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What caused the NDP loss in Quebec?

By: 
Chantal Sundaram

October 7, 2017

In 2015, the federal NDP tried to explain its defeat by blaming the debate over the Niqab – the facial covering for Muslim women – and the votes it supposedly cost them in Quebec.

Now, the federal NDP leadership race has been an occasion for some – notably Guy Caron and Nicki Ashton – to revisit that argument. To varying extents they and their supporters question the Quebec-bashing, but they also put into question the NDP’s opposition to restrictions on the niqab, particularly on the grounds of Quebec’s right to self-determination.

These two arguments come up short. Both start in a good place but end in a bad one.

Islamophobia and Quebec-bashing

The first takes a principled stand against Islamophobic attacks on Muslim women but ends in Quebec-bashing. The “rethink” of this position starts by condemning the bashing of Quebec as more racist than anyone else, which is absolutely right. But it ends by giving support to the false argument that “secularism” in Quebec directed against religious minorities does not amount to racism.

The NDP “rethink” includes suspending criticism of Bill 62, the Quebec Liberal bill that would prevent both providers and receivers of public services from wearing religious insignia and clothing, again in the name of self-determination. 

Quebec attitudes to the niqab and religion in general have been shaped by a struggle to free Quebec society from the political control of the Catholic Church. But recognizing that, and supporting Quebec’s right to self-determination, does not require supporting an argument that defines Quebec identity in terms of a fundamentalist notion of “secularism” against religious accommodation of racialized communities. In fact, the left in Quebec has been struggling to change that false choice.

Both the NDP’s initial explanation and the “rethink” start from the same mistake about what really cost them the election in Quebec in 2015. To use a sports analogy, the NDP made an unforced error. But it wasn’t the niqab debate, it was the debate over austerity.

Zero deficit

The key turning point in the election was when Trudeau pledged to prioritize spending in public infrastructure over a balanced budget, and Mulcair and his advisors chose to campaign against deficit spending and for “responsible government.” This was the real death knell in Quebec, which has seen years of concerted protest against cuts to public spending in every single sector. This is what allowed the Liberals to outflank the NDP in Quebec – and in parts of English Canada as well.

Islamophobia and the left

Progressives in English Canada are as confused about this question as in Quebec. The fact that the NDP continues to grapple with it is not surprising.

Quebec’s left party, Quebec solidaire (QS), has been trying to deal with this debate for the ten years of its existence. And it is true that QS has had an unclear position, including on Bill 62 and the Niqab. But QS is a party that is broad and growing, and full of debate that is not homogeneous.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, leader of the Quebec student revolt of 2012 and now elected as a QS MNA and co-spokeperson of QS, said the following in a hearing of the August 15 Parliamentary Commission:

“For us, there is no law, there is no public policy, that can liberate women by force; there is no dress code, be it religious, secular, republican, public, that can liberate women from religious or cultural submission. One of the historical demands of the women’s movement is their right to self-determination.”

And after the August 6 fire-bombing of the car of the president of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec, Manon Massé, the other co-spokesperson of QS issued the following statement: 

“Do I have to remind you that this same community was the victim of an attack that claimed the lives of six people last January? … I can only fear this spiral of hatred and denounce these hateful and dangerous actions. For us, there is no doubt that the extreme right exists in Quebec.”

The challenge in Quebec, as elsewhere, is to see the connection between these acts of hate and legislation like Bill 62.

Lessons for the NDP

If the NDP is to make sense of what really cost them the election, they are going to have to look deeper than the politics of scapegoating. The racist right will gain where the left fails. And it is on the key question of austerity that the NDP failed its biggest test.

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