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Inside the Quebec election, a view from the left

By: 
Benoit Renaud

October 5, 2012

 
Benoit Renaud is a member of the National Coordinating Committee of Québec solidaire, and its candidate in the riding of Chapleau. A long-time socialist and activist, Benoit was a leader in Quebec’s student movement in the 1980s and 90s, and has been involved in many anti-globalization, anti-war and civil liberties campaigns. Benoit now lives in Gatineau, where he teaches French and history in adult education.
 
Founded in 2006, Québec solidaire describes itself as “a party of the ballot box and the street,” and has been active in all Quebec’s social movements, including the 2012 student strike. Its co-leaders are Françoise Davidand Amir Khadir, the party’s only (so far) Member of the National Assembly.
 
What is different about this election, compared to past Quebec elections?
The obvious answer is that it follows directly from the massive mobilizations of last winter and spring, led by students, which ended up rallying much broader forces, including environmentalists, rank-and-file union activists, and all kinds of regular people in Quebec. The entire election has been defined to a large extent by the positions of the various parties in response to these struggles—some parties were completely with the movements, some were completely against them. In the case of the Parti Québécois (PQ), it was a little bit of both at the same time. So the movements have determined a lot of what’s going on right now.
 
I would also argue that this election marks the end of an era because it is highly unlikely that the Liberal Party will win another term. After nine years of Liberal government, we’re likely to see something else. What that will be is still a bit up in the air, but there’s the pleasant smell of regime change in the air, so we’re looking forward to the next phase in Quebec politics.
 
Do you think Charest was forced to call the election because of pressure from the student strike, or did he call it on his own terms—to avoid the public scrutiny of the corruption inquiry, for example?
It would have been much more convenient for Charest if the timing of the election was just about avoiding the corruption scandal—in which case, he would have called it last spring. That’s what we were expecting. But the student strike kept going and going and going, and there was no way that Charest would have allowed the government to fall in the middle of such a massive movement. It would have looked as if the students had brought down the government—which, in a way, they did. That’s why, instead of calling an election in May, as Charest likely intended, he passed the anti-student strike law, suspending the semester in all the institutions on strike.
 
That was the main purpose of Bill 78: to make student strikes illegal. The Liberals called the election before most of the law actually came into effect, so both the election and the law were necessary to end the student strike. Just one or the other would not have been enough. They needed both. That should give you an idea of just how huge and impressive that mobilization was.
 
Québec solidaire is unique in Quebec and Canada in how it bridges the electoral process and the social movements, as “a party of the ballot box and street.” How does that affect the way you campaign?
What it means to be “a party of the ballot box and the street” is that we’ve been completely with the movement. Since it started in November, QS has been demonstrating with students and supporting their demands—and we’ve been doing it really, really clearly. We denounced the attempts to end the strike through court injunctions, whether by small groups of students or local administrations, and the attempts to make the strikes illegal through Bill 78.
 
We even helped open the door to civil disobedience. In fact, many QS members, including the main spokespersons and our only elected Member of the National Assembly, Amir Khadir, went to all the “illegal” demonstrations in Montreal, Quebec City and elsewhere. Some even got arrested, including Amir himself. Bill Clennett, the QS candidate in Hull, which is the riding next to mine, was arrested twice in two days! At every turn, our members, our candidates and our most prominent spokespeople have all been totally immersed in the struggle, and in complete opposition to Charest’s attempts to end it.
 
This is a big contrast to the PQ approach, which is like saying, ‘we kind of agree with the students, and maybe the tuition fee increase is too big,’ and ‘yeah, we don’t think the injunction is a very good idea, but when there is one, we think people should respect it,’ and so on. They have claimed that they oppose Charest’s special law, but they have refused to support anyone who disobeys it. In other words, the PQ has had one foot in the movement and one foot out. They even told their candidates not to wear the red square during the campaign, but at the same time, they are trying to convince students that a PQ majority government is the only way they can win.
 
But what we’re trying to do is be in complete solidarity with the movement. Even when the election was called, we didn’t put aside our involvement in the struggle and say, ‘oh well, now we’re just a political party and you should just judge us on our electoral platform, or whether you like our candidates or not.’ Instead, we’re trying our best as a political party to give expression to the movement, and to give all these people a louder voice—their demands and their ideas and all the things that brought them to the streets.
 
Again, this is very different from the PQ, which has been saying, ‘if you want to defeat Charest, you have to vote for us, whether you like our platform or not, whether you like our ideas or not, whether you think we’re a good party or not.’ This is the idea of strategic voting, which is basically telling people to vote against something, rather than for something. We’re trying to be the party that proposes positive changes, and not just for replacing one government with another.
 
In light of your involvement in the student strike, how have students responded to Québec solidaire’s campaign? What debates have emerged about the election itself, as a tactic to get rid of Charest?
If you look at the student movement as a whole, a sizeable portion is probably going to vote for the PQ—as a way to defeat the Liberals and reverse the tuition fee hike. The PQ has been saying they won’t raise fees by 75 per cent, and if they win the election, and after some kind of consultation, they may decide to increase fees by the rate of inflation. So there’s a section of students who are pretty much satisfied with that, and who see a PQ victory as a way to win their main demand, which is to cancel the fee increase.

 

And then there’s a whole other section of the movement that rejects electoral politics altogether. They see their own struggle—what they’ve been able to do on the campuses and in the streets—as the best way to get their point across and create social and political change. They don’t see any use in participating in electoral politics whatsoever—the abstentionist argument.
 
And then there’s another section of students that backs QS, because we’re the main party calling for the complete abolition of tuition fees, and because we have a very strong environmental and social justice platform that also includes significant democratic reforms. So there’s a sizeable portion of the movement that’s looking to QS as a political expression and not just as a way to stop the hike. In fact, several of our candidates were students who were involved in the strike, and there’s a good number of strike activists who have become involved our campaign in various ways. In my region, out of the five candidates, one was on strike at the local university, and the other was involved in all the mobilizations, even though she’s a student in Ottawa. Another is a teacher at the local university, and another has been involved in all the protests, even though he’s not a student. I’m the fifth candidate, and was pretty active in the student movement for about ten years. So the links between QS members and the mass mobilizations of the past few months are quite extensive.
 
Most media in English Canada have generally ignored Québec solidaire, but some grudgingly acknowledged that 40 per cent of Quebeckers who watched the leaders’ debate thought that Françoise David won. What was the impact of Françoise’s performance on the campaign?
I think it was massive, but at the same time, it’s hard to say definitively how it will translate into votes and seats. I was in Montreal when the debate happened, and for three days afterwards, I volunteered with some of the local campaigns, including inGouin, where Françoise David is running. If you look at the electoral map, you can see there are four ridings that are basically side-by-side, from the Saint Lawrence in the south, all the way to Highway 40 in the north. I moved around that whole area for a few days, and you could really feel how people were energized and enthusiastic and hopeful following the debate. It was palpable.

 

Everybody was saying that Françoise did better than the other leaders, mainly because she came across as a regular person and not like a politician. She didn’t go through that political pantomime of throwing out numbers or repeating the same one-liners. She was just being herself—talking off the cuff several times, and responding honestly and spontaneously to what the other leaders were saying. It really was remarkable, especially because of the pressure she was under, as the first representative of a party of the left to be invited to one of those debates. But the reason why she did so well, I think, is that she was true to herself. She didn’t try to play a role.
 
A lot of people who barely knew QS, or who had a really distorted view of the party, were completely astonished. Before they saw Françoise, they probably thought that QS was just the party of Amir Khadir. But the debate changed that, and many, many people really paid attention to what she had to say. So for a lot of people now, QS is not just a party of that one guy they keep hearing about in the media, but one with a diversity of perspectives and people and experiences. I think it gave people a more complete view of QS. The metaphor I have for it is the difference between watching something in 2D and 3D. All of a sudden people saw QS in 3D and thought, ‘oh my, I didn’t know this party very well at all!’
 
When I was doing phone calls for Françoise on the Tuesday afternoon after the debate, almost everybody I talked to mentioned how great she was. And I talked to a lot of people who had always voted for the PQ in that particular riding. It’s been a PQ-stronghold since 1970, which was the first time the PQ ran in a Quebec election, and they’ve always won that riding. There is no stronger PQ riding anywhere. So for a lot of people, deciding to vote for Françoise was like going through some kid of grieving process. They had to accept psychologically that that part of their lives—being with the PQ and expecting something to come out of it—was now over. A lot of what I was doing on the phone with these people in Gouin was walking them through that grieving process.
 
So I think Françoise’s performance has had a really big impact, especially in Montreal. I’m sure it’s given us a boost pretty much everywhere, by one or two percentage points, but in those strategic ridings in the heart of Montreal, it could be what makes the difference between winning or losing.
 
Québec solidaire’s platform stands out from all the others, not only in its content, but also in how it was developed. What is the process for developing policy in Québec solidaire, and how does it get integrated into the campaign?
In Québec solidaire, we have a policy commission, which is responsible for the initial stages of developing the program or the platform. Each member of that commission coordinates a smaller commission that is responsible for a specific topic or range of topics. For example, we have a commission on education, on agriculture, and so on. What’s really democratic about the process is that we elect the people who are in charge of the commissions by a national meeting of the party. And any member of QS can participate in any of the smaller commissions. It’s a totally open door. We don’t refuse anyone, so if you’re interested in one particular topic, you can just join the appropriate commission, and be part of the debate from the very beginning of the process.
 
After the commission comes up with a preliminary document, or a proposal of some kind, the whole membership will look at it and discuss it, usually through a series of general meetings of local and regional associations of the party. And in those meetings, people can put forward all kinds of amendments or propose new motions—whatever they can think of. And, believe me, they think of all kinds of amazing things! In the past, I’ve been in charge of putting together the motions package that comes out of that process. It’s very creative, and literally hundreds of people participate each time we have a policy convention. So what comes out of the initial proposal and all the discussion at the local level then gets discussed at the party convention.

 
Since the Orange Wave in last year’s federal election, activists in English Canada have begun to understand the centrality of the national question to Quebec politics. How does Québec solidaire approach the national question, and how is it different from the Parti Québécois’ approach?
I think we’ve had more than one party convention a year, since the party was founded—three of them on the program, which is more about a long-term view of what we want to accomplish in general, and one special convention on the election platform for each of the last three general elections. So that makes six policy conventions for a party that was founded in 2006. That means a lot of debate. Sometimes, I think we’ve had too much policy debate, and maybe not enough recruitment and organizing, for example. Either way, it’s hard to conceive of a more open or more democratic process. Basically, all the members can have their say.
 
I think the simplest way to explain the difference is that the PQ vision of the national question is top-down, and the QS vision is bottom-up. Since it was formed, the PQ has been trying to be a broad tent for all sovereigntists, and to get a mandate to negotiate whatever it can with the federal government. That was basically the referendum question in 1980. In 1995, it was a worse question, in a way, because it asked something like, ‘do you agree that Quebec should become independent while everything else stays the same?’ That was more or less the content of the sovereignty project in 1995.
 
Even today, the approach is still a very colonized way of addressing the national question, because it’s always from the perspective of those British monarchic institutions that are the legacy of the Conquest. This is how the PQ does it. Pauline Marois is essentially asking the people to just trust her. She is basically saying, ‘I’m for Quebec independence, but I’m not going to promise to do anything specific about it, and at some point, I might be able to win a referendum, but it may not happen in my first term, and it may not happen in my second term, either.’ She’s asking for all the power and decision-making authority on the national question, for her entire term, and to do whatever she wants, without making any promises.
 
The QS approach is very, very different from this. We want to give real meaning to the idea of self-determination. Self-determination isn’t just about marking an X on a ballot in a referendum. Self-determination should be about everyone in Quebec being involved in a big discussion about what kind of society we want. Our proposal is to start from that perspective, and to ask: what kind of society do we want to live in? That question has never been asked anywhere in Canada, ever. The Canadian political system was imposed by Britain, with some reforms by a few premiers and prime ministers, but that’s it. It has never been a genuine democratic debate from the ground up about what kind of society we need, what kind of institutions we want, how democracy should work, whether power should be centralized or de-centralized, and so on. None of these questions have ever been asked of the majority of people, at least not in a way where their input matters.
 
In QS, we believe that if you give the people of Quebec—and by that we mean everybody who lives in Quebec—the opportunity to have that collective discussion, they’re going to develop a taste for it, and to have ownership over the results. So when you have a referendum that asks, ‘do you agree with the proposal that came out of all these discussions that you were a part of?’—you’re going to get a completely different result from a question that asks, ‘are you willing to give Pauline Marois the mandate to do whatever she wants in discussions with Ottawa?’

 

Also, we strongly believe that you can’t separate the national question from all the other questions. Someone sent a question to the party during the campaign, asking, ‘why not become independent first, and then decide to go left or right later?’ In other words, why not decide what kind of society we want once we’re independent? But creating a new country can’t be something neutral. That country is going to need institutions and will have to define the rights of its citizens. You just can’t start with nothing. You have to make decisions. And those decisions should come out of a collective debate. And why not include social rights, too—and not just the kind you have in the Magna Carta? You could decide that education, housing and access to clean water, for example, are all rights. A new county can’t be a blank page, so it will start somewhat to the left or to the right, one way or another.
 
What about citizenship and identity in Quebec, given your approach to the national question? How does Québec solidaire approach these issues?
First of all, we reject the notion of defining Quebec identity based on history, ancestry, where people are from, or anything like that. We make that point very clearly. And it’s no coincidence that the first person we got elected to the National Assembly was not born in Quebec. And if we manage to elect our four leading candidates next week, half of our MNAs will have been born outside Quebec.
 
So the QS view of Quebec identity is very different from that of the PQ. Recently, I think the PQ has retreated to old definitions that recall the Duplessis era. It’s a really desperate strategy to stay relevant—because they have nothing new to propose on social or environmental questions or anything else. And they have no real strategy on how to achieve independence. They’re basically digging up very old ideas about national identity. That’s why they’ve proposed to restrict who can get elected to municipal councils based on how well they speak French, and want to restrict who can attend an English-speaking CEGEP.
 
On secularism, they’ve replicated some of the ideas dominant in France, and have taken positions that would exclude people from the civil service who reveal their religion by what they wear, like a hijab or a kirpan, for example. In truth, these positions mostly target women who wear hijab, even though the people who argue for this claim to be neutral. But when you scratch the surface, you discover that it’s really based on fear of Muslims or of Islam. We’ve challenged these ideas anywhere they came up during the election, and we oppose this kind of approach that persecutes religious people for how they dress.
 
Is there a link between the Orange Wave in last year’s federal election and the prospects for Québec solidaire in this year’s Quebec election?
One interesting development during this election is that the nationalists—whether people who unconditionally support the PQ, or who now support Option Nationale, which is a more radical party in the sovereigntist camp—have been ruthlessly attacking QS—mainly for not exclusively backing the Bloc Québécois (BQ) in the last federal election. Our main concern then was defeating the Conservatives, but we didn’t tell people how to do that, although some of our members voted for the New Democratic Party (NDP). Others didn’t vote that way. But that hasn’t stopped people like Gilles Duceppe or Daniel Paillé, the new leader of BQ, from arguing that we’re not “real sovereigntists.” When Amir Khadir acknowledged that he voted for the NDP in a letter he published after the election, the attacks really picked up.
 
What’s important to pay attention to, though, is the shift in terrain that happened during the election. Politics used to have a mostly sovereignty-federalism divide, but flipped to more of a left-right divide with the federal election. This hasn’t completely changed Quebec politics, but it’s still had some impact. For example, you now have the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), which sees itself as a right-wing party, and which tries to play both sides of the national question. And then you have QS, which is clearly on the left, and which supports sovereignty, although some members felt comfortable backing the NDP to stop Harper. CAQ is getting between 20 and 25 per cent in the polls, while QS is getting between seven and ten per cent. The divide here is more clearly right versus left.
 
Even more interesting is the fact that about a third of the NDP’s support in Quebec in the last federal election came from people who identify as sovereigntists. But there’s no sign that, by voting NDP, those people have suddenly changed their minds about sovereignty—not at all. Their reasoning is actually quite simple. As long as Quebec is a part of Canada, people who live in Quebec should have a say about who their federal government is. The logic is so obvious that no one got it, especially the BQ, which still seems to be in complete denial about what the vote meant.
 
At some point, though, the PQ and BQ can’t have it both ways. They can’t be completely vague on whether they will hold another referendum, and then expect people to vote for them every single time, just because they say they’re sovereigntists. They still don’t get it. And now the PQ is in serious political trouble because of that, and could fall short of a majority—even after nine years of Liberal rule.
 
Given that explanation of the Orange Wave in Quebec, how have Quebeckers responded to Thomas Mulcair’s announcement that the NDP will run candidates in the next Quebec election?
I can think of three responses to Mulcair’s announcement. The first one is a pretty small minority, I think, but there are some QS supporters who said, ‘oh well, maybe he’s going after the progressive federalist vote, and he’s just going to finish off the Quebec Liberal Party or the Greens.’ They’re not worried about a Quebec NDP because they don’t think sovereigntists would ever vote for them, or ignore the fact that some federalists do vote for QS.
 
The second response I can think of is much more common, which is, ‘what the hell is Mulcair thinking?’ A lot of people think it’s a completely useless idea that will end up dividing the left in Quebec, and just at the moment when it seems like more unity is possible. We’ve been working really hard for the last 15 years at uniting the left, and something like this will set that back. For instance, QS could lose some supporters who are not staunch sovereigntists if Mulcair creates a new federalist party, which is quite annoying, but I think QS could still deal with it.
 
The third response is about what people think Mulcair’s announcement could do to the NDP’s chances in Quebec in the next federal election. A lot of people think that this could screw up the Orange Wave itself. Remember that a third of NDP support in May 2011 came from sovereigntists. If Mulcair’s goal is to fight the PQ for the mushy middle of the political spectrum, it could piss off a lot of people who voted NDP for the first time, who will say, ‘oh well, that’s the last time I do that, and I’m going back to the BQ.’ Instead of uniting the opposition to Harper on a left-right axis, Mulcair would likely polarize people on the national question again. This would be good news for the BQ, which is polling even lower than it did in the last federal election.
 
Have you thought a lot about the possible outcomes of the election?
I have no idea. It’s very hard to tell what will happen, but as I said earlier, it’s highly unlikely that the Liberals will form the government. The main danger, I would say, is a PQ minority government that needs the support of CAQ to stay in power. If CAQ holds the balance of power, instead of QS, it’s just going to push the PQ further to the right, and that would be pretty awful. One way or another, if as is likely the case we end up with a PQ government, we’re going to have a big fight on our hands against that secularism bill. It’s probably going to be the worst thing they do in the first few months of their term, so I’m already gearing up for that battle.
 
What are your plans for Election Day?
I wish I could be in Montreal, where the most exciting races will be happening, but I will stay with the other candidates and members of QS in my region, the Outaouais, and watch the results with them. It will be nerve-wracking because of how close many of the races will be. But one thing is certain, Quebec’s political landscape will be significantly changed, and new opportunities will open up for the left.
 

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