Quebec Solidaire Opts for Independence/Sovereignty

by Robbie Mahood

Quebec’s small mass left-wing party, Quebec Solidaire(QS), held its fifth convention in a Montreal suburb on November 20-22, 2009. About 300 delegates and observers gathered to further a process of political clarification initiated by the leadership.

In 2008, QS managed to get one of its popular leaders, Amir Khadir, elected to Quebec’s National Assembly. However, its vote across the province has yet to pass 5%, even if polls sometimes place it as high as 8%. The party has about 5,000 members.

QS was formed in 2006 defining itself as “alter-mondialiste, féministe, écologique et de gauche”, a party representing diverse social movements and dedicated to breaking the neo-liberal strait-jacket in Quebec politics. Anti-neoliberal it is, but without an explicit working class or socialist perspective, although several left-wing organizations were permitted to form political `collectives` or tendencies within QS.

QS has a history of avoiding controversy in favour of lowest common denominator consensus. The leadership`s improvised public pronouncements have often fallen far short of its own militants`expectations, for example on the Afghan war or in response to community outrage at the police killing of a young man, Freddy Villanueva, in one of Montréal`s immigrant neighbourhoods.

Highlighted at this convention were debates on the national question, and on secularism in relation to immigrant religious and cultural rights — issues that are controversial in Quebec politics as well as within QS.

Socialists in English-speaking Canada and the United States may question the obsession with the national question in Quebec, or wonder whether the Quebecois any longer suffer national oppression. After all, the national and class agitation of the 1960’s and 70’s led to significant advances for the francophone majority in Quebec. Two failed bids for independence in the referenda of 1980 and 1995 have led the sovereignist movement, dominated by the bourgeois nationalist Parti Quebecois, to an impasse. At present, sentiment for independence is at a rather low ebb. Should the struggle for an independent Quebec any longer occupy the place it once did in the strategic thinking of revolutionary socialists?

The view that independence is passé takes little cognizance of the national tensions that have been and continue to be a decisive factor in Canadian politics. Regardless of their views on independence (which fluctuate greatly depending on the conjuncture), the Quebecois have a more clearly defined national consciousness than ever before. The exercise of their national rights brings them continually up against the power of the Canadian state and constitution. This is most clearly seen in struggles around language and culture but periodically broaches questions of economic control, defense of social programs and participation in imperialist wars. This unresolved national problem continues to fester away at the heart of the Canadian federation, undermining the stability of class rule exercised by the Anglo-Canadian bourgeoisie and by its junior Quebec partner.

This is the context which impelled QS to adopt a more coherent position on this perennial question in Quebec politics. Up to this point, the party had defined itself as ‘sovereignist’, a term that leaves some ambiguity. After a vigorous debate over four competing options, delegates opted for the use of “independence or sovereignity” interchangeably, narrowly edging out those who argued for “independence” only. Two other choices, “sovereignity” only, and ”neither independence or sovereignity”, were decisively rejected.

At the same time, the delegates recognized the sovereignity of “the ten Amerindian peoples and the Inuit people who also inhabit Quebec territory” , affirming their right to self-determination whether through independence or in the form of self-government within Quebec.

Delegates also repudiated the ethnic nationalism increasingly promoted by the Parti Quebecois (PQ). For Quebec Solidaire, the Quebec nation is “ethnically and culturally diversified, with French as the common language” and the Quebecois are all those who “live in Quebec and participate in its life”.

As for how to achieve independence, Quebec Solidaire proposes a democratic Constituent Assembly charged with conducting a vast consultative process on Quebec`s “political and constitutional future and the values and political institutions pertaining to it.“ This exercise in popular sovereignity is in contrast to the narrow and elite-driven referendum strategy of the Parti Quebecois (now placed in cold storage by the party brass until so-called ‘winning conditions’ reappear).

Anti-immigrant sentiment surfaced in a major way in the Quebec election of 2007 when the right wing populist party, Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ) , capitalized on latent hostility to cosmopolitan Montreal, especially to its Muslim and Hasidic Jewish minorities, to propel itself into official opposition status in the National Assembly.

Subsequently, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission held public hearings on so-called `reasonable accommodation` of new immigrants.

One of the major achievements of Quebec`s `Quiet Revolution `in the 1960`s was ending the Catholic Church`s control over education, health and social services. The secularization of Quebec society enjoys overwhelming support in the population and is closely linked in the public`s mind with advances in women`s and to a lesser extent gay/lesbian rights. But these arguments for separation of church and state and against patriarchal oppression are now being recruited to a xenophobic campaign against religious or cultural minorities, targeting primarily traditionally-attired muslim women. Most recently, debate has erupted over whether public employees have the right to wear religiously identified clothing or symbols.

Delegates voted for a position which distinguishes between the state, which must be secular, and individuals, who have the right to express their religious beliefs. Government employees working with the public should be able to wear religious “insignia” provided they do not proselytize and are not as a result impeded in the performance of their duties. This position clearly distinguishes QS from the PQ, which is seeking a ban on religious apparel in the civil service akin to the coercive laicity of France where the hijab (head covering) has been prohibited in public schools.

QS marked a step forward at this convention in more clearly aligning itself with the perspective of Quebec independence, explicitly acknowledging the sovereignity of aboriginal peoples and rising to the defence of religious and cultural minorities. At the same time the party suffers from some important deficits.

In general, the positions adopted are premised on the future election of a QS government, lending them a rather abstract character (for example, the constituent assembly) or similarly, posing solutions in administrative terms, for example, qualifying the conditions under which a state employee would be allowed to display personal religious insignia.

Largely missing from this convention were resolutions that would orient QS to organizing struggles that are immediate and pressing, both in the electoral and extra-parliamentary arenas. One exception to this was the unanimous support given to a resolution in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle committing the party to help build the global Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against the Israeli state.

Indeed, there is a noticeable gap between QS’s initial electoral success and its low or non-existent political profile on the streets and in the movements — ironic for a party formed in large measure by social activists. In this respect, the downturn in mass struggles in Quebec over the last 5 years has reinforced the party’s electoral pre-occupation. The risk is that with any resurgence of mass mobilizations, QS will be a passive observer content to reap whatever benefits come its way in the polls.

Shifting to a stronger pro-independence stance may lead to a broader and more comprehensive programmatic debate on the measures needed to combat the twin economic and ecological crises. Demands to nationalize the banks, abrogate NAFTA, withdraw from NATO and NORAD, develop unemployment insurance to provide a living wage and re-train workers laid-off in the crisis, bring financially or ecologically bankrupt industries under public ownership and re-orient toward green production, defend public health care against Supreme Court authorized privatisation – these and other anti-capitalist measures imply not only mass mobilization within Quebec but, more often than not, a confrontation and break with the federal Canadian state.

Various observers have noted that whatever its limitations, QS is a party in formation. One must be patient and allow time for deficiencies to be overcome. But political differentiation, suppressed for the most part up to now, is becoming more apparent. It would be naïve to overlook bureaucratic and reformist tendencies, nor should it be surprising given the relationship of political forces within QS since its founding and the impact of its modest electoral success.

The weakness of ‘class’ politics in QS is a reflection of the society around it. Neither Social Democratic reformism nor Stalinism have ever established a significant presence in Quebec, a reality that brings with it mixed blessings. On the one hand, a labour movement reknowned for its militancy has yet to assert itself as an independent political actor. On the other hand, there is an absence of hardened reformist currents exercising control over working class politics.

QS’s election campaigns have been endorsed by more radical elements in Quebec’s labour movement, notably the Montreal central council of the Confederation des syndicaux nationaux (CSN). But the relationship between the party and the unions is tentative at best. Certainly, the working class has been given no particular strategic weight in the party’s thinking. However, the notion that QS should limit itself to being the political voice of a coalition of movements dedicated to a more just and equitable society (superceding the struggle between social classes) is being undermined by the depth of the current crisis which brings class contradictions in the broadest sense into greater relief.

This convention demonstrated that party militants are capable of vigourous debate and retain a certain independence from the leadership. The role of socialists within QS in advancing a class struggle perspective around transitional anti-capitalist demands, such as those listed above, will be very important. To be sure, this task is not to be approached in a mechanical way from the stance of bringing received wisdom from outside, but rather in the context of discussions as they actually unfold within the ranks of the party. But it is a task that must surely be taken up.

*Robbie Mahood is a federal steering committee member of Socialist Action / Ligue pour l’Action socialiste. He is a physician working in a Montreal neighbourhood clinic, and was a Quebec Solidaire candidate in the constituency of Mont-Royal.