(First published February 8, 2006:) I left Montreal on Sunday evening feeling positively giddy about the founding convention of the Québec solidaire party (PQS), a new left-wing party that enters the fray with more than 4,000 members and strong roots in Quebec’s wide array of social movements and Left political traditions.

I was impressed by the tone of the event — both serious and playful at the same time — and moved by the broader significance of what had taken place. Not only did more than 1,000 people come together in these cynical and conformist times to defy critics and found a new and confident left-wing party. They did so with an awareness of the enormous difficulties the new party faces, and a commitment to confront these difficulties serenely and democratically. This is going to be a long haul, and everyone present knew it.

The birth of Québec solidaire is itself proof that this measured approach to the usually topsy-turvy business of activist-Left politics can work. The PQS has come about through the merger of the Union des forces progressistes (UFP) and Option Citoyenne (OC) — themselves the coming together of various strands of the political and social-movement Left — patiently debated and negotiated over a period lasting 18 months.

The convention did not lay down the new party’s program, but set out a few clear guiding principles (ecologist, left-wing, democratic, feminist, against capitalist globalization, anti-racist and supportive of Aboriginal struggles, and pro-Quebec sovereignty). These principles will take the PQS through the next year of recruitment and party-building — and debate on the party’s program and electoral platform, which will be adopted at next year’s party convention.

The convention also adopted by-laws which, among other things, require gender parity in all leadership bodies. The first national coordinating committee (the day-to-day leadership of the party), elected at the convention, will have nine women and seven men. An interesting discussion on the basic organizing units of the party was settled in such a way as not to give undue weight to riding associations, which would slant the party’s activities too much towards electioneering and detract from regional and Quebec-wide activist campaigns and mobilizations.

Of course, none of this would have been possible or worthy of interest were it not for the backdrop of a revival of protest and dissent stretching back to the mid-1990s and speeding up early in the new century.

The magnificent April 2001 protests at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City are something of an obscure memory for most Canadians. In the United States and most of Canada, the terrorist attacks of September 2001, and the American response, largely doused the passions of that heady period of discontent inaugurated by the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle. Sometimes it feels as if the events of 1999-2001 never happened.

In Quebec, though, as in much of Latin America and parts of Western Europe, the spirit of those days has lived on among a sizeable minority of the population: in anti-war protests without precedent (2003), the province’s biggest ever student strike (2005), and massive and repeated trade-union mobilizations against the right-wing government of Jean Charest (2003-2005). Previous to this, Quebec was the birthplace of the successful World March of Women in the year 2000.

Quebec solidaire brings together forces that have participated in one or more of these social movements in some way or another. This is an achievement in itself, but the significance of the new party goes beyond this. It lies in the merger of the more activist wing of the social movements (represented by OC, roughly speaking), on the one hand, and the organizations of the Left and radical Left (the UFP), on the other.

The PQS has created a political framework for those parts of the political and social-movement Left at odds, or potentially at odds, with an increasingly neo-liberal Parti Québécois — and a space for emerging forces who have never had anything to do with the PQ.

Elsewhere, it has proven very difficult to create and sustain such a framework independent of the neo-liberal mainstream Left and centre-Left. This has meant that much of the potential of the mobilization and revival of radical ideas of the last few years has been squandered, either absorbed into the bureaucracies of the mainstream organizations or relegated to a symbolic role on the sidelines.

The forces of the anti-neoliberal and anti-capitalist Left in France have been wrestling with this problem for a number of years — and especially since the very promising victory of the “no” in the referendum on the neo-liberal EU constitution last spring. In Italy, Rifondazione Comunista adopted an orientation towards the building of such a force, from the late 1990s onwards, but it is once again torn between pursuing such a project and carving out a niche for itself within the centre-Left alliance that has formed for April’s general elections.

And finally, on a far more modest scale, here in “English Canada,” the New Politics Initiative (NPI) collapsed in 2002 under the combined strains of the pull of NDP leadership politics and the ongoing weakness and conservatism of the unions and social movements.

So — though with a less radical profile than their counterparts abroad, and with very limited labour involvement — it appears that, for the time being at least, the founders of Québec solidaire have overcome a big hurdle facing the critical Left in a number of countries.

To be sure, the new party faces an uphill battle. Though shaken and unpopular, the Charest government has forged ahead, not hesitating to impose a draconian settlement on restive public-sector workers late last year. With this defeat, the long wave of social protest against the Charest government has now likely come to an end.

Add this to the jockeying of the mainstream parties and the media attention that will precede the National Assembly elections expected some time in 2007, and it is probable that the new party will be pushed into the margins by media and public opinion. It will be attacked for “dividing” the anti-Charest and pro-sovereignty vote in the elections, and it will find it very difficult to sustain the activist component of its overall strategy in a morose and socially passive pre-election setting.

Still, it is said that adversity builds character. If the momentum of this past weekend’s founding convention is enough to carry Quebec solidaire through the difficulties of the next couple of years, it will be well on its way to becoming a vibrant and incontournable force on the Quebec political scene.