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What I'm looking for from NDP leadership candidates on Quebec

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Left to right: Niki Ashton, Charlie Agnus, Guy Caron, Jagmeet Singh

There is a giant, Quebec-sized hole in the NDP leadership debate. The four candidates have said nearly nothing about Quebec, either in their platforms or during the debates.

Quebec matters for a variety of reasons that should be obvious to anyone who wants the NDP to replicate the success of the Orange Wave. But after the Orange Wave, far too many party activists drew the wrong conclusions about why the NDP had been so successful. The most popular, that sovereignty was finally dead, was wrong.

Quebec was the Orange Wave. But in 2015, the NDP went from 54 MPs to just 16. Both the Liberals and the Conservatives gained in Quebec, at the cost of NDP members. The Bloc had a minor surge moving from two MPs when Parliament was dissolved, to 10.

What happened to the NDP in 2015 depends on who you ask. One former MP told me that he thought that the niqab debate swayed enough older Quebecers who remember a time when the Catholic Church dominated political and social life in Quebec, to tip the NDP away from victory. But, the Liberals had the same position, so the argument doesn't stand on its own. Other issues, like Mulcair's balanced budget and his makeover to hide the Mulcair that Quebecers had long known also played a role.

But perhaps the most obvious element during the campaign was the total lack of awareness the party seemed to have about Quebec in general. The campaign wasn't able to navigate a province where they had to win a four-way race. On the ground in Quebec City, there was nearly no evidence that we were even in an election period.

In 2011, Quebecers voted NDP to oust Harper. By 2015, it was less clear that the NDP could do this: if Canadians didn't support the NDP to the extent that Quebecers did in 2011, perhaps voting Liberal in 2015 would ensure that Harper would lose. Or, perhaps it was time to vote Bloc to ensure a clear, Quebec voice in the House of Commons again. Either way, the loss of Quebec ensured the NDP would finish third.

With the next debate in Montreal on August 26, here are the six questions that I will be watching out for:

1. Where did the candidates stand on the 2012 student strikes?

The NDP was mostly silent during the 2012 student strikes. The strikes represented the most successful popular movement in Canada in a generation, but the official line from the NDP caucus was expressed neutrality. MPs Alexandre Boulerice, Pierre-Luc Dusseault, Ève Péclet and Dany Morin all made public expressions of support for the students, but the official line from the party was to support "the resumption of talks between the Quebec government and the student bodies," according to The Globe and Mail. The reason for neutrality? To respect provincial jurisdiction.

The reaction was a fatal error for the caucus, one that demonstrated how out of sync the NDP is with social movements in Quebec. We need to hear how each of the candidates supported the student movement, and whether or not they agreed with the official party line, especially from candidates promising programs like free tuition or basic income which will necessarily confront the constitutional division of powers between the feds and the provinces.

2. What is their position on Quebec sovereignty?

The Sherbrooke Declaration forms the basis of the NDP's official position on Quebec's place in the Constitution. The candidates need to elaborate their own positions: does Sherbrooke go far enough? How would social programs change or evolve if the declaration were enacted? What must change from the status quo to realize asymmetrical federalism as defined in the declaration? And, is self-determination for any nation possible under the current constitutional arrangement? If not, what must change?

Canada's Constitution is the source of a lot of injustice, and certainly not just as it relates to Quebec. A bold new vision for the NDP must explain how the Constitution has to change if self-determination is ever going to be more than just a buzzword.

3. Why did the NDP lose Quebec in the last election?

I've outlined why I think they lost above, but we need to hear from each candidate why they think the party lost. How they answer the question will indicate how they intend to move forward, or whether or not they understand the mistakes that were made.

4. What is the most important issue for Quebecers?

How the candidates answer this illustrates where they understand progressive Quebecers are at. There's evidence to argue that pipelines (Energy East and Enbridge pipelines) are the most important question for progressive Quebecers right now, but would the candidates agree?

5. Do they speak French?

Language has been a thorny question during the race so far, and it, along with religious symbols, has been the extent to which Quebec and the leadership race has been discussed. Whether or not someone can speak unscripted French isn't really debatable, though. How funny would Charlie Angus be on Infoman? Could Niki Ashton respond to la question qui tue on TLMEP? There's only one way to find out, and the candidates must work to demonstrate their French capacity.

But language goes beyond individual expression. Do the candidates support language education, exchange programs, cultural funding for French? We've heard very little in the race about languages at all, including about language revitalization, supports and funding cultural initiatives for Indigenous languages. What would the candidates do on all fronts?

6. The NDP Quebec

There is too much to say about the NDP Quebec for this article, some of which I've previously written about. I argue that the NDP Quebec would be a disaster for a variety of reasons.  The NDP Quebec would enter the electoral arena in opposition to Quebec Solidaire, a left-wing party that is rooted in social movements. Hearing about what the candidates think of an NDP Quebec would offer a glimpse into where each one thinks the party should go, or more importantly, what are the necessary conditions for a social democratic party to try and start from scratch.

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