There is a widespread perception that Quebec is more left-wing, or more “social-democratic” than the rest of Canada. Indeed, one branch of the sovereignty movement suggests that a commitment to social justice requires separation from Canada, because English Canada encumbers Quebec, preventing it from realizing its vision of a more egalitarian society. (It is because of this belief that many people in Quebec think of separatism as a natural extension of left-wing political commitments.)
This is an illusion. The part of Canada that I grew up in – Saskatchewan – was far more left-wing than Quebec has ever been. And it never once occurred to anyone that you couldn’t have “socialism in one province” (or that being a member of the Canadian federation in any way impeded the realization of the essentially socialist vision that was at the time predominant).
What makes Quebec distinct is the fact that, over the past 30 years, the Quebec political system has been tilted to the left. But this is not because the population of Quebec is more left-wing, or more committed to building a European-style welfare state. It’s because of a very particular trick that the Parti Quebecois was able to pull off. This trick, however, has not been working so well of late, and with Monday’s provincial election results, can now be said to have broken down entirely. As a result, Quebecers needs to disabuse themselves of the notion that the province is somehow immune to the forces that have generated significant successes for conservative parties in North America.
The PQ, historically, was essentially a hybrid party with two major wings: the first were left-wing, urban intellectuals, and second were essentially right-wing, rural… um, non-intellectuals. The latter are the sort of people who, anywhere else in Canada, would serve as the natural “base” for a conservative party. (To simplify, we can refer to these two groups as the “intellectuals” and the “xenophobes,” respectively. I came to understand how far apart these two groups were, politically, many years ago, listening in on two Quebecois friends discussing which members of their extended families were separatists: How about your parents? “They were student activists in the 60’s, imprisoned under the War Measures Act, so yeah they’re separatists.” How about your aunt and uncle in Rimouski? “Well sure, they’re just racists.”)
It would an understatement to say that not many political parties have been able to keep ageing ’60s radicals and rural rednecks all in one big tent. Furthermore, the PQ was largely able to keep the xenophobes under the thumb of the intellectuals, so even though much of its base was conservative politically, the party’s policies were usually progressive. Thus the political discourse in Quebec was titled to the left, because – in effect – left-wing intellectuals in the PQ were able to use nationalism to co-opt and control rural right-wing voters. This made it difficult for any conservative party to gain traction in the province, because the PQ monopolized a large fraction of the votes in what would be its natural base. It also meant that conservative parties outside Quebec had difficulty finding allies within the province, because again, the people they would most naturally want to do business with were strongly sovereigntist. (One could see the tensions quite clearly during the period of Stephen Harper’s ill-fated flirtation with the ADQ.)
By the end of the 1990s, the PQ had become so successful at controlling its rural base that it lost track of who its own voters were. The election of André Boisclair as party leader reflected, on the part of many PQ intellectuals, a certain measure of self-deception about the true character of their party. The idea that rural voters were going to look at a gay, urban, coke-sniffing, pretty-boy intellectual and be totally cool with that, was an epochal miscalculation. And so the ADQ started doing exactly what conservative parties had, traditionally, been unable to do – stealing away the PQ’s rural base. Pauline Marois was essentially elected to reverse the damage done. We now know how that worked out. In trying to recapture the rural base, she tilted the party so hard to the right that she completely alienated the “urban intellectual” wing of the party. (An intellectual wing that includes, incidentally, most of the high-brow journalists in Quebec. Many people have observed that the recent campaign “did not go well” for the PQ. I would be very curious to know how much of that is due to journalists not having let it go well for them.)
When people claim that Quebec is “more left wing” than the rest of Canada, the achievement that they most often point to is the state-run/subsidized daycare system. And yet it is noteworthy that the motivation for this policy was not purely left-wing, but reflected rather the hybrid structure of the PQ. It appealed to the intellectuals, in that it sought to promote greater labour force participation by women, but it also appealed to the xenophobes, by promising to increase the domestic birthrate, thereby reducing the need for immigration to correct the province’s demographic imbalance. (It is worth recalling that the daycare system replaced a system of enormous “baby bonuses” – which Quebec is the only province to have ever paid – adopted with the transparent goal of getting la revanche des berceaux back on track).
In many other areas, however, the welfare state in Quebec is in worse shape than in other Canadian provinces. Most obviously, the health care system in Quebec is a disgrace – a straightforward reflection of the fact that Quebec spends the least amount of money per capita on health care of all the Canadian provinces. Nor is the Quebec income tax system particularly progressive, because of the very high marginal rate that kicks in at very low income levels. (A single person working full-time at minimum wage has to pay close to $1000 in Quebec income tax, versus only $500 in Ontario or Saskatchewan.) Quebec’s welfare system is not particularly generous, and income inequality in Quebec is middle-of-the-pack. In terms of how much redistribution is achieved through the tax system, Quebec is in the same league as Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Ontario. Education spending is also middling.
So whatever it is that the Quebec government does with all the extra money it raises, building a robust welfare state is certainly not a very important part of it. By contrast, the province where I grew up, during the 1970s, was far to the left of what has ever been dreamed of in Quebec. (When my father went to study in the United States, back in the late ’50s, the mere fact that he was from Saskatchewan earned him a visit from the FBI, and a long sit-down chat about his reasons for being in America.) I was ten years old before I saw a telephone that wasn’t black – because Sasktel had a monopoly, so you had to buy your phone from the government. Those phones only came in one style and one colour. Our automobile insurance was from the government, intercity bus service was run by the government, and not just the utilities but the entire mining industry was owned and operated by the government. We bought our groceries at the co-op, filled up the tank at the co-op gas station, banked at the local credit union, and bought chicken feed at the wheat pool. We went to public school because there were no private schools. The government was even in the process of nationalizing agriculture through its “land bank,” as well as introducing comprehensive dental care, when the Progressive Conservatives finally got elected and put a stop to it all.
This is all, of course, ancient history. The important point for right now is that the ultimate failure of the socialist project in Saskatchewan had absolutely nothing to do with anything going on in the rest of Canada. It’s not as though a bunch of Bay Street financiers or Ottawa politicians arrived and started making trouble. On the contrary, the project fell victim to its own internal tensions, both economic and political. The fact that Saskatchewan was merely a province in a larger federal state was neither an aid nor an encumbrance.
Of course, there are parts of English Canada that are genuinely right-wing. Alberta is the obvious example, and understanding how that province came to be that way is something of a special story. But beyond these observations it’s difficult to generalize. It is certainly the case that the power of oil money in Canada is very great, and so the two decades in which Quebecers sat out of federal politics (by voting for the Bloc Quebecois), saw an inexorable drift of power and influence away from Ontario toward Alberta. This has made the difference in political culture between Quebec and the rest of Canada seem much greater than it actually is — since the province that Quebec most resembles, in practically every regard, is Ontario.
More generally though, the success that the PQ was able to achieve over the years, holding together its coalition, has helped foster the illusion that the province is more left-wing than it actually is. Some of the complacency that this generated has been shattered in the past year or two, with all the fuss over “reasonable accommodation.” If the moment has finally come for a realignment of Quebec politics, along a left-right rather than a constitutional axis, it is important for the left in Quebec not to take anything for granted. There is no reason to think that building a genuinely progressive political party in Quebec will be any easier than it is in any other Canadian province — save perhaps Alberta (and even then, once the fracking moratorium comes off — which it will — who knows?)