Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Behind those resignations from the Parti Québécois

It’s “an earthquake that could become a tsunami,” said former Parti québécois leader Bernard Landry, reacting to the sudden resignation of three prominent PQ members of the National Assembly from the party’s caucus June 6.

The resignations were ostensibly in response to the party’s support of a private bill that would shield a management deal between Quebec City and Quebecor Media Inc. from being challenged in the courts, even before formal contracts have been signed to build the proposed amphitheatre that would, the City hopes, lure back the Québec Nordiques professional hockey team.

Quebecor Media is Quebec’s second largest media chain, and publishes some of its largest-circulation tabloid newspapers. It has become notorious for its anti-union policies. Only recently it ended a two-year long lockout of its employees at the Journal de Montréal, who continue to publish an on-line daily newspaper they started during the conflict, Rue Frontenac.

The bill, sponsored by PQ MNA Agnès Maltais, has prompted outrage among PQ members at the blatant attempt to infringe the right of citizens to take legal action against the deal, which was struck without public tender.

But much more is at issue than Pauline Marois’ determination to force her MNAs to support the bill. The members who have resigned are among the strongest supporters of Quebec independence in the party’s caucus. As Landry says, the hope is that their departure will prompt a reconsideration of Marois’ reluctance to campaign for sovereignty — what he hopes will be the “tsunami” to follow the resignations earthquake. They accuse Marois of imposing her views through increasingly authoritarian practices.

Marois wants the project of holding a referendum on sovereignty — the PQ goal, article 1 in its program — to be put on hold indefinitely, and says that winning voters’ support for sovereignty would not be her main objective in government. Instead she has focused on identity issues, such as proposing adoption of a Quebec citizenship with fluency in French as a precondition for eligibility. She has sought to woo supporters of the right-wing Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), which favours more autonomy for Quebec, but not sovereignty. And she hopes to frustrate efforts by François Legault, a former PQ cabinet minister, to establish a new right-wing party that includes both sovereigntists and federalists.

Soon after assuming the PQ leadership in 2007, Marois engineered the expulsion from the party of a leftist “club”, Syndicalistes et Progressistes pour un Québec Libre (SPQ-Libre), which campaigned for a clear commitment to independence and the reinforcement of Quebec’s legislation protecting French-language rights.

But this failed to stifle criticism of her strategy. In March, former PQ leader Jacques Parizeau, in a widely publicized article, urged delegates to the party’s April convention to adopt a clear position in favour of sovereignty and to prepare and promote it in government through a campaign using public funds. However, a resolution to this effect by his wife Lisette Lapointe, the MNA for Crémazie riding, was rejected by party leaders, who refused to include the Crémazie motion in the proposals put to the convention delegates. Lapointe was one of the three who resigned from the party’s caucus June 6, the others being Louise Beaudoin and Pierre Curzi. (Another, Jean-Martin Aussant, resigned today, and called for Marois’ resignation as leader.)

Marois successfully engineered a 93% vote in support of her leadership at the convention. But unease continued to simmer in the party, and it has flared up in the wake of the May 2 federal election, which resulted in a catastrophic drop in support for the PQ’s federal pendant the Bloc québécois, its vote dropping from 38% in the 2008 election to 23% and its seats from 49 to 4, while the federal New Democratic Party’s Quebec vote ballooned from 12% in 2008 to 43%, the NDP winning 59 seats in the province.
The NDP surge has been interpreted by many as an indication of an incipient realignment of Quebec politics, long polarized around the national question, along left-right lines as well.

Did the voters’ rejection of the Bloc spell trouble for the Parti québécois, which in recent months seemed headed for government in the next election, polling well in advance of the governing Liberals? Some péquistes have voiced concern that the party could be losing support to Québec solidaire, the new left pro-independence party whose sole MNA, Amir Khadir, has been rated Quebec’s most popular politician owing to his outspoken attacks on the neoliberal politics of the capitalist parties, the Liberals, the PQ and the smaller right-wing Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ).

It was Khadir who brought the issue of the Quebec City-Quebecor deal to a head in the National Assembly. Owing to a technicality, the PQ member’s private bill ratifying the deal had to receive a unanimous vote if it was to be sent for debate and adoption in the current session, which ends this month. Khadir initially refused to vote for it, thus frustrating the bill’s supporters in both the Liberal government and PQ opposition. Later, Khadir said he would allow debate to proceed in committee, but would vote against the bill, which has been criticized on legal grounds even by the government’s own lawyers.

In fact, given QS opposition, the bill was doomed from the start. And Premier Jean Charest has today put the bill on ice until September. According to Le Devoir, “Mr. Charest announced this decision after finding that the Québec solidaire MNA, Amir Khadir, was going to obstruct adoption of the amendment [to the Cities and Towns Act] demanded by [Quebec City mayor Régis] Labeaume.”

Khadir has been the target of some vitriolic attacks in recent weeks by prominent PQ leaders and supporters. When Khadir wrote, following the May 2 election, that he personally had voted NDP, the PQ president Raymond Archambault accused Québec solidaire of making defeat of the PQ its primary objective, ahead of beating the Liberals. The PQ, you see, thinks it should monopolize the independence vote. (The full text of Khadir’s article is translated below.)

Khadir’s opposition to the Quebecor-Quebec City private bill brought down further calumny upon him. Columnist and essayist Denise Bombardier, in a particularly defamatory piece, compared him to a follower of Mao, described him as a “phobic opponent of modernity” and a macho politician, and even questioned his Québécois authenticity (“an heir of the great cultivated bourgeoisie of Iran”).

However, Le Devoir political columnist Michel David took a more generous view. “Of the 125 elected members of the National Assembly,” he wrote, “Amir Khadir seems to be the only one to convey the point of view of the millions of taxpayers who are already opposed to having the construction of an amphitheatre primarily intended to enrich a multimillionaire [Quebecor head Pierre Karl Péladeau] entirely financed by their taxes. And who now see their MNAs ready to adopt, even if it means holding their nose, a bill that would legalize an agreement that the government’s own lawyers suspect is illegal.”

Some corporate media commentators have speculated that the new wave of dissidence in the Parti québécois will bolster the prospects for Legault’s new right-wing party project. I think it is more likely to bolster pro-sovereignty forces to the left, in the first place Québec solidaire.

Those resigning from the PQ caucus, as mentioned earlier, are among those long associated with the independence cause. Their resignations from caucus are not necessarily resignations from the PQ itself (at present, there is some unclarity on this). Some péquistes, such as Bernard Landry, evidently hope that the open crisis will provoke a debate within the party over party strategy that has largely been sub rosa in recent years. On the other hand, it may simply be a new stage in the crisis of the traditional bourgeois sovereigntist leadership, which seems unable to rally popular enthusiasm for its neoliberal “governance” strategy, looking to some new crisis in federal-provincial relations to foster the “winning conditions” for a referendum yes vote to “sovereignty.”

In fact, the resignations this week bear a certain resemblance to the 1984 resignations of Finance Minister Jacques Parizeau and several other ministers from the PQ government in protest against René Lévesque’s decision to postpone the battle for sovereignty in favour of the “beau risque” of gambling on hopes for post-Trudeau constitutional change that would accommodate Quebec. The crisis at that time was followed by the party’s election defeat in 1985 and a decade-long exclusion from office.

However, it is Québec solidaire which — from its founding five years ago — has articulated, with increasing force and credibility, a strategy for independence that is transparent, democratic and activist-oriented — a strategy for building a new “country of projects.” In mid-April, it launched a campaign along these lines, in accordance with a resolution adopted at its November 2009 convention.[1] The campaign web site sets out the party’s vision of sovereignty and the approach it favours for achieving it. It also outlines the party’s approach to strengthening the status of the French language, especially in Montréal. As the web site explains:
“Some of these projects can be achieved here and now, without affecting Quebec’s constitutional status. However, the people’s ambition to realize many other projects will soon be hobbled by the total or partial absence of any latitude for Quebec in areas as fundamental as the environment, foreign policy, foreign trade and even language. The full mastery of our destiny is therefore indispensable for achieving all of the projects of our dreams.”
Associated materials (all on-line) include an historical survey that dates a Québécois quest for sovereignty back to the 18th century, a critique of Canadian federalism and the failure of past efforts to reform the system and a critique of “the impasse of the PQ and its referendum strategy,” to which it counterposes Québec Solidaire’s proposed grassroots campaign to build support for sovereignty and, eventually, the election of a democratic non-partisan Constituent Assembly to adopt a constitution for an independent Quebec. Associated articles cite and describe parallel “inspiring experiences” in Bolivia, Ecuador and, most recently, in Tunisia.

In the fall of 2011, the campaign will feature a tour of Quebec by QS president Françoise David and public meetings “on themes chosen by local party associations.”

This campaign can boost Québec Solidaire’s profile as the left wing of the independence movement, with a “project for society” and a “country of projects” that points toward an anticapitalist alternative vision that breaks sharply with the PQ-Bloc strategy for independence, one “based on alienation from Canada,” and “fuelled by resentment,” as Amir Khadir describes it in the article below.

Richard Fidler

* * *

After the federal elections – The Quebec that awaits us

by Amir Khadir, MNA (Mercier)
Spokesman for Québec solidaire
Le Devoir, May 14, 2011 [my translation]

The forceful rise of the New Democratic Party was desired by many progressive sovereigntists like me. But not at the price of such a sweeping defeat of the Bloc québécois. Québec solidaire had called for voting for progressive candidates, whether of the Bloc or the NDP. Would I have voted for the NDP candidate had I known that my MP and friend Gilles Duceppe was in danger in his riding? No, without a doubt. But now, I confess, I have no regret. The one for whom I voted, Hélène Laverdière, will make an excellent MP for Quebec.

Nonetheless, I am sad about Gilles and so many others of his colleagues. Duceppe did not deserve that. My “useful vote” — anti-Harper and intended to strengthen the rise of the NDP in Canada — was not against my Bloc MP but it contributed to his defeat. It seems that many other sovereigntist voters had the same experience. An incongruous election experience, which highlights two major problems that must be addressed frankly in the independentist movement: (1) the effects of the “useful vote”; (2) the political exhaustion of a certain sovereigntist orthodoxy.

The downside of the useful vote

The May 2 results are explained, first, by a rapid shift of a major share of the Bloc’s electorate (4 out of 10) very largely toward the NDP. In five weeks, BQ support sank from 40% to 23%. Five weeks earlier, a major share of the 17% of voters who abandoned the BQ were independentist or nationalist. Did they abandon en masse their sovereigntist convictions?

That is not plausible, we don’t change convictions so abruptly. Rather, the Bloc was a victim of a massive shift of its electorate, a major part of which voted pragmatically. The useful vote is based on an individual’s political calculations, not on convictions. But the May 2 results indicate above all the aberration of this type of vote, a product of our non-proportional electoral system. The BQ garnered a quarter of the votes, but obtained only a twentieth of the seats. Those who would prefer to forget the necessity to reform Quebec’s foully undemocratic voting procedures must now grasp the danger that the lack of a proportional representation system constitutes for any sovereigntist formation.

Other reasons have also been offered to explain the orange wave that overtook Quebec last May 2, whether or not they are complementary to the useful vote: hostility to Harper; weariness with the Bloc, either because it is considered responsible for a sterile impasse in Ottawa or because it is too closely associated with the PQ, with its disappointing wait-and-see approach [to sovereignty]; eagerness for change associated with rejection of the governing political elites; a new electoral alignment on a left-right axis instead of sovereigntist-federalist, especially among young people, etc.

These elements of a new electoral dynamic have their equivalent in Quebec’s political landscape: emergence of a new left-right electoral alignment; massive rejection of the Charest government; lack of enthusiasm for the PQ, perceived by some as belonging to the power elite and distressing others by its refusal to engage in the necessary fight for independence.

One possibility comes to mind, then: the electoral dynamic that drove thousands of sovereigntists to vote in an unorthodox way and create the orange wave could reproduce itself in the Quebec elections. But to whose benefit? Everyone thinks of QS, but our formation still has a long way to go before it can arouse such passion. However, no party can now consider itself the proprietor of the sovereigntist vote. With all the actors present and to come on the Quebec election chessboard, no party is immune to reverses from the useful vote and the aberrations of the present electoral system.

The orthodox sovereigntist strategy is becoming exhausted

Another observation resulting from the new electoral dynamic is that the BQ’s defeat is not so much the defeat of its leaders or structures as it is the exhaustion of the strategy that the leadership of the sovereigntist movement has pursued federally through the BQ. This strategy for independence, elevated to orthodox status by many sovereigntist leaders, was summarized in this way by Duceppe when he addressed the Parti québécois convention during the election campaign: “Elect as many sovereigntists as possible in Ottawa... for the next stage, elect a Parti québécois government in Quebec City... [and] it all becomes possible again, as far as sovereignty is concerned.” This orthodoxy has been dropped by a large number of sovereigntist voters and the stageist project is cracking.

The situation may discourage some. But without prevarication, we should recall the words of Miron: “With my stubbornness... my pigheadedness, I have endurance, I have a tough skin, a raw hide.”[2] Those who have acted for 20 years in accordance with a strategy for independence based on alienation from Canada were no doubt right to try. But the approach has failed; it is time to try something else. And this cannot be strictly electoral, derived from above by some elected members lying in wait for those fleeting “winning conditions”.

Quebec, this country of projects

Quebec, this country of projects that awaits us, can only be born from the firm will of our people and the dreams that sustain it. Quebec’s march toward its independence cannot be fueled by resentment. We have to imagine a strategy by which the acts taken for Quebec are aimed toward a ‘rupture de dépassement’ [freely, a challenging break from the present]. Innovating socially and economically. Taking the ecological and political turn that can reveal the exciting potential of freedom to our own people.
It must be positive, and necessarily involve huge popular mobilizations. Québec solidaire imagines it in the framework of a constituent assembly, which secures a formidable relationship of forces and a compelling legitimacy. (Consult the web site http://www.paysdeprojets.org/ for further details.)

It will be up to our people to decide. And when they have decided, since any independence will involve negotiations for new collaborations and agreements, Quebec will have every interest in seeing that a more open Canada emerges, under the leadership of principled, generous and open people — like Jack Layton and the NDP, who have undertaken to respect our right to self-determination.

[1] See “Quebec left debates strategy for independence.” The interactive campaign web site may be accessed at Pays de projets.
[2] A free translation. The original: “avec ma tête de tocson... ma tête de semelles nouvelles j'ai endurance, j'ai couenne et peau de babiche.” From L’homme rapaillé, by Gaston Miron (Montréal: Éditions TYPO, 1998).