New Opportunities for Québec's Left

Québec has been the scene of tremendous struggle against neoliberalism and imperialism over the last few years. Students shut down colleges and universities for several months in a massive strike in 2012. Three years later, that militancy was expressed in large strikes of public sector workers. Now that struggle has shifted to the electoral arena as Québec’s new party of the left, Québec Solidaire (QS), stands poised for electoral gains. But it will only be able to do so if it positions itself as the electoral expression of both the social and class struggles on the ground as well as the struggle for Québec independence from the Canadian state. Socialists in and around QS and in the social movements can play a key role in arguing for this perspective.

Three years after my first article in the International Socialist Review on Québec Solidaire1, we have witnessed a significant shift in the positions of the province’s four main political parties, as well as the election of a new Canadian Liberal government under the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The reconfiguration of Québec politics has primarily occurred

around the issues of class, climate change, and national questions—specifically the right of self-determination for Québec and the indigenous First Nations.2

In this article, I will explain how Québec Solidaire can make significant gains between now and the next provincial election sometime in 2018, if it takes initiatives on the basis of a bold program for independence and social justice and decidedly turns its back on any kind of effort to save the bourgeois nationalist Parti Québécois (PQ) from its self-made decline. If QS does so, it could in collaboration with its allies take the leadership in the struggle for independence away from the PQ for the first time in fifty years. This would allow the Left to give the struggle for independence the anticolonial, radical democratic, and anticapitalist content it should have, which could in turn give new strength to the social movements and class struggles in Québec, and indeed, the entire Canadian state.

Class exploitation and national oppression

In my article in 2014, I attempted to outline as briefly as possible Québec’s history as an oppressed nation. This background is crucial to understand the current set of questions faced by QS. I argued,

A distinctive feature of politics and social struggles in Québec is that the majority of the population of the current Canadian province has experienced a history of oppression based on their language (French) and religion (Catholic), starting with the conquest of New France by England during what US historiography calls the French and Indian War (or Seven Years War—1756–63).

The French Canadian working class was used as cheap labor (not unlike the Irish). . . . Until the 1970s, it was very common for French-speaking workers to have English employers and have to function in an English-speaking workplace, in spite of French speakers being the majority, both at the factory and in the town.

This oppression led to several major confrontations between the majority of French Canadians and the Canadian state, especially in times of war. Political crisis erupted during both world wars over the draft. . . .

In 1970, the PQ was the first party advocating for the transformation of the Québec provincial state into a sovereign country to elect members into the Québec Parliament since the rebellions of the 1830s. Hopes were high throughout the 1970s that this young party, a cross-class coalition of right and left political forces, would achieve some sort of independence. Many on the left, including revolutionary socialists, rallied to it with the stagist strategy of achieving independence first and fighting for socialism after. Others turned their backs entirely on the national struggle, calling it a bourgeois distraction.

To this day, the province of Québec still hasn’t ratified the new Canadian constitution adopted by all other provinces and the federal parliament in 1982. Support for independence has ranged between 35 and 40 percent for most of the past thirty years, with a peak around 50 percent in the early 1990s. This movement is an expression of resistance to oppression, even if the current leadership of the movement does everything it can to appear reasonable and win over the capitalist class.3

We need to add to this picture the fact that the Canadian Left has utterly failed to take into account the struggle of French Canadians against their oppression in the earlier half of the twentieth century. The Canadian Left also failed in the 1960s to connect meaningfully with the Québec Left when it embraced the strategy of independence and socialism inspired by the worldwide wave of national liberation struggles. In the 1980s and 1990s, the hegemony of the bourgeois nationalist party, the PQ, and its increasingly obvious procapitalist nature were reasons enough for the Canadian Left to ignore the Québec question altogether.

Since the PQ’s marked shift to the right, QS has come on the scene and given an inspirational precedent and example of how to renew the Left in the Canadian state. This stands in stark contrast to Canada’s social democratic party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), which has repeatedly demonstrated how it governs just like Liberals and provides no alternative for the working class. In this context, one would have expected the English Canadian Left to be all over the QS experiment and rediscover the Québec question in all its explosive potential. But that has not been the case so far, as Québec socialist Pierre Baudet documents in a recent article.4

As another recent contribution pointed out, postcolonial thinking—in an era of climate change, aboriginal struggles, and intersectional opposition to all types of oppression—should provide a framework for meaningful solidarity and a common struggle against the Canadian state.5 There is hope yet that the scattered struggles across the second largest state in the world could converge. But making sure this happens will depend on the ability and willingness of socialists in all nations and regions to come together and develop a common strategy rooted in those movements, combining class struggle with anti-oppression politics.

The impasse of bourgeois nationalismand the rise of Québec Solidaire

For decades, Québec politics were defined by a clear-cut polarization between the camp of sovereignty (or independence) led by the PQ and the camp of federalism (or Canadian unity) led by the Québec Liberal Party (PLQ). This began to shift after the second referendum on sovereignty in 1995, in which 49.5 percent voted for sovereignty after the PQ in power betrayed widespread expectations for progressive change. Instead, they implemented the most drastic series of neoliberal attacks to date, implementing drastic cuts in public services in order to eliminate the budget deficit. But the inertia of political habits—and the logic of the “first past the post” electoral system6—allowed the PQ to hold on to a political coalition under the slogan of uniting all sovereigntists, from the Left as well as the Right. But the PQ’s commitment to independence was increasingly reduced to empty rhetoric and eventually to nothing but a label.

As the PQ’s shift to the right developed, space opened for an avowedly leftist party for independence. Since QS was founded eleven years ago, it has begun to fill that space. First, QS itself built a new type of political coalition based on the common values and principles of the twenty-first century Left: feminism, global justice, ecology, participatory democracy, social justice, solidarity with First Nations, etc. One of the seven founding principles of the party was Québec sovereignty, defined as both independence from Canada and popular self-determination through a constituent assembly. Thousands of activists came together in this new party and gradually eroded the hold of the PQ over the Left. QS has also increased its electoral gains from its initial result of 3.75 percent of the vote in 2007 to 7.5 percent in 2014. Now it has three Members of the National Assembly (MNAs) out of the total of 125 in the National Assembly.

During this period, the crisis in the PQ has only deepened. In 2011, four PQ MNAs resigned over the lack of practical perspectives for the next phase of the struggle for independence. One of them founded a new party, Option Nationale (ON). This new party never got more than 1 percent of the vote, but it attracted many young and committed independentists out of the PQ and further eroded the claims of the old nationalist party on the struggle for independence.

The visible presence of QS and ON eventually forced the PQ to admit, very reluctantly, that they no longer held a monopoly on the issue of sovereignty. As a response, those who were holding on to the deeply rooted notion of a unity of all sovereigntists against all federalists had to shift their strategy to promoting an alliance between QS, ON, and the PQ. So far the PQ’s attempt to lure all sovereigntists into a common front has failed. In reality, they wanted QS to just go away, and were hoping that ON would return to the fold. All the while, QS was building itself in opposition to the right-wing policies and abandonment of the national struggle by the PQ.

Islamophobia and the New Right

While the PQ lost support from the left over their failure at putting forward a new strategy for independence, the Liberals lost support from their nationalist base after two failed efforts at constitutional reform to secure Québec autonomy in 1990 and 1993. The Liberals had promised that they would be able to achieve greater autonomy for Québec in the Canadian state as part of their campaign to win the first referendum on sovereignty in 1980. This position of Québec autonomy within Canada has been a traditional position of bourgeois nationalists for the last 150 years.

After the Liberals failed to deliver, they gave up on any further attempt and accepted the status quo. In reaction to this, a section of Liberals left to form a new party called Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ).The PQ then took advantage of the Liberal’s crisis over those failed reforms to win the elections in 1994 and push for the 1995 referendum on independence, which was narrowly defeated.

At first, the ADQ defined themselves as autonomist on the national question and conservative on economic issues. It was part of the coalition on the “Yes” side supporting sovereignty in the 1995 referendum. Immediately after, it declared that the whole national question should be put on the back burner for at least ten years. They managed to get their leader elected, and then a handful of MNAs, with about 15 percent of the popular vote.

This all changed in 2007 when the ADQ leader, Mario Dumont, launched a political storm when he denounced court decisions that forced public institutions, especially education, to accommodate Québec’s religious and ethnic minorities and their traditions. His racist attack focused on opposing the teaching of Aboriginal mythology. He also positioned his party in favor of a significant reduction in the number of immigrants legally accepted every year. It was the first time in living memory that a party had tried to build popular support by stoking xenophobic or anti-immigrant sentiment in Québec. In an ominous sign, this strategy paid off. In the following election, ADQ came in second place and pushed the PQ to third place for the first time since their first election in 1970.

As a result, the PQ leader who had refused to get into xenophobic politics got turfed out and replaced with a new one who promised two things: to abandon pushing for a third referendum on sovereignty and to adopt a new conservative emphasis on Québec’s French cultural identity such as defense of the French language, stricter immigration policies, and secularism against Muslims, known in France and Québec as “laïcité.” In other words, the PQ became autonomist in fact and started competing with ADQ on the terrain of a conservative brand of nationalism. Eighteen months later, the PQ came in second, regaining its traditional position as the official opposition to the Liberals, while the ADQ went back to its usual position as the third largest party in the National Assembly, with 15 percent of the vote.

This setback for ADQ led to the resignation of its leader and eventually to a merger with a new political movement led by a businessman and former PQ cabinet minister. ADQ became “la Coalition avenir Québec” (CAQ, Québec Future Coalition). After a brief surge of support in the polls when it was first launched, CAQ ended up not doing much better than ADQ and was still in third place, but close behind the Liberals and the PQ in the last two general elections in 2012 and 2014.

The Liberal’s commitment to neoliberalism led to a crisis of their own making. When they tried to impose tuition fee increases in higher education, students rose up in the massive student strike of 2012, dubbed the Maple Spring. The strike forced the Liberals to call a quick election in the hopes of revealing their hold on a “silent majority” who opposed the students. Instead, the Liberals lost to the PQ, who formed a minority government based on a narrow electoral victory of only 1 percent. The PQ government fell after only eighteen months for two main reasons: their continuation of Liberal austerity policies, and their shift to adopt a conservative emphasis on French cultural politics, most clearly expressed in an Islamophobic “Charter of Values” that would have severely curtailed religious freedoms in Québec. Apart from that short episode, the Liberals have governed Québec nonstop since 2003. But Québec’s two establishment parties, the Liberals and the PQ, are increasingly under pressure from many sides at the ballot box and in streets and workplaces.

The 2016 shift

Over the past few years, the political landscape in Québec has been gradually divided between four main groups: 1) the Liberals, dedicated to the constitutional and economic status quo; 2) the PQ, for independence in theory and with social-democratic roots but autonomist, ethnic nationalist, and neoliberal in practice; 3) CAQ, conservative on economic questions, ethnic nationalist and autonomist; and 4) QS, uniting most of the organized Left and supporting independence on a pluralist and inclusive basis. Several important developments have taken place over the past year or so that reinforce this four-way divide and give us hope for a new surge of support for QS.

First, the PQ, after spending one year with a billionaire media mogul as leader, recently had to pick a new one, due to his surprise resignation. The new leader, Jean-François Lisée, is a former leftist but has been a supporter of “third way” or social liberal policies like that of Tony Blair in the British Labour Party. Notably, part of his strategy for winning the leadership race consisted in manipulating identity issues and Islamophobia, using dog whistle politics on social media. Since then, the PQ caucus has rallied around a softer version of the Charter of Values.

Also, Lisée rallied the party behind a commitment not to hold any consultation on sovereignty during a hypothetical first term in office (2018–2022). What remained of the independentist wing of the party found this hard to accept. They backed the candidate who came in third place. The second place went to a prudent young career politician who refused to commit on independence either way and rejected conservative identity politics.

The strategy put forward by Lisée for getting the PQ back in power is based on criticism of the austerity policies of the current government, with an appeal to “unity of progressives” rather than “unity of sovereigntists.” The fact that his own party has implemented the same type of policies since 1982 doesn’t seem to bother what is left of the progressive wing within it, or the sections of the union bureaucracy lining up to support the PQ as a “lesser evil” in 2018. In reality, Lisée’s strategy represents a death knell for the idea of unity of sovereigntists through an alliance between the PQ, QS, and ON. Overall, by aiming for the absolute center, the new leader is exposing the PQ to the danger of alienating everyone by trying to make everyone moderately happy. He could lose support from the left to QS and from the right to CAQ and lead his party to a disaster.

Last year, we also saw the sudden emergence of a political campaign led by a self-appointed collective of progressive activists that emerged out of the electoral, student, and union struggles. Under the catchy name “We Need to Talk,” the group, which includes former student strike spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau Dubois and ON leader Jean-Martin Aussant, crisscrossed all of Québec for several weeks, hosting regional assemblies and meetings to discuss a whole range of issues. What has come out of that process, in terms of concrete policy proposals, is strikingly similar to the Québec Solidaire program.7

This indicates broad support for the ideas of QS, but a challenge in terms of translating that support into more members and more votes. The “We Need to Talk” group officially dissolved at the end of February with the release of its book and the posting of the results of its assemblies on its website. Some QS activists thought that members of the collective should just have joined QS right away and were annoyed at what they considered be a long “detour.” But the fact that thousands of people participated in the process indicates that it met a need among a significant layer of progressives. A better approach for QS activists would have been to engage with this process and its leaders.

Regardless, after this “detour,” some key leaders of “We Need to Talk” are attempting to bring their followers into QS. Indeed, on March 9 of this year, the group’s highest profile figure, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, announced his intention to stand as the QS candidate in a by-election after Françoise David retired from politics.8 He will also be running for one of the two spokesperson positions, which will be elected in May at the QS convention. This is a very positive development, already bringing a new layer of active members to the party. At least 300 people joined QS following his announcement. By associating the most well known figure of the 2012 student strike with QS, it continues the process of transformation of the Québec social and political scene following this remarkable mobilization.

What next for QS: A socialist perspective

Last autumn, Québec Solidaire had a complicated debate on potential alliances with other political and social forces. At first, the debate was framed around how to respond to calls for unity between the PQ, QS, and ON. But the election of Lisée changed that situation, forcing the QS leadership to reframe the issue around a broad notion of alliances with unspecified potential partners on the basis of a short list of common principles.

As a result, the last national meeting of QS was a mess of conflicting analysis of the political situation and led to the adoption of a complex motion that led some to interpret it as an opening toward an alliance with the PQ, while others claimed that it implicitly excluded that possibility. The motion listed a series of conditions for any alliance that the PQ is unlikely to fulfill. But the refusal to state what QS really thinks of the PQ, all for the sake of appearing to be nice to sections of public opinion, sowed the seeds of strategic confusion and future defeats. QS must clearly reject any alliance with the PQ and instead attempt to lead its own project for independence on a clear left-wing basis and galvanize other forces in pursuit of that objective.

In a good sign of such an initiative, QS is attempting to engage in deeper discussions with social movement leaders and some unionists on how to forge a challenge from the left to the Liberals and their unrelenting attacks on social programs and labor. But the social and union movements are currently in low ebb after a period of dramatic struggle. On top of that, most of them have a deep tradition of nonengagement in electoral politics.

For example, even after the historic mobilization of 2012, which led to an election that year that toppled the Liberal government from power, student unions remained neutral and did not endorse any party. For community groups, dependence on meager public subsidies and the help of private foundations is paralyzing when it comes to political involvement. As for unions: some already support QS, but most stayed neutral in 2014, and implicit support for the PQ is still strong.

Some social movement activists who are not already in QS may join over the next few months. Some of them may become good candidates. But there is no sign of a significant shift towards a meaningful engagement in electoral politics from their organizations. This is not where the next wave of expansion for QS can come from. But a discussion with these forces is key if QS wants to genuinely represent social and class struggles at the ballot box.

This being said, there is a real possibility to expand a political alternative around a rejection of conservative identity politics and for a democratic and progressive vision of independence. This can be done through QS, with ON, and the people who were mobilized through “We Need to Talk,” but it requires clarity and insistence on the part of QS about its goal of achieving independence on a progressive basis. In a positive sign, Nadeau-Dubois made this central in his first speech as a QS member and potential candidate.

Socialists within QS must continue to work toward uniting the left within the new party. At the same time, we must work within the social movements to make concrete the connection between electoral struggle and social and class struggle. As part of that initiative, socialists inside QS have been part of forging the combative wing within the labor movement. This is being done brilliantly, since the last massive public sector struggle in 2015, through Lutte Commune (Common Struggle), a network of rank-and-file union militants spearheaded by anticapitalists of various tendencies. This may not lead to a short-term convergence between the labor movement and QS, but it can lay the groundwork for more combative strategies during the next round of public sector bargaining in 2020.

The socialist current within QS, Réseau Écosocialiste, is participating in all these initiatives as best it can. And it is bringing to them and QS a commitment to eco-socialism. The idea that the current economic system is at the root of the climate crisis is present in embryonic forms in some sections of the movement, as well as in key documents like the Leap Manifesto9 and the Québec Solidaire program. But it is still combined with elements of green capitalism, creating a general sense of strategic confusion. This green capitalist strategy is very much in tune with a rejection of partisan politics, with lobbying efforts aimed at all parties, no matter how right wing or pro-oil they may be.

Finally, in order to argue within QS for a clearer left independence strategy, as well as in the unions for a combative approach and in the environmental movement for an anticapitalist perspective, socialists need to be organized. A handful of small groups of socialists, in Québec and at the pan-Canadian level, have been working side by side on campaigns like Fight for 15 and other initiatives in solidarity with various workers’ struggles. These common efforts should be expanded and the political discussions more developed so we can build a sizable socialist organization in Québec and Canada, with strong international connections and a common perspective. Within this common program, solidarity of the Canadian Left and its movements with Québec, including its aspirations for national independence, will be key in liberating not only Québec but also the Canadian working class from its identification with its own ruling class and its capitalist state.

  1. Benoit Renaud, “A New Party in Canada,” International Socialist Review 92, Spring 2014,
  2. For more on the interplay of class and national oppression in Québec, see the 2014 article I wrote in the Scottish Left online magazine Bella Caledonia,
  3. ISR 92, op. cit.
  4. Pierre Beaudet, “The Canadian Left and the Québec Question: The Dilemma That Won’t Go Away,” The Bullet, February 15 2017,
  5. Andrea Levy and Corvin Russell, “Mapping the Canadian Left: Sovereignty and Solidarity in the 21st Century,” Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, February 2017,
  6. In a “first past the post” electoral system, the candidate (no matter how large the field) who wins the most votes automatically wins, which means that it is possible for a candidate to gain office without having won a majority.
  7. For details, read Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois et al, Renonçons à rien (Montreal: Lux ed., 2017),
  8. Françoise David retired from politics because of sheer exhaustion and the early signs of a possible burnout. At sixty-nine, she leaves behind an unparalleled accomplishment as a unifying force for the Québec Left. But she also bears responsibility for the ambiguities of QS discourse in its relationship to the PQ and on the crucial issue of secularism.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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