Nora Loreto is a Canadian writer and author of “From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement.”
On Sept. 29, several hundred activists for social housing finished a march in downtown Quebec City. Over four weeks, others marched throughout towns and cities to demand that both levels of government invest more in social housing.
At the same time and only a few blocks away, La Meute, an ethnic nationalist group, held a news conference and a rally saying that all the parties are rotten, but especially the Liberals. The two rallies never converged, missing one another by two hours in front of Quebec’s National Assembly.
Both left and right movements played important roles in Monday’s election results, which ushered in a Coalition Avenir Québec government, a relatively new right-leaning party. It also saw an unprecedented breakthrough for the firmly left-wing Québec Solidaire, which more than tripled its seat count to 10.
Quebec politics has been dominated by debates about Quebec independence for half a century, but Monday’s CAQ victory came after a historic election campaign, one where the “National Question” was off the table.
Instead, the fight pitted the traditional ruling parties, the Liberals and the Parti Québécois, and new parties promising change: the CAQ and Québec Solidaire. The CAQ represents emerging populism that isn’t concerned with sovereignty, while Québec Solidaire is, in a North American context, a far-left party that has promised to bring to the province a revolution.
It’s language that the rest of Canada might scoff at, but for Quebecers, talking about revolution dates back to an era where the Quiet Revolution brought Quebec into modernity, where it started to break from the control of the Catholic church, and where national programs and systems were born.
It was from this that the Parti Québécois was born, led by the charismatic and popular René Lévesque. But, after two referendum defeats, the Parti Québécois slowly shed most of its firm orientation in social democracy and talked more and more about independence. The Liberals used this to get elected over and over, relying on the fear of an independent Quebec to hold onto power.
With sovereignty off the table, Quebecers were able to vote based on policies alone. This is what made Québec Solidaire’s campaign so potent. The party promised to break Quebec’s dependence on oil; raise revenue by $12 billion; introduce a host of social programs, including free education (from infant to PhD) and community health clinics that are open 24 hours per day; and to reduce transit fares across the province by 50 percent.
The Coalition Avenir Québec managed to put itself ahead by being, simply, new — even though its spending plans were not all that different from the status quo. It tried to distinguish itself through some policies, such as universal day care for 4-year-olds and to build new old-age homes through public-private partnerships. But the policies that were most controversial were related to immigration and identity.
Premier-elect François Legault scored political points by promising to reduce immigration from 50,000 annually to 40,000 by targeting the family reunification program, which allows immigrants to sponsor family. He also said he would insist that immigrants pass a French test within three years of immigrating to Canada, or else face expulsion. That promise was roundly condemned, and Legault had to pull back, saying people could try the test as many times as they needed to. The second promise was to implement a test for values, a promise that sunk the Parti Québécois’ minority government of 2012 to 2014. But after getting pushback, Legault avoided bringing it up.
The rise in visible hate group activity in Quebec has undoubtedly impacted mainstream politics. But such activity is in direct opposition to the spirit among young Quebecers for a more open and fair Quebec, one that is promised by Québec Solidaire.
Indeed, Québec Solidaire led the polls for voters between 18 and 34, a third of the electorate.
Across Canada, there is a break with the old political order — and it’s emerging in different ways. In British Columbia, an NDP-Green alliance is in power. In New Brunswick, voters elected the first minority government in almost 100 years, and the Greens and the right-wing People’s Alliance are helping to give enough seats to the Liberals and Conservatives respectively to try and govern. In Ontario, Doug Ford is breaking with decorum to push through politics that are broadly opposed, and using the efficiency of one of Ontario’s traditional parties to do it.
But in Quebec, it’s a realignment, where change expresses itself as either moderate and identitarian, or radical and progressive. And where the torch thrown by Lévésque for an independent Quebec isn’t picked up by the party that flirts with ethnic nationalism, but by the party that puts sovereignty alongside its other promises: to save the environment by breaking from the Canadian petro-state, as co-spokesperson Manon Massé said in one of two televised leaders’ debates, and to allow the people of Quebec to “write their own country” through creating a new constitution from the ground up.
The real question remains: If the Parti Québécois has won the same number of seats as Québec Solidaire, and if the Liberal support has collapsed, what does the future of the traditional parties look like in Quebec?