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The CAQ: Back to the future

Chantal Sundaram

October 6, 2018

The Quebec election brought one surprise: the election of 10 new members of a young left party, Quebec solidaire, on a radically progressive platform that most social democratic parties would not dare to propose.

It also brought something that was not a surprise: a government that reconfigures the economic and political elite into a formation that claims to speak to working class people - although they actually come from immense personal wealth and economic power: the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ).

The new CAQ premier of Quebec, Francois Legault, is the former CEO of Air Transat, and a former PQ Cabinet Minister.

The party lost no time in showing its true colours, declaring in a media conference the day after the election that Legault would use the “notwithstanding clause” to circumvent the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in order to outlaw the wearing of religious symbols, including the hijab, for people in positions of “authority”, including school teachers.

When the Parti Québécois introduced its infamous “Charter of Values,” which also targeted religious minorities, it was in large part to detract attention from the austerity agenda they continued from the Liberals.

Now, the CAQ are trying to cement their populist lie with a similar divide and conquer strategy. They appeal to a notion of Quebec “identity” devoid of all the history of progressive struggle that marked it during the Quiet Revolution. And they divorce it explicitly from all the diversity of Quebec’s population that has enriched that history of struggle since.

Instead, they seek to entrench a dominant racial and cultural identity, through overtly racist attacks on both immigration and on the Islamic faith.

But in their general approach they have a predecessor from within Quebec, from the era before the Quiet Revolution: the Union Nationale of Maurice Duplessis.

La Grande Noirceur (The Great Darkness)

This is the first time since 1970 that the Quebec government has seen a federalist party followed by another federalist party. The last time that was the case was the Union Nationale.

This was an era known as the “Great Darkness” because of the way the state and the Catholic Church colluded to maintain a Quebec that was economically and socially backward, with few institutions that were free of religious control. It instituted the infamous “Padlock Law” that literally meant that organizing of any kind deemed too critical of either the Church or state could be shut down. But this was all done in the name of the Quebec nation: a notion of being in survival mode, focused on religion and reproduction as the way to preserve the French language and identity. The Union Nationale were not in favour of independence, but they sought to instrumentalize nationalism to instill submission.

Quebec is no longer in an era where that is possible in the same way. But to defend the policies of Quebec’s 1%, which the CAQ represents, they have to weaken popular opposition. They need to divide and conquer, and to try to shore up a base that may be wide, but not deep.

Like the Union Nationale, the CAQ focuses on an identitarian and regressive nationalism. It will continue the neoliberal platform of the Liberals: privatization, rejecting the $15 minimum wage, driving down taxes, and they may try to open up further oil exploration despite mass opposition. But they were on the defensive on many of these things during the election campaign, given that the debate was pushed so much to the left on these popular issues.

This is why the CAQ needs a unifying scapegoat, and this is why they moved so quickly to target one.

Islamophobia and racism 

Early on in the election campaign the CAQ focused its divide-and-conquer policies on a different target: new immigrants. Legault said a CAQ government would accept fewer immigrants, but “take better care of them.” This became their slogan after they got hammered during the campaign about their proposal to impose a “values” test and French language test on new immigrants. They had to back off their threat to deport people for failing these tests.

This initial focus on immigration may have seemed easier given the whip-up over Haitian refugees who arrived in large numbers in Quebec recently. It may have seemed safer because the short-lived PQ government that came to power in the wake of the 2012 student strike collapsed both because of its austerity budget and equally because of the debate over the Charter of Values – which did not prove as popular as the PQ expected.

Some of the methods the CAQ is using to try to shore up their constituency may be specific to Quebec. But the reasons and results are international.

Where have we seen this outside Quebec?

We certainly saw it in the election of Trump, but also in differing but similar ways in the election of Doug Ford in Ontario and Rob Ford in Toronto. The divide and conquer target may not always be the same: the sex-ed curriculum is serving that same purpose in Ontario to provide a fig leaf for a fake populist government that only seeks to roll back workers’ rights.

And we now see it in the figure of Maxime Bernier, who in a contradictory way is the inheritor of the “right-of-right” that made a temporary peace with the more traditional right of the Tories.

That more extreme end previously took organizational form in Preston Manning’s Reform Party. The contradiction, and irony, is that the Reform Party built its base only in part on anti-immigrant politics, and much more heavily on anti-Quebec and anti-francophone politics. Now, Bernier is trying to capitalize on the anti-immigrant and identitarian identity that seems to be on offer in Quebec, and make use of the CAQ base federally.

The pattern is repeated in Europe, where not only the alt right is growing in influence but also the far right, as electoral gains create space for it to gain legitimacy.

French fascist Marine Le Pen celebrated the CAQ victory in Quebec. She focused on the CAQ’s call for fewer immigrants, not on the question of religious expression, because Islamophobia won the day long ago in France. 

But today the argument in Europe about immigration is not only allowing the right to grow but also the left to split : the German “left-of-left” party Die Linke, which has seen electoral success, recently experienced an internal rift precisely on this. The argument is that the only way we can defend jobs and services is to restrict immigration. This is a completely false argument in economic terms, and the argument about religious symbols is equally so in social terms. But they serve the same purpose – to fuel the right and divide the left.


Quebec solidaire won 10 seats in the National Assembly because its members rejected the notion of some kind of convergence with the PQ. A proposal for convergence was hotly debated, but in the end soundly defeated by QS members who wanted nothing to do with the PQ’s neoliberal and anti-environmental policies, and equally nothing to do with their “Charter of Values” that targeted religious and therefore racialized minorities in Quebec.

The same should hold true against the CAQ’s threat to outlaw religious symbols.

What will give QS the confidence and ability to effectively stand up to this divide and conquer strategy is resistance by the forces on the ground: the very forces it exists to represent at the National Assembly, in the streets, campuses, and workplaces.

The front line may be Quebec teachers, members of two unions: the FAE, representing 38,000, and the CSQ representing 65,000.

In response to the CAQ’s attack on teachers, but with a broader defense of working people, FAE president Sylvain Mallette stated: “It is the institution that must be secular, secularism must not rest on the shoulders of people who work there. We say NO to outlawing religious symbols.”

And Sonia Éthier, president of the CSQ, said “It’s an aberration to talk about firing people [for wearing religious symbols]. We’re talking about human beings, we are talking about competent people who work in the public service… who perform exceptional work for children and youth.”

And on October 7, community organizations and anti-racist activists will take to the streets in Montreal to say: NON au racisme, NON à l’Islamophobie.

This is only the beginning of what will be a multi-faceted resistance to the CAQ government. It must begin on the question of religious symbols because that’s where they’ve started. If they don’t encounter opposition on this, the many other things they have in store will be that much easier to achieve.

La lutte continue.


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