A left-wing challenge in Quebec's election

Quebec has been the site of a massive student uprising this year against the province's premier, Jean Charest, and his plans to raise tuition by 75 percent at colleges and universities. Charest, who leads the center-right Parti Libéral du Québec (known as the Liberals), has done everything he can to squelch the struggle, like passing the repressive Bill 78 (now Law 12) that cracks down on the right to protest.

In the hopes of rebuilding support against the students, Charest called a provincial election for September 4. His Liberals are running on a law-and-order platform against the student movement. Parti Québecois (PQ)--the traditional independence party, which is leading in the polls--is attempting to position itself as friendly to the student movement, but it is a neoliberal party that pioneered many of the attacks that Charest has continued against students, social services and unions.

A new left-wing party, Québec Solidaire, has positioned itself as the only principled advocate for the demands of students, workers, and other progressive social movements. Benoit Renaud is a member of the Québec Solidaire National Coordinating Committee and also a candidate for the National Assembly from Chapleau. Jessica Squires is the Coordinator of the Québec Solidaire Association of Chapleau. They talked to Ashley Smith about the new party, the election, and its expected impact on the student and working class struggle in Quebec.

Supporters of Québec Solidaire on the march in MontrealSupporters of Québec Solidaire on the march in Montreal

HOW DID Québec Solidaire get formed?

Benoit: It was the result of a reasonably long process of different groups and different networks of people gradually coming to the same conclusion: a need for an electoral alternative to the left of Parti Québecois (PQ).

The PQ has drifted from a center-left to a center-right political party. It used to have pretty strong roots in the union movement, which is less true at this point. So people came to that conclusion we need an alternative on the left to unite people with socialist ideas of various kinds, feminists, environmentalists and so on.

Québec Solidaire itself was formed in February of 2006. It was the product of a negotiation between two groups--one called Union des Forces Progressistes, which was a political party. The other big component was Option Citoyenne. Option Citoyenne was created by people involved in various social movements, including the women's movement, anti-poverty groups and so on. It was not a political party. It was just a movement of people who wanted to have a political party.

These two groups united to launch our party. At the start, we had about 4,000 members. Now we have over 10,000 members.

Jessica: It's also important to note that Union des Forces Progressistes was in large part the result of the anti-globalization movement. It grew out of that movement and radicalization.

Benoit: Yes, there was a lot of momentum coming out of the mobilization against the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001.

There was a by-election a few days before the big demos in Quebec City, where an impromptu coalition of groups ran an independent candidate, under the banner of Union des Forces Progressistes. That person got 24 percent in that by-election, and so everybody thought, "Oh my, there is potential here, and we have to do something." That very same riding--our name for an electoral district--elected Québec Solidaire's Amir Khadir to the National Assembly seven years later in 2008.

Jessica: We emerged from the movement and have maintained a left-wing activist character. Québec Solidaire is very different from an old-school "Labor Party" like Canada's New Democratic Party. Those parties have adapted to neoliberalism and the business class. They have become social liberals.

We, on the other hand, want for instance to reverse the tax cuts that were enacted over the last few years so that we can pay for the free education system we envision. Of course, that is a proposal that is extremely unpopular with the business class or the elites of Quebec.

WHAT ROLE did the PQ's turn to neoliberalism play in the formation of Québec Solidaire?

Benoit: That's the long-term trend that opened the space for our party. It has become a neoliberal party. The turning point in a significant number of people beginning to look for a left alternative was in 1996, when the PQ government, under Lucien Bouchard, decided to adopt a zero deficit policy. That led to massive cut backs in all kinds of social programs.

Jessica: And then the PQ followed up that zero-deficit policy with systematic attacks on unions.

Benoit: After that, a lot of people who used to sit on the fence on the issue of whether or not we need a new political party basically made up their minds that, yes, we need one. That then set in motion the process that has led to the formation of Québec Solidaire.

WHAT IS the platform of Québec Solidaire?

Benoit: We built our party around a rejection of neoliberal policy. The name, Québec Solidaire, came from the title of a manifesto that was signed by a number of personalities, in response to a neoliberal manifesto that came out in 2005, which was called Pour un Québec Lucide.

Jessica: That neoliberal manifesto was essentially the Quebec version of the "Common Sense Revolution" pioneered by Mike Harris in Ontario.

Benoit: Pour un Québec Lucide was signed by personalities associated with both the Liberals and the Parti Québécois, including Lucien Bouchard himself, who had implemented these neoliberal policies while in government in the late 1990s. In response to that, people posted the counter manifesto, Pour un Québec Solidaire.

It basically said we don't have to accept neoliberalism. We don't have to accept these cuts in social services and attacks on unions. Instead it argued in the words of the World Social Forum "another Quebec is possible."

WHAT IS Québec Solidaire's position on the question of Québec independence?

Jessica: We are, of course, for independence, but in a way that is completely different than the PQ, the main nationalist party. The PQ's central premise is that nationalists in Quebec should be united no matter what their politics. So if you are a Quebec nationalist in favor of Quebec sovereignty and independence, then you should all be in one party, and that should be everyone's common goal. And we'll figure out political stuff like the nature of an independent Quebec later.

We on the left who have been pushing for an alternative to the PQ have said, no, actually we need to talk about what kind of Quebec we want. And Québec Solidaire is the expression of that idea. Our approach to the question of independence is to, first of all, be clear that as a party, we are in favor of Quebec sovereignty or independence, but we're not interested in imposing that on the population of Quebec from the top down.

We're interested in opening up a conversation about what kind of society we want, what kind of society we need, and what it means to be a Quebecer. In this effort, we reject any kind of ethnic definition of Quebec--the idea that in order to be a real Quebecer, you have to be francophone or have ancestors that came from France. That leads to right-wing anti-immigrant conclusions.

Instead, we believe that Quebec is a collective project, and anyone who wants to participate in its formation, we want them to be involved. Rather than committing to having a referendum right away or considering the election itself to be a referendum on independence, Québec Solidaire proposes that we organize a constituent assembly.

The idea is drawn from the Constituent Assemblies that we've seen in the Global South. It would establish a new constitution and propose a radical transformation of society from the bottom up. Out of that Constituent Assembly, we would put forward a proposal for a new Quebec to be voted on in a referendum.

WHAT IS the relationship between Québec Solidaire and social movements, especially the student strike?

Benoit: The party has an organic connection to the current student movement as well as many other movements. We grew out of the movements and feed back into them. For example, in 2005, there was a massive student strike, and some of the best activists from it are now leaders in Québec Solidaire.

During this current student struggle, Québec Solidaire members--including the national spokespeople and most prominent, well-known members of the party, such as Amir Khadir, our member in the National Assembly, and Françoise David, the other national spokesperson--have been very present in the struggle.

This current struggle is also far more than just a student movement. People from all walks of life have been attending the demonstrations and trying to support them, and banging pots and pans in the casseroles demonstration against the Charest Government and its repressive Bill 78 that criminalized student's right to strike and even assemble. The fact that the movement has broadened to include all types of people in society has allowed for basically everyone in Québec Solidaire to be connected with that social movement in one way or another.

We could see that strike coming several months in advance. As soon as the government announced that it was going to increase tuition fees by 75 percent, everyone who knew a little bit about the history of the student movement in Quebec knew there was a very high chance there would be a massive strike. So we prepared accordingly, and we produced a four-page newspaper in November that we handed out at the first big demonstration.

It called on everyone to support the students' demands, not only to stop the tuition increase, but also abolish tuition fees all together. We as a political party are committed to abolishing tuition fees and know that there is plenty of money in Quebec to pay for education as a social right.

So we really positioned ourselves, from the start of the movement as an ally and advocate. We produced various materials in support of the struggle. Amir intervened at the National Assembly in support of the students. People made speeches at various occasions supporting the movement in all kinds of ways.

The contrast between our relationship to the movement and the relationship of the Parti Québecois to the same movement is stark. It is true that the PQ voted against Bill 78, but once it was passed, they said at the time, "Now that the law has passed, everybody has to respect it to the letter." Even though many people were arguing that that law was unconstitutional, that it would not hold up to a legal challenge, the PQ said, "We have to respect the law."

Our approach was completely different. We opposed the law--Amir Khadir voted against it. And on the day the law was passed, Khadir said, "We should seriously consider not respecting the law because it's so unjust." A couple weeks later, Khadir was arrested at a demo in Québec City. So it became really clear that we were the party of the street and the strike, not just an option for the ballot box.

WHAT'S THE significance of the upcoming election for Quebec politics and especially the student movement?

Benoit: Let's first look at the timing of this election. Jean Charest and his Liberal Party want to have an early election before a Commission of Inquiry begins public investigations into corruption involving the party and the construction industry. They have organized the elections before that commission is in full force and starts exposing all kinds of ugly things.

The early date of the election is also connected to the student strike itself. When Bill 78, which I call the Back to School Law, was passed in May, one of the things that it did was suspend the semesters in the colleges and universities that were still on strike--basically the student equivalent of a lockout. They shut down the schools to stop the strike. It also forced all the institutions to finish the winter semester in August.

Now the election is happening when those campuses are scheduled to resume classes. Students have to decide whether to continue the strike and defy the law when there is no government to negotiate with, or go back to school and make it look like they are giving up. But in fact, the struggle will only be over when most students believe they have won.

Jessica: Charest and the Liberals clearly intended the election to further disrupt the strike. It's going to be tough for the student unions to continue the strike, at least until after the election. That doesn't mean that there isn't a lot of energy being put into making sure that the movement continues. Even if there are no strikes, there are still going to be demonstrations.

And it doesn't mean the movement won't revive on the other side of the election, especially if the Liberals are elected again. If reelected, they have made it clear that they will push through the tuition increases, and that will spark the students to respond. On the other hand, if the PQ gets elected and then renege on their commitment to not increase tuition fees by more than the rate of inflation, it will also spur students to more action.

The education issue has really been central right from the beginning of the campaign, and it's pretty unprecedented for an election campaign to have that as a central issue. The PQ is trying to make itself look like it's the moderate choice. The Liberals are trying to paint themselves as proper, well-behaved, electoral democracy, and as the representatives of people who didn't like the strike, of which there were many.

There is another mainstream party that is also in the running. It's called La Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ). It's led by François Legault, who is a former PQ minister, and that party is being seen by a lot of people as representing a change. But really, they are just the Liberals in different clothing.

Québec Solidaire is trying to put forward a positive campaign that avoids negativity, but is very strongly in support of social movements and social demands. And the platform is fantastic. We have made it clear that we are the party that continues to stand with the student movement.

At this point, polls in Quebec seem to indicate that the election will result in either a slim majority, or more likely, a minority government led by either the Liberals or the PQ. But CAQ is gaining support from both of them, and it's very unpredictable at this point, and in some ways, it is reminiscent of the federal election where really nobody could tell what was going to happen. And there's still more time left in the campaign as well, so it is still completely up in the air.

WHAT ARE Québec Solidaire's main slogans, arguments and positions for the election?

Benoit: Our campaign's agenda is captured in our one-word slogan in French: "Debout!" It means "Stand up!"

Then we have five themes for the election. One is free education, including university. We highlight that to express the student movement's just demands and make them a central issue in the election.

Second is the nationalization of natural resources--the idea that the Quebec government should take charge of that sector of the economy. That is in contrast the main platform Liberals are pushing for. They want to attract foreign investors to extract minerals and various things from Quebec territories.

The third one has to do with significantly improving the public pension system. We are campaigning around this in response to a crisis in private pension systems caused by the financial crisis of 2008 and some bankruptcies and lockouts that have taken place in the private sector recently. So to protect workers from the ups and downs of the stock market, we advocate a strong public pension system.

The fourth one is Quebec independence: putting forward our view of Quebec self-determination and how it could be accomplished.

The fifth one is a proposal for a Green economy. We are proposing a massive investment in public transit driven by renewable electric power. This is a necessary and achievable move away from fossil fuels and into the types of transportation that would be better for the environment.

In addition, we have recently issued two important documents. One is called Le Plan Vert. It is an economic and environmental plan to create jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The other one is the overall Financial Platform, which looks at both revenues and expenses, and basically shows the people that what Québec Solidaire is putting forward is not pie-in-the-sky, but is actually feasible and we know how to pay for it.

So far, those would be the main issues and priorities that people are putting forward at the national level, but there are also lots of local campaigns.

WHAT DOES Québec Solidaire hope to accomplish in the election?

Benoit: We now have one person out of 125 in the National Assembly. We got Amir Khadir elected at the last general election in December 2008. We are hoping to get at least two and possibly five or six people elected in September. At the last election, we got a bit under 4 percent. This time we are hoping to get 7, 8 or 9 percent, about double the total number of votes.

There are good indications we can achieve that goal. The area where we have the best chances of getting people elected is the center of the island of Montreal. There are several ridings there where we are strong, including the one we currently hold, the one where our second national spokesperson is running, Françoise David.

The most recent polls have indicated Québec Solidaire is getting 14 or 15 percent in Montreal. In the rest of Quebec, we poll around 7 or 8 percent. We think these polls are a good indication that we can make a breakthrough in Montreal.

HOW HAVE you responded to the argument that Quebecers should use their vote strategically and opt for the PQ to get the Liberals out of office?

Jessica: Strategic voting is a trap. I argue that the movements and the elections should be connected, one with the other. You should act according to your commitments in the struggles, and you should vote with your commitments. That should be our basic principle. And we know that if the PQ were to be elected, they are not going to be much better. We know their neoliberal track record very well.

We need to use the election as an opportunity to raise the issue of social justice and to advance the social movements. If we can win a few seats, that will aid the movement's political representation. There is no question that having Amir Khadir in the National Assembly is invaluable. He has been a major advocate for the student struggle as well as many others. If we had just one more member of the National Assembly in Quebec City, it would be huge. The impact on ideology, on public discourse would be tremendous.

Benoit: Probably the strongest argument against strategic voting is to remind people of what the PQ did when it was in power from 1994-2003. They did all kinds of nasty things very similar to what the Liberals are doing now. They started the neoliberal offensive in Quebec. They cut social programs. They attacked the unions. For example, they passed very strong back-to-work legislation against the nurses in 1999 that is remarkably similar to Charest's Bill 78. The PQ and the Liberals are actually more alike than different.

Another big argument against strategic voting for the PQ is what they have done in the student movement. The PQ has really been sitting on the fence when it comes to the mobilization of the past few months. They say they are against the tuition increase that the government put forward. But they are for raising tuition fees moderately at the rate of inflation.

They voted against Bill 78. But once it was passed, they said that students had to respect the law and return to school. They are equally contradictory when it comes to the environmental questions. For example, they say we are all for the environment, but then they advocate offshore oil exploration in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

We can therefore say that only Québec Solidaire is clearly on the side of the student movement as well as all the other social movements.

Jessica: They are very obviously hypocritical. It's not hard to expose. But at the same time, strategic voting is a strong force. Lots of Quebecers have historic illusions in the PQ and are sometimes not willing to face the reality of their record. At the same time, there are lots of people who are opening up to voting for Québec Solidaire as a left-wing and movement-oriented alternative.

WHAT DO you expect the aftermath of the election, and what does it mean for developing the left as a whole in Quebec?

Benoit: It's very hard to predict the results. And no matter the results, things are going to be better for us after the election. If the PQ wins, they will implement the program of the ruling class, if perhaps in a nicer, less obnoxious way than Charest and the Liberals. If they lose for the fourth time straight, they will enter the biggest crisis in the history of that party. So one way or another, Québec Solidaire is likely to gain after the elections.

Jessica: After any election, there is an impact on the consciousness of people on the left and on social movements. If the Liberals are re-elected, there is a possibility it will be demoralizing. It will be galvanizing for some and demoralizing for some. If the PQ is elected, it could lead to a honeymoon as people give them a chance.

Benoit: If the Liberals win, we will have to agitate for people not to get demoralized, but instead stand up and fight. If the PQ wins, we will also have to convince people to stay mobilized because we know that the PQ is a neoliberal party loyal to the business class. Throughout, we will need to continue to build Québec Solidaire as the left alternative in the movements and for elections.