Monday, August 29, 2011

Québec Solidaire: A Québécois Approach to Building a Broad Left Party (Part I)

The following article is scheduled for publication in a forthcoming issue of the journal Alternate Routes. It is an expanded and updated version of a presentation to the third annual conference of the Critical Social Research Collaborative, held March 5, 2011 at Carleton University, Ottawa, on the theme “Varieties of Socialism, Varieties of Approaches.” Part II will discuss the evolution of Québec Solidaire since its founding.


Québec Solidaire: A Québécois Approach

to Building a Broad Left Party

By Richard Fidler

A number of attempts have been made in recent years to launch new parties and processes, addressing a broad left or popular constituency, that are programmatically anti-neoliberal if not anti-capitalist, some of them self-identifying as part of an international effort to create a “socialism of the 21st century.” They vary widely in origins, size, social composition, and influence.

The process has gone furthest in a number of Latin American countries; among the best known are the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), led by Hugo Chávez, and the Bolivian Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument of the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP), led by Evo Morales.

Efforts in Western Europe, such as Italy’s Refoundation Party, Germany’s Die Linke, or France’s Parti de Gauche originated in part in splits in the traditional parties of “20th century socialism,” in avowed rejection of both Stalinism and Social Democracy. Many of these parties include members who in the past were associated with one or another of the Marxist currents identified historically with Trotsky’s anti-Stalinist legacy. In France, the Nouveau Parti Anti-capitaliste (NPA) was initiated under their aegis.

Parallel developments have not yet occurred in the United States or Canada, where anticapitalist ideas and movements have less presence in the political landscape today than they had a century ago. However, as it does in so many respects, Quebec constitutes something of an exception. A new left party, Québec Solidaire, created during the past decade, is attracting considerable interest and growing support as an anti-neoliberal alternative to Quebec’s three capitalist parties. While not explicitly anti-capitalist or socialist, it defines itself as a party “resolutely of the left, feminist, ecologist, altermondialiste,[1] pacifist, democratic and sovereigntist.”

This paper will outline how this party originated, describe how it functions, and explore some major challenges it faces and how it is confronting them.

The Quebec exception

Quebec’s political evolution has always followed a distinct trajectory within the Canadian social formation. A crucial determinant has been the province’s character as the homeland of a distinct nation, with its own territory, language, culture, historical tradition and a well-defined national consciousness as a minority people within Canada and North America. Until well past the mid-20th century, French-Canadian nationalism was essentially defensive, focused on protecting the autonomy of Quebec, the last major enclave of the Francophone presence in Canada, against involvement in imperialist wars and the increasing encroachment on the province’s constitutional jurisdiction by the federal state with its expanding economic and social functions. Industrialization and the concomitant urbanization and growth of trade unions aggravated these tensions, disrupting the social and political culture of a Francophone population long dependent on church and parish for the provision of basic social and community services.

In the 1960s a new, more assertive nationalist dynamic gained force as Quebec rapidly moved to modernize its industrial infrastructure, nationalized hydro-electric power resources and expanded and secularized its education, health and social welfare systems. A large provincial state bureaucracy developed, increasingly directed to stimulating the expansion of a skilled labour force and the growth of a Francophone bourgeoisie through the provision of financial and other assistance. Quebec pushed increasingly — but unsuccessfully — for constitutional changes that would give it greater autonomy within the federation, especially in areas crucial to its national identity and development. Union membership expanded exponentially. A veritable cultural revolution occurred with the appearance of many new radical publications and other media, many of them raising the demand for Quebec autonomy, political sovereignty or independence. On the left, pro-independence movements sprouted, their members inspired by the post-war Afro-Asian decolonization and, closer to home, the socialist ideology of the Cuban revolutionists.

National consciousness and class consciousness have maintained a close and reciprocal relationship in Quebec in recent decades. But this social ferment, both a product and promoter of rising Québécois national consciousness, largely bypassed the parties of the existing “20th century” Canadian left. Their historical failure to sink mass roots in Quebec was directly related to their programmatic orientation toward strengthening the Canadian state and their indifference to Quebec’s national oppression and/or hostility to Québécois nationalist sentiment. The Regina Manifesto, the founding document of Canadian social-democracy, omitted any reference to the Quebec national question.[2] The Communist party expelled Québécois members who developed a pro-autonomy interpretation of the party’s formal support of Quebec’s right to self-determination.[3]

The labour-based New Democratic Party, founded in 1961, has been unwilling to embrace any fundamental alteration to Canada’s existing institutional structure that would reflect Quebec’s national character, or even to develop a coherent approach that differed significantly from the constitutional priorities of the federal government of the day.[4] Soon after its founding, its Quebec section voted to form a distinct Parti Socialiste du Québec (PSQ). The PSQ advocated that Quebec and Canada be constitutionally recognized as “associated states.” If such an agreement proved impossible, it said, “Quebec should declare its independence.”[5] But the PSQ was upstaged on its nationalist flank by the pro-independence Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale (RIN), while the Quebec trade unions were still unprepared to drop their longstanding support of the Quebec Liberals in favour of independent labour political action. The PSQ dissolved in the late 1960s.

In the absence of a viable left-wing alternative sympathetic to Québécois national aspirations, this consciousness was politically channeled into support for the pro-sovereignty Parti Québécois. Founded in the late 1960s, the PQ came to hegemonize the national movement as its political expression. Moreover, its increasing attraction for the leaderships of Quebec’s three big union centrals — which gradually shifted to seeing the PQ, and not the Liberals, as their preferred vehicle for political influence and reform — tended to eclipse early attempts by some union militants to found independent and anticapitalist political formations. A notable effort, the Front d’action politique (FRAP), a radical municipal party initiated in part by the Montréal section of the CSN, foundered in the wake of the October 1970 crisis and repression. An upsurge in mass nationalist and pro-sovereignty sentiment fueled a radicalization in the labour movement that in the early 1970s saw all three labour centrals[6] issue and debate anticapitalist manifestos. But the capitalist PQ was the primary political beneficiary, although a nationalist left within the party that included some prominent union officials often had a problematic relationship to the party hierarchy.

The PQ project was, and remains, to achieve a bourgeois-nationalist form of state sovereignty associated — the political context permitting — with Canada outside Quebec, or if necessary functioning as a fully independent (but thoroughly capitalist) Quebec state. The PQ’s popular support derived from its advocacy of sovereignty, its strong defense of the French language, culture and national identity and, initially at least, its promise of social reforms.

During its first term in office, the PQ enacted some important reforms, particularly in the area of French-language rights, although its legislation in this regard has been subject to constant challenges and adverse court rulings over the years. But after a total of 18 years in government (1976-1985, 1994-2003), the party no longer inspires the hopes for change that it once did. PQ governments have on occasion viciously attacked unions, as in 1982 when the Lévesque government legislated a 20% reduction in the salaries of government workers. The PQ has consistently supported anti-worker “free trade” and investment agreements and its governments have imposed harsh austerity programs.

Although opinion polls have registered high and remarkably consistent support for Quebec independence,[7] the PQ has failed to win its two sovereignty referendums. Equally important, ongoing developments in bourgeois politics — such as the 1982 unilateral patriation of Canada’s constitution without Quebec’s consent; the 1990 defeat of the Meech Lake Accord; or the federal Parliament’s enactment of the Clarity Act in the wake of the narrow 1995 referendum defeat — have signalled the lack of sympathy in Canada’s ruling circles not only for Quebec sovereignty but for any meaningful constitutional recognition of Quebec’s national identity, let alone unfettered provincial autonomy in jurisdictions essential to that identity.

The new Francophone bourgeoisie that has developed since the Sixties, with state support (both provincial and federal), functions largely as a subset of the Canadian bourgeoisie and no major component favours Quebec sovereignty. Today the Parti Québécois has less appetite for independence, although the goal of “sovereignty” is still article one in its program. Doubts are growing about the party’s ability to capture enough popular support for its program to create the “winning conditions” for a successful referendum vote on sovereignty.

The PQ’s commitment to working within the neoliberal order, which has often brought it into sharp conflict with the unions, has fueled disenchantment with the party among the very social layers that are the driving force of the national movement.

However, a credible left alternative to the Parti Québécois was slow to emerge within the broad Québécois nationalist and left milieu. Until the early 1980s, when they unceremoniously collapsed, the Mao-Stalinist currents that largely dominated the far left for a decade opposed Quebec sovereignty, which they regarded as a purely bourgeois objective dividing the “Canadian” working class. And although they opposed the PQ, they also opposed proposals within the trade unions in favour of establishing an independent working-class party, advocating instead, in true sectarian fashion, the constitution of their own “proletarian party.”[8] Like the CCF and pro-Moscow CP before them, this “far left” was ideologically defined around international events and alliances that had little or no resonance in the conditions of Quebec, where the class struggle tends to unfold within a nationalist framework of opposition to linguistic and cultural oppression.

There was always, of course, a smaller left that favoured independence and rejected the PQ and its capitalist program. Sporadic attempts were made in the 1980s to build new parties of the left, but without lasting success. The trade unions remained resistant to proposals to engage in political action independent of the PQ. And during the 1980s and 1990s, the major labour centrals initiated — with political support and generous tax breaks from both levels of government — investment funds that have enmeshed the unions in the financial industry, company management structures and other strategic “partnerships” with capital.

During the late 1990s, however, some cracks began to appear in the edifice of bourgeois sovereigntist hegemony in the left. Feminists, the one broadly-based social movement that had largely survived the neoliberal onslaught of the 1980s — waging a successful defense of abortion rights, for example — organized a mass “march for bread and roses” that directly challenged Lucien Bouchard’s PQ government and its “zero deficit” austerity program. They followed up with further demonstrations and, in 2000, sponsored a World March of Women that mobilized tens of thousands in Quebec and elsewhere. When the government rejected their modest demands for an increase in the minimum wage, women’s federation leader Françoise David publicly mused on the need to create a “feminist left-wing political alternative” to the Parti Québécois.

Then, in 2001, tens of thousands mobilized at the Quebec Summit in opposition to the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Opponents of neoliberal globalization — “altermondialistes” as they are known in Quebec — were soon joined by hundreds of thousands more in massive demonstrations in the lead-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the largest antiwar mobilization in Quebec history. For the first time in decades, there was now a realistic potential for a new configuration of progressive forces.

Regroupment and fusion

The initiative was taken — first separately, then in combination — by three far-left groups:[9]

  • The Parti de la démocratie socialiste (PDS) originated as the Quebec section of the federal NDP. In 1995 it broke definitively from the NDP; adopted its new name; defined itself as “anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal, feminist, internationalist and independentist”; and campaigned for a Yes to sovereignty in the referendum. The PDS was joined by some independent left-wing nationalists who had left the PQ. Members of Gauche socialiste, a section of the Trotskyist Fourth International, were prominent in the PDS leadership.
  • The Rassemblement pour une alternative politique (RAP) was founded in 1998, in response to a public appeal for a “political alternative” issued in November 1997 by prominent left-wing personalities including former PSQ leader and union militant Michel Chartrand; Pierre Dubuc (editor of the popular independentist monthly L’aut’journal); and Paul Cliche, a journalist who in 1970 had led the left-wing municipal party FRAP in Montréal. The RAP later (in November 2000) voted to change its name to Rassemblement pour l’alternative progressiste.
  • The Parti communiste du Québec (PCQ), the Quebec section of the Canadian CP, now led by individuals who had once been prominently associated with Quebec’s Mao-Stalinist parties.[10]

In the 1998 general election, the RAP ran seven candidates while the PDS contested 97 ridings; their overall vote was small (36,000), although in Jonquière the RAP candidate Michel Chartrand took 15% of the popular vote against the PQ’s Premier Lucien Bouchard.

In 2000, a joint public meeting in Montréal organized by the PDS, RAP and PCQ attracted some 650 persons to discuss “unity of the political left and progressive forces.” A liaison committee was set up by the three groups along with the Bloc Pot (a marijuana legalization group) and the Quebec section of the Green Party of Canada, with the objective of establishing common positions and actions. In April 2001, just days before the huge protest demonstrations at the pro-free trade Québec Summit of the Americas, independent candidate Paul Cliche won 24% of the popular vote in a by-election in Montréal’s Mercier riding. His campaign, supported by the liaison committee, some trade unions and community organizations, indicated the positive potential of left unity. The liaison committee then became the coalition of the Union des forces progressistes (UFP). In December 2001 the RAP voted by a narrow majority at its congress to join the UFP.[11]

At a convention in June 2002 the UFP was founded as “a federated party that seeks to become a mass alternative to the parties of neoliberalism.” Those attending included a large number of independent activists in addition to members of the PDS, RAP and PCQ.[12] At a subsequent policy convention in February 2003 the new party adopted a radical platform opposing free-trade agreements and calling for international solidarity (Palestine, Cuba, Iraq), cancellation of third-world foreign debts, defence of the environment, extensive social and educational reforms, electoral reform, labour rights, First Nations self-determination, and a constituent assembly to draft a constitution for a “progressive, republican, secular and democratic Quebec.”[13]

The UFP adopted a pluralist structure recognizing the right of organized tendencies (“political entities”) to “promote specific orientations compatible with the platform and statutes of the UFP.” The PDS was now a political entity called Démocratie socialiste (later Québec socialiste), although it soon dissolved as such. The RAP, for its part, simply dissolved into the UFP, while the PCQ became a recognized political entity within the new party.

In the April 2003 general election the UFP, now registered as an official party, ran 73 candidates (26% were women) and obtained just over 40,000 votes — barely attaining the 1% of the popular vote required to qualify for partial rebate of expenses under the Elections Act. The highest vote was Amir Khadir’s 18% in Mercier riding. This campaign was considered a success; some UFP candidates were endorsed by unions, and a post-election report noted that a considerable number of students had been recruited. The party now claimed a membership of some 1,800 members, almost double its membership in 2002.

At a June 2003 meeting, the UFP Council adopted an ambitious agenda of social movement participation, antiwar mobilizing, unification talks with the Parti Vert (a resuscitated Green party), and fighting for an electoral regime of proportional representation to help overcome Quebec’s “democratic deficit.” The members voted to investigate possible participation in municipal elections and creation of a “youth organization... both independent of and in solidarity with the UFP.”

Meanwhile, during the fall and winter of 2002-03, D’abord solidaires, a “non-partisan collective” of activists from the women’s and other social movements, had been formed independently of the UFP to mount a public campaign against a rise in right-wing politics that was aimed primarily against Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), a party that split from the provincial Liberals in the early 1990s on a pro-autonomy program and at one point in the months before the 2003 election was registering 40 percent support in public opinion polls on a platform centered on “family values” and “old-stock” Québécois identity issues. D’abord solidaires was officially indifferent between the governing PQ and the opposition Liberals, not opposing a vote for either as a “lesser evil” to the ADQ. As it turned out, the ADQ polled just 18%, the PQ was defeated — its vote dropped by 10 percentage points from its previous result — and the Liberals led by Jean Charest formed the government.[14]

In May 2004, one of the three component collectives in D’abord solidaires, led by feminist leader Françoise David and social housing activist François Saillant, founded Option citoyenne (OC – citizens’ choice). It favoured political action to the left of the PQ but initially rejected an invitation to join the UFP.[15] David toured Quebec promoting her book Bien commun recherché (“seeking the common good”) and probing support for a new left party. David encountered much support for uniting the political forces to the left of the PQ, and considerable openness to the idea of joining with the UFP in a new party — notwithstanding the reservations of many of her supporters, and David herself,[16] about the UFP’s strong commitment to Quebec independence.

In December 2004 Option citoyenne began negotiations with the UFP to explore the possibility of forming “a single progressive, ecologist and feminist party.”

The year-long fusion process posed some major challenges to both groups. Each had its distinct constituency or corporate culture. The UFP’s membership included young people from the global justice movement — internationalist and strong supporters of Quebec independence, which they saw as essential to their anti-capitalist politics — along with an older layer of members, many with long experience in left and far-left politics. OC members, on the other hand, were primarily active within feminist and community organizations (60% were women) and in local grass-roots organizing around tenants’ rights, food and housing co-ops and the like, a milieu in which the politics of consensus and accommodation of conflicting views and interests are valued. OC members tended to radicalize around anti-poverty concerns, and were less likely to be concerned with Quebec’s national question. But the UFP was adamant that the new party must advocate Quebec independence.

Over a year, beginning in November 2004, Option citoyenne held three “national [Quebec] meetings” of its membership to develop a programmatic basis for negotiations with the UFP. Draft position papers were circulated and resolutions adopted on feminism, democracy, pluralism and economic questions.[17] A typical resolution declared that “a party of the common good, inspired by feminism” should be oriented around “values of social justice, equality, peace, solidarity, respect for the integrity of individuals and the environment, while recognizing the importance of struggles against forms of exclusion, racism, discrimination and violence, including those that continue to be exercised against women in the private and public sphere.”

A resolution on economic issues, adopted unanimously, proposed that the “private-public” economic model be replaced by a “plural model” based on “the domestic economy” of family and gratuitous or volunteer services, the “social economy” of non-profit community or cooperative agencies, in addition to “private undertakings... that agree to function in accordance with collective (social, environmental, etc.) rules,” and a “public, state and parastate” sector providing equal and accessible services to the entire population. These positions differed substantially from the explicit anti-capitalism of the UFP’s program.

The most contentious issue among OC members was the national question, and it was not resolved until the last OC national meeting in October 2005, when the 300 delegates voted overwhelmingly in favour of Quebec sovereignty, thus fulfilling a key condition for UFP consent to a merger. The coordinating committee’s position paper justified its position largely on the basis that there was no credible or workable perspective for a renewed federalism that would allow Quebec the additional powers it needed in order to resolve its social problems, but insisted that the defining characteristic of the new party should be its “social agenda” (projet social) and not its position on the national question. The delegates then voted unanimously to join with the UFP to form a new pro-sovereignty party.

Just three days earlier, on October 19, a right-wing manifesto had been published by former PQ premier Lucien Bouchard, some other prominent péquistes, and equally prominent Liberals. Entitled Pour un Québec lucide (For a clear-eyed vision of Quebec), it castigated “big unions” and called 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.” The important challenges facing Quebecers, it proclaimed, were declining demographics and increasing global competition from Asia — not sovereignty. The manifesto reflected a strong rightward drift of both the neoliberal PQ and its federal counterpart the Bloc Québécois.[18]

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

During 2005 Option citoyenne and the UFP participated in some common actions and published joint briefs on sustainable development and electoral reform. And in response to the lucides’ manifesto, they initiated a counter-manifesto, Pour un Québec Solidaire, that garnered more than 2,500 signatures.

A special convention of the UFP in November 2005 voted unanimously in favour of a fusion with Option citoyenne, and in February 2006 the two organizations held a joint congress to establish the new party, Québec Solidaire. The founding declaration of principles defined it as a party “resolutely of the left, feminist, ecologist, altermondialiste, pacifist, democratic and sovereigntist.”

It was an impressive achievement — uniting leading activists in the women’s movement, some prominent trade-union militants, grassroots community organizers and long-standing leftists around a project to build a new Québécois political movement based on popular and national sovereignty grounded in general principles of solidarity with the oppressed and exploited.  (To be continued)


I thank John Riddell and David Mandel for their critical comments on an earlier draft. The usual caveats apply. Published with the permission of Alternate Routes. – Richard Fidler

[1] In French, those who advocate “another world” of global justice and solidarity.

[2] The Manifesto was adopted by the first “national” convention of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), in 1933.

[3] Henri Gagnon, Les Militants socialistes du Québec.

[4] For a summary of NDP positions in this regard, see Murray Cooke, “Constitutional Confusion on the Left: The NDP’s Position in Canada’s Constitutional Debates”, For a critique of the NDP’s Sherbrooke Declaration, its most complete and recent statement on the Quebec national question, see “The federal NDP’s electoral breakthrough in Quebec: A challenge to progressives in Canada,” See also “Layton chooses Supreme Court, Clarity Act over NDP’s Sherbrooke Declaration,”

[5] Parti Socialiste du Québec, Programme 66 (Longueil: Les Presses Sociales, 1966).

[6] The three centrals were the Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ), the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN) and the teachers’ union, the CEQ (now the Centrale des syndicats du Québec, or CSQ).

[7] Opinion polls indicate that even today more than 40% of Québécois support independence (more than those who declare support for the PQ), and a substantial majority favour greater autonomy for Quebec.

[8] For a critical analysis of this experience, see François Moreau, “Balance Sheet of the Quebec Far Left”, For a more extended analysis, see Pierre Dubuc, L’autre histoire de l’indépendance (Éditions Trois-Pistoles, Éditions du Renouveau québécois, 2003), especially chapters 3 and 4.

[9] The following chronology borrows in part from Pierre Dostie et al., Quelques repères dans l’histoire de la gauche politique québécoise (website of the Union des forces progressistes, January 2006, no longer available). See also Josiane Lavallée, “Du parti de la démocratie socialiste à Québec Solidaire,” in La gauche au Québec depuis 1945 (Bulletin d’histoire politique, Vol. 19, No. 2, Winter 2011), at pp. 202-14.

[10] The PCQ separated from the Canadian CP in 2005 when a majority of its members voted to support Quebec independence. Some members of the reconstituted Quebec section of the Canadian CP are members today of Québec Solidaire, but they do not constitute a recognized “collective” within QS.

[11] RAP founder Pierre Dubuc, in the minority, abandoned the project of building a political alternative to the PQ. In June 2005, he joined with some trade union leaders and “left” PQ members (péquistes) to found Syndicalistes et Progressistes pour un Québec Libre (SPQ-Libre), which for a time was officially recognized as a “club” within the PQ.

[12] According to an internal UFP study cited by Amir Khadir, 56% of the members were under the age of 35 and 29% were under 29; 50% of them were first-time party members; there was a minor yet real presence of Anglophone activists as well as several members of Montreal’s cultural communities (Amir Khadir, interview by Pascale Dufour, March 2006), cited in Dufour, “From Protest to Partisan Politics: When and How Collective Actors Cross the Line. Sociological Perspectives on Québec Solidaire”, Canadian Journal of Sociology/Cahiers canadiens de sociologie 34(1) 2009 p55.

[13] See Richard Fidler, “Quebec’s new united left party,” Green Left Weekly, December 10, 2003.

[14] In the 2007 election the ADQ managed to displace the PQ as Official Opposition until the following year’s election, when it was reduced to 7 seats.

[15] UFP leader Pierre Dostie later explained that his party would have preferred that OC simply join the UFP. “But reality is very often more complex than we imagine. Once we found that this political movement, given its composition and what it represented, had to comply with its own process, we sought areas of convergence and we entered into a dialogue.” (“Négociations UFP-Option Citoyenne: Go! Go! Gauche!” À Bâbord !, February-March 2005.

[16] David was once a member of En Lutte, a Mao-Stalinist group that opposed Quebec independence.

[17] These can be consulted at

[18] At its convention in October 2005, the Bloc voted 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. At about the same time, Pierre Dubuc, the left-wing SPQ-Libre candidate, received barely 1% support in his campaign for the PQ leadership.

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