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Québec: a 2018 election primer

Chantal Sundaram

August 7, 2018

On October 1, when the people of Quebec go to the ballot, they will be faced with the same dismal choice faced by the global North in recent times, including Ontario.

A liberal centre not worth saving except out of desperation and fear of the right. A right that is capturing the discontent and channelling it towards scapegoating and more austerity. And a left that hasn’t been able to capture that anger enough to keep the right out of government.

In Quebec it is the relatively new Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ, or Coalition for Quebec’s Future) that is playing a fake populist card but that actually aims to gain power by stoking bigotry. The CAQ is the inheritor of repeated attempts to fill the gap left by the absence of a centre-right party like the Tories in Quebec.

The similarities emerge from the same economic and political system that is in decay and causing extreme reactions to the traditional centre. But while they are playing out in Quebec in familiar ways, there are some differences.

Austerity, nation, and race

Quebec’s political context is still dominated by the impact of two events: the 2012 student strike that inspired the left, and the introduction of racist legislation that fed the right.

Quebec saw the single most sustained movement against austerity in the global North in the student strike that became the “Maple Spring.” It wasn’t a one-off event but had a long lead-up and several smaller echoes, and created a politically-conscious generation and a new bar for what kind of resistance is possible, from public schools and affordable daycare to successful fights against shale gas fracking and the Energy East pipeline, a mass movement for a $15/hr minimum wage, and a rebellion by doctors and nurses against healthcare cuts.

The competing political reality in Quebec is the attempt to divert this anger towards Islamophobia and racist scapegoating of asylum seekers. While this is hardly unique, it took a turn with the Parti Québécois’ Charter of Values: a cynical appeal to an explicitly racist notion of Quebec identity. The CAQ has followed suit, but so did the Liberals with a law denying public services to Muslim women who wear the niqab.

This has benefited both mainstream racism and the far right. Quebec’s virulently anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant movement, la Meute, (“the Pack”), has expanded beyond street thuggery to a manifesto aimed at attracting that mainstream racism, and almost ran candidates in this election.

The PQ began a downwards spiral after momentarily benefitting from the Maple Spring and then paying the price for an austerity budget, oil exploitation, the failure of the Charter, and finally a leader who was the most notorious anti-union boss in the province. They even abandoned their previous commitment to another referendum on independence, at least in the short term. They continue to sink in the polls in the lead-up to this election.

Enter the CAQ

The CAQ was founded in 2011 by business mogul Charles Sirois and former Air Transat CEO (and former PQ cabinet minister) François Legault, the party’s leader. They currently hold 22 seats (the Liberals hold 70, the PQ 30). Legault has said the CAQ will never hold a referendum on sovereignty, but would endorse more autonomy if necessary.

The CAQ is a mix of Quebec nationalists and Canadian federalists. What unites them is that whatever Quebec’s status, it will belong to Quebec’s 1% and will embrace an ethnocentric identity. They are on the wrong side of the two main events of recent times: against the student strike and for the Charter of Values. They support even more explicitly racist policies—such as unreasonably strict French-language requirements for asylum seekers and calls for a wall on the unofficial border crossing from New York state into Quebec on Roxham Road, where Haitian asylum seekers arrived last summer.

The ruling Liberals represent a 15-year history of neoliberal devastation and austerity. While they paid lip-service to opposing the Charter, they not only introduced the anti-niqab law but failed to implement a promised inquiry into systemic racism in Quebec and introduced an “anti-terror” hotline.

The CAQ is benefiting from this. A CROP poll in June gave them 39%, their highest polling ever, against the Liberals’ 33% and 14% for the PQ, a historic low. The poll showed a stark split between the francophone vote, dominated by the CAQ with 48% (23% for the Liberals) and the non-francophone vote, dominated by the Liberals at 68%; the CAQ only scored 8% among non-francophones. The overall results, pointing to a CAQ majority, were similar in a poll conducted around the same time by Leger.

Right-wing pundit Mitch Wolfe, author of Trump: How He Captured the White House, made the following apt comment in the Toronto Sun – though he meant it with approval: “the CAQ has promised to be fiscally prudent and to make government more efficient. What distinguishes the CAQ from its opponents is its strong views on immigration, especially the Trudeau-made problem of illegal migrants crossing. […] As opposition to these border crossers grew, the CAQ surged ahead of the Quebec Liberals. Ironically, Trudeau’s negligent/laissez-faire attitude to the border crisis has put the pro-business Ford government on the same page as the pro-business soon-to-be Quebec Legault government.” 

The CAQ has also shown its true colours on class issues, including education—calling in the aftermath of the Maple Spring for a two-tiered university system to allow universities with international influence, like the Université de Montréal and Laval, to charge higher tuition fees.

It was within living memory that the Québécois were deemed unworthy of quality public education in their own language and accessible to working class people—which explains in part the strength of the Quebec student movement in 2012. It will be a travesty to see a party that stands for further dismantling of post-secondary education and other public institutions elected by appealing to any kind of Québécois pride, let alone one that equates it with a racist identity.

What is the alternative?

Québec solidaire (QS) has sought for 12 years to capture the imagination of the Québécois people for progressive social change both at the ballot box and in the street, and more recently has tried to learn from the experiences of the Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn campaigns. This has included building movements and labour struggles, and holding mass election rallies in diverse parts of Quebec.

With 3 seats in the National Assembly, QS is polling at 9-11%, and slightly higher in the 18-34 year-old range. It saw a surge in membership last year when one of the key leaders and symbols of the 2012 student strike, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois (GND), joined the party and won a seat for QS in a by-election. He and the other three QS members who have held office are activists first and “politicians” second. The party does not have a leader, but rather two co-spokespeople, GND and Manon Massé—a well-known social justice activist who will represent QS in the leaders’ debate on September 13.   

QS has pledged to “do politics differently,” with a grassroots campaign based on a radical programme, and this is a great strength. However, without the history and roots of the NDP or UK Labour Party it can also make it difficult to compete with mainstream party machines for actual votes.

But there is clearly another weak link: the lack of clear, mass resistance to Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment.

The rising tide of bigotry needs to be called out by a resistance that gets wide support by labour and students, by faith groups, and by community organizations. In that context, QS could more easily rise above the fake populism of the CAQ.

This is not unique to Quebec: in Europe this lack, and the inability of the left to solve it, has allowed racist and even openly fascist forces to make electoral breakthroughs and mobilize masses in the streets. For the left to make breakthroughs it can’t just compete on class issues but must specifically break the hold of racism.

Many who may be duped by the CAQ because they see no alternative to the Liberals need to discover that there is one, even if it will have to continue to be built after the election. This can happen with QS but also with broader forces committed to building resistance to the rising tide of racism, during and beyond the election.

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