When general elections took place on December 8, 2008, Quebec Solidarity saw its first deputy elected to the Quebec National Assembly. This electoral victory demonstrated the relevance of a new political formation on the left, still not very well known in Europe1, but which should be better known by progressive people across the Atlantic. Having been responsible for the political orientation of the party for three years,2 I take the liberty of presenting Quebec Solidarity in a way that is my own but that probably would be shared by other members of the party.
I will begin with a broad outline of the historical context that led to the creation of this party.
This initial survey is necessary, it seems to me, not only because our national history is not very well known outside of Quebec, but also because I can offer, here, a particular interpretation that I feel provides some coherence to the emergence of a party like Quebec Solidarity. A brief explanation of the political positioning of the party and of the way that it functions organisationally will follow. I will conclude by presenting the challenges that I see ahead.
After World War II, Quebec was a Canadian province alienated from a provincial government led by Maurice Duplessis, a man with behaviour reminiscent of Salazar in a cassock. While he himself was a layperson, Duplessis, in fact, delegated what today are considered public services (health, education, etc) to the Catholic Church. The rest of his political organisation was based on a remote nationalism and on institutionalised political favouritism not very different from that of certain South American countries today.4
The Duplessis system collapsed in 1959-1960 for various reasons. Let us examine several: the sudden death of the man himself, who took with him not only his panache but also a good part of the system that kept his party in power; the emergence of a caste of technocrats, engineering and social science graduates, that had no place in the ecclesiastical bureaucracy kept to a minimum by the “Chief”5 ; the rise of a French-Canadian middle-class that did not have the means necessary to develop in the face of the British-Canadian and American middle-classes6 ; the beginning of a certain political and cultural effervescence that questioned antique systems of power and validated a certain transformation of Quebec society.
Already begun by Prime Minister Paul Sauvé (1959-1960), important reforms were implemented by the government of Jean Lesage (1960-1966).7 The creation of important ministries would deprive the Church of its hold on public services, which would lead a large number of young technocrats into the state fold, and, at the same time, toward large state-owned companies charged with managing certain key resources of Quebec.8 French-Canadian capitalists eventually would find the capital that they needed when the state mandarins decided that the time had come to form quite private national champions that, nevertheless, owed their rapid growth and development to large public investments.9
During this period, cultural and political effervescence was manifest in many ways: in the rise of a cultural universe peculiar to Quebec; and in the greater power of social organisations, including the unions, of course, but also of social movements like community groups and the women’s movement. Another particular dynamic reflected this cultural and political emancipation: a desire for national emancipation.10
In itself, nationalism is not new in Quebec. The Duplessis government and many of its predecessors relied on the differentiation between French-Canadians and British-Canadians or that between the governments of Quebec and Ottowa to mobilise the electorate or to win constitutional victories. All the same, the clear will to make Quebec a country follows a more troubled path, since the destiny of the people of Quebec has only rarely put them in the forefront of their own history.
This desire for emancipation was expressed politically through the Assembly for National Independence (RIN – Left) and the National Rally (RN – Right). In 1968, René Lévesque, a former Liberal minister who left his party, rallied these two organisations behind his Sovereign Movement Association (MSA) and founded the Quebec Party (PQ)11. Splitting from the PLQ, the PQ succeeded in attracting nationalist voters hitherto inaccessible to the PLQ and rapidly gained popularity, winning the 1976 election. René Lévesque became Prime Minister of Quebec.
The first mission of the Quebec Party was its most progressive, and it claimed to be in phase with the quiet revolution. Initially, the PQ presented itself as being “favourably disposed” toward working men and women. Despite certain measures that were clearly beneficial to the working classes, it is possible to argue that the PQ established an economic and political power structure more favourable to the caste of technocrats that emerged in the early 1960s as well as to certain small Quebec capitalists who spotted potential (or immediate) profits in the nationalism of the “péquistes” (members of the PQ).
The referendum through which the Lévesque government asked the population for “a mandate to negotiate” a “new understanding” with Canada turned out to be a sizzling defeat, with 60% of the population voting NON. The Canadian government of Pierre-Elliott Trudeau took the opportunity to repatriate the Canadian Constitution without the agreement of Quebec. Political disillusion accompanied an economic crisis that afflicted the world at the time. In the same period, several groups on the extreme left dissolved and many progressive militants preferred to work actively for socio-community groups, ecologists and feminists. The political party no longer was the political vehicle of the Quebec left.
After the referendum and up until the mid-90s, Quebec went through a somber period, darkened by the neoliberalism and the Thatcherism that haunted the rest of the planet. The providential state and good government-labour relations became the sacred cows to slaughter. The Lévesque government opened the dance with anti-union and anti-social measures, subsequently taken up by the government of Robert Bourassa. With his Canadian counterpart, Robert Mulroney, Bourassa tried to resolve the “constitutional problem” of Quebec. This effort failed and inspired the PQ – now led by Jacques Parizeau, René Lévesque’s former Minister of Finance – to conduct a second referendum on the sovereignty of Quebec in 1995: 49.5% of the population voted OUI. A near victory that would nevertheless feel like a defeat.
As of 1995, the conditions necessary for the emergence of Quebec Solidarity slowly fell into place. In 1996, on the occasion of a socio-economic summit, Lucien Bouchard, then Prime Minister of Quebec and head of the PQ, traded his image as the standard-bearer of sovereignty12 for that of a champion of economic conservatism. Faced with a budget deficit, the government succeeded in obtaining the support of certain groups in civil society for dipping into public services in order to wipe out the deficit. Certain leftist organisations then walked out, refusing to support such a proposition. Among these organisations were the Quebec Women’s Federation (FFQ) represented by Françoise David, and the Popular Action Front for Urban Planning (FRAPRU) represented by François Saillant.
This pivotal moment is important because it removed all ambiguity from the political positioning of the PQ. Contrary to what it sometimes pretends, it is neither a party of the left nor a social-democratic party, but rather a social-liberal party occupying the centre-right of the political spectrum. If opinions still differed on the exact positioning of the PQ, there was no doubt after this socio-economic summit that a rightist fringe with neoliberal convictions was active and powerful. As of this moment, political activists on the left undoubtedly became orphans without a party. The PQ’s positioning on the right was accompanied by the rise of a new political party, also a splinter of the Liberal Party: Quebec Democratic Action (ADQ) which took a rightist hard line on the economy from the beginning before coming to add a certain social conservatism to its proposals later on (in the mid-2000s).
Social movements also became more and more agitated as of this moment. The women’s movement would undertake in 1995 and 2000 two large marches that made it possible to reanimate its organisations, as well as to broaden its platform beyond typical “women’s issues.” The student movement had taken a turn to the right in the early ‘90s with the dissolution of its national organisation; now, it would give birth to the Movement for Student Democracy (MDE) in 1996 which would subsequently stabilise around it new leftist organisation, the Association for Student Solidarity (ASSE), in 2001. This organisation would be responsible for a historic student strike in 2005.
Like everywhere else in the world, the alter-globalisation movement took hold in Quebec, with events in Seattle in 1999 having swift repercussions here. In April, 2001, when the Summit of the Americas took place in Quebec, the force of the alter-globalisation movement was felt in full. Thousands assembled in Quebec to organise not only what became a seminal event for a whole generation of activists, but, also so much resistance to a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), discussed during the summit, that plans for FTAA had to be abandoned.13
The will to form a veritable party of the left had subsisted timidly in the shadow of the PQ since the 1980s. Marcel Pépin, the union leader, organised the Socialist Movement of Quebec (MSQ) around a manifesto signed by about one hundred political personalities. In 1985, some activists joined forces to found the New Democratic Party of Quebec (NPDQ), which at one time was the provincial branch of a centre-left federal party with representation in a majority of Canadian provinces before it broke with its federal brother in 1989. In the mid-1990s, the NPDQ became the Party for Social Democracy (PDS), mostly energised by the Quebec branch of the Fourth Internationale of the Socialist Left. This party participated in general elections in 1998, presenting 97 candidates. The Communist Party of Quebec (PCQ) moved through time without ever taking up any overwhelming public space and going through numerous disagreements with its Canadian brother, notably on the question of Quebec sovereignty.
The Union for a Progressive Alternative (RAP) was founded in 1998. Gathering up some leftist personalities from labour, politics and the people, its objective was clear: find a way to offer Quebec a leftist political alternative to the dominant parties. A new option appeared: bringing the PDS, the PCQ and the RAP together into one party. The party was not even official when an electoral opportunity presented itself in 2001, in the electoral district of Mercier, particularly favourable to progressive ideas. Longtime leftist activist Paul Cliche ran and won 25% of the votes. This token success encouraged the activists, and, shortly afterward, the Union of Progressive Forces (UFP) was founded. The UFP went on to participate in the general election of 2003 and its spokesperson, Amir Khadir, a physician of Iranian origin involved in international solidarity movements, won 18% of the votes, always in the Mercier district, from which he would finally be elected five years later.
During this time, in the fall of 2002, feminist and community activists, worried about the rise of the right, rallied around Solidarity First (DS). This organisation dedicated to political awareness and popular education aims to address and validate social questions usually shunted aside in the course of political debate in Quebec. DS offers an analysis of the political programs of the different parties, as well as wider understanding of what constitutes neoliberalism.
Within this formation, some would like to go further and see the birth of a political party corresponding to the values of feminist, ecological and social groups. In 2004, Françoise David and François Saillant pulled these activists together to found Citizens’ Option (OC), a political movement with the intention of transforming itself into a political party. OC and the UFP began to negotiate in order to prepare for a potential merger. Quebec Solidarity (QS) was created in February, 2006, before about one thousand people.
As may be seen from this short look across the history of Quebec, QS is pretty much a strange political animal. It does not come from a split in the Liberal Party over the question of independence for Quebec, as is the case for the PQ and the ADQ. Rather, it has formed very slowly, by trial and error, at the instigation of organisations with very different outlooks. It is a parti-processus14 that may not remain forever in its present form so that it can integrate other forces into its own.
The way it functions also is different from that of other parties. There is no chief. Instead, there is a joint coordinating committee of 16 people that includes two spokespersons: Françoise David and Amir Khadir. National decision-making meetings take place regularly, two or three times a year (so far). Several different tendencies are accommodated within the ranks (Communists, partisans of “degrowth”, Web activists, etc.), which is fairly unusual for Quebec. Members are called to mobilise for questions that go far beyond the electoral interest of the party and regularly turn out for issues such as the environment, social justice, international solidarity, etc. Quebec Solidarity does not try, either, to stifle debate and confronts members with essential questions from the very start, without promoting a state of permanent conflict: positions are clear, but debates take place calmly and with respect.
Of course, its most distinguishing feature is its philosophy. It is the only political party in Quebec to question the capitalist system and to link this system to the destruction of the environment and its deleterious effects. Quebec Solidarity also offers a unique position on the question of Quebec nationality. The party proposes that people in Quebec can use their popular sovereignty to put in place a constitutional assembly so that the idea of founding a country coincides with the opportunity to create and implement a different kind of society. Instead of betting on the lowest common denominator in order not to put people off, we believe that it is only by putting forward an exciting plan to transform society that we can succeed in making Quebec not only a country, but a country where it would be good to live. In the same breath, we propose that Quebec should fully respect the right to self-determination of Canada’s First (Indian) Nations by recognizing the territorial consequences of this right.
Even though the political left in Quebec has succeeded, with Quebec Solidarity, in forming a political party, and, just recently, sending an elected deputy to the National Assembly, many challenges still loom. At program level, Quebec Solidarity laid out, last November, the first part of its political program, which concerns the independence of Quebec, the integration of citizens and democratic institutions. In 2010, it will be a question of focusing on equally important issues: ecology, the economy, the world of work and agriculture. In this time of crisis, it is necessary to have a program that is clear on these questions. It is critical to the future of the party.
Quebec Solidarity must also better stake out its space for action in Quebec society. The party is resolutely not centred solely on electoral or parliamentary politics: yet, it is not clear how far to go in each domain. What role to play in the face of other social movements and leftist groups? How to participate in necessary cooperation with the left without falling into the trap of identifying with past parties who thought they “led” the movements? Who to approach (and how) as a party of the left, without sinking into dated identification with the worker, but preserving an antagonistic analysis of society? How to organise in order to be present at the ballot box and on the street at the same time, despite very limited resources?
The life of a leftist party in Quebec is precarious at best. Over the next few years, Quebec Solidarity will have to demonstrate its relevance at national level by transposing an expressed popular sympathy into votes, on the one hand, but by becoming, on the other hand, an indispensable force for social transformation that is as deep as it is exciting.
The author is a member of Quebec Solidarity and was responsible for the political direction of this party from 2006 to 2009. He has been one of the people responsible for the party’s communications since the general elections of 2007 and 2008.