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“Being” sovereigntist: the decomposition of the Parti Québécois

Benoit Renaud

February 25, 2013

Last September, the Parti Québécois (PQ), after nine years of a despised Liberal regime under Jean Charest and several months of massive unrest by students and their allies, managed to win a narrow minority government with 54 seats against the Liberals’ 50 and just 32% of the popular vote. This lack of enthusiasm for the party that embodied the aspirations for an independent Québec for a generation is nothing new. But this new phase in the long agony of the PQ could be its last.
With a long term perspective, one can argue that this slow decline of the PQ is the result of its own fundamental policies. First, it neutralized the radical and anti-imperialist elements of the movement for independence by ignoring the already-existing party, Ralliement pour l’indépendance nationale (RIN), when the PQ formed in 1968, and then fighting against its own internal left wing until it became insignificant. In doing so, it gradually removed from the arguments in favour of independence any notion of national oppression/liberation and any potential for solidarity with other anticolonial struggles. Then, from the early 1980’s onward, it rallied wholeheartedly to the neoliberal consensus, depriving the movement for sovereignty of its working class content, and reducing the possibilities of alliances with workers in the rest of Canada and around the world. 
What was left of the movement for national liberation after the PQ was done getting rid of its working class and anti-imperialist foundations? Nothing more than the project of an administrative reform transferring powers from Ottawa to Québec city, with new administrators continuing more or less the same pro-business status quo policies. That was already clear in the project submitted to the people in the 1995 referendum.
But after their depressing third place in the 2007 election, behind the Liberals and the right wing populist Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), the PQ leadership moderated even that modest ambition and adopted the doctrine of “sovereigntist governance,” basically a euphemism for “PQ government,” and removed the idea of a third referendum as soon as possible from the party’s program, calling it “référendisme.”
At that point, the main parties of the movement for Québec sovereignty--the PQ and the Bloc Québecois (BQ), the federal-level sovereigntist political party--were left with only their identification with the cause, an abstract notion of belonging to the same camp, having gone through the same struggles in the past, but no credible strategy for achieving the stated goal and no steam to move forward. This “souverainisme identitaire”--the idea of being sovereigntist without acting on it--was very visible during the federal election of 2011, when the Bloc, after starting the campaign with their usual empty rhetoric about “defending the interests of Québec” (as if everyone in Québec had the same interests...), went into panic mode when the polls showed the beginning of the orange wave--essentially yelling at people that if they were for sovereignty, then they had to vote Bloc, the only federal party which was for it too. 
Then the collapse of the Bloc brought with it a major crisis in the PQ caucus, causing several prominent MNAs to resign, including Jean-Martin Aussant. Aussant went on to create a new party, Option nationale (ON), bringing together those who were willing to fight for independence now, in each election, even if that meant giving up the immediate possibility of taking power. ON’s approach is based on a utopian notion of achieving independence by simply winning an election within the current system. But apart from this break with the PQ’s approach to the national question, the ON program is a cut and paste of the least radical ideas of Québec solidaire and some of the better ones from the PQ, resulting in a form of social-liberalism.
ON is, at the same time, completely in line with PQ propaganda in attacking QS for “not really being sovereigntist,” and blaming it in part for the NDP landslide of 2011, when about a third of the sovereigntist base voted for Jack Layton’s party. One could qualify ON as a radicalized form of the PQ, or what we could call “hyperpéquisme”.
With the ON split from the PQ and many former PQ activists rallying to Québec solidaire, the perceived issue of the “division within the sovereigntist camp” became an obsession for many Québec nationalists. Non partisan initiatives of various kinds have sprung up over the past few years, including the Nouveau mouvement pour le Québec (NMQ). Just before the election campaign of 2012, at the height of the repression against the student movement, one such initiative (le Front uni) called on the PQ, QS and ON to make an electoral pact in order to defeat the Liberals and the new right wing party, Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ), successor of ADQ. Now, NMQ and the Conseil de la souveraineté (CSQ) coalition (which has existed for at least a decade) are organizing a forum in May with the explicit goal of building such a pact for the next election (probably in 2014).
All such initiatives have inevitably failed, and will continue to do so, because the PQ leadership is holding on to the duct tape keeping its own fragile edifice together: the idea that it is, on its own, the umbrella organization where all sovereigntists should be. The notion of recreating that vast coalition outside the PQ, what we could call “métapéquisme”, is oddly similar to the rhetoric of the PQ itself. The problem is that if the PQ were to accept such a broad electoral alliance (or if it implemented proportional representation), it would have no argument to keep all its best activists, who are generally working class and anti-imperialist, even today.  
So what can Québec solidaire do, faced with a decrepit PQ generating all kinds of new organizations to its left and to its right as it decomposes? First, it has to reclaim and renew the anti-imperialist and socialist roots of the modern movement for independence, prioritizing solidarity with First Nations and other forms of international solidarity, organizing its presence in the labour movement, putting forward strong demands to improve working conditions, etc. Second, it needs to be clear that it does not share the same goal as the PQ and that the division between the two parties is not simply a question of strategy (as it is for ON). What Québec solidaire wants is a true process of collective self-determination, including the potential for breaking from the neoliberal and ecocidal consensus. This will not come from an alliance dominated by ruling class lackeys like the current PQ leadership. Third, it needs to openly and boldly state its claim for the leadership of a renewed national movement. And when the next election comes, it should answer the campaign for “strategic voting” with the clever words of the poet Richard Desjardins: “If they don’t want to divide the vote, they should vote for us!” 
Benoit Renaud is a former member of Québec solidaire’s coordinating committee (2008-2012) and candidate in the riding of Chapleau in the 2008 and 2012 elections. 

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