Just a week after being proclaimed the most popular politician in Quebec, Amir Khadir, the only MNA from Quebec solidaire, was out in public again to support a controversial issue knowing it would prompt rabid attacks from his opponents.
Khadir took to the street on Dec. 18 to picket a Montreal shoe store that sells Israeli-made products, as a part of a consumer boycott campaign initiated by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction group, a Palestinian solidarity organization. While the effectiveness of this tactic for the Palestinian cause is debatable, one ought to commend Amir's courage to stand up for his principle without fearing what it will do to his popularity.
It is exactly this kind of attitude that has won him genuine support. For a lone MNA from a small party who gets very little speaking time in the National Assembly and the media, his popularity is unusually high. Honesty and courage, and most importantly his passion in defending the oppressed, these are the qualities that have made him a political star in Quebec.
With a 45 per cent approval rating, while Premier Jean Charest receives only 24 per cent support and a whopping 65 per cent thumbs down, Khadir's popularity has clearly worried the right in Quebec. Attacks have been led by Eric Duhaime, a former aide to the ADQ's Mario Dumont and the co-founder of Quebec Freedom Network -- a right-wing populist group that compares itself to the U.S. Tea Party movement. They have been centred around Amir's alleged Islamist agenda and communist affiliation, the two bogeymen that the right is fond of using.
The attack started almost as soon as the June 2010 poll which showed Khadir's popularity to be the second highest among Quebec politicians. The following month, Duhaime, in his column "Duhaime en droite ligne" for Le Journal de Quebec, wrote an article entitled "Khadir amongst the communists". However, this column would prove to be mild compared to Duhaime's next attempt to expose Khadir's alleged Islamist agenda.
"Amir Khadir has an Islamist agenda, I hope Quebecers start to see this... We let radicals into our country. We're importing the problems of the Arab Muslim world. And Amir Khadir would push our doors wide open to this type of extremism," exclaimed Duhaime in a radio interview last August.
Then, in December, a new poll showed Khadir to be the most popular politician among the people of Quebec -- although not amongst political columnists. Monsieur Duhaime and his colleagues were clearly frustrated. When, a week later, they discovered Khadir picketing a "helpless" merchant for selling Israeli-made shoes, their dry ink wells suddenly swelled to overflowing.
Barry Wilson, the executive producer of CTV Montreal, wrote that Khadir's action amounts to an "economic terrorism," consciously using the word "terrorism" to imply a connection to an Islamist cause. Duhaime made a similar comment in his column: "From his involvement with an ‘Islamo-Marxist' organization to his public support of George Galloway, a propagandist paid by Iranian state TV, this is not Khadir's first controversy on Middle East issues." The Gazette editorial also joined the chorus. "He [Amir] came off looking foolish as he joined a protest in front of a shop on St. Denis Street." Bloggers and other columnists also jump in to denounce Amir. Letters-to-the-editor sections were filled with hand-picked letters that cast a negative light on him.
Despite these rabid attacks from the media, Khadir's popularity stays high. In a poll conducted by the Leger Marketing on Dec. 13, 2010, when asked, "Which of the following political personalities would make the best premier of Québec?" 16 per cent of respondents answered "Amir Khadir." A month later, after the near-fanatical smear campaign following his support of the boycott, the same question was asked again. Lo and behold, 25 per cent now answered Khadir, putting him on par with Pauline Marois and only four per cent below Jean Charest.
There is a very insightful comment that the Gazette editorial unwittingly made: "A much-publicized recent poll showed Khadir to be the most popular politician in Quebec. If he's the best we have, then we're in big trouble in this province." Indeed there is trouble in this province. The fact that Amir is the most popular - despite the image that rightwing political columnists try to paint of him - says a lot about the state of politics in Quebec, that it is in a shambles. Corruptions, scandals, lies, manipulations, all these are the normal feature of politics that discourage almost half of the population from voting at all.
This is why the establishment is attacking Khadir, because he stands out from the rest of the politicians. He attends rallies in support of social causes, from May Day rallies to Palestinian-solidarity rallies. He is not afraid of "public opinion," which is often crafted by the political pundits to pressure honest politician like Amir to be "respectable" like the others.
Most importantly, Amir Khadir represents an alternative that the Quebeckers have been looking for. It will only be a matter of time before Amir's popularity translates into votes for the QS. This is what the right is so fearful of. When all the political parties, the Liberal, the PQ, and the ADQ, stand for cuts in social programs, Amir Khadir's QS is the only party that opposes them.
Quebec solidaire is still a small party right now and it lacks the organizational capability -- resources and social base -- to make its program known to the wider masses. It might have to learn from the history of its Anglo-counterpart, the NDP. Born out of the alliance of the Canadian Labour Congress and Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the NDP has since become the official labour party in Canada, capable of forming governments in different provinces. Should QS and the Quebec unions -- the strongest social force in Quebec, organizing 40 per cent of the workers -- form an alliance to establish a labour party, it can become a formidable force that will be able to fight against the rightwing agenda and bring about fundamental changes in the society.
Ted Sprague is a labour activist and an independent journalist based in Montreal. He also writes the "Red Star Over Asia" column for the McGill Daily at McGill University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org