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The new PQ, Islamophobia and the reshaping of Québec politics

Benoit Renaud

January 17, 2014

What we now refer to as bill 60 or the Charter of secularism (formerly Charter of values) is no ordinary piece of legislation. By putting forward a series of proposals including a ban on “ostentatious religious symbols” for all people working in provincial and municipal public services, the government of Pauline Marois has already changed its own party, restructured its base and permanently altered the whole political landscape. Even if the bill ends up not being passed because of the minority government situation, the damage has been done and its effects will be irreversible. For the left, this means new challenges and opportunities in a fast moving situation. Clarity of principles and tactical flexibility will both be needed.
Marois and the transformation of the PQ
First, it should be clearly stated that this policy of targeting religious minorities and stirring up Islamophobia is not in line with the PQ’s traditional approach to cultural diversity and national identity. It is a profound break from a long tradition of support for human rights and “interculturalisme” which goes back to the government of René Lévesque. The civic nationalism approach (we are all Québécois) has been dominant in the PQ from the beginning up to at least 2007, although the ethnic nationalist element has always been a significant minority position within it.
Bill 101, the Language Charter of 1977, was a clear break from the ethnic French-Canadian nationalism of the past, its purpose being precisely to include immigrants into the newly defined Québec nation. When Marois and her ministers evoke the example of Bill 101 to argue in favour of Bill 60, they completely mislead their own base and attempt to rewrite history.
This shift began under the leadership of Pauline Marois, which immediately followed the historic defeat in the 2007 general election, when the PQ came in third place, behind Mario Dumont’s ADQ. It was Dumont who had relayed and fuelled the media frenzy over “reasonable accommodation” through his statements as party leader. The Marois strategy, from that point on, has been to go after the ADQ base at all costs and to make sure never to be outflanked again on the identity question.
Also, her number one condition in accepting the leadership was that the party no longer promise to hold another referendum if it formed the government, amending the party program adopted in 2005. This new view of Québec identity therefore goes together with the abandonment of any concrete perspective for sovereignty, dismissed by Marois as “référendisme”, and replaced by an autonomist policy labeled “gouvernance souverainiste”. It is this move towards putting independence on a turned off back burner which ultimately caused the departure of four prominent MNA’s in 2011 and the founding of Option nationale.
Autonomism and ethnic nationalism, combined with private investment friendly economics, became the heart of the new PQ’s program. This set of policies has deep roots in Québec, going back to the politics of the early 20th century, through the Duplessis era and his Union nationale.
This new positioning has contributed to the PQ becoming official opposition 18 months later and forming a minority government in September 2012. But the cost has been to alienate a significant portion of the PQ base, especially in Montréal and among youth and minorities, and shifting their support to massively francophone ridings in suburbs and small towns.
The new party which replaced and absorbed ADQ, la Coalition Avenir Québec, after an initial success based on media hype and manipulated polls, has largely ceded the identity and minority-bashing issues to the PQ to focus on right wing economics and fiscal conservatism, which puts it in direct competition with the Liberals. As for the Liberals, they have maintained a strong federalist stance and vocal support for minority rights, allowing them to hold on to their traditional base in Montréal and the Outaouais.
Responses from the Left
Québec solidaire’s interventions on these issues have been complex and somewhat disappointing, attempting to balance a defense of individual and minority rights with some concessions to fear mongering and popular misrepresentations. For example, there is no need to better frame reasonable accommodation, as this legal notion already implies very strict and clear criteria. The “social representation” of reasonable accommodation, meaning any type of initiative, private or public, implying some consideration for religious prescriptions and cultural differences, has replaced the legal notion in popular culture and the media. Instead of going along with the PQ on that front, QS should have done some political education. Another example is the reverting back to the position defended at the Bouchard-Taylor commission in 2007 of a short list of professions (police, judges, prison guards, crown prosecutors) where religious clothing and accessories would be prohibited. This recommendation, taken up by the commission itself in its final report, in fact goes against the policy adopted at the QS convention in 2009, which included instead a series of criteria other than religious for restricting what public servants can wear. A third concession is the rallying to the broad consensus against face coverings (le visage découvert), which serves little purpose other than further ostracizing a small and already vulnerable group of women.
In short, the QS intervention would have been more effective if it outright rejected most of what the PQ is proposing and added to the liberal arguments in favor of minority rights a clearer understanding of how oppression (of women and of racialized groups) is at the heart of this situation. The liberal arguments are correct in their opposition to repressive secularism, but they do nothing to explain why this debate is happening in the first place. Educating people about Islamophobia should be at the center of the QS and the Left’s response.
In spite of these weaknesses, the fact that QS has come out in opposition to the PQ’s most controversial proposal helped strengthen the “anti-charte” camps within social movements. One anti-oppression argument being put forward by QS, FFQ (Fédération des femmes du Québec) and a few others is the feminist argument, the fact that a specific group of women are targeted by this proposed legislation and that it would make the lives of these women much more difficult. In response, a split has occurred within the women’s movement, with a new organization bringing together “pro-charte” women.
Option nationale, after having unexpectedly lost its historic leader, Jean-Martin Aussant, has increasingly distanced itself from the PQ, including on this specific question. The position defended by its new leader, Sol Zanetti, is even more convoluted that the QS position and similar to that of CSN (the largest public sector union) and CAQ, by including teachers in the list of professions where “religious symbols” would be prohibited. This is a big problem. But at the same time, the arguments they use to reject the general ban that the government is still pushing for are strong ones. This, combined with the public disagreement with the PQ of prominent independentists like Jean Dorion, as well as the criticism of leading figures such as Jacques Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard and Gilles Duceppe, has demonstrated how profoundly divided the sovereigntist camp really is over these questions, in spite of the image of unity displayed by the PQ caucus.
To finish this brief picture of positions taken around the “charter”, we must note that the union movement has been generally divided and confused. The main teacher’s union still has not taken a stand. At FTQ convention, divisions were so deep as to make it impossible to adopt any position. We have already mentioned how CSN decided to support banning “symbols” from several professions, including teaching, but not health care workers. We should add that it passed a motion demanding that this ban apply only to new hires so that no one should lose a job over it. The smallest of the teachers’ unions, FAE (with 32,000 members, mostly in the greater Montreal area) passed a reasonably good policy, similar to that of QS and Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ), but by a very narrow margin.
Those who most strongly defended the governement’s position in unions have been associated with either SPQ-Libre and L’aut’journal or the Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ), two virulently islamophobic but otherwise historically left wing organisations. These small groups take comfort in the repressive secularism advocated by sections of the French Left, including the Parti de Gauche.
What’s coming next?
Polls taken since the general election of September 2012 have generally put the Liberals slightly ahead of the PQ (both in the 30’s) and CAQ a distant third (between 15 and 18 per cent), with QS at around 10 per cent and ON at 2 or 3 per cent. If an election were to take place over the next six months, it could lead to either another PQ minority, a narrow PQ majority, or a return of the Liberals to power. All these scenarios are based on very similar levels of popular vote for each party, with variations resulting from the complexities of the first past the post system. In all cases, CAQ is likely to lose many seats and QS could gain one or two new MNA’s in Montréal.
A PQ majority would be a serious defeat for democratic rights and a resounding victory for the politics of islamophobia. It would align Québec with the type of repressive secularism seen in France and other continental European countries. Does that possibility justify a strategic vote for the Liberals? Some people have started arguing it, and it is understandable, especially for members of the targeted minorities. The conversion of Maria Mourani to federalism is symptomatic of this response. But the fact is that the best way to prevent the PQ from winning a majority is to vote QS, as many PQ supporters pointed out following the last election... Also, voting QS can be a rallying point for independentists who reject the ethnic nationalist turn of the PQ and still see the national project as inclusive of all who now live in Québec.
In this context, and with the prospects for Option nationale electing even one MNA a virtual political fantasy, QS should open a dialogue with ON and attempt to unify the progressive independentist camp on the basis of a rejection of both the autonomism of the New PQ and its ethnic nationalism, as well as strong criticism of its energy policy being aligned with the Harper government and the Oil and Gas industries. This convergence would not be without challenges, as many of ON’s few thousand members don’t have the feminist and anticapitalist political culture of most QS active members. But considering that most of the ON membership is made up of young activists who came to political life around the Printemps érable of 2012, it is far from an impossible task. By joining QS en masse, young ON activists would give a clear signal to the traditional PQ base that there is an alternative vehicle for their lifelong aspiration to achieve independence and put an end to the notion that QS is not committed to the cause. It would also give QS a significant push towards an expanded membership and activist base.
If the PQ doesn’t win a majority in the next election, it is likely to undergo an immediate and profound internal crisis. Considering how many of those it has already survived, we should not prematurely announce the death of the old nationalist party. But with the emergence of a credible alternative through QS, this next crisis could be worse than any of the previous ones and complete the process of turning the PQ into a new Union nationale. Also, considering the likely crisis of CAQ, the further reshaping of Québec politics would create three main poles of attraction: a Liberal party entirely dedicated to the economic and political status quo, a PQ deeply conservative and irreversibly autonomist, and QS as the embodiment of national aspirations as well as social struggles and environmental resistance.

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