Ten years ago, people in Quebec who want a better world—to eradicate poverty, environmental destruction, sexism, racism, homophobia, the oppression of Indigenous peoples, and to bring an end to austerity in favour of the redistribution of wealth and reinvestment in public services—got a party they can vote for in good conscience.
And no, it’s not the NDP. It is Québec solidaire.
The NDP is still the only party to cast a vote for in English Canada, as the only party connected to the labour movement and therefore not beholden to Canada’s corporate elite.
But in Quebec, Québec solidaire has emerged as a realistic electoral alternative despite the fact that its party programme and electoral platforms are far to the left of the NDP’s. In part this is because mass mobilizations against austerity and issues like war and climate change are larger and more advanced in Quebec.
But it is also because QS was a conscious and direct creation of social movements based not just in parliament but in activism outside it, in order to provide a political and electoral expression to that activism. This is a reality captured in the party’s goal to remain both “a party of the ballot box, and a party of the street.”
Nevertheless, its party colour is orange, and it is not an accident that it seeks to identify with the desire in both Quebec and English Canada for a mass electoral alternative that people who want change can vote for with pride, and can feel they are given a voice along with that vote.
QS emerged from two organizations: the Union des Forces Progressistes (UFP), formed by socialists, labour activists, and former members of the Quebec NDP; and Option Citoyenne, an organization grounded in environmental activism, feminism, and notably the founding of the World March of Women.
Both got a boost from the huge mobilization by ordinary Quebecois against globalization, which culminated in a protest of 80,000 against the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in April of 2001. And after 9/11, and particularly after the US invasion of Iraq, Quebec saw the largest anti-war protests anywhere in the country.
Since the sixties, it was the Parti Quebecois that had held the unofficial allegiance of the left, labour and social movements in elections. But in the lead-up to the Summit of the Americas protest the UFP ran a candidate in one key riding—the Montreal riding of Mercier—and demonstrated that it was possible to pose a new electoral alternative.
As the UFP continued to make increasing breakthroughs in the popular vote in this riding, they began talks with Option Citoyenne, a larger organization that had wide reach in organized community movements. The talks culminated in a founding conference for a new political party of the left in 2006, where the name “Québec solidaire” was chosen by vote on the conference floor.
Early on, the party was led by individual activists with profile and credibility. In the party’s short history, three of them went on to be elected to the Quebec national assembly: Amir Khadir, an Iranian-Quebecois who worked with Doctors Without Borders in Palestine; Françoise David, a founder of the World March of Women and author; and Manon Masse, a long-standing figure in the LGBTQ community and now a high-profile climate activist.
The election of three deputies within ten years of its creation is nothing short of impressive. But so has been the party’s role in helping transform Quebec’s political landscape beyond elections.
They have built local riding associations with an activist profile in social movements and grassroots campaigns. They are currently conducting regional tours about growing local, sustainable economies and good, green jobs. And the three QS deputies have used their place in the National Assembly as a platform to denounce the austerity and pro-oil politics of the Liberals, PQ, and the CAQ, and to speak out against Islamophobia and racism.
There has been wave after wave in Quebec of mass mobilization against austerity, from the 2012 student strike, to the movement by parents to form human chains around public schools to restore funding, to the Common Front public sector general strike of half a million people last fall. This movement needs a political voice.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of QS, “À Babord !,” an independent progressive magazine published by QS supporters, interviewed intellectuals, artists, and trade unionists about the importance of QS. Of the many glowing testimonials came two from the leaders of the major labour federations in Quebec and leaders of the Common Front.
CSN president Jacques Letourneau wrote: “Even though the debate on sovereignty is never over, at a time when the National Assembly is dominated by right-wing or centre-right currents and where austerity measures are fully unleashed against Quebec civil society, QS no longer has to prove itself.”
And Daniel Boyer, president of the FTQ, the other major labour federation in Quebec wrote: “Québec solidaire adds an important and necessary voice at the heart of the broad collective movement in favour of Quebec independence, a political project to which the FTQ adheres.”
It was in fact the FTQ (which is linked with the Canadian Labour Congress) that founded the Quebec wing of the NDP in 1963, along with the Quebec branch of the NDP’s precursor, the CCF.
The growth of QS has gone hand in hand with the growth of support for the federal NDP in Quebec, from the Orange Wave that made Jack Layton to the solid NDP popular vote in Quebec that survived the Liberal sweep in the last federal election. QS activists are in no small way responsible for this electoral shift to the left on the federal level.
During the mid-1990s, socialists within the Quebec NDP formed the Parti de la Démocratie Socialiste, which eventually helped form the Union des Forces Progressistes, and so eventually became part of QS. And now, that realignment provincially has so far only strengthened the federal NDP’s fate in Quebec.
Not because the people of Quebec are becoming more federalist, but because a vote to the left has become more compelling than supporting the right-wing Bloc Quebecois on sovereigntist terms alone, making it possible to vote NDP despite its federalist politics.
The NDP in Quebec
The NDP hasn't run candidates provincially in any Quebec riding since 1994. And yet now, just at the moment when QS has created a new and successful pole of attraction away from the Parti Quebecois towards a genuine left alternative rooted in Quebec’s particular context—all at the same time helping create a bigger base of Quebec support for the NDP federally—the NDP is now planning to field candidates in the 2018 Quebec election.
Tom Mulcair was the first to plant this seed a couple of years ago, just after the last provincial election. But even with his departure the idea seems poised to persist.
At the last NDP-Quebec convention, at the end of November 2015, a motion was passed to run NDP-Quebec candidates in the next provincial election. Although it never came to the floor of the federal NDP Convention in April, where delegates were more consumed with the debate over Mulcair’s leadership, the NDP in Quebec appears to be planning to challenge a few specific ridings in 2018.
There was a pernicious falsehood spread about the last federal election which blamed Quebec for the NDP’s own failings. The notion that somehow the Islamophobia of the niqab debate is what cost the NDP the election in its loss of Quebec seats over its principled stance has no legs given that the Liberal stance on the niqab was indistinguishable. What was distinguishable between the two parties was their position on the deficit. And now Mulcair is paying the price for that with his ousting from leadership of the party.
The NDP has not lost its potential federal electoral base in Quebec, far from it; but trying to revive the provincial NDP to compete with Québec solidaire would do nothing to restore it. And in terms of provincial politics, running NDP candidates would only encourage Quebecois sympathetic to federalism to vote on that basis rather than voting left.
An NDP-Quebec revival would have no choice electorally but to focus on the only thing that differentiates it in the Quebec context. As Nora Loreto, anglophone QS activist argues, it would drive the NDP even more to the centre and make it nothing more than a “party brand” on federalism, a kind of “Liberal-lite."
This would pose no real threat to Québec solidaire, but it would be a disservice to its attempts to build a united movement across traditional federalist-sovereigntist lines. Those attempts seek to win the broadest support possible for Quebec’s right to determine its own future inside or outside of Canada as part of the larger fight of the people of Quebec to determine their social priorities for themselves, definitely outside the control of corporate Canada and of corporate Quebec.
While many at the Edmonton NDP convention debated the future of a party that can be truly progressive and have an orientation on political life outside of watching Parliamentary debates, the left in Quebec is thankfully past that debate.
And that must be supported by anyone in English Canada who supports both a better Parliament and a better world.
Join the conference Ideas for Real Change: Marxism 2016, including the panel discussion “How do we win real change,” featuring QS activist André Frappier, NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo, and socialist Ritch Whyman. Register today and join/share on facebook.