It was a beautiful sunny day in Montreal's Plateau neighborhood when I met Amir Khadir, the co-spokesperson for Quebec's upstart progressive party Quebec Solidaire, at a shady little restaurant called Mamm Bolduc in his riding of Mercier.
Khadir is the sole elected MNA for the party, winning their first seat in the 2008 election. This time around he's keen to not only keep his seat, but return to the National Assembly with some new friends.
The day after we met, Quebec Solidaire would host a rally for sovereignty which drew over twelve hundred people to a Montreal park, bolstering his claim that QS is on the verge of a breakthrough in as many as a half dozen ridings.
Khadir was finishing up lunch with his brother and long time political aide when I arrived, but I had to wait for a seat because the one reserved for me was occupied by a fan who had seized the opportunity to pick his brain about Quebec Solidaire's chances. We were often interrupted during our conversation by passersby who wanted a handshake or a few words with "notre Amir", as he is often called.
There is no disputing that Khadir is a polarizing figure, one who has drawn scorn for doing things like throwing shoes at a cut out of George W. Bush and participating in a protest outside a store selling goods from Israel's illegal settlements. But in his riding of Mercier, and those surrounding it in Montreal's east end, he is something of a folk hero. Khadir routinely ranks in the top five of an annual poll of the most popular politicians in Quebec, and his personal popularity has always outstripped that of his party.
Both a pure natural politician, whose charismatic intensity is almost irresistible, and an anti-politician, Khadir has never met a rule of the game he didn't take gleeful relish in flouting.
I finally find a seat next to him, staring down a few newcomers who ruefully turn away without their moment with Amir. I exchange pleasantries with Khadir and his staffer, Nika Deslauriers, and am introduced to his brother. (Full disclosure: I've known Khadir for some time. I consider him a friend, if not a close one).
I ask how the campaign is going, and mention that the constant attention must be exhausting. He laughs off that assertion, and says that he and Nika have it easy, gaining energy and inspiration from interacting with citizens. He says he feels bad for the staff in his office, stuck doing the boring work of politics.
I haul out my phone and hit record, and off we go like a thoroughbred at the race track. Khadir clearly has much to say, and knows no matter how hard he tries, there won't be time to get it all in. He holds my gaze with that laser like focus that defines the most successful politicians, and speaks with such rapid pacing, in his third language no less, that I find myself thanking my lucky stars I'm recording, and not writing, his responses.
rabble: How has the campaign been going so far?
Amir Khadir: The campaign has been fantastic from the beginning in many ways. The strength of our organization on the ground in several ridings, not only in Montreal, but in Hull, Taschereau, Rouyn-Noranda, Abitibi-Temiscamangue, even I think in Gaspésie where we have a good campaign, I could go on.
But of course it has taken a significant turn, and become even more dynamic and promising, since the performance of Françoise in the debate. Many people have seen us in the ridings where we have been able to put our signs, which are so pretty, and have generated a great deal of praise. Most have recognized that we won the sign war, and also the cyber-campaign, but still in a lot of places people only associated QS with me personally, and the red square, and the student movement, and the "radical", if you wish, personification of our platform. Then, suddenly, came Françoise, who they now recognize because her signs are all over Quebec, and seeing her I think a lot of people saw her intelligence, her capacity to touch our hearts, to listen, to bring up constructive proposals, and that's what came out in the debate.
Everywhere we are seeing a new respect for us and our party. What we must do now is try to transform that sympathy into votes, because a lot of it also comes from our adversaries. But we hope that among those who were undecided, it will be a determining factor in how they vote. If we can reach ten to twelve percent support province wide, that means we can win five, six, maybe even more seats, because of the concentration of our support, and our strength on the ground in many of these ridings.
rabble: Which ridings are you targeting? When you're talking about winning five or six seats, where would they be?
AK: First Gouin. We were leading there before Françoise's performance in the debate, now we're going to consolidate that support and we'll win, that's for sure. St. Marie-St. Jacques is a riding in downtown Montreal, just below Mercier where I am, and in St. Marie-St. Jacques we have been working on the ground since 2006. First a by-election campaign and then two general election campaigns. This is the fourth time Manon [Masse] goes to bat and we have heard that since the debate, her campaign is really gaining momentum.
Then, just next door in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, we have a surprise with a very capable young man, Alexandre Leduc, who is a historian and works for a union organizing young people. He has shown tremendous capacity to organize in his riding, which he's been working on for over six months now. Surprisingly, he even won the fundraising race! La Presse published a ranking of party fundraising in each riding, and in two ridings we raised more money than any other party. One of those was his riding, not mine!
Laurier-Dorion is also a riding where we are hoping for a breakthrough. It is a Liberal riding, unlike the four others, which are PQ strongholds that we are hoping to take, Laurier-Dorion is a Liberal stronghold which we think we can take from them. It is also the other riding where we came first in fundraising.
Finally in Taschereau, which is in downtown Quebec, Agnes Maltais is the PQ candidate who fought for funding to build a hockey arena. That was supposed to give the PQ the edge, but it hasn't, and now Maltais is even struggling to hold onto her own base. This area of Quebec City has a lot of students, of intellectuals and people who don't like that type of policy. Meanwhile the Liberals have spent a lot of money, they've appointed a parachute candidate, their Minister of Economic Development, Clement Gignac, and they should do well there. The CAQ will do well, because they are popular in Quebec City. So this was a three way race, which has now become a four way race because of the debate. Since Monday evening there is movement in our support. So we'll battle in this riding, concentrate all of our regional resources there and we may be able to come out on top in such a tight race between all the parties.
In these ridings we have the money, we have the volunteers and the organization, now we have to see if our general support goes high enough to allow us to win.
rabble: You have a slogan, "a party of the ballot box, and of the street". Now I noticed at the demonstration on Wednesday that there were a few PQ signs, a few Option Nationale signs, but there was a huge QS contingent, you and Francoise were both there, there were several banners, hundreds of signs, not just in your contingent but throughout the march, so do you feel the student movement and the social movement which has grown up around it is coalescing around QS?
AK: Yes, we see it in our membership, which has grown since the beginning of the Maple Spring from around seven thousand to twelve thousand now. A five thousand member increase, more than 70%, in just seven months. These are mainly young people, and we think it's a result of our involvement, of the risks we have taken for the student movement, going out front to defend their right to demonstrate, opposing Bill 78. We didn't do these things with the intention of them paying off, it was just our task, our responsibility. If we hadn't done these things, it would have caused major problems within our ranks, because those who have come to Quebec Solidaire are not with us just to play the electoral game. Our role is to represent the social movements, and for us to do that properly, we must be in the streets with that movement.
But it has been clear to us for a long time that something major is happening. When over three hundred thousand people gather, as they did on the 22nd of April, for a concept as abstract as the common good, something is changing in Quebec society. They weren't there just for the tuition issue, or because there was a hike in the price of gasoline or bread, they were there for the protection of the common good, social justice, social services. In that sense, something very deep is happening.
For us, we must continue to be true to our word, and stand side by side with the people. It may not be in this election, but eventually, in the medium or even long term, it will pay off.
For example, people like her [pointing at Deslauriers], so many of our staff, our militants, those who make up our policy, who write our program, who have been working for years to build Quebec Solidaire, they came to us as a result of the 2005 student movement. Over two hundred of our organizers and staff are directly from that movement.
Imagine, if 2005 gave us so much strength, what 2012 will bring. We must be patient, and they will come in and take our places. They are the future.
rabble: So is it fair to call QS a movement party?
AK: Yes, we are a movement party. We see ourselves as a party of change, of social change, not as a party of government. We want to use government as a tool for social change.
rabble: That brings us to another interesting issue, which is neo-liberalism. The Liberal government, and PQ before it, has cut so much from government revenues. Between 2000-2008 the Quebec government reduced revenues by over $10 billion, mostly in tax cuts for the rich and corporations. In 2011, as the world was clamouring for more regulation of the financial sector, Charest eliminated the 0.98% tax on financial transactions. He's also removed the tax on bank capital, and all of these measures have failed to produce the stimulus and jobs that were promised, as we saw Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of Canada, say the other day. So what's your vision of how the economy should function?
AK: We would dramatically change that. We have costed all of our promises, and been very clear about how we would pay for them. Whether it is the guaranteed annual income, which would cost around 4 billion, or the massive investment we are promising in public transport, in healthcare, in social housing and in daycare. Those five things are the most expensive promises in our platform. We had no problem making these promises because we know there is a lot of room to increase revenue without overburdening middle and lower class taxpayers. In fact, we have a plan for a more progressive income tax system which would leave 90% of taxpayers paying the same amount they are now, or actually paying less, a lot less, than they are now. The 25% of people at the bottom in terms of income will gain more than 20% under our tax plan. The taxes of the top 10% will go up by on average 1%.
This simple and painless change to the income tax system will generate around one billion dollars in new revenue. The rest will come from increases to corporate taxes. We will restore the tax on capital, but not for all businesses, only for the financial sector and banks. This will generate 600 million dollars of new revenue. But there are other sources of revenue as well. In Quebec, we spend a lot of money supporting big businesses, we're going to skim some of that cream off the top. We'll reduce corporate subsidies to big businesses by 20%.
We will also have better control over our natural resources. We will institute a royalty on companies using our water to bottle soft drinks and these things of one cent for every four cans. We will also institute a royalty of half a cent per litre for mining companies and others using our water as part of their industrial process. That will give us 1.5 billion in new revenue, and protect our water resources and make sure they aren't being over used. It's a small cost for them, but a big revenue for the state.
Another source of revenue will be finding savings. We will not spend as much on drugs, because we will negotiate a better price to buy them in bulk, exactly as British Columbia and Ontario have done. We will also institute a universal insurance program for drugs, instead of leaving 60% to the private insurance sector. This change would increase our revenues by 2.7 billion, a figure that hasn't been contested by anyone. Not the pharmaceutical industry, not the medical sector, no one.
Overall, we have made 10 billion dollars of promises in new spending, and we will increase revenues by a little over 10 billion. So we will actually also pay down the debt a little bit with our plan. Not only will we balance the budget, we'll have enough left over to reduce the debt burden.
But of course our goal is not to balance the budget. All of this is a very systematic and structural approach to put an end to neo-liberal policies. We will make sure that we are keeping enough of the wealth we are generating and spending it on society and protecting our well being and our environment.
rabble: I've noticed recently that QS is trying to emphasize the difference between you and the PQ in terms of respect for Anglos and immigrants, how would you explain your vision of sovereignty to progressive federalist voters who might be scared off by it?
AK: First of all, for anglophones we will offer them a choice. They can either go to Fort McMurray or to Guantanamo, with a lovely view of the beach! [He tries to keep a straight face, but can't hold it and starts laughing at his own joke].
But seriously, the most important thing to know about QS is that before everything else, we are a party of equality. We are a party of equality and democracy and we are completely opposed to authoritarian attitudes in every respect. Except to control our wealth, and to put an end to the ravaging of our environment and our natural wealth by corporate interests.
At every step, all of the decisions we make are made in a participatory manner. Even if we are sovereigntists, what some people call separatists, although there is a big difference, we want to offer a situation where everyone, those who are, like myself, in favour of sovereignty, those who are opposed to it and everyone in between, where there is a place for all of them. We want to do it once, democratically, without intimidation, without fear, without manipulation and let people decide. The best way to do this is through a citizens assembly.
When Quebec Solidaire comes to power, which I think will not be on the fourth of September, but at some point down the line, we will offer the chance to debate what we want, for ourselves, for our future. Our vision for our forests, natural resources, respect for women, the place of religion in society, about all that. At the end of this process we will ask two questions, do you support this constitution, and do you support independence.
So the difference is that we do not want to exclude anyone. We can work together for a long time before separating over the national question, and then we can debate that question with respect and solidarity despite our different positions.
Second, there is a place in Quebec for everyone. I myself am an immigrant. Five of the first sixteen members of the Executive of QS were from other parts of the world.
By definition, and it is part of our genetic code, we are a party of inclusion of anglophones, allophones and francophones who want to work together for the common good.
For myself, before I am a sovereigntist, I am an internationalist. For me, sovereignty of Quebec, preservation of the identity of Quebec, of its cultural heritage and French language is the promotion of universal values. From a civilizational perspective, diversity is good. When we protect Quebec, we protect the diversity of humanity, we protect humanity.
It's out of that respect for a humanistic approach to our civilization that I think we have to defend the desire of the Quebec people to have an independent state. But, that being said, it's not against Canada, it's not against any other people, and as I have said so often, and I used to say it to Jack [Layton] and he smiled every time. I said, Jack, the first day of independence we will celebrate, maybe even with you, if you respect our decision, but the second day you will have to be waiting for me in Ottawa at eight in the morning, because I will be there with a new proposal of unity. For unity between the people of Canada, of Quebec, and the First Nations. It will be a proposal for a new unity. A better unity, which will recognize the equal place of First Nations, and promote a common vision of our future to benefit people, not corporate interests on Bay street.
rabble: Would you say then that for QS the social question is a priority over the national question?
AK: We see them as intertwined. When we decide what kind of future we want to have for Quebec, what social and global perspective we want to take in the long term, which we will decide in these citizens assemblies, that will also be the opportunity to ask ourselves the question of sovereignty, of the future of Quebec.
But of course, for us it is the social agenda which defines the national agenda, not the other way around. For us sovereignty is a means to an end. For a long time, most sovereigntists, and even Rene levesque, saw it that way.
I'm convinced that we will be able to work out something very civilized, and acceptable to all the communities of Quebec. Unfortunately the PQ has abandoned that openness. It was once their idea too, they have gone the wrong way, because they are worried about losing ground to the ADQ on the identity front and it's sad. They are trying to please everyone, but they will end up hurting everyone.
rabble: The PQ and CAQ are proposing a charter of secularism, what is QS' position on such a charter?
AK: We are proposing a charter of secularism as well. Along the lines of the main findings of the Bouchard-Taylor commission, which is a good base. But we will not fight the battle of secularism over the head of veiled women. We are an inclusive party because we are an inclusive society. The vast majority of Quebeckers welcome immigration, and think the presence of the anglophone community is a precious thing. We refuse to fight the battle to protect secularism, or even French, over the heads of anglophones or religious people.
I am against the veil, I am against the presence of strong religious symbols in mainstream places of power. But we will never prevent women from getting jobs on the basis of what they wear. For us, we would never forbid anyone with a veil, a turban, a kirpan or any other symbol from working, because it is a question of freedom of conscience. We must respect the conscience of everyone.
We need to define the accommodations we will make to balance our secularism with the fact we live in an open, multifaceted, sophisticated, complex society where there are a lot of different beliefs, and they do not always match the beliefs of those who are in power. But we cannot allow the beliefs of those who are in power to be imposed on everyone.
The measure of equality in a democracy is its capacity to protect minorities, and their rights. That is where we want to excel. We want to show that we can protect French, protect the state from the influence of religious power, without repressing the freedom of expression of anglophones and minorities.
rabble: So you want to be extremely democratic, but you will stand up to the majority when it comes to protecting the rights of minorities?
AK: Yes, and we have taken risks by taking this position. When Amir Khadir comes out, with my name, and says no, we don't want to forbid veiled women from entering the workforce, you know it is used by our adversaries to implant the idea that I might have an "Islamic agenda". A hidden Islamic agenda. Of course they won't say that my entire family and I have fought political religion in Iran, have fought theocracy and religious dictatorship in Iran. But we knew we would be criticized for that, Francoise knew, as a feminist, how difficult it would be to defend this position. But we have taken risks, and that is the kind of democracy we want to practice.
With that he was gone, whisked away to another engagement for which he was already late. Earlier in the interview Khadir had said hello to a man sitting at another table, who identified himself as Jean Cournoyer, the campaign manager for Anne Pâquet, the Liberal candidate in Mercier. It should be mentioned that Mercier is held by Khadir and his only real challenger is the PQ. The Liberals have the same chance in this riding as the Greens -- zero.
As I left the restaurant he called out to me, "Hey, do you want the real story?" I figured this ought to be good, so I went over to his table. "Sure," I said. "What's the real story?"
"You're a journalist?" I respond in the affirmative. "But you're wearing a red square, you must just have done that for him eh?" I say nothing, allowing him to draw his own erroneous conclusions.
He goes on to explain that Khadir is personally responsible for the breaking of windows during student demonstrations, the smoke bombs in the metro, the vandalizing of campaign signs and pretty much everything else he can think of. "He wants to start a revolution, to overthrow the government," a peculiar charge to throw at the co-spokesperson for a political party.
Apparently Khadir is also responsible for keeping children up past their bedtimes with the noise of the casseroles. The invective is so over the top, so laughably extreme, I figure my new friend Jean likely doesn't have much political experience. As a general rule, journalists of any stripe do not respond well to politicos attempting to smear their rivals with wild accusations.
He tells me that Khadir's daughter was responsible for the smoke bombs in the metro. "No she wasn't," I respond. "She was arraigned on the same day as those responsible, but she was charged for participating in a protest which blocked the Jacques-Cartier bridge."
He shrugs. "It's all the same thing." "No it isn't. You just deliberately lied to me, didn't you?" He shrugs again.
He tells me that they want to give voters a choice in Mercier. It's a disheartening example of the Liberal campaign strategy of sowing fear and discord. In a ten minute exchange he said not one word about his candidate, or why she would be a good MNA, instead concentrating on attacking his opponent. It's too bad, the bio on the card he hands me says she's been a social worker with teenagers for over twenty five years, and volunteers with many community organizations. She sounds like a nice person, but I think she needs a new campaign manager.
In the end, I suppose that's Khadir. Some people love him, others hate him, but there's little middle ground.
Follow me on twitter @EthanCoxMTL for random banter and obsessive coverage of the Quebec election and student movement!
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