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Opinion Quebec’s far left movement can no longer be ignored

Québec solidaire finished fourth in the popular vote in this week’s provincial election. But the far-left party’s co-spokesperson Manon Massé, the openly gay social activist who energized young voters during the campaign, was entirely correct in declaring QS’s freshly elected 10-member caucus the “real official opposition” to a new Coalition Avenir Québec government.

While the Quebec Liberal Party won the second-largest number of seats in Monday’s election, it is destined for a year or more of deep introspection as those left to pick up the pieces from Premier Philippe Couillard’s humiliating defeat try to figure out the way forward. And the Parti Québécois – third in the popular vote, but with only nine seats in the National Assembly – faces an even uglier reckoning than the Liberals. Merely surviving will be the PQ’s main challenge.

QS has already replaced the PQ as Quebec’s main party of the left in the minds of young voters. QS is also bursting with former Péquistes who left the PQ after it was seen as compromising its officially social-democratic principles under former premiers Lucien Bouchard, Bernard Landry and Pauline Marois. Indeed, QS would not exist were it not for Mr. Bouchard, whose attempt to balance the budget almost two decades ago led to a grassroots revolt on the left.

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Québec solidaire co-spokesperson Manon Masse speaks during a press conference with members of the party's new caucus in Montreal, Oct. 5, 2018.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

After leaving office, Mr. Bouchard and a group of like-minded thinkers on the right drafted the 2005 manifesto, For a Clear-Eyed Quebec, warning that the province’s future was gravely compromised by its growing public debt and aging population. Their call for tough action to put Quebec on a sustainable fiscal footing was met with le Manifeste pour un Québec solidaire, an anti-capitalist, anti-globalization tract that served as the inspiration for QS’s founding in 2006.

During its first decade, QS gained little support outside a few hip Montreal neighbourhoods where artists, vegans, bicycle enthusiasts and intellectuals congregate. But that was enough for it to win three seats in 2014 in ridings that were once PQ strongholds. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the charismatic former student leader who came to the fore during the 2012 Maple Spring, became a QS MNA in 2017 and has since served with Ms. Massé as its co-spokesperson.

QS insists it has no leader. Ms. Massé had been designated to serve as premier had the party won Monday’s election and she will head up the QS caucus in the legislature. But she does not have policy-making authority. All decisions regarding policy must pass through the party’s national co-ordinating committee, which analysts have likened to a communist politburo.

During a late-campaign English television interview, Ms. Massé appeared to accept the Marxist label slapped by critics on QS, only to later say she expresses herself poorly in English. The critics countered that the word Marxist sounds pretty much the same in either official language.

QS has much more in common with European parties of the far left than Canada’s New Democrats. Like Spain’s Podemos, Greece’s Syriza or France Unbowed, it is resolutely anti-capitalist and pacifist. It advocates Canada’s withdrawal from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And it sees the profit motive as being incompatible with a just society.

“The capitalist system produces social inequalities, destroys the environment and reinforces sexism and racism by keeping countless groups and people in poverty,” according to QS’s official program. “This is why Québec solidaire wants to at once democratize the economy and upgrade the role of the state as a catalyst for social transformation.”

QS also favours Quebec sovereignty, but not for the same reasons as the PQ. Ms. Massé decries Canada as a petro-state that Quebec must leave if it is ever to change its own economic system. She does not talk much about language or culture. Early in the campaign, she even mistakenly said that Quebec was officially bilingual.

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Until a few months ago, it was easy to dismiss QS as a fringe movement. Not any more. The party wiped the PQ off the political map in Montreal in Monday’s election. It won two seats in Quebec City and one each in Sherbrooke and remote Rouyn-Noranda. With 16 per cent of the popular vote, it finished just one percentage point behind the PQ, which had its worst score ever.

Many desperate Péquistes have come to the conclusion that the PQ’s survival lies in a merger with QS. Together, the two parties won a third of the popular vote, matching their combined scores in the 2014 election. Then, however, the PQ was the official opposition. Now, it looks increasingly like a spent force and many of the QS rank and file despise its ethnic nationalism.

To paraphrase Gloria Steinem, the staunchly feminist QS now needs the PQ like a fish needs a bicycle.

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