By Jessica Squires and Jesse McLaren
Since conquest, Quebec has been an oppressed nation within Canada. The War Measures Act in 1970 and the Clarity Act in 2000 were both reflections of this fact. Because of the federal NDP’s refusal to support self-determination, it does not feature in provincial politics in Quebec. As a consequence, the trade unions and social movements have traditionally supported the bourgeois nationalist Parti Québecois (PQ), which more or less shares the program of the Quebec Liberal party (PLQ). The past few years of struggle have created the possibility of breaking free from this impasse with the emergence of Québec solidaire (QS) provincially, and the historic student strike—and the Orange Wave was a sign of this shift. But fault lines of the national question in electoral politics remain.
The Orange wave that catapulted the federal NDP into opposition was based on anger against Harper and the austerity agenda, disillusionment with the Liberals and the Bloc Québecois, inspiration from the Arab Spring and hope that the NDP could provide an alternative. Within Quebec the vote for the NDP last year was not against sovereignty, and benefited from the left-independentist QS—which since 2006 has provided a provincial electoral alternative to the PQ. QS members voted and campaigned for the NDP as a tactic to fight Harper, as their co-leader 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.”
Movements and electoral expression
The surge in vote for the NDP was an electoral expression of the growing anti-austerity sentiment that exploded with the student strike. Simmering under it all was ongoing resistance to national oppression in Quebec, which has contributed to making Quebec the site of the largest social movements in Canada—including the 70,000 who took part in the 2001 anti-globalization protests, the quarter of a million who marched against the Iraq War in 2003 (successfully stopping Canada from officially participating), the 100,000 who marched for May Day in 2004, the quarter of a million students who struck in 2005, and the 30,000 who marched against the Lebanon War in 2006. This experience also gave rise to QS—a party of the ballot box and of the streets—and combined with the inspiration from the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement to produce the latest student strike movement, the “printemps érable.”
During the 2012 student strike, while the PQ, which has been responsible for past tuition hikes, remained committed to hiking tuition fees (although more slowly than the Liberals), and encouraged compliance with the draconian Bill 78 (although they had voted against it), QS showed how an electoral alternative can provide a megaphone for the movement. QS took part in all the major students demonstrations—while helping connect them to labour fights like the lockout in Alma—and QS MNA Amir Khadir supported civil disobedience against Bill 78 and was arrested and had his house raided for doing so. Meanwhile, the rapid spread of casserole demonstrations across the country—and around the world—showed solidarity with Quebec and a mood to fight austerity locally. Translating this into a larger QS vote within Quebec, and providing support through the federal NDP, would help build and broaden the movement, but this is not automatic.
Taking the streets to the ballot box
The potential of increasing QS and its role as a megaphone for the movement is being squeezed by two opposite but reinforcing trends. Within Quebec the longstanding and legitimate disillusionment with the PQ has reinforced a current that separates movements from electoral politics. This often expresses itself as an anarchist perspective that counter-poses elections and movements instead of seeing them as connected in the social arena has hindered potential positive influence of one on the other and vice versa. On the July 22 mass demo in Montreal there were many calling for a boycott of the election, ignoring the role QS has had in amplifying the movement and the potential of magnifying this role. The danger is that anger at the Liberals and disillusionment with the PQ will go to the new right-wing populist CAQ.
The flip side of the attitude that ignores elections is the strong drive from social movements and the labour movement to support the PQ against the PLQ. Despite the PQ’s record they are trying to divert the printemps érable into their party. The labour leadership did not clearly mobilize for the July 22 rally, while Léo Bureau-Blouin, former head of, the national cégep student union (FECQ), is a candidate for the PQ.
While open abstentionism is mostly a problem within the ranks of the student movement, which is still a minority when it comes to voting, many Quebeckers are so disillusioned with politics they will probably stay home on September 4. QS is squeezed between abstentionism and a vote for the PQ.
But this trend is only part of the picture. Many students are joining QS and campaigning in the election, including longstanding CLASSE leader Renaud Poirier St-Pierre, who explained recently, “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.” Formerly striking students are candidates in several ridings. In the riding of Laurier-Dorion, QS candidate Andrès Fontecilla’s campaign enjoys the active support of hundreds of students. The mood in the riding is electric with a sense of possibility. Even before the Radio-Canada debate of August 19, which included QS co-spokesperson and Montreal candidate Françoise David, QS membership had risen to 12,000, and David is expected to win her seat in central Montreal. Positive mainstream media coverage of the QS campaign and of QS candidate Manon Massé, a Canada Boat to Gaza participant and a tireless activist against Islamophobia and for women’s rights, have led to a general sense of optimism.
Solidarity, not opportunism
The obvious lesson for the federal NDP in this situation ought to be to support the Quebec student strike—the leading anti-austerity fight in Canada—and Quebec’s right to self-determination. But the NDP leadership is doing the opposite. 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, Thomas Mulcair first instructed his MPs not to support openly the student strike.
Now, Mulcair is planning to run the NDP in the next provincial election—against the left sovereigntist QS. In a spectacular display of ignorance of his own party’s history in Quebec, on August 18—during a Quebec election campaign—Mulcair announced that the NDP will form a provincial party in Quebec for the first time since the old one renamed itself the Parti de la Democratie Socialiste, or PDS, in 1994. PDS formed as a result of a split in the old Quebec NDP with the Federal party over the national question. PDS went on to co-found the Union des forces progressiste (UFP, which later merged with Option citoyenne to become Québec solidaire (QS).
Mulcair claims the initiative is being taken as a result of pressure from activists in Quebec. But a large proportion of the activists who worked to get federal NDP MPs elected in the last federal race belong to QS. This move will only serve to divide the left in Quebec at a time when QS, the left, anti-neoliberal alternative, is enjoying its best support since its founding in 2006.
Some commentators are wondering whether in fact Mulcair is trying to position his party to take advantage of what is expected to be a fairly spectacular Liberal defeat on September 4. Mulcair was a Quebec Liberal cabinet minister from 2003 to 2006, under current Quebec Premier Jean Charest.
If true, the depths of Mulcair’s and the federal NDP’s failure to understand Quebec politics are profound. A federalist party formed in Quebec in July in advance of the current election. Union Citoyenne du Quebec is running about twenty candidates. To all appearances it is a negligible contender. There is no base for a quasi-progressive federalist electoral option in Quebec. For a federal, federalist, party to try to form one smacks of raiding.
What the strike won
Student union general assemblies across Quebec voted in August to end the strike, bringing to at least a temporary halt the longest, deepest and most significant student strike – and one of the most important social movement events – in Quebec and Canadian history.
The reasons for the strike’s ending, despite the appearance that the movement did not win anything, were several. First, Bill 78, now Law 12, Charest’s bludgeon law to force an end to the strike, was in the end a major factor, because student unions would effectively be committing suicide if they continued to strike. Second, the votes took place during an election campaign –timing that was not coincidental on Charest’s part, but the result was that strikes, if they continued, would have been against a non-existent government.
But the real story is the students in fact won several major victories.
First, just the fact of continuing the strike and maintaining solidarity in the face of austerity and fear-mongering populism was already a huge achievement. The students put neo-liberalism, and free post-secondary education, on the agenda. They broadened their struggle to include all manner of related issues, from the environment, to corruption, to jobs and social programs.
Second, they could bring down the government. The students stood up against a bully. Charest may originally have hoped for an election at this time – but he certainly didn’t want it in these circumstances. If Charest loses it will be entirely because of the student strike.
Finally, it is worth noting that the movement has far from ended. The Quebec political landscape has been transformed and will never be the same. Quebeckers have re-learned from the students that it is possible to unite, to resist, and to win.
The Quebec student strike has inspired people across Canada and Quebec, and this sentiment will not go away. Within Quebec, the bigger the vote for QS the bigger will be its ability to provide a megaphone for the movement and win the labour and social movements away from their historic tie to the PQ. Across Canada we need to learn the lessons of the printemps érable—supporting Quebec’s right to self-determination, building mass movements from below, and using electoral parties to amplify and not dampen movements.