Quebec's Left Talks Politics

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<b>But not sovereignty. Urgent new issues may command more attention than old dividing lines</b>

Politics in Quebec is undergoing a seismic shift.

The virtual collapse of the Parti Québécois vote and sudden rise in support for Mario Dumont’s right-wing Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) pose a dramatic challenge to the Quebec left. It was this challenge that preoccupied participants at a September colloquium on social movements and left political action in Quebec held at the Université du Québec à Montréal, better known as UQAM.

Two basic positions were debated by the 300 participants. Arthur Sandborn, President of the Central Council of the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN), argued that the broad left should mobilize to support the newly formed Union des Forces Progressistes (UFP) as a real left alternative. The UFP, a coalition of small left-wing political formations, was created as a formal political party last June. This is the same coalition that won 25 per cent of the vote in the Mercier riding in Montreal last year by running veteran activist Paul Cliche in a by-election.

“The basic divide in Quebec politics has always been sovereigntists versus federalists,” said Sandborn. The two major parties, the PQ and the Liberals, are both left-right alliances. There has never been a mass labour party in Quebec like the New Democratic Party because of this, he explained. The great majority of the francophone left critically supported the PQ.

“What we need is a broad left electoral coalition,” said Sandborn. “If key people here in this room, people known throughout Quebec for their leadership of the women’s movement, the trade union movement and the popular movements, put themselves forward as candidates for the UFP, we could really make an impact. Sure we would not win, but we would begin to build a real left political alternative.”

Françoise Davide, the popular former president of the Fédération des femmes du Québec, argued that the left is not yet ready to put forward its own candidates and would face marginalization by doing so. Davide argued for a broad campaign of political mobilization to counter the popularity of the ADQ.

Davide asked, “Are we really ready to present candidates? We have to go beyond our ranks and start talking to people across Quebec. We don’t have concrete answers to many of the questions they are posing.” What concerned her most is that the left is not reaching people in the suburbs or, particularly, those in the regions outside of Montreal and Quebec City.

“Quebec is two solitudes,” she quipped. “There is Montreal and then there are the regions.” Mario Dumont’s strength is in the regions.

“We need a broad political movement,” Davide proposed, “that asks the question, do we want a society of social solidarity or a society of individualism? Those are the stakes in the next election [widely expected next spring.]”

Most remarkably, both Sandborn and Davide questioned the traditional support of the left for sovereignty. Both argued that globalization had changed the political context for sovereignty and that if the left wants to reflect Quebec’s cultural diversity, it cannot make Quebec independence central to its politics. Traditionally, most francophone social and political activists in Quebec are strong supporters of sovereignty.

No one in the discussion argued that the left should mobilize in support of the PQ during the elections. There was little debate on the sovereignty question at all.

Only one member of the UFP argued about the PQ, and that was to argue against supporting them because of their support for using the U.S. dollar. Political and economic independence is central to the UFP platform. “The UFP is for independence,” he said, “independence from the IMF and the WTO, independence from the United States, and independence from the Canadian state.”

While members of the UFP argued strongly that the social movements should mobilize to support their candidates during the election, most participants were hesitant to put all their eggs in the UFP basket.

The small number of young people present argued that they were basically uninterested in electoral politics except at the municipal level. Their focus was much more on campaigning against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) than worrying about the Quebec election.

There were also differences of opinion among the participants about whether the ADQ would be qualitatively worse than the Liberals or a neo-liberal PQ and some discussion on whether social movements were ready to participate with a political party.

“The environmental movement has made many gains for our issues,” said environmentalist Gaéton Breton, “asking us to join with a political party is a lot to ask. Besides, sometimes the interests of the environmental movement and the left are contradictory.”

In the end, there seemed to be agreement with the focus on a broad political campaign rather than a focus on the presenting candidates under the banner of the UFP.

On Friday night the colloquium opened with a look at the issue from an international perspective. Caio Galâo de Fraça of Brazil’s Workers Party (PT) explained the close relationship between the PT and the social movements.

“The commitment to autonomy for the social movements does not have to undermine the strength of the political party,” he explained. The trade union federation (CUT) and the Landless Peasants’ Movement both support the PT during elections but maintain their independence so that they can be critical of the party in government. The PT for its part involves the social movements not only in the development of policy but also in the administration of government.

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