The Politics of Quebec

At the end of March 2011, the Bloc Quebecois polled at 36.8% of the Quebec vote, which would give it about 45 seats in an election if it were held that day. Alas, the vote was held just over a month later. In the May 2011 election, the Bloc Quebecois won four (4) of Quebec's 75 seats. It received 23.4% of the Quebec vote. Almost all of this support flowed to the likewise social-democratic NDP, which won almost 60 of Quebec's seats. The leader, Gilles Duceppe, who had held the post since 1997, lost his own Montreal-area seat, despite being unchallenged as the most popular then-elected separatist prior to the May election. On December 11th, 2011, the Bloc Quebecois will choose a successor to Gilles Duceppe. Now, the party holds 4 seats and one latest poll puts them at about 10% of provincial support. The next federal election isn't planned until October 2015, meaning that the new leader would spend about 3.5 years wandering around while seeming largely irrelevant. The job is wide open, meaning someone with major name recognition in Quebec's sovereignty movement could snatch it if they wanted. So far only two people seemed interested and they are sitting MPs with zero profile. One was a mayor of a small village in Quebec until recently (population 943).

The provincial scene is equally problematic for the mainline separatist movement. In the 1990s, the sovereignty movement was largely a single coherent force. If you were a Quebec nationalist, you probably voted for the Parti Quebecois at the provincial level. This supported persisted until the 2003 election that saw the rise of Jean Charest, the still-sitting Liberal premier. At this point, the coalition started to collapse in both directions. First, some activists and intellectuals left the party and spun off a left coalition party known as Quebec solidaire. Second, many conservative nationalist voters started parking their votes with the ADQ, an ambiguous party that took a number of right-wing issues but was all over the map and centered mostly on their popular leader Mario Dumont. Support for the ADQ peaked in the 2007 election, where they became the Official Opposition, but this dissipated quickly and the PQ returned to Official Opposition in 2008. Also in the 2008 election, Quebec solidaire won a single seat and pulled a few percent of the provincial vote.

Over the past few years, many conservative nationalists have largely abandoned the sovereignty project, and are starting to coalesce around a new political formation called the Coalition for the Future of Quebec (CAQ). This is centered on a former PQ provincial Minister named Francois Legault. One recent poll says that his potential-party would receive 40% of the provincial vote, largely destroying the Parti Quebecois in the process. This new party would not take any action on sovereignty and may even only take a single mandate to "fix" Quebec (unlikely but it is what Legault proposes). Corruption is a major issue in Quebec because construction money is perceived to gird the entire Liberal majority, although I think this is probably exaggerated somewhat, but many people looking for a "new option" would probably like the possibility of someone "cleaning up" politics.

Also a factor is the rise of Quebec solidaire. Given the rise of NDP support in the province, some has bled over to QS as a fellow left party, which is (somewhat wrongly) seen as a NDP for Quebec. QS strongly supports Quebec independence, and the federal interm NDP leader had to cancel her membership when it was revealed she had one. QS polls around 10% right now, which would give it about 4 seats. Even a small number of seats might end up being important if the CAQ blows open politics and the result is a minority government. Much of this support also comes from the popularity of Amir Khadir, the only MNA for QS, who is seen as a sort of one-man strong opposition while the PQ disintegrates.

In the middle of this is Pauline Marois, PQ leader, who is widely criticized as fumbling the leadership despite incredible anger at the Liberal government for perceived corruption. Her response to the emergence of the CAQ and the (more marginal) rise of the QS has been largely to try to steer a middle course that focuses on things popular to both sides, like a new independent public inquiry into corruption and also measures to protect Quebecois identity and the French language. Given the reorientation of Quebec around left-right lines federally, she seems caught in the political centre when things are polarizing. She has tried to appease some on the Right by shutting down leftist political clubs within the party that were originally intended to spur debates to keep the party a broad tent. At the same time, she has committed to fairly standard social-democratic language about guaranteeing everyone a family doctor or child care space.

English-language media constantly talks about the death of the sovereignty movement. Despite this, about a third of Quebecers still say they would vote to separate. In the 1995 referendum, support for sovereignty climbed substantially during the campaign. This is different than most referenda, where the conventional wisdom is that support for general questions is much higher than specific ones. This, and other polling, seems to suggest that the number of people sympathetic to sovereignty is significantly larger than the 33% the latest poll suggests. Also, 38% said "yes" in the prior poll taken in May.

Another factor in Quebec is the strong activist movement. Although most activists are subsumed by Quebec solidaire (and, municipally, Projet Montreal), many other activists are also part of currents without clear electoral ties, such as the anarchist and Maoist communities. Unlike in most other places in North America, these communities show up in the news sometimes. For example, prior to the G20 summit in Toronto, a number of Montreal-based activist were arrested by Quebec's police units on criminal conspiracy charges. One anarchist is going to jail because he extemporaneously remarked that it would be a good thing if someone tore down a security wall at the summit. Every year police and radicals reach conflict in an anti-brutality march, where the police have taken to ticketing hundreds of people to shut down and punish the protest. This year, some Maoists allegedly tried to "un-arrest" one of their journalists and they have been charged with numerous crimes. This sort of thing filters through left scenes and forms a culture of disappointment with traditional politics, which is part of the reason why Quebec solidaire is so radical.

The differences between QS and the NDP, despite many members holding both membership cards, are fairly profound. For example, a strong candidate in the NDP leadership race has said that Greek austerity plans are an example of good governance worthy of emulation. Quebec solidaire, on the other hand, has been hashing out plans for an alternative, anticapitalist economic model. A number of NDP elected officials across Canada have called referring to Israel as an apartheid state "antisemitic" - Quebec solidaire officially calls Israel an apartheid state and supports BDS. So it remains to be seen how the NDP and QS might relate over time. Proximity or involvement in power might moderate QS, especially with an influx of moderates as the party grows.

The next provincial election is still possibly some time off, as the last election was held in late 2008 and the Liberals theoretically have until late 2013 to call a new one due to their majority. One possibility is a fracturing of the Liberal caucus as MNAs move to the new conservative party, which could trigger an election. Some MNAs have already left the Parti Quebecois (including originally Legault himself). Legault would need time to fundraise for a new party and there would need to be a leadership race, as well as the formal agreement on the dissolution of the CAQ into a party.

It remains to be seen how the PQ will respond to all this. One possibility is that Marois will be ushered out as leader in favour of someone like Gilles Duceppe. However, given Duceppe's complete implosion (even losing his own seat) in the May election, there is less impetus for this moving forward. Still, many in the party believe Duceppe's loss is more associated with love for the NDP (and the deceased former leader Layton in particular) than dislike of the Bloc leader. Given that he had won a majority of Quebec's seats in each of the five federal elections prior to the 2011 debacle, it isn't unthinkable that he could be a force for unity in the PQ. If Legault's support slips away with voter scrutiny and Duceppe largely holds together the caucus, it is plausible that the latter could become Premier in the mix.

Quebec's postwar model was more Keynesian than English North America. Especially given the influence of the first PQ Premier Rene Levesque, a sort of social-democratic consensus emerged among francophones. This involved provincial control of resources like electricity (which Quebec exports), the extensive use of pension and public funds to shape business and regional development, expanded funding for cultural projects, public health care, cheap tuition and so on. This was seen as part of a nationalist agenda to recover Quebec from English-Canadian interests, and the initial stages under the Liberals were known as the Quiet Revolution. Part of the PQ's legacy is Bill 101, which required businesses to use French in their dealing with employees or customers. So shocking was "the Quebec model" to anglophone Quebecers that a half million of them fled Quebec during Rene Levesque's premiership and major Canadian businesses moved their headquarters to Toronto.

One major policy initiative under Quebec's last PQ government was universal child care. In principle, it is founded on universal access to non-profit regulated child spaces which cost parents only $7 a day (for comparison, an unsubsidized space in Toronto, Ontario might cost $40 a day) . In practice some people still have difficulty receiving spaces. The influence of this program has been widely praised in Quebec: Some measures suggest child poverty has dropped by half since its initiation less than a decade ago. The cost of the program is estimated to be less than the additional tax revenue from more parents working. A "Quebec style" child care system is prized by left-leaning people across Canada, and the federal Liberals had largely put a framework in place to start a national system prior to their defeat by Harper in 2006, who substituted a broad but small tax credit for families.

Some features of the "Quebec model" are considered outdated by most business leaders and many politicians. Quebec has much higher taxes than most of Canada, despite significant transfers from Ottawa to compensate it for its low economic output. The debate over health care privatization is more open in Quebec, where the ADQ even campaigned strongly for privatization. Likewise, hydro rates are heavily subsidized, and more market-oriented conservatives are concerned by this. There is a general sense among many conservatives that Quebec is missing out on opportunities. Much of the left response is simply to defend the Quebec model, with a minority insisting that the core values behind the model have not yet been realized. Recently, part of this response involved the rise of the NDP, which promised Quebec a way to promote progressive values in a situation of perceived real power, given that the Bloc would always have to remain out of direct power as a separatist party.

One major factor is whether the government surprises people and puts forward a model of proportional representation for the National Assembly (Quebec's legislature). This is supported, at least in theory, by both the Liberals and Quebec solidaire. PQ members have criticized it for being a way to count-in English Montrealers, who are currently concentrated in a few ridings. However, if the PQ faces collapse on the scale of the Bloc, it could change some of their minds. For example, the Bloc won 4 seats out of 75 in the federal election, but had the vote been counted proportionally they would have 18 seats, which would have been a much more respectable result and easier to rebuild from. Still, conservatives in Quebec may be unwilling to accept a political system that might freeze in a range of interests and open the door to more. That is, presently business can at least depend on broad, moderate parties that can usually depend on majorities - a PR system could allow sovereigntists, anglophone Quebecers, and socialists to play largely to their corners, rather than focusing on participation in larger coalitions, which may destabilize governments.

Quebec politics is rather volatile at this point and it seems likely that five years from now it will be a much different configuration at the provincial and possibly federal levels.

Discussion of The Politics of Quebec on tHE r H i z z o n E:

Thanks for posting this, its a really fascinating read.

How does the rest of Canada interact with Quebec politics? That is to say, do you feel the separatist movement is genuinely intent on breaking away from the rest of Canada, or is it largely have the function of weakening national powers in the region in order to better project regional interests nationally? I ask because, from the perspective of looking up at ya from the Yankee side, it seems to me that Canada as a whole has a history of loyalism as opposed to separatism; there was never a war for Canadian independence, for instance, and y'all still acknowledge the Queen as your head of state.

But then again, I don't know much about the region despite living so close to it for so many years. I am still amazed, when I think about it, that such large group of Frenchmen would even acknowledge the English Monarchy at all! The Irish, in a pretty analogous situation, certainly never paid the Queen much love.
Only a small minority of anglophone Canadians support the independence of Quebec. This is concentrated in the radical left, but even here only a minority of the radical left supports outright independence. Most radical leftists talk about the "right to national self-determination" but then generally say that Quebec should not exercise this right to vote for independence.

Among the broader public, the call for separatism is seen as a bargaining chip, and a lot of people say they wish Quebec would separate to end the question, sometimes adding outright chauvinist language about how people who say they want to separate are traitors and such. The hostility is pretty extreme in some cases. Quebec receives a few billion dollars in equalization transfer payments which are seen by many, even those pragmatically in favour of them, as a sort of bribe or ransom.

There were some rebellions for local self-rule in Canadian history, including in Quebec, in the 19th Century. This undercurrent of radicalism played a role in the politics of the center. This is true even in the late 20th Century. In the 1960s (until 1970), a Front for the Liberation of Quebec (FLQ) emerged that started attacking various sites and ultimately taking and killing a hostage (Minister of Labour) which triggered a national crisis. This was sort of the backdrop of the emerging of the Parti Quebecois, which first won power in 1976. I was at a separatist rally (just curious) on the Patriot's Day (a minor nationalist holiday) where I saw a number of people still wearing FLQ t-shirts and such. Something like 80% of Quebec francophones think that the Monarchy should be ended.

I was about 14 when I saw this sign (well, something like it) on television. I was very hostile to Quebec independence, as a suburban anglophone in Ontario, but something about the sign really pulled at me: "Yes, and it becomes possible." So nationalism wasn't a recognition, it was a creation.
what in tarnation is the the entire north american continent

the gall of these frogs
How accurate is this article?
it is a standard right-wing take on things, the opinions are dumb but the facts are right i guess.
Care to share your thoughts? Sign up for tHE r H i z z o n E and Post your heart out, baby!