With just eight months until the next Quebec election, the right-populist Coalition Avenir Québec, led by François Legault, is riding high in the polls. The two-party system dominated by the Parti Quebecois and the Liberal Party of Quebec for the past 50 years is at risk of collapsing. Many people are worried by the prospect that the CAQ could form the next government—and with good reason. The CAQ represents more clearly the capitalists elements in Quebec pushing to crush the labour movement and attack all of the progressive gains the working class has won through many hard-fought struggles. But how can we stop the CAQ?
Nationalism in crisis
Ever since the failure of the 1995 referendum, the nationalist movement in Quebec has been faced with an existential crisis. While in its heyday, the Parti Quebecois was able to unite different class forces under its banner, the past decade has seen the party plagued with splits to the left and to the right. More recently, many PQ big names, seeing the writing on the wall, have decided to jump ship. Alexandre Cloutier, Agnès Maltais, Nicole Léger, François Gendron and Claude Cousineau have all announced they will be leaving the party before the next election.
This process has been taking place because the pressures of capitalism have been tearing the PQ apart. In government, the PQ attacked the working class in the ’80s and ’90s and its short time in power in 2012-2014 showed once again that the party was not all that different from the Liberals. Mainstream nationalist leadership has completely abandoned any pretense to be struggling in the interests of the workers, and have instead adopted an ‘identitarian nationalism’ based purely on defending Québécois identity. The CAQ is the most clear representation of this trend and has become popular for using dog-whistle politics against Muslims and refugees, pretending to defend the “Francophone majority”. Other forces in the nationalist movement have split to the left, and have tended to emphasize the “social question.” This is most clearly represented by Quebec solidaire. The crisis in the PQ is therefore clearly a reflection of the crisis of nationalism in Quebec.
During this period, support for a new referendum on independence has dropped, especially among young people. All of the major mass mobilizations since the 1995 referendum have been based around class questions, demonstrating that Québécois workers and youth are more interested in bread-and-butter issues and have been turning away from the age-old federalist-sovereigntist back and forth. Former PQ minister François Legault has understood this and has capitalized on this mood, forming the CAQ in November 2011. In a recent interview Legault said that the CAQ would never hold a referendum on the sovereignty of Quebec. The CAQ now describes itself as a “nationalist” party seeking more power for Quebec within Canada, which is reminiscent of the position of the Union Nationale of Maurice Duplessis. Legault himself made the comparison with this former conservative nationalist party in Quebec in 2014, when he said: “There are similarities [with the Union Nationale], but we will not be going back to the Grande Noirceur (the great darkness).”
This changing dynamic in the nationalist movement has also affected the governing Liberals who have traditionally done well putting themselves forward as the only force capable of stopping the PQ from breaking up the country. With the declining interest in the federalist-sovereignist debate, PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée is promising not to hold a referendum before 2022. With a referendum more than likely ruled out, at least temporarily, the Liberals can no longer fear monger on this question. It is again the CAQ that benefits, attracting voters that would normally vote for the PLQ.
The establishment discredited
But the rise of the CAQ is not only due to the crisis in the PQ and within the nationalist movement in general. Philippe Couillard’s Liberals are also experiencing difficulties of their own. While the Liberals, in pre-election mode, have gone around distributing gifts in the form of tax cuts, it may be too little too late. Years of Liberal cuts to social spending have left their mark. We see this particularly with the growing anger among nurses and the state of the health-care system. According to recent polls, satisfaction with the Liberal government sits at just 25 per cent. This is as low as it was at the height of the worst austerity measures. According to the same poll, 66 per cent of Quebecers are either very or somewhat dissatisfied with the Couillard government.
Not so long ago, the Parti Quebecois and the Liberal Party of Quebec shared more than 80 per cent of the vote and sometimes upwards of more than 90 per cent, election after election. Currently, the combined support for both parties sits at around 50 per cent. For the first time since 1970, the party in government could be neither the PLQ or the PQ. The two-party system that has dominated Quebec for more than 40 years is now a thing of the past.
These figures reflect the fact that workers and young people in Quebec are fed up with the status quo. Both the PLQ and the PQ are discredited. For the past 40 years, these two parties have imposed severe austerity measures and have legislated workers back-to-work when they went on strike to fight this.
The program of the CAQ: An assault on the working class
Interestingly, according to a recent survey conducted by Le Devoir, the CAQ is perceived as the party most likely to improve access to daycare centres, improve the education system, and combat corruption. The CAQ is even in second place, behind Quebec solidaire, as the party most able to “ensure a better distribution of wealth between the rich and the poor”! Legault, a crafty and skillful politician, has been sticking to populist denunciations and exposures of the ridiculousness of the Liberals and the PQ. He has been careful not to say anything that too clearly exposes his real plan so as not to attract the anger of the powerful workers’ movement in Quebec. It is clear from all of this that the CAQ is not popular because of its program, but in spite of it. The CAQ is generally seen as a break with the corrupt political establishment and is gaining because of this.
However, we must be clear on one thing: Behind all the populist and anti-establishment demagogy of François Legault, the CAQ is a party that wishes to brutally attack the workers and destroy anything that makes life semi-bearable in Quebec. A CAQ victory would be a rude awakening for Quebec workers.
Taking a page out of Trump’s playbook, Legault has said that he is above all a businessman and not a politician. It was undoubtedly this that led him to propose eliminating 4,000 Hydro Quebec jobs during the 2012 election. The CAQ has also been the most ardent defender of back-to-work legislation, most notably brought against the construction workers in 2013 and 2017. During the strike he stated that, “OK, the unions have the right to strike, which is, let’s say, theoretical, because it always ends with back-to-work legislation.”
During the 2014 election campaign, Legault promised that once in power, he would “modernize the unions”. A CAQ government would ban the trade unions from using their funds for purposes other than “labor relations and the defense of workers,” and would not allow them to use their funds for “political causes.” Legault would require unions to make their financial books public and would ban accreditation votes taken by a show of hands. But Legault will obviously never forbid corporations from intervening in politics, any more than he would force them to open their books or ban votes by a show of hands at shareholders’ meetings!
Capitalizing on anger against the government, Legault has gained support in arguing for measures against the state bureaucracy. Under the guise of saving money, he wants to abolish the School Boards, claiming that this will save millions of dollars that can be directly spent on services for students. This is a similar move to what Liberal Health Minister Gaétan Barrette did with regard to the halth-care system. But this has only increased the speed of privatization and has placed the local health boards under direct control of the minister, making it easier to ram through cuts to health care. In post-secondary education, Legault’s solution is to create a two-tiered education system, one in which rich kids can pay to get better services. What this means in practice is the gradual privatization of the post-secondary school system.
With regards to the daycare system, Geneviève Guibault, the newly elected CAQ deputy from the riding of Louis-Hébert, recently stated that the party encourages a private model for daycares in Quebec. This is opposed to the $7/day model, a historic conquest of workers in Quebec that has kept childcare costs the lowest in the country. This attempt to submit daycare to the private market would lead to a massive increase in cost, as has been seen in other provinces. Legault is fond of stating that we need to make Quebec as rich as Ontario. What he really means is that we need to make Quebec capitalism as profitable as Ontarian capitalism, and this will necessarily be done to the detriment of workers, parents and children. The daycare system in Ontario is a clear example of this, where parents pay on average more than $1,700 per month! This is more than ten times what people in Quebec pay. The cuts and slow privatization have in fact already begun under the Liberals, and have led to a deterioration of the daycares.
Legault certainly was thinking like a businessman when, during the 2012 student strike, he said that Quebec youth think too much about “the good life” and should work harder, like Asians! Ironically, he said this when a recent study showed that Québécois students work more than their counterparts in English Canada. For Legault, we need to follow the model of countries where workers are suffering exploitation not seen since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. It is therefore not surprising that CAQ deputy Simon Jolin-Barrette argued in his recently published book that Quebec workers should work more 60-hour weeks!
It is therefore not surprising that the CAQ has been courting well-known people in finance and the corporate world. Most notably, the party has tried to get Michael Fortier, Vice President of RBC Capital Markets, and Éric Girard, Vice President of the Banque nationale, to run for the party. They have also been courting Robert Dutton, the ex-boss of Rona, as well as Daniel Fournier, the president of Ivanhoe Cambridge, former Conservative senator and former minister in the Harper government.
Last but not least, the CAQ convinced Youri Chassin, economist and former research director for right-wing think tank the Montreal Economic Institute, to run under its banner in the election this year. Chassin was also an analyst for the Bosses Council of Quebec. When he was working there, he argued in favour of the privatization of SAQ (state liquor corporation) and for the partial privatization of Hydro Quebec. He also argued in 2016 that a minimum wage of $15 “was a solution to a non-existent problem.” Clearly, this is not a party that will help makes lives easier for workers.
Nationalism: A useful tool to divide and distract
But the CAQ has masked its anti-worker program with right-wing populist, identitarian nationalist discourse. They have hypocritically used the historic struggle of the Québécois against the domination of the Roman Catholic Church in the ’60s to bash religious minorities in the province. This has been most clearly seen with the “debate” on religious symbols and immigration which has led to a heightened climate of Islamophobia in Quebec. The CAQ criticized Liberal Bill 62, which banned face coverings, because it did not go far enough. They also have argued for a reduction in immigration to Quebec from 50,000 to 40,000. Legault attacked Haitians when they were seeking asylum in Canada after Trump kicked them out, stating that “Quebec must not become a sieve.”
Legault also wants immigrants to pass a “cultural values” test after they have been in Quebec for a few years. Legault stated that “we at least need to send a signal that we will accept people that share our values.” This was a racist proposition which he put forward during the “controversy” surrounding the burkini in the summer of 2016.
Therefore, in spite of the fact that Legault, like Donald Trump, has cultivated an anti-establishment image, this is simply calculated political opportunism. A CAQ government would mean an intensification of attacks against the working class and minorities. A CAQ government would in fact be guided by the same reactionary capitalist establishment that has been the puppet master behind successive PQ and Liberal governments.
A right-wing shift?
The rise of the CAQ could give the impression that we are witnessing a shift to the right in society at large. But most people in Quebec are not in favour of weakening the unions or for two-tier university or for privatizations. In fact, 66 per cent of people in a recent Le Devoir poll said that they were in favour of reinvestment in social services. It therefore would be an oversimplification to argue that the rise of the CAQ is simply due to an increase in Islamophobia and racism. Many of these people see a vote for the CAQ as a smack in the face for the two main establishment parties who have exchanged power back and forth for decades, and who have applied similar measures without much changing for working people. These same people could be won to a movement fighting to put an end to austerity and to the attacks on the working class.
According to a survey done last November, 69 per cent of Quebecers believe that “things in Quebec are not going well and we need to make significant changes.” In addition, a whopping 78 per cent of Quebecers believe that “things are the same or worse than they were 10 years ago.” It would be a massive oversimplification to say that the rise of the CAQ is due to a shift to the right in society. Increasing support for the party is primarily the result of the fact that a growing number of people are angry at the establishment parties and are looking for a way out.
Only the working class can defeat the CAQ
The 2018 elections are promising to be a big shock for Quebec politics. If the CAQ wins, they will go to war with the labour movement, attacking the unions and dismantling the welfare state. In doing so, they will simply be doing what the Québécois bourgeoisie has been trying to do for a long time. The CAQ, is simply the most clear expression of the program contained in the manifesto, Pour un Québec lucide, published in 2005.
But this should not be surprising. The slow decline of the Quebec economy, which has accelerated since the 2008 crash, is the reason for the social and political turbulence in Quebec over the last period. The “Quebec model”, with sizable social programs, influential unions and some worker protections, is not compatible with capitalism in decline. The CAQ program is simply a continuation and an intensification of the agenda of the Québécois bourgeoisie.
Québécois workers have rich traditions of struggle. It was the working class that was the motor force behind the major reforms won during the Quiet Revolution that the CAQ is proposing to dismantle. Faced with repeated attacks from the Liberals and the PQ, workers and youth have shown time and time again that they are ready to fight back. Recently, workers have been rediscovering these traditions of struggle, as was seen during the student strike of 2012, the Common Front public sector strike of 2015, and the construction strike of 2017.
The workers’ movement cannot just sit on its hands while the CAQ marches into power. The unions must immediately launch a mass campaign, explaining the dangers of a CAQ victory and mobilizing opposition to the program of the CAQ in the streets. The palpable anger of the workers, if provided an organized outlet, is a powerful force that can stop the CAQ. The current movement of nurses demonstrates the energy and the will to struggle that exists within the working class. This was most notably seen with the spontaneous actions of nurses recently, who have, without any leadership, started occupying their workplaces. With this kind of militant action, organized on a mass scale, the unions could stop the CAQ and even if they win, make them unable to apply their program.
Historically, union leadership has supported the PQ, in one way or another, as the “lesser evil” with relation to the PLQ. Again this year, Daniel Boyer, the president of the FTQ, has stated that the big union federation would not be supporting any party for the 2018 election. But this position is just a sneaky way of suggesting a vote for the PQ. This was what Boyer clearly suggested in December 2016 when he said that the FTQ would support any “progressive party” against the Liberals in 2018, while never advocating a vote for the CAQ. But this “lesser evil” has been at times worse than the PLQ, as was evidenced by the PQ’s attacks on unions in the early 1980s, Lucien Bouchard’s zero deficit in 1996, and the 2012-2014 austerity government of Pauline Marois. The popularity of the CAQ is due in part to a deep anti-establishment sentiment. We therefore cannot fight an anti-establishment party with establishment politics. What we need is a mass campaign with mobilizations in the streets opposing the CAQ, but also the PLQ and the PQ. All of these parties have clearly demonstrated their subservience to the bosses’ agenda of cuts and privatizations.
The rise of Quebec solidaire over the past year represents an opportunity for workers and youth to defeat both establishment parties and the right populist CAQ. Especially since the 2012 student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois joined the party and was elected to the National Assembly last year, the party’s membership and share of the vote have both increased to record levels. It is now more important than ever for the unions and QS to unite their resources and begin mobilizing power to channel the anger in society.
However, the leaders of QS have tended to moderate the discourse of the party, making the party seem not all that different from the PQ at times. In order to channel that anti-establishment mood in society and enthuse workers and youth, we need to show them that there is an alternative to the second coming of the Grande Noirceur in the form of Legault’s CAQ. We need to mobilize workers on class issues and present a bold socialist alternative to the capitalist establishment. Only in this way can we cut across the racist nationalist discourse, and unite workers and youth of all backgrounds against capitalism and stop the CAQ dead in its tracks.