Whither the Left in Quebec?

            I live in a Montreal riding that has been voting Liberal since time immemorial. Deciding who to vote for is therefore for me something of a theoretical exercise. Whatever happens in the province more broadly, you can be sure that Kathleen Weil, who served as Minister of Justice in the Charest government, will be returned to power with a hefty majority. Weil is a credible candidate, but I won’t be voting for her. Like many Quebeckers, I worry about the degree to which Philippe Couillard has managed to rid the party of the stench of corruption in the few months that he has been leader. Like many people on the Left, I don’t see him as having in any significant way arrested the rightward drift that Jean Charest imprinted upon the Liberals. And as a civil libertarian, I am not ready to forgive the Liberals (and Mme. Weil) for having enacted repressive legislation aimed at stemming the protests that gripped the province in the Spring and Summer of 2012.

            The PQ has over the course of the last few months placed itself beyond the pale. They have stoked the flames of xenophobia through their so-called “Charter of Values” in ways that will take the province years to recover from, whatever the electoral fate that the party meets on April 7. The defeat of the PQ is a crucial first step toward that recovery. If I lived in a riding where voting for the Liberals increased the chances of unseating a péquiste, I would do so despite my misgivings without hesitation. But I do not live in such a riding.

            That leaves me with a choice of smaller parties. I feel no affinities with the policies being put forward by the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), but I do appreciate the fact that it has attempted to define itself on the basis of something other than a constitutional position. Since the rise to power of the PQ in 1976, Quebec voters have not really been able to elect parties on the basis of their policy platforms. Federalists vote for the Liberals, and left-wing federalists have increasingly been doing so whilst holding their noses, and sovereignists vote for the PQ, regardless of whether it happens to be led by a moderate progressive like René Lévesque, or by a former Tory like Lucien Bouchard.

            My hope had been that the rise of CAQ would galvanize the Left, and that a left-wing Party would emerge that would, like the CAQ, place the constitutional question on the back-burner. That has not happened. Québec Solidaire has if anything been the most unabashedly and unapologetically sovereignist party out there during this campaign. Despite the fact that Françoise David has in the course of this particularly nasty campaign often seemed like the only adult in a room full of squabbling children, her appeal to non-sovereignists is therefore limited. It is a disappointment, but not a surprise, that QS will have trouble attracting more than 10% or so of the vote.

            That is a shame. Unlike the PQ, that views sovereignty as en end in itself (while backing away from it for electoral reasons during the campaign), QS clearly sees it as a means to an end. QS’s plan is not to launch a referendum on the question of sovereignty, but rather to appoint a constituent assembly that would draw up a constitution which would then be submitted to the electorate in a referendum. The QS leadership clearly hopes that that assembly would include a generous menu of social and economic rights and minority protections, among other things.

            The QS leadership clearly believes that such a left-leaning “projet de société” is impossible within the Canadian federalist framework. But this is at best an open question. Whether on the basis of formal agreements with the rest of Canada, or informal administrative arrangements, Quebec possesses the policy levers to enact pretty much whatever set of social policies it wants. Jean-François Lisée himself has before taking power spoken quite rightly of the “de-Canadianization” of Quebec politics. Over the years, what happens in Ottawa has come to seem increasingly irrelevant to Quebeckers who, despite the lack of explicit constitutional recognition, have been able to conduct their politics pretty much as they have seen fit to do.

            So there is a tension at the heart of the QS position that is frustrating to those of us who long for a party in Quebec that would place policies aimed at social justice at the heart of its platform. If the intention of the QS is really to hand the question of the constitutional future of Quebec over to a truly representative constituent assembly, then the conclusions that that assembly would arrive at cannot be foretold. If QS’s priorities are to social justice first, and to sovereignty only to the degree that it can be shown to be a necessary condition for the attainment and enhancement of social justice in Quebec, then it should on its own first principles transform itself into a CAQ of the left, that is a party that places policy first, and constitutional options second.

            (I hasten to add, to forestall obvious objections, that the position that I am advocating does not mean plumping for federalism once and for all, either. It means that the question of Quebec’s constitutional status should for a social-democrat be a theorem rather than an axiom. Any truly inclusive social-democratic party should view Quebec as a society capable of exercising its self-determination, whether within or outside the present Canadian constitutional framework).

            Not only would that position be more coherent with its social-democratic first principles, it would also allow QS to grow beyond what at present seems to be its 10% ceiling. Left-wing non-sovereignists would be attracted by a party that viewed Quebec’s constitutional future as open. (Remember that this is a province that voted in 60 NDP candidates in the last federal election). The electoral potential of the party would be opened up considerably.

            But that does not seem like it is going to happen any time soon. As mentioned above, whether out of conviction or strategy, Mme. David has if anything been trying to outflank the PQ on the question of sovereignty.  She and her party have in so doing placed significant obstacles in the way of the creation of a truly inclusive social-democratic party in Quebec.

            Before every election, the Radio-Canada website sets up an “electoral compass”. It allows visitors to the site to answer a wide range of questions about their policy preferences, and to assign weights to each of these sets of preferences. It then organizes respondents in a space organized along two axes: the vertical axis organizes respondents according to their answers to identity-related questions. The horizontal one organizes them according to traditional left-right preferences.

            Along with many people I know – and not just Anglophones, but francophones and allophones as well — I find myself squarely in the middle of the bottom-left quadrant. The site helpfully informs me that the party that best corresponds to my political preferences is the Green Party. There must be many of us down there who would dearly love to see the emergence of a viable option to occupy that space.


Whither the Left in Quebec? — 9 Comments

  1. Cher Daniel,
    Moi aussi, quand j’ai fait la boussole électorale, je me suis située dans ce cadran, à gauche à la fois sur l’axe identitaire et sur l’axe socio-économique. Et pourtant, je suis candidate pour Québec solidaire dans NDG.
    Nous partageons entièrement cette idée que la souveraineté ne doit servir qu’à atteindre un idéal, et que cette souveraineté peut prendre différentes formes. La démarche inclusive et démocratique que propose QS vise exactement cet idéal, et pas autre chose d’identitaire ou mû par un nationalisme ethnique malsain. Il ne faut pas oublier que le projet de QS va de pair avec la promesse d’une réforme du mode de scrutin pour instaurer la représentation proportionnelle, afin de mieux refléter les intérêts minoritaires.
    Si, dans la campagne actuelle, la position de mon parti est présentée de façon plus polarisée, c’est que dans un monde à 140 caractères et aux débats formatés aux 2 minutes, il est très difficile de faire les nuances qui s’imposent, alors nous sommes forcés de nous définir (de façon trop simpliste, j’en conviens) pour éviter de se faire définir (de façon trop simpliste également).
    La non-position de la CAQ sur la question nationale ne l’a pas servie – ignorer cet enjeu n’est pas une solution.
    Si vous avez la chance de m’entendre dans un débat, vous verrez que j’essaie toujours de présenter la vision souverainiste de QS qui est vraiment celle d’un idéal démocratique pour plus de participation citoyenne à la prise de décisions.
    J’espère que vous aurez envie de voter pour une candidate qui est d’accord avec vous.
    Au plaisir,
    Annick Desjardins

  2. QS plays up “sovereignty” in order to attract PQ voters, thinking its a larger population than left voters willing to support QS despite reserves about the sovereignty option.
    Its a shame that the constitution for Quebec option has not been highlighted but QS wants to elect members. A old dilemma faced by left parties. What to compromise in order to reach a larger base of potential supporters.

  3. Chère Annick,

    Je suis touché que vous ayez pris le temps de répondre à mon billet. J’ai beaucoup de respect et d’admiration pour QS et pour ceux qui y militent. J’ai voté pour ce parti aux dernières élections, et je le referai sans doute cette fois-ci. Je m’inquiète cependant de la capacité de QS à se faire le point de ralliement de la gauche québécoise. L’analogie avec la CAQ n’est pas parfaite. La CAQ sur le plan idéologique ne se distingue pas suffisamment du PLQ pour pouvoir rivaliser sérieusement avec lui. QS pourrait par contre aller chercher pas mal de votes qui sont pour l’instant “parqués” avec le PLQ par des fédéralistes de gauche, d’autant plus que de mettre l’accent sur son côté social-démocrate serait plus cohérent avec le propos que vous tenez vous-même que de mettre de l’avant la carte souverainiste.

    Au plaisir de vous entendre, et en vous souhaitant beaucoup de courage pour cette fin de campagne!


  4. Daniel,

    I read your blog post and subsequent commentary. What a disappointment!

    You admit to voting in the past two elections for the Quebec Solidaire (QS) party and indicate that you will likely vote for them again this time. Not only is this a party that was originally created through a merger with the Communist Party of Quebec, but it is even more dedicated to the breaking up of the country than the PQ! You must have laughed when you accepted the Trudeau Foundation’s invitation to become a “Fellow”! The irony of it all!

    The reference to being a self-described leftist and a civil libertarian is amusing. While you can’t forgive the Liberals for “repressive legislation aimed at stemming the protests that gripped the province”, how do you think left wing regimes (e.g. China, Cuba or North Korea, etc.) would have dealt with such protests? Which left wing regime do you consider to be a bastion of civil liberties?

    This QS proposal for their appointing a “truly representative” constituent assembly, and your enthusiasm for it, is equally puzzling. This group of leftist sympathizers would be given the task of drafting a constitution, and you claim that it is “at best an open question” as to whether such a project is even possible in the Canadian federalist framework.

    Whoah! Are you the same Daniel Weinstock who previously started a petition criticizing the federal Tory government for the prorogation of Parliament? Why are your concerns at that time not applicable to this proposal? The legislature is our constituent assembly. The people we vote for are our representatives. Those are the people who have the mandate to make our laws, in consultation with the people. Why would you support the legislature’s abdication of its role and transferring it to their unelected friends? Where’s the accountability in that?

    And where does this idea that the Canadian federalist framework would not permit such a project come from? How can one claim that the Canadian federalist framework has impeded Quebec’s evolution? If anything, it protects Quebec’s ability to interfere with civil liberties. Quebec has made use of the Charter’s notwithstanding clause to adopt repressive language legislation in the past. Did you see the media story a while ago about the language police harassing an Italian restaurant owner because the menu had the word “pasta”?

    Finally, what is this reference to “de-Canadianization” in Quebec all about? While in this article you credit J-F Lisee with the development of this term, you used it a few weeks ago in a media interview suggesting that “Quebec has pretty much already separated” (gee, thanks Dan).

    What nonsense! You can remove the Canadian flag the maple leaf from public display, but sections 91 and 92 of the constitution are still around. While a few “opting out” arrangements with respect to immigration or pension plans may ensure the province maintains its own bloated civil service to demonstrate that they are “maître chez nous”, the reality is that Quebeckers still pay tax to the feds, and get corresponding services in return. However, the CAQ leader’s comment during the first debate was probably most relevant here. When asked about separation, he said that “now is not the time”. Why? Because Quebec is considered a “have not” province in confederation and is getting billions annually in transfer payments. De-Canadianization? More like the opposite. The political correctness and fear (of being accused of being a proud federalist) in Quebec that provokes some to pretend that Canada does not exist (like Marois’ congratulating the Olympic athletes from Quebec and not saying the word “Canada”, as if they were on their own separate team) is unbecoming of a great and proud society. In fact, it is rather “provincial”.

  5. Andrew Kavchak,stop trying to keep the Cold War alive. Stalinism is extinct. Nothing anyone on the Left wants today has anything in common with what the Soviet Union was like. We learned from that and moved on. The Left project today is about economic democracy and making social change from below, not “Marxist-Leninism” and the Gulag.

    And, if you want Quebec to remain part of Canada, stop sounding like you’d like to see General Wolfe rise from the grave. Quebec has a nationalist conscience because of generations of Anglo-supremacist arrogance of the sort your post drips with(I hate to say it, but when you talk about Quebec, you sound like Vladimir Putin talking about Ukraine). Quebec IS a nation-within-a-nation, and there’s no reason for the Canadian government not to recognize that.

  6. As to you, Daniel, you need to accept that the Left agenda is what needs to come first in this campaign…we now know there won’t BE a referendum in the next four years(and there may not ever be, given how badly the PQ is likely to do on Monday).

    Demanding that QS give up sovereigntism(the issue that was the radicalizing point for virtually every francophone leftist in Quebec)is unintentionally condescending. Francophones see themselves as a colonized people…asking them to, in effect, recant sovereigntism is to ask them to deny their own reality and their own historical experience. It is the same as asking blacks or Latinos or LGBT people or Palestinians to forget their own oppression and move, instead, to whatever is YOUR comfort zone. Sovereigntism isn’t something Quebec francophones can be expected to “get over” or move on from. What you need to do is to start a long-term dialogue with them, a dialectic if you will, and through that process to find some new model, something beyond the old notions of “federalism” or “sovereigntism”, that transcends those categories and replaces them with something more inclusive and more justice…the reason that the PQ is dying and QS is rising is that QS gets that, but the PQ doesn’t(or, as essentially old-style 19th century ethnic nationalists, possibly can’t).

    What matters now is the building of a Quebec free from exploitation, hatred, and want. The question of what flag all that happens under is no longer the primary issue.

  7. Ken,

    I think we actually agree. My point was not to say that QS should recant the sovereignist option, but rather that is should not make it front and center. I have spoken to many QS candidates, and they have all told me that for them sovereignty matters as a means to achieving greater social justice, rather than as an end in itself. But sometimes that does not come out clearly. If it did, I think that many more people could be brought round to seeing QS as the natural rallying point of progressive forces in Quebec. Again: not imposing my comfort zone upon them, but rather bringing what they claim to be their position out more clearly.

  8. Thanks for that response, Daniel. And it bears remembering that there are MANY ways to be a sovereigntist…most of which can be realized without Quebec actually becoming an independent country(something I don’t think most sovereigntists are actually working for anymore. I didn’t mean to sound as irritable towards you as I did there.

  9. Moving On (Another Québécois Dream). —

    “My my, hey hey / Rock and roll is here to stay / It’s better to burn out / Than to fade away”—Neil Young, “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue),” Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

    There are those here in Quebec, and elsewhere, that view separatism as an albatross around the neck of the body politic, a bedeviling dream that distracts us from more important matters. They long for a resolution. “Everything would be so great,” they say, “if we could just move the heck on!” Though I sometimes sympathize with this sentiment, I think it’s important to realize that the dream of moving on is—itself—just another albatross. Separatism isn’t going anywhere, not in a Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain sense. All to the contrary, separatism is going to fade away slowly, decade after increasingly deplorable decade, like one of those geriatric boomer bands that used to be awesome but has long since evolved into a pathetic caricature of itself.

    At the end of the day, there’s little difference between these two faith statements: (1) “Everything would be so great if we could just get over this separatism thing and move on.” AND (2) “Everything would be so great if we could just separate from Canada and move on.” Both positions allow you to live in a fantasy land of the future, whilst avoiding the very real problems of the present. To some extent, then, they’re both akin to the worst kind of messianic thinking: namely, premillennialism.

    Like many Christian fundamentalists, those who prioritize separatism or the demise of separatism, above all else, remain fixated upon a radical break with history—a world-historical game-changer—which will, they believe, lead us into the Promised Land: a paradisaical place of pristine purity, pregnant with possibility. Only THERE, in this latter-day Eden, can our dreams of social justice come true. Only THEN—after this New Beginning, this fresh start—can we hope for solutions to the problems we face.

    But alas, we never seem to get to THEN or THERE.

    Instead, we gaze off dreamily into a distant and hoped for future, while things in the real world go from bad to worse.