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Françoise David, co-founder of Québec Solidaire, helped turn political debate away from sovereignty

Photo: Fightback/ La Riposte/flickr

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Françoise David, who announced her retirement from politics on Thursday, never looked so uncomfortable as at the moment in October 1995 when she sat beside Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard at a hastily arranged news conference.

The second referendum on Quebec independence was in full swing, and the Yes side was narrowly ahead in the opinion polls.

Much of the Yes side's success was due to the charismatic presence of Bouchard, who had made a miraculous personal and political comeback after a near fatal encounter with flesh-eating disease.

Then, just when the dream of independence seemed within reach, the Bloc leader had committed what seemed to be a fatal blunder.

During one impromptu speech, he argued that it was urgent for Quebec to become independent immediately in order to resolve, once and for all, the never-ending national question. The endless debate over Quebec's status had consumed so much energy, Bouchard said, that Quebec could not focus on other crucial issues, such as the province's disastrously low birth rate.

"We are one of the white races with the lowest birth rates," he said.

David gave Bouchard political cover

In subsequent days, the Bloc leader told interviewers he had meant to say "one of the western societies," not "white races," but had inadvertently used an offensive phrase.

Oops.

The political atmosphere was highly charged at the time. The federalist No side had run a clumsy, arrogant campaign, trying to appeal to Quebeckers' innate conservatism and fear of change, and nothing much else.

In a way, the No side's hands were tied by the harsh austerity policies of federal prime minister Jean Chrétien's finance minister, Paul Martin. In his historic budget earlier that year Martin had made huge and unprecedented cuts in transfer payments to the provinces for health, social services and higher education. In fact, Chrétien's finance minister unilaterally re-wrote the rules for Canada's fiscal federal system, giving the federal government a far smaller and less significant role.

Defenders of federalism in the Quebec campaign were in a difficult position to make a positive case for a system whose benefits they were in the process of slashing. They were reduced to claiming that the alternative would be even worse.

That argument did not seem to be working as the campaign reached its climax. And so, when Bouchard so grievously misspoke it seemed like manna from heaven to the No campaign.

Françoise David, scion of an eminent Quebec family -- her father had founded the Montreal Heart Institute and grandfather had been Provincial Secretary of Quebec for the better part of two decades -- was, at the time, head of the Fédération des femmes du Québec. She was a key part of the coordinated effort to rescue Bouchard and the Yes campaign.

When she publicly accepted the Bloc leader's explanation, if not apology, for his "white races" statement it helped put the matter to rest.

Bouchard continued to campaign vigorously and to excite large and enthusiastic crowds. In the end, although the No side prevailed, the result was razor thin, a near tie. By the time of the vote, most Quebeckers seemed to have forgotten about Bouchard's misstatement. The Bloc leader went on to become Parti Québécois (PQ) leader and premier of Quebec.

Québec Solidaire helped turn political debate away from sovereignty

For her part, in 2006, Françoise David helped found the left-of-centre Quebec political party Québec Solidaire (QS).

QS is a kind of answer to Bouchard's complaint during the 1995 campaign about the national question distracting from other major challenges for Quebec. It calls itself a party of "the left -- environmentalist, feminist and sovereigntist."

At the time of the party's founding, delegates argued vigorously over whether it should even take a position on the national question. Unlike the Parti Québécois, for Québec Solidaire an independent Quebec is not a fundamental part of its raison d'être.

This writer thinks QS made a mistake, nearly 11 years ago, in including sovereignty as part of its program. Now that even the PQ, under new leader Jean-François Lisée, has put the independence question on the back burner, we might expect David's party to downplay it even further.

In any case, what has always mattered most to Québec Solidaire and its supporters is not the chimera of Quebec independence, but issues of social justice, gender, inequality and the environment.

When, during the last parliament, Conservatives wanted to attack Quebec NDP MPs for their one-time support of Québec Solidaire, they described QS as "hard-line separatist."

That betrayed either ignorance or a deliberate attempt to mislead.

Indeed, the party David helped found has helped turn Quebec's political dialogue away from sterile arguments over the province's status to real-life issues that matter to people in their daily struggles.

The party now has three members of the National Assembly, including David, and commanded nearly eight per cent of the popular vote in the last election. Its influence, however, far exceeds those numbers.

David announced her retirement from politics on Thursday morning. While the English Canadian media paid no attention whatsoever -- one Ottawa insider even told this writer he had to Google her name -- it was big news on the French side. Radio-Canada's all-news network, le Réseau de l'information (RDI), carried the announcement live. 

In her role as an elected politician and as an activist David has more than redeemed herself for her unnecessary defence of Lucien Bouchard more than two decades ago.

She spearheaded efforts to provide legislative protection to elderly senior citizens faced with eviction from their rented homes. And, during the last federal election campaign she vigorously pushed back against the anti-Muslim (disguised as anti-Niqab) campaigns of Stephen Harper's Conservatives, and, more important, Gilles Duceppe's Bloc Québecois.

It is worth noting that the Bloc's campaign tactics on the Niqab question were more virulent and more racist than those of the Conservatives. David gave the Bloc no quarter, even if they were both, notionally, on the sovereigntist side of the political fence. 

Françoise David, who was born in 1948, said on Thursday that she is simply too tired to carry on.

Age is a funny thing. Some people feel old at 69; others say they have the energy to run for high political office, or conduct orchestras or climb mountains, well into their 70s or older. If Françoise David says, at her relatively still-young age, she lacks the energy to do her job as well as should would like, her supporters, friends and admirers have to respect her choice. 

Many rabble readers could be hearing about Françoise David and Québec Solidaire for the first time. If they are interested in the political role of progressive movements, however, they might want to start paying attention now. 

Photo: Fightback/ La Riposte/flickr

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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