August 21, 2012

Quebec heads to crucial vote

Marianne Breton Fontaine, leader of the
Young Communist League of Quebec,
is running for Quebec Solidaire

A shorter version of this article by J. Boyden will be published in the September issue of People's Voice newspaper.

As Québec approaches a crucial election on September 4, the majority of students have decided to halt their long‑lasting strike mobilization that helped trigger the vote.

     About 60,000 students remain on strike according to the militant student union la CLASSE (as of Aug. 21). Most strike votes saw long and intense debates about strategy and tactics. On most campuses, between twenty and forty per cent of students supported continued strike action.  The student's are expected to come back to the question after the election.

     In explaining the vote, the CLASSE pointed to the intense pressure faced by students. Repressive Bill 78 is now Law 12, which bans any kind of strike action (even symbolic) imposing harsh fines both on students, their unions, teachers, and post‑secondary institutions that don't obey the law. Many schools told students that if they voted for a continued strike everyone would receive a failing grade for the semester.

And it seems that this threat is now very real. The 60,000 students who have voted to continue the strike may have their session canceled.

Election battle in full swing

     There is also concern that continued strike action might backfire and actually help the Charest Liberals' "law and order" platform. Polls indicate the Liberals' major challenge is from the pro‑business Parti Québécois (PQ) headed by Pauline Marois. In third place is Francois Legault's ultra‑right Coalition for Québec's Future (CAQ). The main idea of that party is to put the national question on hold for ten years, and create an alliance of the right to attack labour, social movements, environmentalists and Quebec's social programmes in general.  (You can read more about these political parties on RY blog here).

     The big parties have tried to focus on economic development with Plan Nord, and the continued debate about secularism and "reasonable accommodation" (with Quebec culture and immigration) and corruption. But the pressure of the spring's massive popular student struggle refuses to go away.

QS stands out

     The progressive party most strongly identified with the cause of the students, labour and social movements is Québec Solidaire (QS). As one of its star ideas, QS would "eliminate all fees charged to students and their parents when attending any public or parapublic institutions from preschool to university" as part of social project for a progressive and more democratic Quebec.  In election debate, QS was the only party to wear the Red Square symbol of the students.

     Led by co‑spokespeople Dr. Amir Khadir (its one MNA, elected provincially in the Motnreal riding of Mercier) and feminist activist Francoise David, QS hopes to pick up seats in the vote and elect a strong block in the National Assembly. Québec Solidaire is the party with the most women candidates (62 female and 62 male; only 28.1% of all candidates in this election are women), and the party's website lists fourteen candidates who are trade unionists.

Time to stand-up!

     Their campaign slogan roughly translates as 'stand up.' The QS platform advocates many immediate demands that are similar to the policies of the Communist Party of Canada, including:

  • Create a universal public drug insurance plan and "Pharma-Québec", a public pharmaceutical acquisition and production centre, and stopping privatization of health care;
  • Amend anti‑scab legislation to prevent all indirect use of employees by the employer involved in a labour dispute as well as the use of production by alleged volunteers, and ban both lockouts and recourse to injunctions against picketing;
  • Plant‑closure legislation, including financial penalties, forced payment of pensions, and the nationalization of solvent companies converting them to workers' cooperatives.
  • Opposition to the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) and the North American Free Trade Agreement;
  • Reinforce and re‑establish a progressive tax system, with exceptions for the lowest income brackets, and introducing tax brackets for corporations, as well as reducing tax incentives and eliminating tax loop‑holes.
  • Nationalize the strategic resources for which Québec has extraction and exploitation technical expertise, especially certain raw materials and energy‑related resources.
  • Electoral reform including mixed‑member proportional representation.

     Broad but consistent emphasis is put on social justice and equity issues. The QS platform calls to create 40,000 new childcare spaces, shifting private facilities into the public sector, and expanding the hours during which childcare centres operate, to support parents working in non‑standard jobs.

     QS calls for the Québec National Assembly to pass and apply, without conditions, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

     The platform proposes 50,000 new universally accessible social housing units (public, cooperative, or communal), a guaranteed minimum income starting at $12,000 a year, and a universal Québec pension plan.

     A Québec Solidaire government would advocate reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% compared to 1990 levels by 2020 and by 95% by 2050. Proposals in this direction include nationalizing wind power, expanding public transit and electrifying transit, banning the exploration and production of fossil fuels (oil, shale gas) and working towards the abandonment of fossil energy consumption by 2030.

     The party calls for a food sovereignty policy that will favour sustainable development of resources, and protect access to clean water as a social right.

Star candidates
    The party has attracted some controversy throughout the campaign. Former Federal Bloc leader Gilles Ducept launched into a vicious personal attack at co-leader Amir Khadir early in the campaign.  Corporate media commentators have also seized on the fact that in downtown Montreal the roster of QS candidates includes long-time Queer activist Manon Masse, whose poster was not air-brushed to obscure her facial hair.

   In the north of Montreal, anti-police brutality campaigner Will Prosper is also running for QS, who has attracted attention beyond Quebec for his outspoken criticism of racial profiling and the police murder of unarmed Honduran-Quebec youth Fredy Villanueva.

   Other star candidates in Montreal include Alexandre Leduc in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, a former student activist and organizer with the FTQ trade union central, and leftist anti-poverty activist and Chilean-Quebeker Andrés Fontecilla who is runing in Laurier-Dorion.

QS, the PCQ and the future of Quebec

    Like the Communist Party, the QS calls to strengthen enforcement of the Charter of the French Language (Loi 101) in all work environments, countering the current direction of increasing exceptions to this law that have allowed a growing number of workplace orders to be again given in English.

     QS has a somewhat concurrent but different emphasis and vision from the CPC when it comes to the question of Québec's future.  The relationship between the two parties goes back to the ancestor of QS, the Union of Progressive Forces (UFP). The UFP was formed following the major anti-globalization protests in Quebec City, as a coalition of several left groups including the PCQ.

     In the long-term, QS calls for a society that moves 'beyond capitalism.'  While this ambiguous phrase is not prominent on the QS website, the campaign is talking about the current experience of Bolivia, Venezuela and Latin America in general as an example of social transformation for Quebec.

    In its interventions about this question, the Communist Party of Quebec (PCQ) has similarly called for QS to develop further towards a united front of labour and social movements around the most advanced and broad left-progressive basis of unity possible -- ie. a democratic, anti-monopoly and anti-imperialist platform, rather than socialism.  The clear orientation of the PCQ is towards socialism and it supports QS as the most helpful within the current context.

   As a founding member of the UFP and QS, the PCQ's approach is also not the same as so-called "enterism" where a radical left group (especially a Trotskist grouping) will join a social democratic political party in order to split that formation and win a large pro-socialist organization. The PCQ views QS in a very different strategic framework of a united front at the present juncture, based on its evaluation of the class struggle in Quebec.

Quebec independence

     The Communist Party of Quebec also has a long history of defending Québec's right, as a nation in Canada, to sovereignty and self‑determination, up to and including the right of separation. (You can read the programme of the Communist Party here). The PCQ proposes a new equal partnership of the Aboriginal peoples, Québec and English-speaking Canada in a confederal republic, with a new constitution enshrining the right to sovereignty.

     Like the PCQ, Quebec Solidaire also rejects the status‑quo of federalism and proposes a strategy that is more or less complimentary: an elected constituent assembly to be convened so that Québec would democratically decide its own future and draft a new constitution:

Québec solidaire recognizes the Quebecers’ right to choose its institutions and its political status. [...] The Constituent Assembly will: be elected by universal franchise, made up of an equal number of women and men and representative of tendencies, different socio-economic backgrounds, and the cultural diversity present in Québec society; conduct a far-reaching, participatory democratic process to consult the population of Québec on: the values, rights, and principles upon which community life should be based; the political status of Québec; the definition of its institutions; heir delegated powers, responsibilities, and resources; develop, from the outcome of the consultation, one or more proposals which will be put to the population in a referendum.

     However, like the majority of the left in Québec (but not the PCQ), QS sees the process of sovereignty as a road to independence. It's platform makes it clear that "Throughout the process, Québec solidaire will advocate for creating a sovereign Quebec state, without assuming what the outcome of the debates will be."

    The line between these two formulations -- summarized by leader Amir Khadir in a phrase that translates as "[QS thinks] indepedance is necessary, but [the result of the process we propose will] not necessarily [be] independence" -- may seem very thin or academic to out-of-province political observers. But within Quebec, this issue is explosive. The fact that QS claims to be a pro-sovereignty party and yet also wants to initiate a process that might not lead to separation (and instead a fundamentally different yet united relationship with Canada) has resulted in polemical denunciations from other nationalist forces like L'Aut' Journal.

     More than in previous campaigns, QS sometimes comes close to putting independence as an objective in itself, which is the approach of the Parti Québécois -- demanding seperation not as a way to social progress (which is the QS' stated policy) but as a means to an end. The platform says QS "will set in motion from the day it takes office a constituent assembly process" and in the televised debates, Françoise David tried to put the leader of the PQ on the spot, asking her when a referendum would take place. QS is clear, she said, that the ball will be set into motion within their first year.

     But is that the main priority task? The PCQ positively views the continued split of the nationalist camp away from the big business PQ and behind a sort of people's agenda of social demands. Placing greater emphasis on such struggle will help develop class consciousnesses that could convince people to understand the national project in a different framework of class solidarity and unity.

    While agreeing that the sovereignty of Quebec is a fundamental question that must be addressed and solved, the PCQ puts much greater immediate priority on uniting all the people of Quebec to confront and reverse the "class war" being waged by the capitalists against the people.  The PCQ also points out the serious danger to both Québec and English-speaking Canada from US imperialism that comes with the path of recognizing sovereignty through Independence, and instead calls for an equal and voluntary partnership of the working class and its allies in both Québec and English‑speaking Canada, united in the struggle for social transformation against our common enemy -- big business.

    Despite this difference, the choice for those looking for a strong left party is clear. (The QS program is available in English here.)

Option nationale

     Another party presenting a left-sounding platform is Option nationale (ON), which currently holds one seat in the Quebec National Assembly. ON is a dissident split from the PQ, and likely believes that PQ is on the edge of break-up -- which could be true if that party fails again to win another election. ON broke from the PQ in order to advance a more immediate and assertive trajectory towards Quebec independence than the PQ is currently prepared to take, and waits in the wings to succeed as the true party of separation.

     ON's platform is arguably a cheap copy and paste job from Quebec Solidaire, hoping to attract young voters who are pro-independence. The party is calling for nationalization of natural resources, free education (from kindergarten to PhD), abolition of nuclear energy in Quebec, a moratorium on shale gas operations, Pharma Quebec (a new crown corporation which will aim to reduce pharmaceutical costs in Quebec), construction of a monorail electric suspended between cities, and implementation of proportional representation in Quebec.

     ON's generally progressive rhetoric most likely reflects an opportunist sentiment. The main social basis of support for a "fast-lane" strategy of independence is from left-leaning voters.  While ON advocates for a pro-independence coalition government, it has vigorously attacked QS at the same time for its strategy stating that "All political programmes corresponding with the interests of Quebec will never be fully realized in the Canadian context. For us, independence is not maybe necessary, it is essential."

    This has left more than a few political observers wondering that if the ruling class had wanted to invent a rival party to split the QS vote, could they have done better? In fact, ON is headed by Jean-Martin Aussant a former PQ Member of the National Assembly (MNA) who is worked as a vice-president of Morgan Stanley Capital International in London, England. As an PQ MNA, Aussant was finance critic  -- a difficult position from which to jump into "left field."

Restrictions on "Third Parties"

     Québec`s election law severely restricts interventions by organizations not officially registered as so-called "third parties." The Liberals have demanded investigation of student groups. One blogger has been forced to take down her site because it was critical of the ruling party, and a labour union central has removed videos critical of the Liberals.

     The Communist Party of Québec (PCQ) is also in this position. The PCQ has issued a statement critically examining the flaws of strategic voting and the connection between electoral struggle and struggle on the streets.

     Marianne Breton Fontaine, who ran for the Communist Party of Canada in the last federal election, is a candidate under the Québec Solidaire banner in Acadie. This riding is currently held by the Liberal Minister of Culture who waded into the student struggle last spring, accusing a famous soft‑spoken Québec storyteller of endorsing "violence and terrorism" by wearing the red square.

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