Monday, April 16, 2007

Sovereigntists Open Debate on Quebec’s Post-Election Prospects

These articles were first published in Socialist Voice, April 16, 2007

By Richard Fidler

Quebec has entered a new period of political instability in the wake of the March 26 general election. For decades, the province’s politics have been polarized between the federalist Liberals (PLQ) and the sovereigntist Parti Québécois. Now the sudden ascension of a relatively new right-wing “autonomist” party, the Action Démocratique du Québec, has reduced the governing Liberals to minority status in the National Assembly. The PQ, which entered the campaign with polls giving it a credible chance to regain power, is now the third party. The PQ’s share of the popular vote is its lowest since the early 1970s.

Elections in capitalist democracies reflect the underlying trends within society with all the accuracy of a fun-house mirror, especially in an undemocratic first-past-the-post system like Quebec’s. All the more so in a period when the nationalist and labour mobilizations that have periodically shaken Quebec since the Sixties are in ebb. What if anything do these elections tell us about the evolution of Quebec society, and the state of the sovereigntist movement?

The end of “separatism”?

The parliamentary geometry is clear. The makeup of the National Assembly has shifted further to the right. There are now two federalist parties for voters to choose between. As Canadian Prime Minister Harper was quick to note, the results likely rule out the prospects for a new referendum on Quebec sovereignty in the near future.

Quebec general election results, 2007



Popular Vote










































Adapted from Wikipedia
* Marginal parties and independent candidates omitted.
‡ Results for Québec solidaire are compared to the 2003 results for the Union des forces progressistes.

But PQ losses do not necessarily translate into gains for the federalists. The ADQ is nationalist albeit not pro-independence. Its federalism is conditional. The ADQ was allied with the PQ on the yes side in the 1995 referendum. It arose out of the split in the Quebec Liberals in the early 1990s when ADQ leader Mario Dumont (then the PLQ youth leader) joined with senior party members led by Jean Allaire in support of a proposal to give Quebec exclusive jurisdiction over 22 areas of government policy, taking over many areas now assigned to the federal government under the existing Constitution.

The ADQ platform in this election highlighted its proposal for “Quebec affirmation without separating”, calling for “reopening of constitutional dialogue with the federal government and the other provinces”, the adoption of a distinct “Quebec Constitution” and Quebec citizenship, designation of Quebec as the “Autonomous State of Quebec”, defence of “our areas of jurisdiction” and strengthening Quebec’s “financial autonomy”. Quebecers must overcome their “minority complex”, the party said.

The legislative agenda of Charest’s Liberals is now dependent on the votes of either the autonomist ADQ or the sovereigntist PQ. And ADQ leader Dumont has expressed the hope “that we could rally some kind of unanimity at the National Assembly around an autonomist vision.”

Harper sought to shore up the Quebec Liberals and defuse demands for constitutional change through shoveling money to Quebec in the federal budget just a week before the election — “the mother of all sponsorship campaigns”, wrote one wag. But will tactics like this satisfy those favouring more substantial changes in Quebec’s relationship to Canada? They are a majority in Quebec. During the election campaign, polls registered popular support for sovereignty at well over 40% with or without a formal association with Canada. Evidently, the ADQ tapped into some of that sentiment.

The fact is that the ADQ proposals, whatever their specifics (and they are vague) are likely non-starters in the rest of Canada. It is one thing to pay lip service to recognition of Quebec, or the Québécois, as a “nation” as the federal Parliament did in November. It is quite another thing to give that notion some substance through real constitutional reform. Any serious proposals to alter the framework of federalism will most probably encounter a cold reception from the Canadian political establishment, including the NDP leadership.

The likely prospect, then, is for renewed confrontations with Ottawa in Quebec’s ongoing quest for national affirmation and self-determination.

Labour, social movements in retreat

With three more-or-less neoliberal parties dominating politics and media attention, there is a danger that too much will be read into the shifts in voter preference, especially when the re-allocation of parliamentary seats exaggerates the actual change in the popular vote.

The ADQ’s gains were largely at the expense of the Liberals. The ADQ platform sounded most of the social themes so dear to right-wing ideologues: family allowances in place of state-subsidized childcare, school autonomy and job-oriented curricula, an increased role for private healthcare, tougher law and order, lower taxes, etc. But in most respects, this program does not differ qualitatively from Charest’s agenda. Québec solidaire leaders Françoise David and Amir Khadir were probably correct to state, in a post-election news release, that the PLQ and ADQ “will be as thick as thieves when it comes to privatizing health care, increasing student fees, refusing to index social assistance and imposing [worse] working conditions on public sector workers.”

In fact, public disaffection with the Liberals was generally attributed to precisely this policy direction, which the Charest government had been pursuing since its election in 2003 in defiance of mass opposition.

In their first year in office, the Liberals unveiled legislation dismantling healthcare unions, restricting and even denying bargaining rights to many public sector workers, increasing contracting out to non-union employers and removing minimum wage standards in some industries. This legislation was rammed through the National Assembly in the face of massive protests by workers throughout Quebec — the largest union mobilizations since the general strike that swept the province in 1972.

On May Day, 2004, 100,000 workers marched in Montréal, many of them demanding a general strike to defeat the government offensive. The union leaderships worked to cool the growing confrontation, however, frustrating and ultimately demoralizing many militants.

In December 2005, faced with escalating strikes and rallies by a union common front of half a million public sector workers who had been without a contract since June 2003, the Charest government successfully imposed a takeback contract to run to 2010, with stiff fines for any further strike action. These and other antilabor moves were accompanied during Charest’s term in office by substantial cuts in childcare funding, higher fees for publicly funded daycare and threats to remove a freeze on post-secondary tuition fees. In 2005, students struck colleges and universities and marched in tens of thousands in the largest such actions in Quebec history.

However, these powerful mobilizations by workers, students and others were unable to defeat the Liberals’ assault, although they did force some retreats on the government. A major obstacle facing the government’s opponents was their lack of a political alternative. The Parti québécois offered at best tepid opposition to Charest’s agenda and the new PQ leader André Boisclair refused to commit to re-opening public sector contracts or repealing much of the Liberals’ anti-union legislation. The last year saw a sharp decline in mass actions while PQ support slowly declined in opinion polls.

With no major party presenting any perspective for reversing these setbacks, Quebec’s political discourse became increasingly dominated by symbolic issues that fed on insecurities over national self-definition and identity. The ADQ proved particularly adept at exploiting this trend.

ADQ works the “identity” theme

Until recently, the ADQ’s electoral base was in Quebec’s largely rural hinterland. But its support increased dramatically when ADQ leader Mario Dumont began attacking policies to accommodate the right of religious minorities, mainly Muslims, to express or practice their faith in public (for example, dress codes allowing hijabs or kirpans in the public schools, or the provision of prayer space for Muslims in unoccupied classrooms). Most of the incidents around which these issues arose have occurred in Montréal, but the ADQ’s reactionary claim that “reasonable accommodation” of such practices challenged Québécois identity seemed to have its greatest resonance outside the metropolis. The ADQ appears to have tapped into some deep-seated discomfort among many Québécois, to whom cosmopolitan, multiracial and socially tolerant Montréal seems alien to their perception of Quebec culture and sense of personal security.

The ADQ’s opposition to religious minority practices meant that it campaigned in favour of “secularism” — in sharp contrast to the staunchly Catholic right-wing forces of the past such as Maurice Duplessis’ Union Nationale or Réal Caouette’s Créditistes. This opened the way to support from urbanites for whom religion plays little or no role in their sense of national identity.

Although the ADQ exploited these largely symbolic issues to its advantage, all parties have in fact played on fears of minority contamination of Quebec values. One of the first manifestations of such concerns came in the form of a joint Liberal-PQ motion, adopted unanimously in the National Assembly in 2005, condemning a proposal (in Ontario!) to extend legal recognition of private arbitration of family law disputes to Moslems — even though Quebec’s Civil Code already bars such private arbitration. (See Socialist Voice #78) And during this election campaign it was PQ leader André Boisclair who insisted that women with burkas would have to unveil in order to vote!

Has PQ forgotten its raison d’être?

Issues of national identity have featured prominently in post-election commentary by sovereigntists as they assess the PQ’s electoral debacle. The party’s left-wing “club” of trade-unionists and progressives, SPQ-Libre, attributed the cultural insecurity it sees in Quebec primarily to capitalist globalization and its devastating impact on the province’s regional economy and social structure. It said the PQ’s response to the ADQ “identity” campaign should have emphasized “the defence and promotion of the French language and culture”, issues “at the heart of the Quebec national movement”.

Others echoed this theme. Jean Dorion, president of the nationalist Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society, says the PQ is the party that talked least about language during the campaign. When in government, it failed to implement legislation adopted in 2003 that proclaimed French the sole language of government communications.

“Dumont roused consciousness of identity in a very unhealthy way,” says Dorion. This distracted people from some really important questions “such as the bilingualism in our society and the hegemony of English”. He cites the fact that half the new megahospital infrastructures being built in Montréal will be administered in English.

Pierre Renaud, a former leader of the RIN, the PQ’s independentist predecessor, argues that the PQ has focused too exclusively on its promised referendum on sovereignty. “Instead, we have to talk to them about the reasons for achieving independence. It was never for reasons of money, but we kept talking about how profitable it would be. That was a mistake. We want to form a country for issues of culture, language, pride, identity, history, etc.”

Former PQ minister Yves Duhaime agrees. “We just talked about the referendum, we didn’t talk about sovereignty…. Yes, we have to put the figures on the table, but achieving sovereignty is not an accounting exercise, especially when Mr. Charest himself said Quebec had the means to do it.”

Historian Éric Bédard, who headed the PQ youth organization at the time of the 1995 referendum, says Boisclair left the issue of Quebec identity to the ADQ. He draws an interesting historical parallel: in 1969, the Union Nationale lost the election after it had enacted “free choice” of language in education (Bill 63). Similarly, he says, the PQ’s pro-sovereignty views have become “denationalized”.

French language still under pressure

In fact, the question of French language rights continues to be front and centre in the consciousness of many Quebec working people. Just days after the March 26 general election, the Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ) held a major symposium on Quebec’s stalled language law reforms and the ongoing problem of anglicization of business and industry in the province. The FTQ released studies showing that about one out of every two Francophones working in both languages in the private sector must communicate primarily in English with Anglophone superiors, colleagues and subordinates.

Former PQ cabinet minister Louise Beaudoin, a featured speaker, said it was unacceptable that 30 years after the enactment of Law 101, the Charter of the French Language, language transfers in Quebec were still predominantly toward English; given the option, immigrants, Anglophones and even some Francophones tend to choose English instead of French as their language of choice. A major problem, she said, is that “there is still no real francization program in firms with fewer than 50 employees”, where most immigrant workers are concentrated.

And Beaudoin was scathing in her criticism of PQ leader André Boisclair for not raising the issue of language and culture in the election campaign. “How is it,” she asked, “that in a two-hour debate of the party leaders, in which all the major issues in Quebec society should be aired, not a word was said about the French language and Quebec culture?”

The FTQ had motivated its endorsement of the PQ in the election on the basis of the party’s formal commitment, in its published platform, to “promoting identity, language and culture”, promoting the right to “work in French” and “achieving the sovereignty of Quebec”. At the same time, the FTQ criticized the party’s demand for a new referendum on sovereignty and Boisclair’s recent call to end the “copinage” (cronyism) between the PQ and the unions.

A new sovereigntist coalition?

Interviewed by Le Devoir on his reaction to the election results, Gérald Larose, a former leader of the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN) and now chair of the Conseil de la souveraineté, the umbrella council of pro-sovereignty organizations, noted that the PQ could no longer be said to monopolize the sovereignty movement. He called for creating a “new sovereigntist coalition”, much broader than the PQ and its supporters.

But to be successful, many argue, Quebec sovereignty must be linked to a progressive “projet de société”, a social agenda that holds out the promise and hope of a “new and different Quebec” that can do away with social inequality and poverty. The PQ’s inability to promise that social change, starkly evident after its record in government, means that it cannot provide adequate leadership for this projected coalition.

The nationalist movement is continuing to suffer the effects of its political hegemony by the PQ, which held office for 18 years between 1976 and 2003, many of them years of neoliberal austerity, “zero deficits” and cutbacks in social programs. Part of the legacy as well are the two failed referendums on sovereignty-association (1980 and 1995), the 1982 unilateral federal patriation of the Constitution, etc., the defeat of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown rounds of constitutional negotiation and reform, etc.

Offsetting these setbacks, of course, were the major reforms enacted by both PQ and Liberal governments since 1960 under the pressure of powerful and sustained labour and nationalist struggles over several decades. These reforms greatly enhanced the status of the French language and of Francophones in Quebec, modernized its education system and established social welfare programs that to some degree reduced economic and social disparities with the rest of Canada including Ontario, the province with a comparable industrial development. Quebec’s relative success in these areas may have undermined to some degree the sense of urgency behind the sovereigntist movement.

Increasing class stratification

These reforms have also increased the stratification of Quebec society, with the growth in recent decades of many middle layers of relatively well-off Francophone professionals and highly educated workers. The much vaunted “Quebec model” of the welfare state is less appealing to them now; many are attracted by the lure of neoliberal individualism. The ADQ’s electoral inroads in urban and especially suburban areas of Quebec may reflect these sociological changes.

Issues of language and culture are still important to these layers, but they are less inclined to see solutions to their insecurities in meta changes, including constitutional reforms. However, they may want more than what Charest’s milquetoast brand of pragmatic cooperative federalism was able to yield (which was not much). In any event, nationalist consciousness has not been immune to the overall context of defeats and relative demobilization of the unions and social movements. In a political landscape dominated by neoliberal parties, allegiances were easily shifted among three parties distinguished by little more than their respective positions on the national question.

For almost five decades, class politics in Quebec have unfolded in a predominantly nationalist framework in which the contending social forces have operated within a broad consensus on the need to promote French-language rights and Francophone identity whether within or without the Confederation. That consensus remains, but new issues of identity, arising mainly around the challenges of integrating immigrants and non-Francophones within Quebec society, intersect with initial signs of a growing class differentiation within the broad nationalist movement. The PQ’s rightward shift has opened space to the left for sections of the workers and social movements to begin to break from bourgeois nationalism. The formation of Québec solidaire reflects this, although still incompletely and not altogether coherently.

Likewise, the open rifts within the PQ will favour a renewed debate in Quebec over the road ahead for the social movements, including the trade unions whose members have long been the bedrock of support for that party.

This, and not the overnight ascension of the ADQ, may well turn out to be the most important result of the 2007 election. Historically, national and class mobilizations in Quebec, while not in lockstep, have tracked each other closely. New battles lie ahead, opening new prospects for beginning to build a broad working-class political alternative to capitalist exploitation and national oppression.

Despite Low Vote, Québec Solidaire
Registers Important Gains

The Québec solidaire score of 3.65% will no doubt be disappointing to many QS members and supporters, not least because the party failed to outpoll the Greens (PVQ), who campaigned on a basically neoliberal platform but evidently capitalized on recent public concern over the environment. (The PVQ, which fielded only 37 candidates in 2003, managed to run in 108 ridings this time, although the party claims a membership of only 1,000.)

QS had hoped to break through a psychological barrier of 5% and thereby strengthen its case for representation in the National Assembly under a still-to-be-defined forthcoming electoral reform based on proportional representation.

Nevertheless, the campaign marked some major advances for the fledgling party formed just a year ago through the fusion of Option citoyenne with the Union des forces progressistes (UFP).

QS ran in all but two of Quebec’s 125 ridings. More than half of its candidates (64) were women — a first for a Quebec political party. In each riding, the party had to collect at least 100 signatures of voters for its candidates to be listed on the ballot. This entailed an intensive canvassing effort, and by the end of the campaign the party membership had increased by more than 1,000 to over 6,500.

The QS score was much above its average in a number of ridings where the party waged “priority” or “intermediate” rather than “visibility” campaigns. In Montréal’s Mercier and Gouin ridings, where QS co-leaders Amir Khadir and Françoise David ran, the party came second behind the PQ, with scores of over 29% and 26% respectively. In a dozen other ridings, five of them outside of Montréal, the party got more than 5% of the popular vote. Further details:

Generally, the candidates with the higher scores are well-known activists and leaders in various social movements, the women’s movement and the unions.

The Montréal Central Council of the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN) urged its 125,000 members to vote for Québec solidaire — the first time ever that a major labour body had voted to endorse a party to the left of the PQ. Party candidates were also endorsed by a number of prominent leaders in other unions, including nurses’ union leader Jenny Skene and the former president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, Nicole Turmel. The Montréal wing of the Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ) voted to support the campaigns of QS labour activists Arthur Sandborn and André Frappier.

QS campaigned in favour of going beyond the Kyoto protocol standards and was given an “excellent” rating by Greenpeace, just behind the Greens.

During the campaign, some aboriginal leaders held a conference “on Mohawk territory” and issued a joint statement on the elections denouncing the major parties for failing to address native concerns. But Ghislain Picard, the chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, singled out Québec solidaire as “the only exception”. QS candidate François Saillant addressed the Assembly on March 20 and got a warm reception when he explained the party’s support for self-determination of the aboriginal peoples and respect for treaty and aboriginal rights.

A major issue during the election campaign was the media conglomerates’ decision to exclude QS and the Greens from the party leaders’ TV debate. A non-partisan petition to reverse that decision was signed by more than 25,000 persons, but the media firms, led by the federal government’s Radio-Canada/CBC, refused to yield.

Although QS had few financial resources, it produced professional looking leaflets and signs. A 50-page campaign handbook was published for candidates and party workers on the party’s intranet, along with informative briefing notes on key issues.

Many candidates held effective public meetings and street demonstrations in their ridings. Some held “soupes populaires”, serving hot food along with election handbills to frigid passersby. In some ridings, candidates held local assemblies inviting input from citizens on themes and demands to include in their campaigns. Some campaign meetings attracted hundreds of enthusiastic participants; one in Montréal drew more than 700 according to media reports. QS candidates spoke at many all-candidates meetings in their ridings. For further details, see

Although shut out from the leaders’ debate, the QS campaign did get some coverage in the mass media, including some editorial criticism. An article in Quebec’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, La Presse, red-baited the party because two of its candidates are public members of the Quebec Communist party (PCQ); the PCQ is an affiliated collective within Québec solidaire.

Programmatically, the QS campaign was closely confined to the party’s “25 concrete and realizable commitments” adopted at its platform convention in November 2006. Prominent campaign themes were the party’s call for a $10 minimum wage (it is currently $7.75 an hour); construction of 4,000 new units of social housing; abolition of university fees and private schools; nationalization of wind-generated power; massive investment in public transit; and election of a constituent assembly to adopt democratically the constitution of a sovereign Quebec.

Unlike the 2003 campaign of its predecessor the UFP, the QS campaign did not mention international issues such as Canada’s war in Afghanistan, although some QS candidates and supporters participated in the March 17 antiwar actions. Nor did the party express any opposition to capitalist trade and investment deals like NAFTA. The limited platform reflected a QS leadership decision made last year to confine its programmatic intervention in the election to “a limited number of proposals . . . conceived in terms of a governmental project that is immediately realizable in the present framework — that is, provincial and neoliberal.”

It is clear that the Québec solidaire campaign was successful in raising the party’s profile, increasing its membership and giving it valuable experience in electioneering. Whether it was equally successful in generating the political and programmatic impact it hoped to have among working people and students is a worthy topic for debate as QS members reflect on this experience in the coming months.

– R.F.

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