Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Major decisions face Québec solidaire at its forthcoming congress

by Richard Fidler

Quebec’s broad party of the left, Québec solidaire (QS), will open a four-day congress on May 19 in Montréal — the 12th congress in its 11-year history. The delegates face a challenging agenda. It includes the final stage of adoption of the party’s detailed program, a process begun eight years ago; discussion of possible alliances with other parties and some social movements including a proposed fusion with another pro-independence party, Option nationale; and renewal of the party’s top leadership.

Québec solidaire has attracted unusual media attention in recent months in the wake of the February announcement by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the best-known leader of Quebec’s massive student strike in 2012, that he had decided to join the party and become its candidate to replace QS leader Françoise David, who resigned in January, as the member of the National Assembly for the riding (constituency) of Gouin in Montréal. Nadeau-Dubois — often referred to as GND — also announced that he would campaign for election at this congress as the party’s male co-spokesperson. He is widely expected to win the Gouin by-election now scheduled for May 29.


GND’s announcement, accompanied by his sharp attack on Quebec’s “political class which for 30 years has betrayed Quebec,” prompted a flood of new membership applications; within a few days the QS membership grew by about 5,000, a 50% increase. An opinion poll at the time credited QS with 16% popular support, only 6 percentage points behind the Parti québécois in Montréal.[1]

These were welcome developments for the party, which has failed since its founding to elect more than three MNAs under Quebec’s undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system. Also, although QS benefited from the militancy and popular support of the students’ struggle in 2012, gaining 4,000 new members for a time, it has suffered from a relative demobilization of social movement activists since then, although the ecology movement in opposition to climate change appears to be gaining in momentum.

Program Debate

The program debate covers such topics as the party’s position on justice issues, including legal aid and access to the courts, prison reform, drugs, police and the right to demonstrate; urban and rural land reform including respect for indigenous lands, strengthened environmental controls, and direct popular democracy at the municipal level; and food and agriculture policy including the transition toward “eco-responsible agriculture.”

Of particular interest is adoption of a proposed international policy for Québec solidaire based on the principles of opposition to imperialism and solidarity with the exploited and oppressed around a global justice (altermondialiste) agenda. Here is my translation of the draft resolution, including the introductory explanations of each section by the program commission. The resolution has been debated for more than a year by the QS membership.

Adoption of an international program by Québec solidaire is long overdue. The delay is due in part to a persisting tendency of the party to present its program in a provincialist Quebec framework instead of making its support of Quebec independence the driving factor in its program definition. (This ambivalence is explained below in relation to the debate on the proposed Constituent Assembly.) An exception is the party’s consistent support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against the Israeli state’s oppression of the Palestinians, reaffirmed in last year’s congress.

Close to 30 local and national associations and bodies of the party submitted proposed amendments to the draft resolutions, which were then edited by a synthesis committee for debate at the congress. For the most part the synthesis document, which also publishes each of the suggested amendments with an explanation of why it proposes adoption or rejection, does not fundamentally alter the draft proposals.

The party plans to publish its program as a whole by September of this year. The program as adopted at previous congresses is available here (in French only).

Alliances: Is the PQ a progressive step forward?

The focus on programmatic definition — important as it is — has been eclipsed in recent months by a renewal of a recurring debate in Québec solidaire over proposals to ally electorally with other parties, and in particular whether the party should seek a possible alliance with the Parti québécois for the next general election, in 2018. Whenever this question was raised in previous congresses, the delegates rejected by large majorities proposals for such alliance made by prominent QS leaders, among them Françoise David and Amir Khadir.

At its National Council meeting in November 2016, QS voted to investigate possible convergences and alliances between the party and “some social and political movements that share the same inclusive vision”: notably Quebec independence, an end to austerity, equality between men and women, recognition of the diversity of Quebec’s population, support of First Nations and Inuit self-determination, an ecologist transition including an end to hydrocarbons development, and reform of the electoral system that would include representation of parties in the National Assembly in proportion to their respective share of the popular vote. For many Council members this list of criteria, consistent with the pursuit of broader links to the indigenous population and progressive social movements, would automatically exclude the Parti Québécois.

However, immediately after the meeting PQ leader Jean-François Lisée, a wily politician, welcomed the QS decision, declaring it opened the way for “concrete partnership” between QS and his party to beat the governing Liberals in 2018. He claimed to see “no reason for disagreement” over the alliance criteria listed by the QS council — despite all the evidence to the contrary that the PQ has amply provided over the years.

Questioned by Le Devoir, Andrés Fontecilla, the then QS spokesman, expressed some responsiveness to Lisée’s overture, saying he agreed that “the important thing is to beat [Quebec premier] Philippe Couillard with the support of a progressive alliance.” Fontecilla said that although the QS congress six months previously had said no formal alliance with the PQ was possible without a commitment by the PQ to undertake a pro-sovereignty campaign from the outset of its term in office, and although there were significant differences with the PQ on the process leading to independence — in particular, the QS insistence that its proposed Constituent Assembly be left to decide whether the “constitution” it drafted would be that of an independent state or simply that of a province within Canada — the QS Council’s proposal did not say anything about these particular impediments to an alliance.

Deep divisions over costs and benefits of electoral alliances

It was soon evident that the QS leadership was deeply divided on these issues. The result was the publication within the party (on its intranet, for members only) of three options (A, B and C) on political alliances, to be debated at the forthcoming congress — two options in fact, since the third basically proposed that a decision be postponed to the subsequent convention next November when the party is to draw up its platform for the 2018 election.

Option B, now publicly supported by a majority of the central leadership, advocates “for Québec solidaire to become the home for those who are fighting neoliberalism and the Liberal government” — an alliance that it maintains offers the possibility of negotiating an electoral agreement with the PQ, a party, it says, that for the electorate “remains a fundamentally social democratic party and that represents a valid alternative to the Liberals.” Failing such a “pact,” it says, means “rejecting any alliance with that party and developing alliances with social movements or other parties that are resolutely independentist and genuinely progressive.”

Alluding to the tendency for the electorate to vote “strategically,” that is, to vote for or against parties with a real possibility of forming the government, the supporters of Option B argue that the PQ will be the primary beneficiary of voters’ desire to oust the Liberals while QS, a party that is still very weak, will be caught in this polarization of the popular vote and threatened in 2018 with a setback to its still modest electoral gains.

The PQ, of course, is intent on neutralizing QS as a threat to its chances of victory in many ridings. Québec solidaire’s Option B supporters hope to leverage this concern by pressuring the PQ to desist from running in a few ridings deemed “winnable” by QS, thus maintaining or increasing QS representation in the National Assembly (and entitling QS to continued state funding under the election laws, enough to offset reduced revenue in ridings where it desists in favour of the PQ!). In return, QS would agree not to run candidates in ridings where a sizeable QS vote might jeopardize a PQ victory. A related objective is a commitment by the PQ to institute a system of proportional representation when in office — although the PQ has consistently rejected PR throughout its history, including the 18 years when it formed the government, and despite a promise to institute it.[2]

In fact, only a few ridings, all in Montréal, are considered to be “winnable” for QS, while in far more ridings throughout Quebec QS support is sufficient to thwart a PQ victory in close electoral races. And such a pact would be difficult to negotiate, partly because both QS and the PQ enjoy their greatest support in the same ridings, with QS in recent years eroding the PQ’s support among urban voters looking for a progressive alternative. Nor is there any certainty that substantial numbers of members of either party would be willing to vote for the other where the party they prefer is not on the ballot. The PQ’s primary electoral tactic in recent years has been to woo voters to its right, those who vote for the right-wing Coalition Avenir Québec, a party that includes former péquistes and Liberals and promotes the illusory hope of winning autonomy for Quebec within a revised federal regime. PQ supporters unwilling to vote for QS candidates would likely be more attracted to voting for the CAQ.

More importantly, as Option A supporters argue, the proposed pact would be devastating for the image of Québec solidaire as a progressive party that actually enjoys more popular support than it receives from a pragmatic electorate voting strategically. Successive opinion polling accords QS up to twice the popular support registered by the party in general elections. And Option B supporters acknowledge that such an agreement with the PQ could result in the demobilization and probable demoralization of many QS members, especially in ridings where they agree not to run.

So what, then, does Option B propose, specifically? It calls for the establishment of a broad and progressive social bloc, the electoral goal of which is an increase in the number of QS MNAs, the defeat of the Liberal government and the election of “a government that marks a rupture with the policies of neoliberal austerity, that favours a real ecological transition, that instigates a reform of the electoral system and allows the advance of an inclusive sovereigntist project.” QS would undertake negotiations with the PQ — which Option B incredibly presents as corresponding to those criteria — seeking an electoral pact in a limited number of ridings represented at present by the Liberals or by the CAQ, currently the third party represented in the National Assembly. However, Option B explicitly rules out the formation of a governmental coalition of the party with the PQ.

This is an incoherent package. It would embellish the Parti Québécois and, if such a pact were to be reached, seriously undermine Québec solidaire’s identity as an anti-neoliberal alternative, let alone a genuine anti-capitalist party. If implemented, Option B would impede any serious attempt by QS to expose the PQ’s record as a party of neoliberal austerity, retreat from independence, and tolerance of hydrocarbon eco-suicide. And Option B’s rhetoric about galvanizing a “social bloc” in support of this tactic simply plays to the opportunist inclinations of grassroots social activists who tend not to see the relation between their progressive objectives and the need for a government that can actually help further those objectives.

Option A, in contrast, argues in favour of building “a genuine united front against austerity, for energy transition and for independence.” The united front we favour in the months and years to come, say Option A supporters, must be differentiated from the nationalist bloc led by the Parti québécois. It must be countered by “a popular bloc based on the working and popular classes defending a program that is opposed to austerity and ‘free trade’ and in favour of an ecological transition based on a policy of public economic investment and a process of accession to independence through a radically democratic approach proceeding through the election of a Constituent Assembly and a referendum on its result, all within the first term” of a pro-sovereignty government.

Only a minority of Québécois today see the creation of an independent state as a necessary or feasible objective notwithstanding the widespread opposition to the capitalist austerity orchestrated by the federal government together with its provincial counterparts. Option A therefore proposes that Québec solidaire first launch “a campaign for Quebec independence that will link the national question with the issues posed by reform of our democratic institutions, energy and climate transition, the protection of public services and social programs and the fight against poverty and inequality on the basis of a feminist, inclusive and civic vision of the Quebec nation and in solidarity with the First Nations and their right to self-determination.”

The assumption here seems to be that this campaign “from below” could create sufficient popular pressure on the Constituent Assembly to ensure it decides in favour of independence without any direction from a QS government — although QS as a party pledges to fight for independence as the necessary conclusion of the Assembly’s deliberations.

Since Québec solidaire does not have an on-line forum to enable its membership to debate these options or other political issues, most of the pre-congress literary debate has been carried on in Presse-toi-à-gauche, which is generally sympathetic to Option A. In addition to the many contributions challenging the thinking behind Option B or defending Option A, some QS members have gone beyond the debate on electoral strategies to advance alternative strategies for building the party in the months and years to come. In a future article I will discuss these in light of the congress decisions.

Leadership contest, but with a twist

The debate on alliances is reflected in the contest for election of a male spokesperson. (QS MNA Manon Massé, who succeeded Françoise David as co-spokeswoman, is unopposed in her bid for re-election, and professes that she is hesitating between Options A and B.)

Jean-François Lessard supports Option B, Sylvain Lafrenière supports Option A while Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, by far the favoured candidate, says he thinks an electoral pact with the PQ is both possible and desirable but expresses the view as well that alliances with other independentist parties would be facilitated if QS would drop its resistance to mandating its proposed Constituent Assembly to draw up a constitution for an independent Quebec. He also says he is not opposed to postponing a decision on alliances to the next congress, in November, which suggests he is favourable to Option C, perhaps in the hope of meanwhile winning the party to his position on the Constituent Assembly.

At a round-table debate of the four candidates for co-spokespersons organized by Le Devoir on May 12, GND was attacked by Lessard as engaging in “extremely demagogic discourse” by questioning the long-standing QS position on the Constituent Assembly. The party’s debate over the process of accession to independence, Lessard said, had been closed at the previous congress, which once again voted to give carte blanche to the Assembly; the party, he recalled, refuses “to presume the outcome” of the Assembly’s debates.

GND was quick to respond: “You don’t make a constituent assembly to draft a constitution of a regional county municipality... We must be more clear, and it must be said: what we are proposing is a constituent assembly to make Quebec an independent state.”

According to Le Devoir, the other candidates, Lafrenière and Massé, expressed great reluctance to impose such a mandate on the constituent assembly. “Lafreniere in particular fears that Anglophones and racialized people [sic] would shun the proceedings of the constituent assembly if its conclusions were written in advance. ‘It’s an exercise in popular education that will motivate people, that’s why we have done this’.....”

The Québec solidaire program[3] says the Constituent Assembly is the institution through which “the Quebec people” will exercise their right to self-determination. This is referred to as “popular sovereignty, the power of the people to decide completely democratically their future and the rules governing their own life, including the fundamental rules like membership or not in a country, or the drafting of a constitution.” (Emphasis added)

And the party promises that “the Constituent Assembly will be elected by universal suffrage and will be composed of an equal number of women and men, with proportional representation of tendencies and the different socio-economic classes [milieux] present within Quebec society.” Although this formulation raises a number of questions — does “tendencies” mean parties?; does “proportional representation of ... the different socio-economic classes” mean that priority of representation will go to working people, the vast majority of the population? — the party promises that the Assembly will be fully “autonomous” in all of its decisions.

This text has so far been an article of faith for the party, and is not challenged by Options A or B.


Assembly of the Patriotes in 1837, campaigning for independence from British rule (Charles Alexander Smith)

Whatever the outcome of this leadership contest, it will be interesting to see how the winning candidate manages to balance the important divisions now apparent within the party — that may be deepened soon, as we see below — in his new role as a “spokesperson” for the party as a whole — a concept that assumes a high degree of consensus among the membership.

Toward fusion with Option nationale?

The QS leadership is also proposing that the convention approve a strategy of seeking closer relations with a small independentist party, Option nationale (ON), that was established a few years ago following a split from the PQ of several of its MNAs, one of whom, Jean-Martin Aussant, took the initiative of forming the new party. ON has no more than one thousand members and polled less than 1% in the last general election. It has no members in the National Assembly.

The QS leadership is aiming for a fusion with ON before year-end. The document motivating fusion claims both QS and ON

“have always been close both programmatically and organizationally. While many elements of our programs are similar (Pharma-Québec, free education, reform of the voting method, etc.), there are in particular two fundamental proposals that make our two parties sincere partners: our willingness to make Quebec independence a concrete reality, and the way in which to achieve this, through a Constituent Assembly.”

“Over the years,” the document says, “we have been in constant communication with ON, our spokespersons and the ON leadership meeting together at least once a year to discuss the political situation.” Moreover, each party has observed all the conventions of the other as guests.

The QS leadership sees fusion with ON as an application of its strategy, set out by the party’s National Council in November 2016, of seeking possibilities for convergences and alliances with other parties and social movements. “Option nationale’s contribution,” it says, “will reinvigorate very much our independentist profile and confirm the political strength of our option. It will consolidate our party as a pole for rallying progressives and independentists....”

While some QS members are hesitant about this proposal, many have hailed it. A fusion with ON would remove a rival to QS among the pro-independence parties. But there are indications that the QS leadership is over-optimistic about its possibility and implications.

For example, the fusion proposal seems to exaggerate the progressive nature of ON. In a 2013 internal report by QS members based on attendance at an ON convention, “fundamental differences” were noted between the parties on “the fight for social change or the place for women and feminist issues” as well as an indifference to the relation between independence and social justice issues. “To them, ‘independence is neither left nor right, but forward’.” That is still characteristic of the party today.

Contrary to the assertion in the QS-ON fusion proposal, there has never been agreement between the parties on the process of achieving Quebec independence. This is clear on ON’s web site, which features a couple of articles by political scientist Denis Monière, a member of the party, critiquing the QS position on — what else? — the Constituent Assembly, in particular the open-ended mandate QS proposes for it: to define Quebec’s constitutional status either as an independent state or a province of Canada. “This is a fundamental difference with Option nationale, whose procedure for accession to independence provides that the Constituent Assembly will be mandated to define the institutions of an independent Quebec,” he notes.

Moreover, Monière argues, the QS program as a whole is conceived

“as if Canada did not exist as a political decision-maker.... They have so internalized the juridical separation of powers imposed by the Canadian constitution[4] that they act as if what happens at Ottawa is irrelevant for Quebec.... The Québec solidaire discourse upholds illusions of autonomism by concentrating on the social justice issues that pertain essentially to provincial powers. This posture is no doubt useful in criticizing the other provincial parties but it is ineffective when it comes to the pedagogy of independence because it does not attack the Canadian system as a whole.”

This is a telling critique. How, for example, can much of the QS program be implemented through staying in Canada as a province when Ottawa maintains control over such crucial jurisdictions as banking and finance, foreign affairs, the military, trade and commerce, criminal law and the senior courts and judicial appointments, etc.?

Much more can be said on this matter, but here again we find Québec solidaire’s position on the Constituent Assembly and the process of constitutional change an easy target for Quebec critics for whom state independence is the only logical and feasible path toward national emancipation. Many charge that the open-ended mandate (province or state? — posing “democracy” in opposition to the determination of a strategic goal) confirms not so much a commitment to “popular sovereignty” (but not necessarily state sovereignty) as it testifies to the presence of many closet federalists within the party.

Finally, it is worth noting that despite the rapprochement being discussed between Québec solidaire and Option nationale, the latter is running a candidate, Vanessa Dion, against Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois in the May 29 Gouin by-election.

[1] Le Devoir, March 18, “Québec solidaire gruge des appuis au PQ.”

[2] See Paul Cliche, Pour réduire le déficit démocratique, Le scrutin proportionnel.

[3] See Un pays démocratique et pluriel, p. 6.

[4] More correctly, the reference here is to the distribution of powers.

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