As the Quebec student strike was gaining momentum, federal New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair instructed his MPs to not vocally support the students. And now, as the left is poised for an historic electoral breakthrough, Mulcair has announced that the NDP will run candidates in the next Quebec election.
Sadly, both moves undermine the social movements and Quebec’s right to self-determination, and threaten to roll back the success of last year’s Orange Wave.
Since Conquest in 1760, Quebec has been an oppressed nation within the Canadian state. The War Measures Act in 1970 and the Clarity Act in 2000 are both examples of this fact. Quebec’s trade unions and social movements have traditionally supported the bourgeois nationalist Parti Québécois (PQ)—which more or less shares the program of the Quebec Liberal party, except on sovereignty—and the Bloc Québécois, federally. At the same time, politics in Quebec have aligned roughly on the two sides of the national question, and not on a right-left, progressive-conservative axis. Arguably, this situation has made it more difficult for social movements to achieve their goals and fight for reforms.
But the past few years of struggle have created the possibility of a break from this situation, with three important developments: the emergence of the left-wing political party Québec solidaire, the historic Quebec student strike, and the Orange Wave during the May 2011 federal election.
The Orange Wave that catapulted the federal NDP into the Official Opposition represented a surge to the left by the general public: deepening anger against Harper and the austerity agenda, disillusionment with the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois, inspiration from the Arab Spring, and the hope that the NDP could provide a real alternative to the status quo.
Within Quebec, the surge for the NDP was not a rejection of sovereignty, but an electoral expression of the growing anti-austerity sentiment that eventually exploded with the student strike. Simmering under it all was the ongoing resistance to national oppression in Quebec, which has contributed to making Quebec the site of the largest social movements in Canada—from the 80,000 who protested the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001, to the hundreds of thousands who marched against the Iraq War in 2003 (successfully stopping Canada from officially joining the invasion), to the 100,000 who marched for May Day in 2004, to the quarter-million students who struck in 2005, and to the 30,000 who marched against the Lebanon War in 2006.
Out of these mass mobilizations emerged Québec solidaire (QS), “a party of the ballot box and the street,” which was the result of a merger between Option citoyenne and Union des forces progressistes—the latter of which was a continuation of the Parti de la démocratie socialiste (PDS), the former Quebec NDP.
Since its founding in 2006, QS has become a megaphone for the social movements it has been a part of—labour, anti-poverty, student, feminist, environmental. During the federal election in May 2011, many members of QS and others campaigned for the NDP as a tactic to fight Harper—and not as a way to abandon independentism. As QS co-spokesperson, Amir Khadir, explained: “The Quebecers who voted for the NDP in a large majority did it to block the Harper government, not to bring an NDP to Quebec.”
Since then, QS has continued to support and mobilize with the social movements, especially the Quebec student strike—helping connect them to labour fights like the Rio Tinto lockout in Alma. Khadir, QS’s only elected Member of the National Assembly (MNA), called for civil disobedience against Bill 78—and was arrested and had his house raided for doing so.
By connecting the ballot box to the street and by supporting self-determination, QS has created the possibility of an historic break from the PQ. QS membership has risen to 12,000 (up by 5,000 in the last six months), and formerly striking students are now QS candidates in several ridings. Longstanding CLASSE student leader, Renaud Poirier St-Pierre, explained his decision to join QS by stating: “The PQ is more or less the Liberal party. The only political party who really embodies the political values that were present in the strike is QS.”
QS’s other co-spokesperson, Françoise David, is expected to win her seat, and there has been optimism about other candidates like Manon Massé, a Canada Boat to Gaza participant and a tireless activist against Islamophobia and for women’s rights, and Andrés Fontecilla, a community organizer of Chilean descent who has rallied students around his campaign.
Meanwhile, the rapid spread of casserole demonstrations across Canada has demonstrated a real solidarity with Quebec—breaking down the anti-Quebec chauvinism that the media continually whips up—and a widespread mood to fight austerity locally. Supporting QS within Quebec and showing solidarity with the student strike are the obvious steps to building the fight against austerity. Unfortunately, Mulcair is pushing the NDP in the opposite direction.
Solidarity, not opportunism
When the federal NDP fails to support Quebec’s right to self-determination, it disappears from Quebec politics. For example, in 1995, the Quebec wing of the NDP split from the federal party over the national question, and renamed itself the Parti de la démocratie socialiste (PDS).
Drawing the wrong conclusion that the Orange Wave was against sovereignty and that it opens up space for the NDP to fill the middle of the electoral spectrum, Mulcair seems completely unaware that a big section of QS has its roots in the old Quebec NDP, and that many QS members helped make the Orange Wave possible. These facts alone should demonstrate the risk Mulcair runs in sinking the NDP’s chances in Quebec.
Mulcair, who was a Liberal cabinet minister from 2003 to 2006, under current Quebec Premier Jean Charest, may be trying to position his party to take advantage of what is expected to be a Liberal defeat on September 4. But this move will only serve to divide the left in Quebec, at a time when QS—an openly left-wing, anti-neoliberal alternative—is enjoying its best support since its founding in 2006. It could also undermine the solidarity across Canada that has been built with the Quebec student strike, by imposing a federalist party in Quebec in competition with the left-sovereigntist QS.
Quebec social movements are leading the fight against austerity and creating an exciting new electoral alternative in QS, while solidarity is building between Canada and Quebec. We need to deepen this process by supporting Quebec’s right to self-determination, and by learning the lessons of the printemps érable—building mass movements from below, and using electoral parties to amplify, and not dampen, movements.