October 11, 2022

Québec in Solidarity

Stefan Liebich

Stefan Liebich on the Election in the Canadian Province and the Left-Wing Party Québec Solidaire

On October 3, the Canadian province of Québec elected a new parliament. The incumbent premier, François Legault, and his Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) won the election with 41 percent of the vote. Due to the majority voting system, the party won a whopping 90 of 125 seats (plus 16) and thus has a clear majority. The CAQ, which was only founded in 2011, will thus govern the French-speaking province for another legislative period.

The party Québec solidaire, which is also still young, achieved the second-best result in the province of around eight and a half million inhabitants with 15.4 percent of the vote and will in the future be represented in the Assemblée nationale du Québec with 11 deputies (plus 1). Due to the majority voting system, however, Québec solidaire won fewer seats than the third-placed Parti libéral du Québec (PLQ), which won 21 constituencies. This is also the reason why the latter has the status of “official opposition” (opposition leader). The once powerful Parti Québécois won only three seats, and the right-wing nationalist Parti conservateur du Québec will not be represented in parliament, despite its impressive 12.9 percent.

Battle for the French Language

Québec differs from the other Canadian provinces in its French roots, which date back to colonial times. Since Paris had to cede the colony of New France to Great Britain in the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), the protection of the French language has played a prominent role in Québec. Separatist demands for the province to secede from the federal state of Canada have traditionally been very popular across all political camps, although the number of those in favor of secession has declined recently.

Together with the issue of immigration, these topics were once again at the center of the election campaign. The CAQ was particularly successful, claiming that it was fighting for the French language and for more autonomy. In doing so, it combined this “Francophilia” with a critique of immigration – left-wing observers spoke of the party using immigration as a “scapegoat.” By spicing its neoliberal program with a pinch of xenophobia in this way, the CAQ won over many voters.

Openly separatist parties have dominated Quebec politics for decades. For thirty years, the separatist-social democratic Parti Québécois alternated with the PLQ in governing the province; a vote on independence in 1995 failed narrowly, garnering 49.4 percent. The decline of both parties then favored both the rise of the CAQ, which programmatically fused nationalism and neoliberalism, and that of the Québec solidaire party, founded in 2006, which combines left-wing social democratic ideas with green and feminist ones.

Identity or Inclusion

Québec solidaire also advocates Québec independence. In contrast to the identity-based nationalism of the CAQ government, however, it argues for an inclusive popular sovereignty that understands indigenous and migrant people as part of the French-speaking, sovereign Québec. Together, they want to oppose Canadian (English-speaking) “colonialism”. In its election program, the party calls for the convening of a constitutional assembly, to which representatives of the indigenous peoples should also be invited. For their part, the indigenous inhabitants of Québec criticize the prime minister’s refusal to recognize the systemic racism of the white majority society.

The separatist demand for the separation of the province from the Canadian federal state can thus be raised from the right as well as from the left; however, the fuller understanding is very different. Alejandra Zaga Mendez, the president of Québec solidaire, who won her constituency in the Verdun district of Montreal, is herself an immigrant, having come with her parents from Peru as a child and grown up in Québec. Today, she herself represents an inclusive, anti-colonial form of sovereignty. She says, “This is my culture now. There is a movement here that says people like me are not real Québécois. But that’s me! And part of the culture for me is the desire to change our society. For me, this change is linked to the independence movement. Our idea of sovereignty is not just a common nation because we speak French – it’s an anti-colonial movement. This sensibility is also deeply rooted in my Latin American heritage. We are still subjects of the British Crown here. That’s crazy.”

The question of how far to go in protecting Quebec’s culture and language leads to different conclusions within the party. For quite a few members, the left-wing, ecological and feminist profile is now paramount; for others, the two are inextricably linked.

However, this question also offers various pitfalls. A recent example: When the governing party introduced a bill in parliament shortly before the election to protect the French language, Québec solidaire’s deputies also voted in favor. Many in the party, however, thought this was a mistake because, from their perspective, the vote was about something else. For example, André Frappier, who was part of the party leadership for a long time, criticized the new regulation – which stipulates that the authorities may only communicate in French with people from other countries once they have been in the province for six months  – as actually being directed against refugees: “Nobody manages to learn the language in six months. This is part of the strategy that has already been used to ban religious symbols in the public service: It’s about declaring migrants as scapegoats and thus distracting from the real issues of our time, the economic struggles and the climate issue.” However, during the election campaign, Québec solidaire avoided an open debate about the voting of their MP’s.

The Programmatic of the Left Party Québec Solidaire

Overall, however, Québec solidaire has repeatedly succeeded in recent years in building alliances with extra-parliamentary movements – from the trade unions to the migration and environmental movements. In its program, the left party has also been able to constructively resolve issues that lead to bitter disputes in other left-wing parties, instead of merely glossing over them with formulaic compromises. Alejandra Zaga Mendez explains the inner-party approach as follows: “We approach this through participatory processes. That means that everyone involved sits at a ’round table’. At our round table on the energy transition, we had representatives from various interest groups: Workers, consumers and young people from the environmental movement. They all came to the table and tried to find common ground. The environmental movement itself has a participatory approach, so it’s easy to have a dialogue with them. The catch is that you then have to turn the discussion into a strategy to address differences directly. But with that strategy, we’ve been able to make energy policy an issue that we’re now working on together.” In their election program, party members agreed to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels and to nationalize renewable energy utilities under regional control.

Another important point in the program is affordable housing. In Montreal, too, gentrification is driving many people with low or middle incomes out of the inner city. That is why Québec solidaire demands, for example, that tenants be protected from renovations that only serve to increase rents.

During the election campaign, Québec solidaire also criticized the CAQ for sticking to concrete road and tunnel projects and for not having a sufficient response to human-made climate change. The provincial government responded to the Covid pandemic with mismanagement and ignorance, which is why more people died in Québec than in other provinces in Canada. At the same time, the pandemic exposed the lack of nurses and good health infrastructure, he said. Adequate protection of staff in schools and kindergartens was only guaranteed after the unions intervened.

In addition, the Legault government had further exacerbated social inequality. Indeed, the left-wing opposition’s call for a fair tax system went unheard, as did its call for an increase in the minimum wage to 18 Canadian dollars. The one-time 500-dollar check for all those earning less than 100 dollars a year, perceived as an election campaign gift, was too little to counteract the growing social polarization.

High Spirits on Election Night

In fact, Québec solidaire is the only force that formulates clear alternatives to government policy. It is no coincidence that it is the most popular party among young people in the province. This could certainly be felt on election night; the mood at the election party in the “Mtelus” cultural center was exuberant. Many young people celebrated each district they won with loud cheers and greeted the leading candidates Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and Manon Massé with great applause.

Massé, who initiated the first World Women’s March in 2000, had already run unsuccessfully five times in her Montreal district before finally winning it in 2014. Now that she has been able to defend it for the third time, she said, “We don’t owe our election result to the media, but to the effort on the ground. Young people in particular supported us. The 20- to 25-year-olds as candidates and even younger ones putting up posters. We had six indigenous candidates. I am very proud of that! And we will fight with the new caucus for all the people who live here on the territory of Québec, regardless of where they come from. We will be a powerful progressive, ecological and feminist opposition. We will fight for the ordinary people, for the 95 percent!”

“The fight against climate change cannot wait four more years,” Nadeau-Dubois, a popular former leader of the student movement, later shouted to the room. Pointing out that Québec solidaire was the only opposition party not to lose a seat to the ruling party, he addressed the old and new premier: “Listen to the youth of Québec! Regardless of our election results tonight, we all have a responsibility to listen to the generation that will have to live with our decisions. It is not too late. Every time the government takes a step in the direction of climate protection, I will be its partner – and every time it takes a step backwards in terms of the environment, I will be its opponent,” he declared to thunderous applause.

What is certain is that Québec solidaire will emerge stronger from the election. But it is also clear that the left party still has a long way to go if it wants to bring about lasting change in Québec politics.

Stefan Liebich is a fellow of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. From 2009 to 2021, he was a member of the Bundestag for DIE LINKE.

This article was first published on October 5, 2022, in www.rosalux.de.