Which way ahead for Quebec?

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The movement for Quebec independence, born in the 1960s, and incarnated by the Parti Québecois, the promoter of Quebec sovereignty, is undergoing severe internal strains, and facing a major external challenge.

Former PQ minister François Legault has organized a Coalition for Québec's Future which is readying itself to contest the next Quebec election. Brandishing a right-of-centre program, Legault, a wealthy one-time Air Transat owner and executive, has promised to set to one side the Quebec independence/sovereignty question for a decade.

The Legault Coalition is aiming his appeal at Quebec nationalists (PQ voters) even as he distances himself from the sovereignty issue. In a press conference Monday, Aug. 29, Legault called for strengthening protection for the French language. His group wants to promote increased integration of immigrants into the French language community through increased public expenditures, while at the same time limiting the number of new immigrants.

Offered the option of a Legault-led party, the Quebec public has responded by giving his group incredible support. His Coalition has been leading the Liberal government and the PQ opposition in public opinion polls, without yet having registered as an official party.

The decimation of the Bloc Québecois, which lost its leader Gilles Duceppe, along with 42 other sitting members in the May 12, 2011 federal election, came as a major shock to supporters of an independent Quebec. Chantal Hébert thinks Quebec voters who last May helped the NDP elect 59 members in the Belle Province include many who are tired of any further federalism versus independence talk, and simply want to hear other issues debated.

Unhappy with the direction of the party, in June five PQ members of the National Assembly (MNAs) quit the party to sit as independents. A former executive member of the PQ riding association of Crémazie has organized a New Movement for Quebec. It issued a manifesto attacking the PQ. Yet, at its founding meeting on Aug. 20, the 400 attendees (including three of the former PQ MNAs), heard calls for supporters of independence to unify their efforts.

The Crémazie riding is held by Lissette Lapointe, one of the five former PQ MNAs. Her husband, Jacques Parizeau has been the main standard bearer of the independence wing of the PQ, and a leading critique of current PQ leader Pauline Marois (his one-time staffer).

Following the launch of the New Movement for Quebec, the PQ fell to less than 20 per cent support in polls; though it had stood at 40 per cent only a few months earlier. 

At one level, the turbulence within the PQ reflects long standing differences about what independence means and how to achieve it. The PQ was called the Movement for Sovereignty Association (MSA) by its first president René Lévesque, before becoming the PQ (following the absorption of the R.N. and the dissolution of the R.I.N., two small but influential parties dedicated to Quebec independence). The MSA name was chosen because under Lévesque the party talked about sovereignty for Quebec, but also about negotiating a new deal with Canada outside Quebec, not outright independence. Not all his supporters agreed with him, and these hardliners continue to trouble PQ leaders.

Recently the PQ adopted the plan Marois, which calls for governing the province with a sovereignty agenda in mind, and building a basis for achieving it. Those who support a pure form of independence, inside and (especially) outside the party, say Marois has given up on the fight to create a separate Quebec state. Marois's critics accuse her of marking time while seeking to exercise political power only for the sake of replacing the Charest Liberal government, and neglecting the independence agenda.

Marois recently received a 93 per cent vote of confidence from her party. Her detractors suffer at least a mild case of amnesia, forgetting that in 2007 under her predecessor André Boisclair, who had earlier defeated Marois in a leadership battle, the PQ ran a campaign calling for a public consultation on sovereignty after the election. Voters decided to reward the brave stand in favour of sovereignty with a third place finish. At that point the PQ called on Marois to restore party fortunes.

What has weakened the PQ is not its stand on sovereignty, or its weakness defending the independence option, it is that the PQ, like social democratic parties elsewhere, has bought into neoliberalism, and has given up fighting for a social agenda.

Québec Solidaire, led by Amir Khadir and Françoise David, has replaced the PQ as the progressive option in Quebec politics.

While it has been tearing itself apart in internal debates about the future, the PQ has been losing its current base of support. Once considered to have safe hands on social policy, be proud to defend workers, and able to promote an industrial strategy not dominated by corporations, the PQ has lost credibility with social movement activists. In order to restore PQ fortunes with the public, Marois needs her party to be strong and believable on the social question, but her party will not let her shift attention away from the national question.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes weekly on politics and current affairs.

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