By Benoit Renaud, published October 8, 2012
The people of Québec, the only Canadian province where the majority of the population has French as their first language, have been struggling for decades with the issue of whether they want to remain a part of Canada or become an independent country. Two referendums were held on that issue in 1980 and 1995. In the first one, the “yes” vote to sovereignty was at 40%, in the second, it went up to 49.5%. Both these referendums were initiated by provincial governments of the Parti Québécois (a close equivalent to the Scottish National Party). Since 1995, the PQ has been struggling with what to do next on independence, some arguing for a third referendum, others against. While in government (until 2003), it alienated many people in the social movements and part of its own base with neo-liberal policies, including support for free trade deals and attacks on health and education. This has led to a convergence of forces on its left and the founding of Québec solidaire, a party uniting the left and also supporting independence.
On September 4, the Québec provincial election brought back to power the Parti Québécois. But this was a very narrow victory, with only 54 out of 125 seats going to the PQ, and 50 to the Liberal party (PLQ), which was in government for the preceding 9 years and is dedicated to Canadian unity. The remaining seats went to The Coalition for Québec’s future (CAQ, 19 seats), a fiscally conservative party led by a former PQ cabinet minister, which calls itself nationalist while rejecting independence; and Québec solidaire (2 seats and 6% of the popular vote).
This election was called after six months of an unprecedented student strike against a planned tuition increase of 75%, which sparked a much broader social mobilisation on social justice, environmental and democratic issues. With 200,000 students on strike for several weeks and daily actions of various types and sizes – several of them leading to confrontations with the police – this movement had its highlights in a series of mass demonstrations counting in the hundreds of thousands in downtown Montréal, on the 22nd of each month starting in March. Some people have referred to that movement as the Maple Spring (a pun in French on the Arab Spring, “érable” rhyming with “arabe”).
It can be argued that this student strike not only was victorious, but that it effectively brought down the government. On the first day of the campaign, each party put forward their positions in relation to the student movement. And on its first day in power, the new government cancelled the planned tuition increase as well as the repressive law that was passed in May with the goal of ending the strike, unsuccessfully.
During the election campaign, the national questions was also a significant factor, but in a strangely negative way. The Liberals and CAQ were constantly attacking the PQ for considering the possibility of a third referendum on sovereignty. But the fact is that current PQ leader Pauline Marois founded her leadership on the rejection of any firm commitment to hold such a referendum. Her party had suffered its worse electoral setback in 2007, coming in third place, after including the promise of a referendum in its platform. Even many supporters of independence didn’t vote for them because they didn’t believe they could win a third referendum after having lost the first two, with the same leadership and the same strategy.
In fact, a new party formed out of a split from the PQ just a year before the election. Option nationale (ON) is dedicated to achieving independence by all means, including creating facts out of an election victory (which, as we have just seen, can be achieved with only 32% popular support), before holding a referendum. This comes from the idea that the federal government stole the 1995 referendum by not respecting the rules. That party got 1.9% of the vote and came close to electing its leader, Jean-Martin Aussant, who was a rising star of the PQ caucus before his resignation in May 2011.
This never ending debate, both within the nationalist movement and in the broader political scene over referendums, their merits and how and when one could be won by pro-independence forces, is symptomatic of a general acceptance of top down politics as practiced in the province since the first Parliament was elected, back in 1792, on the British model. In short, what new Prime Minister Pauline Marois was asking the electorate, was to trust her with all the decisions: when a referendum should take place, what the question should be, how the transition to a new political status for Québec would be managed, etc.
For Québec solidaire, independence is not only a means of preserving the culture of the French speaking majority and righting the wrongs of history, it is also a path to achieving social, environmental and democratic goals. Our party’s starting point is not nationalism but principles associated with the Left, like feminism, labour rights, anti-racism, international solidarity, etc. We have reached a broad consensus in favour of independence in part because fighting against national oppression is one of those progressive principles, and the Canadian state has proven many times that it is not willing to fully recognise Québec as a nation. But also, we see the struggle for independence as a way to bring people together, through the democratic process of a constituent assembly, and decide collectively what kind of society we want. In short, we want to give its full meaning to the idea of self-determination. Our view of the national struggle is from the bottom up.
Also, our party and its relative successes – considering it is the only such creature in North America – was made possible because it came from a series of mass struggles from below against neo-liberal and imperialist attacks. From the March of Women of 1995 and 2000 to the student strikes of 1996 and 2005, including a mobilisation of 100,000 in Québec city in April 2001 against the Free Trade Area of the Americas and an almost unanimous rejection of the Iraq war, Québec has been at the centre of the fight back against corporate power and for a better world.
The very close results of this election, with the formation of a minority PQ government, mean that there is likely to be another battle for votes very soon. Also, the new government, after signalling left in the lead up to the election and implementing some of their more progressive commitments early on, will be inexorably pushed to the right by the corporate lobbies, the parliamentary majority of the other two centre-right parties and their own belief in neo-liberal principles. Inevitably, other struggles from below will be needed in the near future. Our hope is that out of all that turmoil, our vision of Québec’s place in the world as an independent country showing that a more just and green society in the heart of North America is possible, will become more and more relevant and eventually rally the support of a majority.
Benoit Renaud is a member of Québec solidaire’s co-ordinating committee. He recently spoke at the Radical Independence Conference on 24 November, 2012 in Edinburgh, Scotland.