class politics can emerge in the province that ignores the need to address, front and centre, Quebec’s status as a distinct national social formation.

At the same time, the focus on reaching agreement on the independence question as the basis for unity in the UFP-OC negotiations has tended to preclude a needed debate on the social content of the new party’s program and the class forces which it should address.

But the party will soon be confronted with the need to go beyond trite expressions of “values” and to flesh out a program and strategic perspective that will ultimately enable it to build a strong militant presence in the labour movement and the working class as a whole.

Moreover, without a clear understanding of the need to ground support for Quebec independence within an anticapitalist perspective, the new party will have great difficulty resisting the siren calls for an electoral alliance with the PQ in the next election.

However, the PQ’s rightward trend and its declining ability to retain the universal allegiance of the sovereigntist milieu present the new left party that will emerge in January with some promising openings to build, as it anticipates, a mass party that can point the way forward to truly progressive social change in Quebec.

November 2, 2005

1.  Gilles Gagné and Simon Langlois, “Les jeunes appuient la souveraineté et les souverainistes le demeurent en vieillisant”, Institut du Nouveau Monde, October 2005 (study prepared for L’Annuaire du Québec 2006).

Monday, October 10, 2005

McGuinty’s Ban on Faith-Based Arbitration: No Victory for Women’s Rights

This article was first published in Socialist Worker, September 24, 2005, and republished in Socialist Voice on October 9, 2005.

By Richard Fidler

Editors’ Note–On Sunday October 2, about 300 Toronto-area Muslims and supporters rallied at Queen’s Park demanding that Muslims have equal access to the Arbitration Act in Ontario and opposing Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty’s decision to ban faith-based arbitration.

Protesters carried signs declaring, “End racism, stop Islamophobia,” “Islam guarantees all my freedoms,” “Implement the Boyd report,” and “I’m educated and able to choose—don’t impose on me someone else’s views.”

Speakers stressed that Christian and Jewish denominations had utilized faith-based arbitration for more than a decade, without a word of protest. Then the request of Muslims to utilize this provision had aroused an uproar—proof of religious discrimination. Speakers denounced McGuinty for giving way in the face of a noisy minority opposed to Islamic rights, without giving the Muslim community a hearing. Participants pledged to continue the campaign against McGuinty’s proposed ban.

The Islamic community needs the alternative of faith-based arbitration, one speaker explained, because “the Canadian court system lacks the healing touch. The courts are lawyer-driven. The system is adversarial. Court proceedings are meant to draw blood, to accentuate the negative. The entire process is prolonged and costly and leaves everyone embittered.”

Another speaker noted that informal faith-based arbitration had been going on in the Muslim community for decades, with no frictions. “We welcomed the government’s faith-based arbitration initiative because we thought it would be good for our arbitrators to be government-trained, so they would be expert not only in Islamic principles but in Canadian law. We wanted our arbitration procedures to be transparent and monitored. We felt this would assure good practice.”

Richard Fidler’s discussion of this controversy, which follows, is reprinted with permission from the September 24 issue of Socialist Worker. –Roger Annis and John Riddell

The Ontario government decision to ban faith-based arbitration in private family disputes is not a victory for women’s rights. It is a capitulation to a campaign involving more than a hint of anti-immigrant and racist prejudice that tragically was spearheaded by many feminist organizations, the labour movement and the left as well as a few Canadian Muslim women.

As a result of this decision many women of religious persuasion, primarily women in immigrant communities, will be forced to resort to either costly court proceedings or private arrangements that will lack the legal protections proposed by a government-sponsored study in order to resolve disputes arising out of marriage breakdown.

Most organized religions have long had provision for deciding family issues involving such things as inheritance and custody through adjudication by authorities trained in the particular precepts of the religious belief. In Ontario, a number of religions began using the Arbitration Act in recent years to make such decisions enforceable by the courts.

The use of the Act by some Jews and adherents of other religions, including Christians, attracted little or no public criticism.

But the controversy over “sharia law” arose a couple of years ago when some Muslims proposed to likewise put their longstanding faith-based system of private religion-based mediation and arbitration under the Arbitration Act.

The proposal immediately came under fierce public attack. Many of the critics raised the spectre of “sharia” tribunals controlled by fundamentalist mullahs that would expose women to the laws of countries that condone stonings, beheadings, rules of evidence that give a woman’s testimony only half the weight of a man’s, etc.

There was a clear anti-Muslim edge to most of the attacks, which (among other things) failed to note the variations in the laws and customs of predominantly Islamic countries; “sharia” law was equated with Muslim fundamentalism, which was now, we were told, to be “imposed” on women of the Muslim faith.

The Ontario government reacted to these hyperbolic attacks by commissioning a review by Marion Boyd, a prominent feminist and former attorney-general and minister for women’s affairs in the province’s social-democratic NDP government of the early 1990s.

Boyd heard from close to 50 groups and conducted numerous interviews. Her 200-page report, released in December 2004, comprehensively canvassed the issues and proposed a number of amendments to the Act that would in her opinion enhance the quality of decision-making and ensure that parties to private arbitration of family law disputes (especially vulnerable women) would be apprised of their rights under Canadian law.

Here are some of her findings:

  • There is no evidence to suggest that women are being systematically discriminated against as a result of arbitration of family law issues.
  • Under arbitration, the parties choose their own law. But it may not be contrary to Ontario law.
  • Arbitration is subject to legal limits (it cannot address issues of criminal law or divorce law, nor the status of marriage or recognition of parenthood) and procedural limits (for example, the parties cannot opt out of judicial review on issues of jurisdiction, fraud, etc.).
  • Canadian Muslims already have a highly sophisticated and organized system of conciliation and arbitration that is available to practicing Muslims at their individual option.
  • Virtually all of those favouring religion-based mediation and arbitration advocated additional safeguards to prevent the kind of discrimination and inequity feared by opponents.

Boyd acknowledged that support obligations on Muslim men are “extremely limited in comparison to what is required by Canadian and Ontario law.” She framed recommendations to “ensure that arbitration decisions based on religious law do not disentitle spouses and children from the support provisions they are accorded under Canadian and Ontario law….”

In all, she came up with 46 recommendations. One was to add mediation agreements and arbitration agreements to the definition of “domestic contracts” already recognized in family law. These agreements, in writing, signed by the parties and witnessed, could be set aside by the courts on the same grounds as other domestic contracts, that is, if they did not reflect the best interests of children; a party did not have or waive independent legal advice; or no written decision with reasons was provided.

A number of proposals, if implemented, would have ensured that parties were adequately informed of their legal rights, including the right to independent legal advice.

Few of the critics of Boyd’s report addressed these specific recommendations. Instead, the underlying thrust of the attacks was to treat all Muslim customs and laws as primitive, barbaric, and misogynist. The critics were insistent that resort to religious precepts (especially Muslim!) must be prohibited in Canadian family law.

The Islamic community is one of many racially oppressed minority communities in Canada an imperialist country. In such circumstances, religious precepts often serve as a powerful means of self-identification and self-determination as an oppressed people, a key precondition to being able to combat their oppression. In this regard, it is analogous with the national question.

Most imperialist countries have developed definitions of citizenship based on homogenizing cultural concepts that deliberately exclude and discriminate against the immigrants and cultural minorities who make up an increasing share of their populations. England, once the colonial power par excellence, has categorically refused Muslim demands for a separate Sharia system for family law, but Muslims in the U.K. have developed an informal process that leaves them without the protection of British laws. Germany, with its blood basis of citizenship, excludes all of non-German origin other than children born in Germany.

France, with an assimilationist model of citizenship, allows no law other than secular state law to apply to its citizens. However, only one million of France’s four million Muslims are French citizens. So what family law applies to these non-citizen residents of France? The laws of the foreign resident’s country of origin or citizenship as interpreted by French judges! German judges do likewise.

Is it any wonder that in those countries many immigrants would want to evade the jurisdiction of the courts and rely simply on private adjudication of family law disputes?

For a variety of reasons that I need not go into here, Ontario seemed recently to be moving in a different direction, one that would make room for the beliefs of some minority communities while providing the more vulnerable members of those communities with greater recourse to the legal rights enjoyed by both citizens and non-citizens. As Boyd notes, a proposal by some Muslims to bring their faith-based private arbitration system under the Ontario arbitration legislation could be interpreted as “a desire [by the minority community] to engage with the broader community”. They were simply asking that their religion be accorded the same rights already enjoyed by others.

That open door has now been slammed shut by the Ontario government. In fact, the government put up no defence of the report it had commissioned. There was no debate in the legislature; the Conservatives and the NDP, like most Liberals, opposed Boyd’s recommendations.

I think those of us who want to build a new left that will encompass the most oppressed in this society need to rethink the lessons of this sorry episode. We need to be actively looking for ways to relate to these minority communities, many of them refugees from imperialist war and exploitation to express our solidarity with their campaigns against repression and to overlook religious differences that for many define their existence and are key to their own cultural or national self-determination.

You cannot combat religion by effectively outlawing it. The society we want to build is one in which human solidarity not repression and exclusion replaces the need for religion. Until that is achieved, we must accept that religion will for many continue to be a primary means of finding solace in a soul-less world.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Quebec Left’s Merger Plans Spark Discussion

From Socialist Voice, February 21, 2005


By Roger Annis and John Riddell

This issue of Socialist Voice features comments on the fusion discussions in progress between two Quebec left-wing political formations, the Union des forces progressistes (UFP) and Option citoyenne (OC).

  • Quebec: Toward A New Left Party in 2005 by Richard Fidler, will be published in the forthcoming issue of Relay: A Socialist Project Review.
  • The PQ Is Not an Alternative to Charest by Benoit Renaud, was published in the January 28, 2005, issue of Socialist Worker, and was originally published in French in Résistance. Both are publications of the International Socialists.

Both Fidler and Renaud warn that the projected fusion, while it could have a positive outcome, could also give birth to what Fidler terms a “left appendage” of the pro-capitalist Parti Québécois (PQ). Their articles give an informative picture of the evolution of the two Quebec left organizations and reflect current discussion in Quebec socialist circles.

In the view of Socialist Voice, the debate surrounding the Quebec fusion process raises fundamental questions facing the working class movement internationally. What should be the goal and program of those who seek an end to the greed and destructiveness of the capitalist order? Which social classes have the material and ideological interest in challenging the leading position of the capitalist classes in today’s world?

Venezuelan example

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez addressed these questions at a rally in the recently-held World Social Forum in Porto Allegre, Brazil. “It is impossible, within the framework of the capitalist system, to solve the grave problems of poverty of the majority of the world’s population,” he said. “We must transcend capitalism…we must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project, and a path, but a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything.” (See Socialist Voice #29)

The Bolivarian political movement that Chavez heads in Venezuela has led the working people of Venezuela in the streets, in the workplaces, and in the countryside in mass struggle with the forces of reaction. It has won several electoral confrontations along the way. The decisive difference has been its willingness to overcome political obstacles by leading the working masses in militant struggle.


In Canada, the “left” parties—the Parti Quebecois in Quebec and the New Democratic Party in other provinces—stand aside from mass struggle. They stake all on electoral victory and promise that conditions will improve if they are elected. And they end up producing governments that loyally defend capitalist stability.

Electoral parties whose starting point is far more radical, such as Workers Party (PT) in Brazil, the Green Party of Germany, or the Stalinist Communist Party of France have also proven to be compliant partners in capitalist governments. (See “The Nader Campaign in the U.S. Elections,” Socialist Voice #8)

Toward a mass workers party

In Quebec, as in Canada as a whole, the fate of a new left-wing party will be determined by its stand in the fundamental conflict tearing at the social fabric—that between the class of employers, on the one hand, and the laboring classes in the farms, factories and offices who produce the wealth of society, on the other. A new party needs to place itself squarely on the side of the laboring classes and to champion their needs and aspirations.

As Richard Fidler points out, the trade unions in Quebec have important historical experiences in efforts to build a mass workers’ party committed to the goal of socialism. In the present discussion, he advises the new party “to renew and pursue” this legacy.

A bold step down this path by the forces involved in the UFP-OC merger would be an immense contribution to the struggles of working people in Quebec and right across Canada.

Documents of the Quebec discussion can be found at Union des forces progressistes and Option citoyenne.

Quebec: Toward a New Left Party in 2005?

by Richard Fidler

Quebec’s new left party, the Union des forces progressistes (UFP), itself the product of a regroupment process, hopes to continue this process through a projected merger with Option citoyenne (Citizen’s Option, or OC). The two groups are now engaged in formal negotiations with the goal of combining forces by the end of 2005. At present the UFP claims about 1,300 members, the OC 1,500.

At a November membership convention, Option citoyenne voted by a substantial majority to appoint a negotiating committee which would meet at intervals with UFP representatives to discuss various “themes” and establish and clarify points of agreement and disagreement. A further national meeting of OC will be held in the spring of 2005 to discuss the process and develop OC’s position on issues such as the national question, about which OC members are deeply divided.

This process will continue through the summer, with the perspective of creating by the end of the year a new party “centered on the public interest, social justice, respect for the environment, equality between men and women and solidarity among peoples”.

In December, the UFP’s Council accepted the OC’s proposal. Negotiating committees from the two groups have held three joint meetings since mid-December, most recently on February 6. Both groups report wide agreement on the topics discussed so far: the economy, feminism and “functioning and culture of a left-wing party”, according to perfunctory reports submitted to the members of the two organizations.

Different political cultures

Understandably, there is much optimism and hope in both groups that the process will result in a party of several thousand members with a correspondingly greater political impact and attraction than the two groups could have as separate organizations. However, a number of key issues need to be clarified if this potential is to be realized.

It is already clear that a new party will not simply be a larger version of the UFP. For one thing, the fusion process involves two groups with somewhat different backgrounds and orientations.

The UFP, which describes itself as “independentist, feminist, ecological and internationalist”, was formed in 2002 in the wake of the enthusiasm generated by the massive demonstrations at the Quebec Summit of the Americas, the mobilizations around the World March of Women, and a successful by-election campaign in Montreal’s Mercier riding in which the candidate of a broad coalition of left groups and community grass-roots activists won 24% of the popular vote.

The party was initiated by an informal coalition of three groups: the Rassemblement pour l’alternative politique (RAP); the Quebec Communist party; and the Parti de la démocratie socialiste (PDS), all of which became affiliated “entities” or formal tendencies within the UFP. (The RAP has since dissolved, DS is now Québec socialiste, and the International Socialists became an entity in November 2002.) But most of the UFP’s members are individuals not aligned with any of these formations.

The UFP’s founding platform, adopted after wide debate by the members, sets out clear positions and demands on international solidarity, rejection of imperialist military alliances and capitalist trade and investment agreements, and defense and extension of workers’, women’s and immigrants’ rights and social programs, etc. Although the UFP does not define itself as anti-capitalist or socialist, that is the thrust of its platform. And two of its founding principles were opposition to the parties of “neo-liberalism”, including the Parti québécois, and support for the independence of Quebec.

(For background on the UFP, see

Option citoyenne originated as one of three groupings or “options” that developed in a discussion within D’abord solidaires, an ad hoc coalition formed before the 2003 Quebec general election to defend social programs and fight the far right-wing party led by Mario Dumont, Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), which at one point in the months before the election was registering 40 percent support in public opinion polls. D’abord solidaires was officially indifferent between the governing Parti québécois and the opposition Liberals, not opposing a vote for either as a “lesser evil” to the ADQ.

The OC option favoured political action to the left of the PQ, although it initially rejected an invitation to join the UFP. In the summer of 2004, OC leader Françoise David, a former president of the Quebec women’s federation (FFQ), toured the province promoting her book Le Bien commun (the “common good” or “public interest”) and probing support for a new left party independent of the UFP. David encountered much support for uniting the political forces to the left of the PQ and widespread criticism of her support for “asymmetrical federalism”. David has since come out in favour of both unity with the UFP and Quebec independence.

To some degree the UFP and OC represent different milieus. The UFP’s members include young people from the altermondialiste global justice movement — internationalist, anti-capitalist, and strong supporters of Quebec independence — along with an older layer of members, many with long experience in left and far-left politics. The political experience of many OC members, on the other hand, has been within feminist and community organizations — 60% are women — and in local organizing around tenants’ rights, food and housing co-ops and the like, where the politics of consensus and accommodation of conflicting views and even interests are valued.

UFP observers at its November convention found that OC had few members under the age of 25, and “very few” trade union members. On the other hand, its predominantly female membership would compensate for the gender imbalance in the UFP, where only a quarter of the members are women.

An anti-capitalist party?

Option citoyenne, while defining itself to the left of the PQ, is certainly not anti-capitalist. Its program, in so far as it is developed, reads at best like a pale echo of the classic social democracy long associated with the NDP. For example, at its November convention the members adopted a resolution on “the economy” that contained few specifics while promoting “values and principles” such as economic security, distribution of wealth, democratic participation, the regulatory role of the state, etc. — all of which is completely compatible with liberal or “neo-liberal” capitalism. A resolution opposing trade and investment deals that are “opposed to our fundamental values” (without naming any specific deal) was simply tabled. The capitalist state was described as “an instrument of the community” and “guarantor of the public interest”. Similar positions are developed at length in Françoise David’s book. David and OC do not mention the NATO and NORAD alliances, opposition to which is a basic plank in the UFP platform. OC has no position at present on Quebec independence.

Is the OC a clear break from the PQ? Significantly, the OC resolutions do not mention the PQ. But in her book, David says the left should not “contribute to the re-election of the Liberals”, and that “When the elections come, we will see what we have to say to the PQ”. These statements, of course, are not inconsistent with the lesser-evil politics she and D’abord solidaires defended in the 2003 election. In fact, David states on the very first page of her book that she does not want to be “the Ralph Nader of Quebec and contribute to the defeat of the PQ” as U.S. Democrats allege Nader helped defeat them in 2000.

Fusing organizations with such different political cultures is unlikely to be a smooth process, notwithstanding the agreement on rather abstract principles professed by both groups. A major challenge is clearly the conflict between, on the one hand, the UFP’s support of Quebec independence and opposition to the PQ and, on the other, OC’s tendency to adapt to the PQ despite its own ambiguity and divisions on the national question. At its December Council meeting, the UFP identified opposition to the PQ and support for independence as “principles” that should in its view be adopted by a new party. It is common ground for most members of the UFP that a party seeking to outflank the PQ must be independentist.

The ambiguities of Option citoyenne have prompted a few members of the UFP to question whether the new party will be as independent of the PQ as the UFP now is. In articles posted on the UFP’s web site and intranet, they draw attention to statements by David and others, including a few UFP leaders, indicating that the party might consider a deal by which, for example, the PQ declines to contest one or more ridings against the left and in return the left desists from running against the PQ. Any such deal, these critics point out, would make the new party a hostage of the PQ and discredit its claim to be a consistent opponent of “neo-liberalism”. The new party would become a barrier to building an anti-capitalist movement if it degenerated into a left appendage of the PQ.

Debate just beginning

The fusion debate in both the UFP and OC is still in its early stages. So far it has focused on relations with the PQ and election strategy. It may well expand to cover other topics relevant to the fusion.

One topic both UFP and OC activists might consider is the history of previous attempts to build a united party of the left in Quebec. For example, in the 1960s Quebec supporters of the Canadian “new party”, the NDP, attempted to build an autonomous counterpart in Quebec, the Parti socialiste du Québec (PSQ), that was sympathetic to the nationalist upsurge. In the early 1980s another attempt was made to build a united left party, the Mouvement socialiste. Both the PSQ and MS failed but there are valuable lessons to be learned from those experiences.

A much more positive development occurred in the early 1970s, when all three major union centrals in Quebec — the FTQ, CSN and CEQ — debated and adopted radical anti-capitalist manifestoes. While only the CSN’s was explicitly pro-socialist, all three advanced the concept that working people should take control of society. A labour-based municipal party in Montreal, the Front d’action politique, or FRAP (headed by Paul Cliche, now a leader of the UFP) campaigned around the central slogan “Les salariés au pouvoir” — workers to power. For a while it seemed that Quebec labour might manage to establish a mass workers party.

Unfortunately, this movement was subsequently deflected into support for the PQ. Much smaller parties to the “left” of the PQ (such as the Maoists), opposed to Quebec independence, were unable to mount successful resistance to that diversion.

But today the PQ, after a total of 18 years in office, stands exposed to many for its anti-labour, anti-worker record. And while the labour movement is still reeling under the blows of the neo-liberal offensive, there are encouraging signs that politics are returning to the agenda in the unions. In the fall of 2003, the unions spearheaded massive demonstrations in opposition to the Charest government’s assault on union rights and social programs, even forcing the government to retreat on some of its objectives. Although the strike movement eventually fizzled, the march of more than 100,000 workers in Montreal last May Day demonstrated the ongoing potential for a militant labour-based fightback.

These developments indicate the need for the new party to start probing the possibilities to link up with militants in the unions — the natural constituency for an anti-capitalist party — and to develop a long-term strategy for building a class-struggle socialist tendency in the labour movement. The new party needs to renew and pursue the positive legacy of the union manifestoes, not the discredited record of futile lesser-evil reliance on the PQ and other capitalist saviours.

Significantly, opponents of the UFP and Option citoyenne are already mobilizing in the unions. For example, a new grouping, Syndicalistes et progressistes pour un Québec libre (SPQ-Libre), initiated in part by some leaders of the major union centrals, is attempting to channel “progressive” trade unionists and working-class sovereigntists into the PQ where it will function as a recognized “club”. So the PQ remains a key issue for debate both in left unity initiatives and within the broader working class milieu.

These and many other challenges will have to be worked through in the months ahead as the fusion process proceeds. The process would be advanced, in my opinion, if the two groups could now develop some joint campaigns in which their respective memberships work and discuss with each other and begin to build a common organizational framework in which agreements can be solidified and disagreements can be clarified and resolved.

Of course, in the new party there need not and will not be 100% unity on all issues, even some important ones. Many questions can be resolved through common action and debate within the unified party — especially a party characterized by rank-and-file democracy with pluralist structures that recognize tendency rights, as the UFP has pledged to establish.

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The PQ is Not an Alternative to Charest

By Benoit Renaud

An opinion poll published December 17, 2004 in Le Devoir, revealed that 10 per cent of the Quebec electorate intends to vote for a party “other” than the three currently represented in the National Assembly — the PQ (Parti Québécois), the Parti libéral du Québec (PLQ) and Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ).

Because the poll did not delve further into the “other” category, it is difficult to assess where this support would be going — to the Union des forces progressistes (UFP), the Greens or for a new party uniting the UFP with a new left grouping called Option citoyenne (OC).

But it is clear that a significant portion of the population wants an alternative, and that this is not the moment for the left to abandon its independent profile and slip back into a call for a “strategic vote” for the PQ against their comrades in the Liberal Party.

However, just such a vision is coming from Françoise David, principal spokesperson for Option citoyenne, a vision which is exerting an increasing influence inside the UFP.

The Hated Charest

Since the election of April, 2003, we have suffered under a neo-liberal offensive directed by Charest. This is a continuation of the similar policies applied by all Quebec governments, péquiste or Liberal — from the vicious anti-labour laws used by Lévesque against the public sector unions in 1982, to Bouchard’s “deficit zero” policies in 1996. These of course are in line with the whole programme of the ADQ. As the spokespeople for the UFP said a few weeks after Charest’s victory, “the PQ has paved the way for the Liberals to apply the programme of the ADQ!”

But the PQ — since its return to the opposition benches — has distinguished itself by its ineptitude and its complete unwillingness to in any way contribute to the anti-Charest resistance movement — which should not be surprising, considering the extent to which the Liberal policies are the same as those of the PQ.

Clearly, the struggle against Charest must be based on the mobilization of the labour and social movements, rooted in a complete rejection of neo-liberalism. Such a struggle is possible. We saw this in the mobilization against the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) in Quebec City in 2001, the massive demonstrations against war in Iraq in 2003, the “day of disruption” December 11 of 2003, the 100,000 who marched on May Day in 2004, and the many solid votes for a 24-hour general strike (or in some cases for a general strike, full stop) carried out by CSN and the CSQ and by many unions affiliated to the FTQ, over the last 18 months.

Left unity

It is in this context that two new left groups have emerged — SPQ-Libre and Option citoyenne.

SPQL squarely rejects the perspective of a big, independent party of the left, and opts instead for a perspective of uniting all Quebec sovereigntists.

Their project involves the organization of a left (including Pauline Marois and François Legault!) inside the PQ. The independent project of the left, in their view, will have to wait until sovereignty is achieved.

This is the discourse which led to the dissolution of an earlier generation of left-wing currents — the RIN (Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale) and the journal Parti Pris … in 1968! Four electoral victories by the PQ and two failed referenda later — we are still expected to wait!

For its part, Option citoyenne follows on the heels of d’Abord Solidaires, a political education movement which in the main campaigned against the ADQ when polls in 2002 indicated that it might win the election. The logic of this campaign was “anybody but Dumont”, to the point that they refused to choose between the PQ and the PLQ as an alternative.

After the April 2003 elections, d’Abord Solidaires split into three groups, of which one — Option citoyenne — put its attention towards forming a political party.

An independent left

But what type of party, and to accomplish what? From the first page of her mini-platform, David says that she does not want to be “the Ralph Nader of Quebec and contribute to the defeat of the PQ” the way Nader is said to have contributed to the defeat of Gore in 2000. This is consistent with other statements asserting that the left must not “contribute to the re-election of the Liberals,” or again that “We are all intelligent and strategic people. When it comes to the elections, we will know what to say to the PQ”.

But what does this amount to other than support for the PQ as a “lesser evil” than the Liberals?

The leading group of Option citoyenne is trying to reconcile the irreconcilable — tactical support for the PQ and left political autonomy. But in truth you have to choose, either the one or the other.

By contrast, we should focus on the huge step forward for the left beginning with the UFP campaign in Mercier in April, 2001 (4,000 votes and a solid third-place finish).

And what about the general election in 2003, where the UFP won 5,000 votes in Mercier and stood candidates in 72 out of 125 ridings. The PQ lost that election, but that loss had nothing to do with the votes won by the UFP — it was a loss that they accomplished all by themselves.

The fusion between the UFP and Option citoyenne (which is being openly discussed) can therefore be carried out in two opposing directions. We can succeed in convincing the members of OC (and the members of the UFP who agree with their perspective) to reject the politics of “lesser-evilism” and to work for the development of a real alternative to the three neo-liberal parties. Or David and her supporters (in both the OC and the UFP) will succeed in winning the left to their politics of a “strategic alliance” with the PQ.

This alliance could take two forms — either a formal electoral pact including a very unequal partition of the ridings (which is highly unlikely, given the sacrifice this would represent for the PQ), or a unilateral “standing down” by the left in a series of key ridings in order “to not divide the vote”.

But the worst result would be the fusion of the UFP and OC without a preliminary discussion on the question of participation in the elections. We could end up with the folding of the UFP only to discover that the new party, in its majority, provides tactical support for the PQ, and the independent left — as a minority — no longer has a party.

That is why we must first insist that this debate is carried out in both the UFP and OC, and that it must be prominent on the agenda of the fusion negotiations.

It would be a tragedy, not a strategy, if the left refused to stand candidates in the greatest possible number of ridings in order to offer a real alternative to the people of Quebec.

That will allow the five million electors in Quebec to choose how to punish the Charest regime for its first four years of devastation. And who knows, maybe they will do that without rewarding the PQ!

This article is translated from Résistance, February 25, 2005