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Election 2011: Race and class in Quebec (2)

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Traditionally in Quebec, the vote is sharply split, ethnically-speaking. The Anglo minority votes are systematic, year after year, and without major dissent for the federal and the provincial Liberal party. Both are seen as bulwarks against Quebec nationalism, the absolute evil in the Anglo popular consciousness. This sentiment is deeply entrenched, despite dissident voices here and there. The historical roots of this ethnicism of the Anglo minority are to be found with the British colonial experience.

When the British military power took over the St. Lawrence Valley in the late 1700s, it was an unmitigated disaster for the francophone majority. The loss was of course political and cultural, but more fundamentally economic. Resources were redirected to the new colonial power. In addition, English, Scottish and Irish were settled, allowing them privileged access to some of the best lands and major commercial and industrial activities. French-speaking poor peasants were marginalized and condemned to exile that became massive in the next century. They also revolted.

In 1837-38, a republican uprising was crushed in the usual British colonial manner with killings, rapes and destruction of properties that also marginalized emerging modern elites to the benefit of the most reactionary and clerical sectors of Quebec. In 1867, the colonial regime was modernized on limited democratic processes, centralizing power in Ottawa and allowing the "natives" to run "their" own (minor) affairs without any real economic and political capacities. It also necessitated destroying French-speaking and Métis communities of western Canada. The grandiose confederation started actually with the killing of Louis Riel.

In subsequent decades, this divide-and-rule system was relatively successful to subdue national and social aspirations until a new wave of popular revolts appeared with the not-so-tranquil revolution of the 1960s. It was radical because of its links with working class and community struggles. It was moderate, expressing the aspirations of a new growing elite that wanted to oppose the prevailing quasi-feudal system. It coalesced around national and social issues that were indeed interrelated in a capitalist system based on race and class.

The Anglo minority was taken aback. The big Montreal-based Anglo bourgeoisie which had dominated the Canadian and the Quebec economy was used to managing the turmoil through the roi-nègre Maurice Duplessis. Anglo middle classes and workers from popular neighbourhoods (Irish communities in Pointe-St-Charles and Verdun) were also destabilized because they perceived the rise of modern Quebec as a threat. Statistical data showed until the early 1970s that Anglos had a superior average income (of more or less 20%) in comparison to the "natives."

In 1976 when the PQ was first elected, the Anglos panicked. The bourgeoisie moved lots of assets to Toronto, but many "ordinary" Anglos also left. Those who remained were ambiguous. Many accepted the shift of power, especially so that Quebec mainstream nationalism was not hostile to the minority. Anglos retained their linguistic rights in a manner which makes francophone minorities in the rest of Canada quite jealous. Of course, Anglos had to accept that Quebec was transforming with an affirmative francophone majority. However, the fracture remained. Anglos remained politically confined, supporting the Liberal party (at both federal and provincial levels) not because it was particularly rightist, but because Liberals were fighting Quebec nationalism.

This ethnic polarization is immediately visible when you look at the electoral map. Federally, Liberals get a huge proportion of the Anglo vote in (mostly western) Montreal, allowing them to win 13 ridings with slightly less more votes than the Conservatives. At the provincial level, Quebec's Liberals get close to 50% of their total votes from Anglo and non-French minorities heavily concentrated in the same districts in the West Island and the Outaouais region. The French-speaking vote on the contrary is spread out between Liberals and Nationalists. French speakers will vote for the Liberals either because they are against the nationalist project, or because they are more conservatives even if recently, Harper's Conservative party (at the federal level) and ADQ (at the provincial level) have steered parts of the right-wing vote that used to go to the Liberals.

So all in all, the linguistic polarization remains with its perverse effects. Anglo voters, especially of the younger generation, are certainly less hostile than their parents and ancestors to the Québécois. Many are involved in social and environmental issues and recognize themselves as Anglo-Québécois, working and living in French but able to maintain their cultural inheritance. Thomas Mulcair who went from the Quebec Liberals to the NDP is probably a reflection of these changes. The president of the powerful Fédération des femmes du Québec, Alexa Conradi, is an anglo-Canadian from outside Quebec who decided to adopt this province. On the left of the Anglos, you will also find individuals going over to Quebec solidaire, which they see as a progressive project, and an important adversary of the PQ not so much on the national question (QS is in favour of sovereignty) but on social and transformation issues, indeed calling for another "revolution tranquille."

In the context of the forthcoming federal election however, the situation is unlikely to change. The non-francophone vote will massively go to the Liberals (unless reactionary elements are able to gang up around the new "star" of Stephen Harper in the West-Island, Larry Smith -- a former football coach -- who is advocating a struggle to return Quebec to the pre-historical age). Francophone Quebec will vote for the Bloc except the reactionary sectors mostly around the national capital (Québec-Appalaches). Hopefully Mulcair will be able to squeeze in, elected by progressive Anglos and French-speakers (the Bloc is discretely supporting him in the Outremont riding which is traditionally Liberal and contains a large non-francophone community).

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