Adam Johannes from Cardiff People’s Assembly talks to Jean-François Joubert, a Québec Solidaire activist. In October 2018 Québec saw a historic election with the two parties that have traded power for generations both hammered at the polls by voters hungry for change. The main beneficiary was the right wing Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), but the election saw a breakthrough for radical left independence Québec Solidaire displacing the traditional independence party (Parti Québecois) on an ecological platform including a total break with fossil fuels, halting road building, slashing bus and train fares and creating thousands of climate jobs.
AJ: Tell us about Québec Solidaire
J-FJ: Québec Solidaire is the party seen as most preoccupied with the environment. You will not hear them arguing that jobs need to be prioritized in lieu of environmental issues… and even if they propose temporary mitigating measures: their objectives are clear. They propose abandoning the oil economy. In Canada! Where the oil lobby is formidable!
They are in favour of social justice, equality and state intervention in the economy, wealth redistribution. They propose linguistic clarity: one common language for all, French. Scaremongering aside, this means that people are bilingual rather than abandon their mother tongue.
Proportional representation is high on their agenda. They are feminist, anti-globalisation – or rather offering a different type of globalisation where people are first not companies – and Québec solidaire’s plan for independence includes the participation of Québec’s eleven native nations as independent and recognized nations with their own language and culture.
AJ: What is the party’s history, and what lies behind the decline of Parti Québécois (PQ) the traditional independence party?
J-FJ: Québec Solidaire was founded in 2006 in Montreal by the merger of the left-wing party Union des forces progressistes (UFP) and the alter-globalization political movement Option Citoyenne.
In 2017, there was a merger between the diehard separatists of Option National and the diehard environmentalists of Québec Solidaire. Suddenly… things clicked. The environment, language, culture, empowerment… we don’t need to settle for fewer services, more plastic, expensive schools and medicine, hiding our mother tongue to get ahead, there were alternatives: it made sense now with an added urgency.
This is the combination of talents, now honed by the experience of a few elections, that helped win 10 seats… and amazingly two seats in Québec city… the bastion of pro-Canada conservatives in Québec.
From a handful of support at first, it obtained 650 000 votes ten years later but more strategically obliterating any chances the PQ had in winning a majority, then… winning as such. Its influence is great. As they say… This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us…
The PQ, traditionally left and separatist, had grown to a wide political coalition for its near-win independence referendum of 1995. Afterwards, it was perhaps seen as a safe nationalist vote with little consequence, while at the same time, slowly drifting away from its preoccupation with independence, losing its overall focus as a consequence.
AJ: We first met in the aftermath of Québec’s student movement that saw a long student strike against a tuition fee hike, an Occupy-style rising against austerity and inequality.
JF-J: The Printemps Érable – or Maple Spring – was a great coalition of misfits. I don’t think I would have agreed with a lot of the ideas being presented at the time by some people individually… You may remember as well that it was chaotic, and crazy and beautiful. But we all set our differences aside to focus on one thing: The refusal of education becoming a commodity.
Social media played a role at the time… we seemed to be able to interact with a great variety of people, warts and all, and much more so than today. Hence me reaching out and meeting people in Wales like you Adam, but also in Scotland, Catalonia, France, England and even Pakistan!
I remember well arriving in Cardiff then, and hearing the news about people I knew getting arrested in Québec City as the demonstrations were dying down. It was hard to ignore what was happening and focus on anything else. But, again and again, meeting you, meeting people in Wales, learning about Welsh history for the first time, the Chartists sent to Australia, the Rebecca Riots, the treachery of the Blue Books, the Welsh knot… absolutely amazing discoveries for me and a time of great evolution. These were heady days indeed!
AJ: What happened in the elections?
JF-J: Politics in Québec are very much divided in terms of linguistic lines, a stereotype is worth a thousand words: those categorically not identifying with the Québecois community and the French language strongly favour the Québec Liberal Party, and those identifying with the francophone community tend to be split among a number of parties left and right. Over twenty years ago, the Parti Québecois led referendum for independence had created a wide coalition… that, inevitably, splintered off in many directions afterwards.
This time around, there appears to have been a changing of the guard from the two traditional parties who take turns taking power. The Québec Liberals obtained 31/125 seats with 1 001 037 votes which is probably close to their minimum and the Parti Québécois obtained a historic low of 10/125 seats with 687 995 votes, its lowest score in forty years. This may be the last election of the PQ.
This changing of the guard appears to be linked to lower voter turnout / high voter cynicism fuelled by corruption scandals and timid change proposals/lack of clear direction from the main two parties.
The new Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) won the elections with 74/125 seats (1 509 455 votes), and Québec Solidaire a surprising 10 seats with 649 503 votes a historic high.
AJ: Can you say a little about language issues?
JF-J: Canada as a whole is divided between the French and the English languages especially in Québec. But to be precise… the division, arguably in terms of past statistics, “those who would not touch the French language with a ten foot pole” and multilingual speakers.
Multilingual populations tend to support independence with similar ratios to “traditional francophone” populations this can even be seen with native communities.
Geographically… things are divided east and west. In Québec, French speakers tend to be in the East and the historically more recent English speakers tend to be in the west.
The struggle to have French recognized in Canada is not technically the same as the one to have Québec recognized in Canada as Québec is the only place where, still today, French-Canadians are the majority. Hence, when Québecers send their tax money to help out a small group of French speaking people in Toronto, Canada’s largest and overwhelmingly English speaking city, you have to wonder whether this is “helping French Canadians” as a whole… or the squandering of precious resources. Since we lose control of our tax money once it is paid, it will be used for Canadian priorities. The benefits of linguistic translation services in French for the Tar sands and Nuclear industry is cold comfort in my opinion.
The conservative government agreed to recognize Québec as a nation in its own right in 2006… with this caveat… as long as it has no political or legal implication. Hahaha. Gotta love Canadians. And there are eight million of us Québecers… imagine what it’s like for the native communities!
AJ: Tell us more about the Coalition Avenir Québec. It’s quite right wing?
JF-J: CAQ is certainly very much in tune with current Right-Wing Populism albeit in Québec style… which means kinda but not, at least for now, the bat-shit-crazy style we have been accustomed to with Trump.
CAQ in no way questions Québec’s place in the Canadian federation, they welcome the mandatory pledge to the Queen, they plan offering lower taxes -with diminished services down the road – and appear to be looking seriously to privatize state monopolies.
Their priorities are in favour of the Canadian tar sands lobby from Western Canada… hence pipelines to the States and through the St-Lawrence seaway for Europe. They may find the strongest resistance from the population along those lines… the environment being at the top of most peoples’ concerns but frustratingly missing a clear rallying call for action, until now…
AJ: How is neoliberalism impacting on Québec and Canada?
JF-J: Québec has perhaps been relatively protected from heavy handed neoliberalism and austerity… perhaps because we almost won independence in 1995 at 49.42%?
Today… this is changing fast. Environmental issues are coming to the fore… and the CAQ is very keen on privatisations.
But let’s put all this in the correct perspective. Western Canada is sitting on a tar sands supply that is estimated as able to provide the world with oil for the next two hundred years… and perhaps cause an environmental disaster of Jurassic proportions.
When Conservative Stephen Harper used to have high level meetings with politicians in the UK… finding customers for this oil was high on the agenda. When Canada Liberal Justin Trudeau has high level meetings with politicians in the UK… they are also talking about finding markets for the tar sands. When the left of centre New Democratic Party was close in the polls in the elections, even if his leader’s reputation was as a environmentalist… to get elected had no choice but to support the tar sands economy. Turn left, turn right… in Canada right now it’s about tar sands… pipelines… exports.
However the Québecois have vast hydro electrical resources. The other eleven nations in Québec, Innu, Atikameks, Mohawks, Cree are divided in too many communities and tend to be inefficient politically however we all have share similar preoccupations concerning the territory.
Once independent, we can all indeed block pipeline projects on our territory for example, or simply invest our money differently: today, everyone in Canada subsidizes tar sands as well as the nuclear industry for example… Independence from Canada, with most of Québec’s nation, a new pact based on the nationalisation of natural resources allowing us to redistribute the wealth more equally as well as policing the territory more adequately, with the present hydro-electric dams that will continue to provide electricity as long as the sun continues to evaporate water… when this opportunity is truly understood by all concerned, right now it seems to be understood perhaps mainly by the oil industry, we can make our voice heard in the world and perhaps have a go at suggesting alternative agendas.