What Is Behind The Conservative Win In Quebec?

For the first time since 1966 the Quebec governing party will not be the Liberals or the Parti Quebecois. The Conservatives won and the left surged

What Is Behind The Conservative Win In Quebec?

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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network, I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us.

There is clearly an electoral right-wing surge, not just in the United States, Europe and now Brazil, but seemingly in Canada as well. Earlier this month, a relatively new but very conservative party, the Coalition Avenir Quebec, while only winning 38 percent of the total vote, was able under Canadian electoral rules to take 75 of 125 seats in the National Assembly of Quebec. They unseated the Liberal Party, that was left with just 32 seats, the first time since 1966 that the ruling party in Quebec has not been either the Liberals or the Parti Quebecois. The Left Party, Quebec solidaire, went from three to 10 seats.

So what’s happening in Canada? When the last two major provincial elections saw right-wing conservative parties winning, in June the Trump-like conservative candidate, former mayor of Toronto Doug Ford, won the premiership with the left NDP party in second place. So what is behind this right-wing surge, if there is one in Canada? Some say there is not. We are joined by Ethan Cox, co-founder and editor of Ricochet media. Welcome back to The Real News, Ethan, it’s great to have you with us.

ETHAN COX: Pleasure to be here.

MARC STEINER: So, is there a right-wing surge in Canada, and what’s behind it?

ETHAN COX: I think we’re seeing around the world a surge in populism on both the left and the right. And I think Quebec is a good example of that, where there was for a long time, two primary parties that contested elections, the PQ and the Liberals. And in this election, we saw both of them reduced substantially, with strong growth and support for upstart parties on the left and the right that are more populist. So Quebec has an element of nationalism that plays into these things, that makes it sometimes perhaps a little bit more susceptible to sort of right wing populism, but really what’s going on here, I think, mirrors what’s happening in a lot of other places around the world.

MARC STEINER: Let’s talk about Quebec for a minute though, because the issue you just raised, especially for some of our listeners who might not be familiar with history or Canadian politics, and some younger listeners who might not know what happened in the late 60s, early 70s, with the Quebecois nationalist movement that surged, and how that has played a critical role in Quebec and Canada. So how did that kind of take place? Because the man who won, at least from what I’ve read of the election, which you can describe in a moment, was once part of the Parti Quebecois and a nationalist. So how does that all play into this election?

ETHAN COX: Sure. So in a nutshell, Quebec is a majority Francophone province in a country that is predominantly Anglophone. And historically, the Francophone majority in Quebec were subjugated and oppressed by an Anglophone majority that had most of the wealth and most of the power. And so, following what’s called The Quiet Revolution, when Francophones in Quebec sort of threw off their subservience to the Catholic Church and started to become more politically engaged, a party called the Quebecois was formed in 1973 I believe, contested its first election in 1976. And its mandate from the beginning has been to hold a referendum to separate from Canada.

So there is, and has been for a long time, a strong sovereigntist movement in Quebec comparable to the movement in Catalonia or Ireland or some of these other places that are seeking self-government. So that’s the context, and that naturally has lent itself to nationalism, obviously, because it’s about defining ourselves, Quebecers against this Anglophone monolith outside in the rest of Canada and in North America more generally. What we’ve seen in recent years is that support for sovereignty has really flatlined around 30 percent, 35 percent, so it’s become harder and harder for a sovereigntist party to win the election. And so, what we saw with the CAQ when Francois Legault, who as you mentioned was a former PQ cabinet minister, when he left and started the CAQ, the stated intention of that party was to be a nationalist’s party, to stand up for and defend Quebec’s interests, but a party that did not want to separate from Canada.

MARC STEINER: So, in that kind of national perspective, what we just saw, I’m curious where you think this takes Quebec now. I mean, is this a referendum about the Liberal Party? I mean, I think looking at this, people say, “Oh, is the Liberal Party now in trouble in Canada because of this election,” or “they lost this election, they lost the Ontario election.” What does that portend, if anything?

ETHAN COX: It’s hard to compare provincially to federally, because the liberal parties are all different and have different politics. The Liberal Party in Quebec is much more right-wing than the federal Liberal Party of Justin Trudeau. So it’s hard to compare exactly. But what we know is that about a year ago, a poll was done that found that exactly half of Quebecers, 50 percent, believe that the ruling parties that have been in power for the last 30 years have betrayed Quebec. So that’s the PQ and the Liberals. So there’s half the population that just really don’t like those parties, want them to be replaced.

In terms of the Liberals, this is a government that had imposed a punishing austerity regime, cut over two billion dollars from health care, a billion dollars from education. Children’s schools are falling down, people can’t get doctors, nurses, seniors in care are being fed powdered food. So there was a great deal of frustration and anger with the Liberals that played into this election. For over two thirds of the electorate, the PQ and Quebec solidaire were not really options because they’re sovereigntist parties and two thirds of the electorate is not in support of sovereignty at this point.

But what happened in Quebec, really it’s important to qualify it, because the CAQ is very different to the far-right parties that we see internationally. They are right-wing, they’re not you know anywhere in the territory of Jair Bolsonaro or Golden Dawn or any of these movements, and they’re not even nearly as far right-wing is as Doug Ford. What the CAQ is known for is having a strong identity platform. And so, they campaigned on a promise to reduce immigration levels and also to bring in legislation that would bar people who work in the public service or who get public services from the government from wearing any sort of visible religious symbols.

This is a debate that’s been going on in Quebec for many years. The PQ, in 2014, brought forward a Charter of Quebec Values that would have done something similar. Of course, it’s a very frustrating, cynical, xenophobic move. It accomplishes nothing, and it’s very carefully calculated, because in Quebec, Catholicism is the historical religion, so Catholics typically wear a cross that is not that hard to put under your shirt, whereas Jews are more likely to wear a kippah, Sikhs to wear a turban, Muslims to wear a hijab, et cetera. So these policies that have been brought forward by the PQ and CAQ are certainly xenophobic, are certainly arguably racist in that they disproportionately impact People of Color.

But what happened in this election was, first and foremost, the CAQ were elected as a change vote. They actually spent a lot of the campaign downplaying their identity positions. So they didn’t win by going hard to the xenophobic, ultra-nationalist right. They actually won in the other direction, campaigning against the Liberal record of austerity, talking about you know increasing places in publicly subsidized daycare, things like this. And the other thing about the CAQ is that Francois Legault is not in any way an ideologue. He’s latched on to the issue of identity and the issue of restricting religious symbols as a way to win votes. He is first and foremost somebody that comes from the business community, somebody that’s been a member of most of the major parties in Quebec at one point or another in his life.

And so, what’s going to be really interesting to see going forward is, for instance, the promise to reduce immigration numbers. That goes directly in the face of what the business community wants. So Francois Legault is extraordinarily responsive to the interests and needs of the business community, and they’re going to be saying to him, “Wait a minute, you can’t reduce immigration levels, we have a shortage of workers here, we actually need higher immigration levels.” So it’s going to be interesting to see how that tension plays out, because he was taking advantage of, instrumentalizing I think, a small fraction of the population that are preoccupied with these issues of identity and immigration and religion. It’s not something that he believes in or that his party in particular cares about. His party is a far-right neoliberal business party, not an identitarian extremist party.

MARC STEINER: So just to be clear, I mean there are a couple of things here to parse out that you’ve just talked about. I mean, one seems to be there is a thread in these conservative movements though, whether it’s Canada or the United States or throughout the globe, especially Europe, where part of the argument here it is people being upset about their social things being taken away, though they’ll vote conservative instead of liberal or left, and in part because of people’s own xenophobic feelings about immigrants and people taking advantage of their world, and their world kind of falling apart around them. Because Canada in that way is not that much different than the United States. So that seems to be part of what’s in play here, and you also seemed to be describing governments in Quebec that were both fairly conservative, whether they’re Liberal Party or the Conservative Party, CAQ, right?

ETHAN COX: Yeah. We’ve gone from one conservative party to another conservative party. To answer your first question, yes, we have a significant urban-rural divide in Quebec. So what’s happened is that the majority of immigrants and People of Color, Muslims, what have you, settle in big cities. And so, there’s a very different attitude in big cities to in other parts of the province. In more rural parts of the province, people may have never met a Muslim in their life, and so their entire understanding of who and what immigrants are, of who and what Muslims are, is drawn from media that is sensationalist, that runs on a loop, footage of a couple of women wearing Niqabs in Montreal.

So you would be forgiven if you lived in the regions and watched Quebec’s most popular television channel for thinking that the streets of Montreal are overrun with women wearing niqabs, and it’s really just the same footage of a couple of people that gets played in a loop. So you have all of these pundits and all of these politicians who are stoking and then profiting from fear among people that don’t really have any interaction with immigrants at all.

MARC STEINER: So I’m curious where this also goes in terms of the politics of the future of Canada. You see in this election, where the left party, Quebec solidaire, if I have that right, won more vote than it ever had before, now has 10 seats in parliament. The Parti Quebecois now only has nine seats in the parliament. So I mean, what does that surge mean, if anything?

ETHAN COX: It means a lot. The PQ has been traditionally the social democratic party in Quebec politics, and they have traditionally stood for two things: sovereignty and social democracy. Over the years, sort of dropped the social democratic side of things in order to be the biggest possible tent sovereigntist party. So, as sovereignty started to lose in popularity, they started to say, “Look, we just want to be the party of all sovereigntists, so you can be as far right wing as you want. If you believe Quebec should be a sovereign country, then you should join the PQ. And then of course, going into this election for the first time, they said, “Listen, if we win we’re not going to hold a referendum on sovereignty.” Because it’s so unpopular, they wanted to protect themselves from that sort of fear –

MARC STEINER: Because they’re always losing those elections, anyway. They have referendum after referendum, and they don’t pass.

ETHAN COX: There have been two in about 40 years, so it’s not too excessive. But yes. So, you had the PQ that in this election, no longer stood for social democracy, no longer stood for sovereignty, and really was most known for its cynical exploitation of this identity and values issue to target and scapegoat immigrants and religious minorities. So what we’re seeing is a generational shift. The constituency that would have supported the PQ 10, 15, 20 years ago, now supports QS. And polls showed before the last election, that if only those under 35 voted, Quebec solidaire would actually have won the election. So what we’re seeing, what we saw in this election is sort of a fight for supremacy in both the sovereigntist universe of voters, the more sovereigntist, more left-wing universe of voters, and the more federalist, more right-wing universe of voters.

Because what clearly happened in this election, I think at this point almost irrefutably, is the QS began the process of replacing the PQ. And I think we’re going to see, going forward into the next election, that Quebec solidaire will be the third party in Quebec politics and will be more relevant, more involved in debates, polling higher than the PQ. And then of course we saw at the top of the ticket was that the Liberals, who have been in the governing party in Quebec for so many of the past 20 or 30 years, really got replaced by this party that had never held power before, the CAQ, that was a little bit more right-wing, a little bit more identitarian, a little bit more populist.

MARC STEINER: Well, the complexity of Canadian politics is really interesting to me and to our viewers, I think, as well. So this has been fascinating. Thank you for joining us, Ethan Cox, it was great to have you with us.

ETHAN COX: Thank you. Have a great day.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner for The Real News Network. We’ll be covering this some more. Take care.