Quebec’s No Good, Terrible Election Campaign

Quebec has no shortage of urgent issues: housing, deep cuts to public services, crumbling schools, inequality. But in the province's forthcoming elections, parties are taking up xenophobia and Islamophobia instead.

Quebec's Liberal premier Philipe Couillard at the USDA headquarters, in Washington, D.C., on June 25, 2018. US Department of Agriculture / Wikimedia

In 2012, Quebec saw the largest and longest student strike in North American history. The strike, which counted hundreds of thousands of participants at its height, helped bring down a Liberal government and reversed a planned tuition fee hike of over 80 percent. When the dust settled, the tuition hike was cancelled, and the government that had imposed it was defeated. Leftists across North America looked to the students, and the large swathes of society that had backed them, for inspiration in their struggles.

Six years later, Quebec is entering its second election campaign since that strike, and one might expect that the coalition of over 40 percent of the population that backed the students has brought a leftist political option to the threshold of government, right? Not quite.

Like many other places, major issues face us as the October 1 election approaches. Climate, housing, inequality, and two decades of austerity cuts to the public services we hold dear.

Seniors in care are limited to one bath a week and fed powdered food, our hospitals are bursting at the seams, and our schools are falling down. After a punishing term in power from the center-right Liberals, who cut over $2 billion from health care, $1 billion from education, and billions combined from other essential services, many Quebecers are ready to turn the page and reject the politics of austerity.

We should be exuberant about voting the bums out. But the dominant attitude to the approaching election for large swathes of the electorate is despair. That’s because our options suck.

We’re almost certainly going to end up with the Liberals again, or worse, the CAQ. And the top issues of the campaign aren’t issues like climate change or austerity — they’re immigration restrictions and Islamophobia. All four major parties support some degree of legal restriction on the wearing of visible religious symbols, targeting Muslim face-coverings like the hijab, niqab, and burka.

Polls, including one this spring, show that over three-quarters of Quebecers “feel that too much time is spent in Quebec politics debating religious symbols and reasonable accommodations.” Another poll shows almost two-thirds of Quebecers are either happy with current immigration levels or would like to see them increased. Meanwhile, UNHCR numbers actually show that the number of asylum seekers reaching Canada is steady and there was no spike this summer, despite much reporting to the contrary and the federal Conservative Party’s insistence that this supposed increase in border-crossers represents a crisis.

But thanks to the predatory actions of pundits and politicians who have whipped up hysteria about the integration of immigrants, a script we’ve seen play out around the world, our parties all feel compelled to embrace some level of discrimination towards already marginalized and vulnerable minority populations.

The Contenders

The Coalition Avenir Québec, an identitarian and right-wing party, bills itself as a vehicle for change while proposing policies that would worsen the harm caused by five years of Liberal cuts. Their leader, François Legault, kicked off his campaign with an attack on immigration, as reported by the Montreal Gazette:

“Let’s look at the results. Immigration under the Liberal government is a failure,” said Legault, who wants to cut immigration levels from 50,000 to 40,000 per year and refuse status to immigrants who fail to learn French within three years.

“We have a 15-per-cent unemployment rate among immigrants after five years. So it hasn’t worked to solve economic problems,” he said during a campaign stop in Sherbrooke. “We’ve seen that we have surpassed our capacity to integrate.”

The irony of this fixation with immigrants learning French is that state support to newcomers in language classes has been cut as part of past belt tightening, and the CAQ seems uninterested in the one concrete action that would increase French literacy among immigrants: paying newcomers a living wage for six months while they attend full-time language classes. The classes are currently free, but the living stipend that comes with them is even lower than Quebec’s pitiful welfare rate and insufficient for anyone to live on. The CAQ has in the past proposed to raise that rate marginally, but well short of what is required for newcomers with no other means of support to access the classes.

The CAQ is also proposing a new law on secularism that would go further than the Liberals’ existing legislation, barring all state employees, including teachers, from wearing any religious symbols, without exception.

As elsewhere, in the more rural areas of Quebec, where many have never met a Muslim, there’s an undercurrent of fear towards outsiders with unfamiliar religious practices and styles of dress. Pundits have made careers by exploiting and whipping up Islamophobia to sell papers or attract viewers and listeners. Sensing easy votes, politicians now bid for the allegiance of the “identity” voters thus created.

Liberal premier Philippe Couillard has also cast his net in these waters. Although he now criticizes Legault for focusing on immigration, arguing that the province’s economy needs more immigrants, it is his own government that has resisted increasing immigration levels, causing the shortage of workers he’s now promising to fix. (Upping wages would also address this issue, but for some reason no one wants to talk about that). They also passed a controversial law on religious neutrality, which bars anyone with their face covered from accessing public services, including attending a public school or going to the doctor. (The application of that law has been suspended after a court ruled that it was unconstitutional.)

A Party Without a Cause

Between them, polls show over two-thirds of voters plan to cast a vote for one of our two right-wing neoliberal parties, the Liberals or the CAQ. But surely, in our multi-party democracy, there must be a standard bearer for the Left to believe in, even if they can’t win.

In fact, there are two such parties with seats in the National Assembly. One is appalling while the other is merely imperfect.

The traditional social-democratic party in Quebec is better known for its sovereigntist sentiments. The Parti Québécois (PQ) used to be the party of social programs and sovereignty. These days, they’re neither.

In 2018, support for Quebecois sovereignty is in the low thirties, and the PQ has reversed their foundational political principle that a PQ government would work to hold and win a referendum on Quebec’s separation from Canada, promising that if they win, they will not hold a referendum in their first mandate.

A party founded to pursue sovereignty for reasons that included building a more progressive, social-democratic society than is possible within Canada, the PQ has become the largest of political tents over the years as they jettisoned every principle in hopes of holding together a sovereigntist coalition stretching from the far left to the far right. Now they’re not even really fighting for sovereignty anymore, so the question of what exactly they stand for is a fair one.

In 2012, when Quebec students went on strike, the PQ wrapped themselves in the flag of the generation’s largest social movement and rode promises to reverse the hikes and freeze tuition to a minority government. Then they raised tuition anyway and brought in a host of other unpopular policies that alienated them from their leftist base.

During this period, they found a new hobby horse that would appeal to a whole different demographic than the student-strike supporters who had soured on them: the reasonable accommodation of immigrants. Building on an earlier wave of hysteria that had resulted in a government commission on the subject, the PQ proposed a charter of Quebec values that, among other things, would bar the wearing of “ostentatious” religious symbols when working for the government or interacting with government services. That word, “ostentatious,” was an elegant dodge that allowed the small crucifixes worn by many in Quebec (where Catholicism is the historically dominant religion) but barred things like hijabs, kippahs, and turbans.

A large crucifix adorns the chamber in the provincial legislature where politicians gave fulsome speeches defending the charter as a necessary defense of Quebec’s prized post-Quiet Revolution secularism. Suggestions that it be taken down in the name of secularism are routinely rebuffed.

The 2014 election campaign didn’t work out for the PQ, thanks to a tepid reception for their charter and a broader decline in sovereigntist sentiment. The Liberals returned to power, with many voters holding their noses and voting to defeat the PQ’s racist charter rather than voting for another Liberal government.

Polls show that roughly half the province agrees with the statement that Quebec’s political class has betrayed its citizens over the past thirty years of combined Liberal and PQ rule, a distaste for the existing options that has fueled the rise of the CAQ — and, to a lesser extent, Quebec solidaire.

Quebec’s Party of Solidarity

This time around the biggest headlines emerging from the PQ camp relate to two candidates who used derogatory slurs for Muslims and black people, one of whom accused an investigative journalist who tracks the far right of being a pedophile, without foundation, after he unmasked the racist tweets of her fellow PQ candidate. She has since apologized but remains a candidate. They’re floundering around 18 percent in the polls and going nowhere fast.

Which brings us to Quebec solidaire. The fledgling leftist party, probably the most radical party to hold elected seats in a North American assembly, offers a lot to like.

The party’s proposals are bold: free dental care (an expansion to our public health care system), free university, half price (and eventually free) public transit, a public internet provider, nationalizing industries like mining, transportation, and wind energy (the hydroelectric industry is already publicly owned in Quebec, and electricity is delivered by a public utility), a $15 an hour minimum wage, and redirecting investments from new highways to new public transit. They want Quebec to lead the transition off of fossil fuels with a rapid transition to renewables while tackling inequality, restoring funding for social programs, and expanding access to social housing and support programs for the elderly and unemployed.

They propose to do it by raising taxes sharply on the rich and large corporations. Their vision of sovereignty is to hold popular assemblies across Quebec where citizens would debate and write a new constitution, which would be the basis of a subsequent referendum on leaving Canada and forming a new country based on this collaborative document. Similar to the PQ’s original vision when it was founded in 1968, QS’s idea of sovereignty is that it would be a means to the end of a more democratic and socialist society.

Currently they hold 3 out of 125 seats in the National Assembly, all in Montreal. They will likely hold all of those and pick up several more: the latest polls have them trending up to around 14 percent support, raising the possibility of a breakthrough beyond the two Montreal districts that most observers expect them to add to their existing downtown stronghold. After this election, it’s likely that most of eastern Montreal will be represented by QS.

But that’s the rub. The party, founded in 2006 following a series of mergers of leftist forces that united the Communist Party, socialists, greens, and large parts of the women’s movement, was conceived as a movement party, a “party of the ballot box, but also of the streets” as a forerunner party described it.

Twelve years later, they’re still waiting for a breakthrough off the island of Montreal and are often dismissed as a vehicle for radical urbanites. Projet Montreal, a (somewhat less radical) municipal leftist and green party founded two years before QS, took power last year after winning a big majority on council and electing Montreal’s first female mayor.

Montreal may be fertile territory for leftist parties, as evidenced by Projet’s breakthrough on the municipal scene, but at the provincial level QS’s progress towards power has been more halting, and their appeal in nonurban areas outside of Montreal is an enduring weak spot.

In 2017, members of the party were offered an electoral alliance with the PQ. With neither party in a position to win outright, such an alliance, PQ leader Jean-François Lisée argued, would allow them to form government and implement common priorities like electoral reform, reinvesting in health and education, and pushing for a referendum on sovereignty in the next mandate.

Despite the long-standing antipathy between the older sovereigntist party and its younger rival, the offer was heatedly debated during its party congress last summer. QS, if nothing else, is a radically democratic party, and the members make decisions. While the leadership were seen to favor an alliance, the members rejected it emphatically. Impassioned speeches were delivered from the convention floor by women of color who argued that the PQ was irrevocably tainted by the charter, and QS would be as well if they made this deal with the devil. To their credit, party members listened, and quashed the proposal by a large margin.

Despite this clear rejection of the PQ’s politics of exclusion and fear, QS’s policy on reasonable accommodation leaves much to be desired. While the least restrictive of the four major parties, the party’s policy favors barring visible religious symbols from those in positions of authority like judges, cops, and prison guards, and the party has indicated they would consider using the “notwithstanding clause” of the Canadian constitution, which allows a government to disregard certain charter rights in service of a greater public good, if such a ban were struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

QS leaders will argue that the “compromise” position on reasonable accommodation was a necessary effort to put the issue to bed and avoid more divisive debates. But compromising with racists rarely works out well, and this position has many Montreal leftists holding their nose as they vote for QS, no doubt also discouraging the volunteers that form the lifeblood of a populist, leftist political party.

A friend who volunteers for Eve Torres, a QS candidate and the first hijab-wearing Muslim woman to run for office in Quebec, can’t hold back her frustration and conflicted feelings when talking about the party. One of the voices speaking out against an alliance with the PQ at that congress, she has gone from optimism to pessimism as she’s watched the party nonetheless flirt with the idea of restricting the rights of women like Torres. She tells me, with a sigh, that she’s working for the candidate — not the party.

But that’s not their only problem. After spurning the PQ, the party merged (or perhaps more accurately, engineered a friendly takeover) with a fringe, hard-line sovereigntist party called Option Nationale (ON), whose platform had stipulated that an electoral victory would be sufficient to declare independence (the most radical party position on sovereignty). ON’s influence has helped push sovereignty to the forefront of QS’s campaign, with that party’s most recent leader and deputy leader running as high-profile candidates for QS in Quebec City.

In a traditionally communitarian province like Quebec, with a history of oppression along linguistic lines and strong social solidarity among the francophones who make up over 80 percent of Quebec’s population, the terrain is fertile for the leftist ideas QS is advancing. But with over two-thirds of Quebecers opposed to sovereignty the position is a millstone around the party’s neck.

In the 2014 election QS also pushed sovereignty as one of the main themes of their campaign, with their then-co-spokesperson even arguing with the then-PQ leader over which party was more sovereigntist in the televised debate. In that election the PQ cratered, going from 32 percent of the vote in the 2012 contest to only 25 percent in 2014. One would assume that the partial collapse of a party with which QS shared a voter universe (left-of-center and sovereigntist voters) would lead to an uptick in their support, but the party’s vote share only rose 1.6 percent from their 2012 result. Many observers pointed to a general distaste for sovereignty, and QS’s decision to place it at the center of their campaign, as one of the reasons they failed to capitalize on the PQ’s misfortunes.

The party is now pursuing what you might call a two-election strategy, hoping to consolidate sovereigntist supporters and overtake the PQ in this election, then ultimately replace them as a consolidated leftist contender for power in four years. But even in the medium term, it’s hard to see how the party will access the two-thirds of the population that feel forced to choose between the Liberals and CAQ due to their distaste for the sovereignty debate which has roiled Quebec since the seventies and spawned two failed referendums.

After the election of Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois as QS co-spokesperson (the other is long-time social activist Manon Massé, as QS use a dual-spokesperson model in place of a traditional leader, one of whom must always be a woman) last summer, the party experienced a surge of support.

A telegenic leader of the student strike of 2012 and of the movement to oppose the Energy East pipeline, Nadeau-Dubois brought media attention and legions of young people to the party. In the months after he announced he would be joining QS, prominent figures in the student strike took jobs and accepted nominations to run for the party. its membership doubled, and support in polls climbed into the mid-teens.

But that energy has ebbed somewhat, with support for the party falling back to single digits earlier this year, and no poll showing them with more than 14 percent support after reaching a high-water mark of 19 percent last summer. And while the province is crying out for a credible leftist alternative to the austerity offered by the two leading parties, sovereignty is the most significant obstacle to a surge in support for the only truly leftist party on offer.

That’s why, as we begin a campaign that will be dominated by nonsensical debates over immigration in a province that should welcome more of it, many leftists in Montreal are just hoping for it all to be over.

Perhaps most striking is the generational divide. While older voters in the regions may care about immigration and sovereignty, the “hot-button issues” ranked dead last in a poll of Quebecers between eighteen and twenty-five that asked them to rank a dozen priorities. For young people the issues that matter most are education, healthcare and the environment.

The same poll found that a whopping 70 percent of young people describe themselves as federalists, while only 19 percent describe themselves as sovereigntists. One in four of these young people also say it was the student strike of 2012 that first got them interested in politics.

Young Quebecers, the natural base for a party like QS, want what the party is selling in terms of renewed support for social programs and action on climate change. But they aren’t interested in restricting immigration, policing Muslim women, or separating from Canada. This is a generational shift in priorities that will only become more pronounced over time.

For QS to break through and come within spitting distance of forming a government, they need to ditch the concern with what Muslim women wear, which should be reasonably easy, and at least downplay the importance of sovereignty and stick to more popular leftist policy proposals. That part will not be easy, with many party figures holding a deeply personal attachment to the idea of a sovereign Quebec that blinds them to the unpopularity of that proposal in today’s political climate.

On the other hand, sovereignty may make a comeback and form the basis of a future electoral victory for QS. I just wouldn’t bet on it. Tommy Schnurmacher is a Montreal radio host who was one of the loudest anglophone voices against sovereignty during the 1995 referendum campaign, in which sovereignty was defeated by the narrowest of margins. He spent years decrying the danger of the sovereignty movement, but recently wrote that at this point “there is more of a chance of a meteor hitting Mar-a-Lago than there is of having a referendum in Quebec.”

The sooner QS reckons with that reality, the better the prospects of the electoral left in Quebec. In the meantime, QS’s elected reps continue to advance progressive ideas inside and outside of the campaign period, like their proposed cap on the salary of CEOs at state-owned enterprises. Leftists should hope to see more of them elected on October 1.