11. 17. 2022

Québec Solidaire and the Surging Anti-Migrant Right

Michèle Hehn

In 2016, at the eleventh party congress of the left-wing provincial party Québec Solidaire (QS), party co-founder and spokesperson Françoise David left no doubt as to QS’s political ambitions. “
Though we were born little, we’re going to get big,” said David, then a deputy from the riding of Gouin in Montréal. She continued: “We want to remind people in a very firm way that it’s not our lot to settle for mere crumbs, and that, yes, the left can exist here in North America: a feminist, pro-independence, ecological left.”

Yet since the 2018 elections, QS’s ambitions and the hopes of Québec’s left overall have been constrained by the meteoric rise of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), a conservative party led by former Parti Québécois member François Legault. In 2018, the CAQ won 74 out of 125 seats in Québec’s National Assembly, disrupting the power-sharing equilibrium between the Parti Québécois and the Parti Libéral du Québec that had characterized Québec politics since the 1970s. The CAQ was able to gain two additional seats during midterm elections, followed by another 19 seats in the 2022 provincial election. By comparison, QS won seven seats in 2018 and an additional seat in 2022, giving it 11 votes in the National Assembly.

Like QS, the CAQ is a new political party, forged as a consequence of the province’s second failed independence referendum in 1995. The CAQ’s key political tactic has been to decouple nationalism from independence; as the National Post put it approvingly, Legault “has managed to champion a strong cultural nationalism and desire to protect Quebec’s distinct identity while also moving the nationalist question away from a push for outright sovereignty.” The CAQ has done this by appealing nostalgically to a rural Québécois past, before the supposed purity of Québec’s French language, blood, and soil – including, centrally, Québec’s whiteness – was undermined by immigration. Despite this racist messaging, the party has succeeded in electing Québec’s first female Indigenous Member of the National Assembly (MNA), Kateri Champagne Jourdain, as well as two former public sector union leaders, Shirley Dorismond and Suzanne Tremblay. Its business-friendly posture and upholding of conservative values are for the most part sympathetically covered by the Québecor conglomerate that dominates the media landscape in Québec. Yet the CAQ speaks for a minority of Québécois: with only two-thirds of eligible voters turning out to vote in the 2022 provincial election, the 41 percent of votes cast for the CAQ represented only 27 percent of the electorate.  

Although the projections for QS that Françoise David made in 2016 seem overconfident today, they attest to the seriousness of QS’s desire to play on the big stage of mainstream politics. It was in that spirit that QS was formed in 2006, adopting the model of the new “left-populist” parties in Europe, such as Podemos in Spain and La France Insoumise. QS’s objective was to offer a left alternative to the prevailing right-wing discourse, especially for those who support Québec independence but were disgusted by the Parti Québécois’s anti-immigrant rants.

Indeed, Québec Solidaire’s relationship to immigration and, more broadly, questions of ethnic and religious difference – most of all, its positions on the wearing of religious symbols, and particularly the hijab worn by observant Muslim women – has become a key issue in the party’s political evolution.


Symbols and struggles

In 2007, Jean Charest’s provincial Liberal government in Québec created a commission to address the crisis of religious accommodation: the freedom to express one’s religious values through visible symbols in an ostensibly secular society. Named after its architects, anglophone philosopher Charles Taylor and francophone sociologist Gérard Bouchard, the Bouchard-Taylor commission recommended in 2008 that individuals in positions of authority, including judges, Crown prosecutors, the police, and prison guards should refrain from wearing religious symbols.

At the time, the leadership of Québec Solidaire accepted the Bouchard-Taylor framework. That framework met with popular and media resistance, especially from laïcité (secularism) advocates who wanted even greater restrictions placed on religious minorities. This latter camp was rewarded in 2014 when the newly elected Parti Québécois created its Charter of Values, which called for a full interdiction on the wearing of religious symbols by all public sector employees. While the Charter failed to pass in the National Assembly, it succeeded in enlarging the public debate around the wearing of religious symbols to include public school teachers, among others, as persons in “positions of authority.”

The brutal murder of six Muslim men in a Québec City mosque in January 2017 made it clear just how violent the political climate had become. In a sign of how much the status quo had changed, Charles Taylor publicly retracted his position on the wearing of religious symbols and argued instead for the right of religious minorities to wear their symbols as they pleased. Despite Taylor’s retraction, Québec Solidaire continued to support the compromise he had advocated years earlier with Gérard Bouchard.  

The racist status quo was about to consolidate even more. CAQ’s landslide election in 2018 set the stage for the party to use the notwithstanding clause of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms – which grants governments the ability to override parts of the Charter – to pass Bill 21, forbidding the wearing of religious symbols not only by judges, prison guards, and the police, as in the Bouchard-Taylor compromise, but also by teachers – as the Parti Québécois had attempted and failed to achieve a few years earlier. In response to this threat, Québec Solidaire members voted in 2019 to overturn their leaders’ support for the Bouchard-Taylor position, so the party could fight Bill 21 from a clear shared stance.  

Today, as Bill 21 makes its way through the courts, concern over its passage continues to spread not only in Québec but also in the rest of Canada, particularly in municipalities with large numbers of religious minorities. The firing of a hijab-wearing Muslim teacher from a primary school in Chelsea, Quebec, in late 2021, has only sharpened this dynamic. In response to the teacher’s firing, the city council of Brampton, Ontario, organized a fundraiser in support of efforts to defeat Bill 21 and called on other communities to do the same. Québec Solidaire co-leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois reacted to this initiative with indignation, saying: “When English Canada steps into a debate with its big boots and/or its money, as it’s doing here, it harms the quality of the debate in Québec.” His comments are emblematic of Québec Solidaire’s difficulties in striking a balance between its anti-racist commitments and its support for Québec’s independence.


No equivocating about migrant justice

Violence against migrants has been on the rise across Canada since the beginning of the pandemic. The far-right libertarian People’s Party of Canada (PPC), led by Québécois Maxime Bernier, has been leading the anti-immigration charge at the federal electoral level. The PPC formed out of a break with the Conservative Party in 2018, when Bernier lost his bid for that party’s presidency. While the PPC gathered five percent of the federal vote in the 2022 elections, more than double its vote share in 2018, it failed to elect a single candidate, including Bernier himself. Nevertheless, Bernier has been a rallying figure for the far right – notably, through his nation-wide campaign “Say NO to Mass Immigration” in 2019, and during the anti-vaccine mandate convoy’s occupation of Ottawa earlier this year. In such a climate, migrants throughout Canada – not only in Québec – have every reason to fear the passage of Bill 21 and organize against it. 

In principle, Québec Solidaire could have created a party dedicated to nationalism-without-independence and framed in terms of left values, a mirror image of the CAQ’s nationalism-without-independence based on right-wing values. But the CAQ was successful at transcending Québec’s post-Quiet Revolution independence/federalism binary only by virtue of its right-wing nature, Legault’s established profile, the party’s clearly identified voting base, and its friendly relationship with the Québecor media conglomerate. By comparison, QS has often been a media scapegoat and has needed to strike a balance between cultivating its outsider status and laying groundwork for its electoral ambitions, which has meant it’s been more obliged than the CAQ to accept the mainstream terms of debate. Given the vexed history of federalism in Quebec, that has meant arguing for Québécois independence. In other words, QS’s decision to support independence could be interpreted as conjunctural, a concession to facts on the ground.

But Québec Solidaire’s fusion with the Québec nationalist party Option Nationale (ON) in 2017 suggests that its commitment to independence goes beyond expedience. Formed at roughly the same time as the CAQ, Option Nationale was created by former Parti Québécois members who wished to give more priority to the independence question. Today, ON functions as a collective within QS. Under Québec Solidaire’s aegis, former members of Option Nationale have been elected in areas outside of Montréal, a key strategic objective for the party leadership. Since its fusion with Option Nationale, Québec Solidaire has been more explicit about what an independent, QS-led Québec would look like and what sorts of projects it would undertake. The party’s members have voted to participate in United Nations-led peacetime military operations, for example, in the event that Québec were to become independent. Yet QS’s focus on independence is at odds with the public mood: support for Québécois independence is diminishing, especially among young people. Only a minority of Québécois, including francophones, now favour independence, and that support is located primarily in the regions outside Montréal where QS has the least presence. Half of QS’s electorate does not support independence. 

In the pursuit of voters, Québec Solidaire has shown itself too willing to let the right-wing Parti Québécois set the terms of the conversation. During the recent electoral debates, for instance, QS co-leader Nadeau-Dubois repeated an anti-Black racial slur when dared by PQ leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon to say the title of a classic book about the Québécois people by Pierre Vallières, which includes that word. When confronted afterwards by a CBC reporter, Nadeau-Dubois refused to apologize and redirected the blame to Plamondon. Nor is this kind of capitulation limited to party leaders’ comments: QS also supported the CAQ’s Bill 96, which forces migrants to receive services in French starting six months after they arrive in the province.

The left has much to celebrate in Québec Solidaire: its tireless organizing against the CAQ’s bloated, fossil fuel-heavy plans for infrastructure development in the province, its Vision 2030 climate plan that emphasizes a transition to sustainable energy, and its willingness to join forces with the Parti Québécois in refusing to pledge allegiance to the British Crown. QS’s status as a mainstream party gives it a visibility and legitimacy from which all the left in Québec and the rest of Canada can benefit. Leftists in Québec should vote for QS, and work with it when it seems politically advantageous to do so. And we should pressure it to, for example, translate its political materials not only into Indigenous languages (which it does, commendably) but also into the most widely spoken immigrant languages, and to continue building solidarity between progressive layers of Québec’s two solitudes.

It is also vitally important that we build forces to the left of Québec Solidaire that can act more unequivocally for migrant justice and the rights of religious minorities. Those forces might adopt the successful model of, for example, the women-of-colour-led formation École sans police, which is organizing against the plan to put more police in Montréal schools. Other non-electoral parts of the province’s left ecology that help contest right-wing narratives, such as the year-old media outlet Pivot – an important alternative to the Québecor media empire – deserve our support. We’ll need all these efforts, working alongside QS, if we’re to build a Canadian and Québécois left capable of overcoming the dangerous anti-migrant politics of the far right. 

Michèle Hehn is a secondary school teacher in the Centre de services scolaires de Montréal. She has written for Socialist Worker, The Indypendent, Nouveaux Cahiers du socialisme, and Ricochet Media.