Québec Solidaire sets a course for the left

June 22, 2017

Benoit Renaud, a member of the Québec solidaire National Coordinating Committee, describes the shifting political terrain in Quebec and considers where social struggles and left politics are headed, in an article first published in Presse-toi à gauche and translated for publication here by Michele Hehn. Renaud's article "New opportunities for Quebec's left" appears in the current issue of the International Socialist Review.

THE 12th congress of the radical left party Québec solidaire (QS), held in Montreal from May 19-22, 2017, made some major decisions--in particular, to not enter into an electoral pact with the Parti québécois (PQ), Quebec's traditional independence party, before the next elections to the Quebec National Assembly, slated in a year and a half.

To better understand the significance of the conference and these decisions, the following is a brief historical overview, with a brief analysis of recent developments afterward.

Federalists Versus Sovereigntists

For a long time, the political landscape of Québec was very simple. On the one hand, there was the federalist wing [defenders of Canadian unity], represented by the Parti libéral du Québec (Quebec Liberal Party, or PLQ); on the other, Quebec sovereigntists in the Parti québécois (Quebec Party, or PQ).

This model began to fall apart after the 1995 independence referendum, in which the sovereigntist camp--the OUI ("Yes")--lost the referendum by about 1 percent of the vote, with a total participation of over 95 percent of voters.

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

First, the rejection of two constitutional agreements by the rest of English-speaking Canada discredited the autonomist perspective for a federalist Quebec with heightened provincial powers. A section of the PLQ broke away to form l'Action démocratique du Québec (Democratic Action of Quebec, or ADQ), a party that remained marginal because of the utopian nature of its main idea: the demand for autonomy. The majority of the PLQ soon became the party of passive acceptance of the constitution imposed on Quebec by the rest of Canada in 1982.

Next, the Parti québécois completely adopted neoliberal economic dogmas, the turning point being the acceptance of a "zero-deficit" policy in 1996. Two forces have undermined the hold of the PQ on its base: Resistance to neoliberalism led by social movements and the persistence of aspirations for independence. The political space represented by these forces was first organized by the Union des forces progressistes (2002-2006), and then by Québec solidaire.

For these parties, the national question and the social question are inseparable: Their vision of a more just Quebec requires powers that come with national independence. At the same time, a strategy for independence must involve mobilizing the majority of the population for greater democracy and social justice.

Québec solidaire's response to the fragile unity (of sovereigntists or of progressives) proposed by the PQ is a project for specifically left unity, making the national question part of a global political project. It therefore provides a space for left militants who, while not necessarily defining themselves as pro-independence ("indépendentistes"), may still wish to join the overall project.

2006-2011: A Model in Crisis

During the 10 years of its existence, the ADQ was content to be what looked like the eternal third party. Meanwhile, the independentist left remained marginalized despite attempts to unify it.

The model established since the 1970s seemed to hold until Mario Dumont, leader of the ADQ, invented the so-called "crisis of reasonable accommodation"--that is, how to provide accommodations for those who hold minority religious beliefs through court judgments and other informal arrangements. (Dumont had claimed that any further increase in rates of immigration to Quebec would create ghettos, because immigrants were no longer integrating into the fabric of Quebec society.)

This was the first time since the rush of modernization of the 1960s that a Québecois political leader resorted to a pejorative caricature of a specific community in order to gain political capital.

At first, no one wanted to follow Dumont out on this terrain. But the harm was done, and the ADQ was able to use what is now known as "identity politics" to hoist itself into second place in the 2007 elections.

This bruising defeat for the PQ, now relegated to third place behind the Liberals and the ADQ, brought about the coronation of a new PQ leader, Pauline Marois, who oriented on two issues: the rejection of "referendism"--that is, the refusal to hold a third referendum for independence (which would have threatened the fragile unity sought by sovereigntists); and the open adoption of "identity politics," firstly on the language question, and then with an increasingly authoritarian and Islamophobic vision of secularization.[1]

The election in December 2008 of Amir Khadir, the first deputy of Québec solidaire, pushed the left up from the margins. But Québec solidaire was only able to get 4 percent of the provincial vote overall. This election resulted in a majority Liberal government, with the PQ as official opposition.

The collapse of the ADQ's electoral strategy opened the door to a takeover bid led by former PQ leader François Legault, who wished to create a new right-wing party.

Legault first oriented the new party, Coalition avenir Québec (Quebec Future Coalition, or CAQ) towards classical right-wing economics and provincial autonomy. But over time, he began increasingly to play the "identity" card, which had proved so successful for the ADQ in 2007, and which put the CAQ into competition with the PQ for the votes of the xenophobic section of the electorate.

At the same time, the orientation on the strategy of "sovereigntist governance" resulted in eroding the trust of those pro-independence forces within the PQ that were determined to have more. This difference erupted with the departure of four deputies in 2011 and the founding of a new independence party: Option nationale (National Option, or ON).

2012-2014: The Crisis of the Model Intensifies

The relative success of Québec solidaire and the creation of ON pose a real conundrum for those partial to the old political model of sovereigntist unity. Since this unity can no longer be realized through the PQ itself, several organizations have been created to attempt to forge unity through various coalitions external to the PQ.

These movements sought to remake the concept of unity by including not only the PQ and the ON, but also Québec solidaire. This is can be termed "meta-PQ-ism".

But this big, potential coalition could not be realized because of three dividing issues: 1) the PQ's wait-and-see approach to the goal of independence; 2) the center-right economic policies of the PQ when in power; and 3) the PQ's turn towards "identity politics."

If the PQ managed in 2012, despite all this, to regain power by the skin of its teeth, it is solely by virtue of the social crisis provoked by the student strike and the widespread sentiment that defeating the Liberal government of Charest was a political priority.

The PQ then formed a minority government. However, the new government's policies went completely counter to the convergence efforts towards QS. The refusal to support fiscal justice measures and legal reforms for the mining industry; the rallying to the Canadian petroleum extraction model; and, finally, the infamous "Charter of Values," with its xenophobic overtones, repelled some and hastened the reconfiguration of the political landscape.

In addition to the divisions over the national question and the issues of political economy, there were ecological questions (with some advocating that "our oil is the good oil" against those who were against further fossil fuel extraction) and the cleavage between the "identitarians" and the "inclusives."

This is how the Liberals were able, during the elections of the spring of 2014, to reassert their legitimacy and present themselves as the defenders of individual and minority rights against the PQ with its polarizing charter. By focusing on the PQ's ambiguous position towards a new referendum, the Liberals were able to regain lost ground and win a majority in the 2014 elections.

A New Configuration Emerges

In 2016, the campaign to find a successor to the short-lived leadership of Pierre-Karl Péladeau opened up deep divisions within the PQ. By promising to take steps toward independence in her first term, Martine Ouellet clearly aimed to create a united independence front in action. Her victory would almost certainly have created major headaches for both the ON and QS.

The winner, Jean-François Lisée, on the other hand, went even farther than his predecessors by putting the goal of independence on hold and proposing instead a united front against the Liberal government and some of its austerity measures. By imposing a bitter defeat on the supporters of Ouellet, he pushed a section of the base of the PQ towards Option nationale. The victory of Lisée showed that "meta-PQ-ism" had lost support even within the PQ itself and was therefore at its end.

For its part, the ON has gradually evolved towards left positions and clearly rejects PQ's identity politics as a source of division that alienates entire communities from the project of independence.

Left independence forces are now able to see a way to create their own pole of attraction, by way of countering Lisée's appeals for a timely alliance to "defeat the Liberals." This is what is in the process of happening since Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, one of the main spokespersons of the student strike movement of 2012, came to QS.

Around 6,000 people have joined Québec solidaire over the past few months, raising the number of members to 16,000. Nadeau-Dubois was elected as a co-spokesperson of the party, along with the deputy Manon Massé. One of his campaign themes was to support a merger with the Option nationale.

One proposal adopted by the recent QS congress is to begin negotiations with Option Nationale with the goal of merging with it. By including hundreds of militants for independence, particularly young people, this merger will create a stronger left-wing pole of attraction that could appeal to those members of the PQ who are disappointed at seeing their cause endlessly postponed.

This new pole of attraction can bring around a critical mass, allowing it to go beyond the so-called "orange" zone (after the color of the QS flag) in Montreal's center, where the three ridings, or constituencies, won by QS since 2008 are located.

Overall, the Québécois political landscape seems about to divide into three camps on the national and identity questions.

The first bloc is the Liberal Party, dedicated to Canadian federation and a multiculturalism, in which the Québecois people are just another ethnic minority among others. The second is that of the inclusive indépendentistes (anti-racists with a civic conception of nationhood) led by Québec solidaire. Between the two, the PQ and the CAQ divide up the autonomist and identitarian camp, with varying degrees of xenophobia and ethnic nationalism.

In this context, the decision by QS to refuse the so-called "hand across the aisle" offer from the PQ really clarifies existing political differences. The recent QS congress has effectively announced that QS is not part of the same "sovereigntist" family as the PQ; that our project is not the same; and that it is by regrouping around our camp that a left independence political alternative will be able to emerge.


1. See among others : Baubérot, J. (2012), La laïcité falsifiée. Paris, La Découverte; and Tevanian, P. (2013), La haine de la religion : comment l'athéisme est devenu l'opium du peuple de gauche, Paris, La Découverte.

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