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Québec and the future of the Canadian left

Samir Gandesha

Platypus Review #82 | December 2015

ONE OF THE DEFINING MOMENTS of the recent general federal election for the Canadian left was the release on September 15 of the Leap Manifesto.1 The Manifesto, spearheaded by prominent left Canadian intellectuals such as Naomi Klein, Avi Lewis, David Suzuki, and Martin Lukacs as well as notable celebrities such as Donald Sutherland and Leonard Cohen, included a bold call for respect for Indigenous rights, transition to a “clean economy,” and a guaranteed annual income. Moreover, it attempted to steer the terms of political discussion in Canada to the left and put pressure on the New Democratic Party (NDP) to reorient its campaign in a more imaginative and bold direction. The Manifesto clearly signaled that in the social base of the NDP and in the Left outside of the party there was a growing sense of frustration with Tom Mulcair’s overly cautious leadership.2 Having squandered an early comfortable lead for fear of being nailed to the cross of fiscal profligacy, Mulcair’s leadership also revealed itself as deeply flawed. It added insult to injury to see that the alternatives arising in the UK, Europe, and even the U.S. have eluded Canada. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time left-wing Labour Party activist had won the leadership of the party and sought to undo the damage that Margaret Thatcher and “New Labour,” under Tony Blair, have wrought. In Europe new political parties, such as Syriza3 in Greece and Podemos in Spain, have sought to challenge the new austerity consensus. In the U.S., Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative was recently reelected to a second term in Seattle and Bernie Sanders’s campaign poses a credible challenge to Hilary Clinton for the Democratic ticket.

Demonstrators take part in a protest against Quebec's proposed Values Charter in Montreal on Saturday Sept. 14, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Thousands attended a protest against Quebec’s proposed charter of values in 2013.

It was clear from the outset: in order for the NDP to stand a reasonable chance of forming a majority government at the federal level, it would have to not only consolidate but also to build considerably on its historic breakthrough in 2011 in Québec. This province itself had been shaken deeply by powerful student protests and a broader anti-austerity movement in 2012 and is currently undergoing the largest public sector strike in over four decades with 400,000 of its members out on strike.

The seemingly miraculous breakthrough for the NDP four years ago was due in part to the Liberal Party continuing to languish in wake of the sponsorship scandal of 2004—from which it had not fully recovered—and the fact that the Bloc Québécois (BQ) was not perceived as a proper alternative—due to its own leadership issues.4 The success of the NDP was also because Mulcair’s power base was already in Québec, as he had served as environment minister in a previous Liberal Government of ex-Tory Jean Charest. In addition “Le bon” Jack Layton was also highly regarded in Québec, prior to his untimely death. While Layton was universally lauded as a leader possessing a rare integrity and personal attractiveness, he was also the NDP leader who in 2013 “modernized” the party—a euphemism for distancing the party from any semblance of socialism. Henceforth there would be no clear means of distinguishing the party from the left flank of the Liberal Party. That Mulcair came from the Québéc Liberal Party, and probably not even its left flank, already indicated this. Thus what the party stood for, as the political landscape had begun to change throughout the western world since Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street, was simply a deeply uninspiring “austerity-lite,” with an added clear commitment to gender parity and greater ethno-cultural diversity. While these latter issues should not be dismissed, it is clear that the nods in the direction of identity politics are entirely compatible with a commitment to “business as usual.” A country like Canada that typically counts itself among the progressive, social democratic states and thus considers itself unlike the U.S. in reality appears out of step with much of the advanced industrialized world where the lines of political conflict have sharpened precipitously in recent years. This sharpening will continue as we start to face the evermore powerful effects of the dialectics of natural history in the form of accelerated climate change, intensifying food insecurity, deepening class inequality, and an ever-burgeoning migrant crisis. Of course, underlying all of this is the deepening of regional conflicts around the globe. The strange and contradictory position of Québec—the so-called “distinct society”—within the confederation has contributed massively to the status of the country and it is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.

The peculiar position of Québec within Canada and the challenges it poses for the Left were revealed during another key defining moment of the election. After the September 24 French-language leadership debate, a panel discussion on CBC television immediately followed, which touched upon the question of the niqab. The then Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, brought to the front and center of his election campaign the promise to appeal the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision recognizing a woman’s right to don the niqab at the citizenship ceremony. Andrew Coyne, editor and political commentator for the right-wing National Post newspaper, suggested that the issue was just a distraction. Taking exception to this, the Québécoise journalist Chantal Hébert fiercely retorted that, contrary to what Bay Street editorial boards may think, some 80% of Québeckers were in favor of a ban and it was strongly defended by the leader of the Bloc Québécois, former Maoist Gilles Duceppe. At the same time, Hébert said, the NDP’s platform centering on the fiscal prudence of balanced budgets in a time of recession “underwhelmed” the electorate as they were tiring of the austerity brought in first by the Péquistes (the Parti Québécois and its supporters) and now the Québéc Liberals. As Liberal Party leader (and now Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau put it to NDP’s Tom Mulcair in what was one of most cutting lines of the campaign: “You want to balance Harper’s books.” The niqab issue was therefore not a distraction, as it concerned both the right and the Left. Today, there is broad consensus among all parties in the National Assembly for revisiting the Québec Charter of Values.

Now, a charter that prevents the overt display of religious paraphernalia ought not to be understood on its face as necessarily racist or exclusionary. It could be argued that secularism is a central component of the republican tradition that lies at the very heart of public life in France and has, particularly since the 1960s and the challenge to the authority of the Catholic Church, played an increasingly influential role in Québec. However, the backdrop to this republican tradition, which is genuinely universalist and inclusive in theory, is complicated profoundly in France by the colonial character of the French state. The same holds for Québec, which can in the context of North America be understood as both oppressor and oppressed simultaneously. On the one hand, the French presence, namely Lower Canada, was (and continues to be) itself a product of settler colonialism, as on the rest of the continent. On the other hand, Québec came into confederation in a subordinate and dependent way as a kind of a colony within the colony. Its own elite until the 1960s was Anglophone. The nominal universalism inherent in the republicanism, or the idea that the sovereignty was vested in the “people” rather than the monarchy, was itself tempered by a definition of the people not as linguistic community—“La Francophonie”—but rather as an ethno-national group—so-called “pur laine” or “dyed-in-the-wool” Québécois, those tracing continuity of the blood line with the early Voyageurs, then later the settlers to New France from the old France. This tension between ethno-national particularism on the one hand, and republican universalism on the other, has constituted the central tension in the politics in the province. It is this tension that poses almost insurmountable obstacles for a unified Canadian left oriented to capturing national state power. It should come as no surprise that this is a difficult terrain for the Left to operate on. The Parti Québécois under René Lévesque inflected the sovereigntist project towards civic republicanism. However, with the neoliberal turn so clearly exemplified by economist and Québec sovereigntist Jacques Parizeau, the emphasis was increasingly placed on ethno-cultural particularism within the context of a larger commitment to neoliberal continentalism whose aim was to gain greater regional or provincial autonomy at the expense of the federal government. Whatever commitments to national liberation (itself based on solidarity with other anti-colonial struggles, including of course those of Indigenous peoples) that may have existed in the past on the far left in Quebec have clearly given way to a narrow and exclusivist nationalism and ethnocentrism.

Here we have a deep contradiction. On the one hand, Québec has been deeply troubled by the overt signs of cultural, particularly religious, difference in public. This was reflected in the proposed Charter of Québécois Values proposed by the ill-fated Péquiste government of Pauline Marois. The spirit of that charter, which is still very much alive, underlies the overwhelming opposition to the wearing of the niqab in the Canadian citizenship ceremony. During the election there was an attack by two young boys on a pregnant Muslim hijabi, which mirrored other incidents of violence across the Canada, and, now, after the Paris attacks, such attacks on innocent Muslims are becoming ever more common. The most chilling event post-Paris, however, was the online spectacle of a man dressed as the “Joker” from the Batman series who threatened to kill an Arab a day until they got the message and left the country. He was based in “La Belle Provence.”

On the other hand, of all Canadian provinces, Québec is now by far the most progressive, if by this we mean a state that is still at least more committed, if only nominally, to social democratic decommodification of higher education and social services such as child care. Moreover, as we saw in 2013, it is comprised of an active, nonconformist citizenry prepared to take to the streets when prompted to challenge the state to push such decommodification further than the state might, indeed, like. Again, today, we have the example of the public servants’ strike.

The progressive character of the Québécois nation goes back to the so-called “Quiet Revolution” in the 1960s in which Francophones lodged a two-front attack against, on the one hand, the power of the Catholic Church, which had regulated virtually all aspects of what was then a predominantly rural Québécois life under the tutelage of authoritarian, anti-labor premier Maurice Duplessis and, on the other, the Anglo elite in Montreal. The sentiment here was expressed in the slogan “Je me souviens.” I remember. The latter antagonism was understood along the lines of Third World Liberation struggles, with the majority Québécois, aside from the elites, taking on the position of Franz Fanon’s “les dames de terre” as was argued by Pierre Vallières in White Niggers of America. This also formed the important background to the direct action of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), in anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist actions culminating in the declaration of martial law through the invocation of the War Measures Act by Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau during the so-called “October Crisis” of 1970. While it is difficult to understand the Québécois nation in these terms today, this was also the backdrop to the progressive, one could say, civic nationalism of René Lévesque’s leadership of the Parti Québécois. This would, of course, change through the 1980s under Parizeau. But under the leadership of Lévesque, Québécois nationalism was for the most part social democratic in nature. And this, as I shall suggest below, in the past has represented one of the principal challenges of the NDP: how to articulate a form of social democracy that would enable it to challenge Liberal hegemony in that province.

In any case, this was also the context of the student movement that reached its crescendo in spring of 2012, which, at its peak, saw a quarter of a million students and other activists against austerity participate in the so-called “Maple Spring” that ultimately forced the government to back down on tuition increases and, at the end of the day, led to its defeat. This mobilization could, itself, be viewed as a kind of deferred effect or Nachträglichkeit (literally: “afterwardsness”) of the unredeemed promises of the Quiet Revolution that were perceived as increasingly betrayed by the rightward, neoliberal shift of the PQ in the 1980s, which, as explained, grew especially pronounced under Jacques Parizeau in the 1990s. The students, of course, contested the austerity regime imposed by the PQ and drew attention to the growing gap between the emancipatory discourse of Québécois nationalism of the 1960s as well as the social democratic orientation of René Lévesque in the 1970s, on the one hand, and the neoliberal turn, on the other. So, how do we account for the contradiction between exclusionary forms of petit-bourgeois pur laine Québécois identity, and the fact that Québec’s politics overall are the most progressive in the country—as was evinced by the students’ mobilization against austerity? There are two possible answers to this question.

The first, of course, is that social democracy has historically relied upon a high degree of ethic and linguistic homogeneity. For example, where social democracy has been strongest, for example, in Scandinavia, until recently these societies have, embodied a high level of ethnic homogeneity. Where social democracy has been weakest, namely, the United States, given the settler colonial nature of a state whose original form of accumulation as based on the expropriation of Indigenous land in the “great trek west-ward and slavery,"5 ethnic homogeneity has been low.. Moreover, while the crisis of social democracy, particularly in the land of its birth, namely Britain, has typically been attributed to the socio-economic crisis of stagflation in the middle of the 1970s, an additional, often under-discussed dimension has been the arrival of migrant workers, refugees, and waves of immigration. In other words, deep-seated forms of racism generated through the experience of colonization inhibited the networks of solidarity upon which the welfare state, in part, depended. Once the “empire strikes back” through waves of migration from the West Indies, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, neoliberal ideology thus mobilized such racism in order to exploit the fiscal crisis of the welfare state. What set the tone for Thatcherism was Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 speech in which he threatened that if immigration were permitted to continue at what he considered to be “high” levels, “rivers of blood” would run in the streets.6

This dynamic could also be said to play itself out in Québec when the Conservative Party under Brian Mulroney (who came from the town Baie-Comeau) fought the 1984 election almost exclusively on the question of free trade. In Québec, there was a strong grasp of the manner in which continentalism worked to undermine the power of the nation-state that empowered global capital, on the one hand, and regions and provinces, on the other. Amongst other things, it led to a strange confluence of interests between Québec and Alberta, two decidedly opposed provinces, ideologically, but which nonetheless shared an interest, for different reasons, in greater power vis-à-vis the federal government. While under Lévesque, the PQ’s agenda was of a civic form of nationalism, with the neoliberal turn, there came to be an increasing emphasis on ethnic identity. Yet, it is significant that this could be seen to reflect the increasingly heterogeneous nature of Québec society with higher levels of immigration to the province in the 1980s and 1990s. When I lived in Québec, just around the time of the second referendum on sovereignty, a theatre company had planned to produce a play that dealt somewhat pessimistically with the scenario of a sovereigntist referendum victory and its repercussions for the “allophone” or immigrant community. Before the play could be produced, considerable pressure was placed on the company not to produce it. But, the culmination of this sentiment was Parizeau’s famous words in the aftermath of the failure of the 1995 referendum. Parizeau attributed this failure precisely to the “allophone community,” putting the referendum defeat down, in an unforgettable because deeply troubling phrase, to “money and ethnic vote.”

This leads to the second account of the contradictions of Québec society. If the Left had sought to understand the subordinate position of Québec within Canada, itself a semi-peripheral society under the perpetual domination of the United States, based on at least a semblance of an analysis of social and economic relations, then what we have with the neoliberal right is an attempt to displace the problem of abstract labor as the basic mediation of alienated social relations, to wit, a lack of democratic control over the conditions of everyday life, work, and politics, onto signs of ethnic and racial differences. Historically in Québec, as the author of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Barney’s Version, Mordecai Richler, pointed out from his Montreal base, the “other” had been construed in terms of the figure of the Jew. Today, racial or ethnic difference is now displaced onto religious difference as manifest in religious symbols and paraphernalia—the very target of the Charter of Québec Values. As Bernie Farber, former Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress, recently said: “Today the Muslims are Jews of yesterday."7 No concerns for the future of Québec secularism are expressed, of course, at the prominent display of the crucifix in the National Assembly. The long-standing aspiration to sovereignty, either under the universalist auspices of civic republicanism or the more narrowly defined ethno-national particularism, was somehow threatened not by the increasing liberation of capital from the few democratic fetters that existed, as manifested in the Free Trade Agreement (and later the NAFTA), which Québec supported by and large, but rather the symbols of cultural difference themselves. This was, in other words, what Adorno called a “reified critique of reification.”8 |P


  1.  Online at <https://leapmanifesto.org/en/the-leap-manifesto/#manifesto-content>.  

  2. Although, to be fair, the responsibility probably lies with the party strategists rather than with Mulcair, himself. And this, itself, can be seen as a large problem for the party.  

  3. Of course, as we know, in this case it was rather short-lived with its volte-face in the aftermath of the triumph of the “oxi” vote on July 5, 2015.  

  4. The BQ, was formed in 1990 by disaffected Québécois members of the Progressive Conservative Party and the Liberal Party and led initially by former PC cabinet minister Lucien Bouchard. It was largely social democratic in orientation and sought, through an informal relationship with the Parti Québécois (PQ), to prepare the ground for secession at the federal level.  

  5. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015).  

  6. Online at <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/3643823/Enoch-Powells-Rivers-of-Blood-speech.html>  

  7.  The Current with Anna-Maria Tremoni, CBC Radio, Dec. 9, 2015.  

  8.  Theodor W. Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity (London: Routledge, 2002).  

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