The October 21st Canadian federal election brought a resurgence of the Bloc Québécois and the decline of the NDP vote in Québec. The former will now have 32 seats in the House of Commons (a 22-seat net increase compared with the 2015 elections), while the latter will be limited to a mere 24 (a 22-seat net loss). Only one of the NDP seats is in Québec. At 66 percent, the overall vote turnout declined, but only moderately compared with the 2015 election’s 68 percent. The Liberal and Conservative parties’ vote shares in Québec remained relatively stable. Meanwhile, the NDP’s share in Québec collapsed from 25.4 to 10.7 percent, while support for the Bloc jumped from 19.3 to 32.5 percent. This suggests that at least a substantial portion of the Bloc gains were due to NDP losses. The 2011 “orange wave” that had brought a massive NDP surge in Québec and a nearly complete eradication of the Bloc seems to have entirely receded. How can we explain this electoral shift?
One of the key factors behind this shift has to do with a transformation of Québec’s provincial politics that culminated with the 2018 electoral victory of the economically neoliberal and socially conservative Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ). The Bloc Quebecois’ campaign strategists made it clear that they were inspired by the CAQ’s successes and were pursuing the 55 and older nationalist vote. Put simply, the strategy was to emulate the CAQ’s “nationalisme identitaire” (ethnocentric white nationalism). The party adopted “Québec is us” (as opposed to whom?) as its slogan, and the core of its campaign revolved around “laïcité” and the defense of Law 21, which bans Muslim religious dress for some public sector workers, including teachers. The Bloc consistently relayed the demand formulated at the start of the electoral campaign by CAQ leader and Québec premier François Legault that federal parties abandon any attempt to launch a judicial challenge to Law 21. The Bloc also supported the CAQ’s restrictive immigration policy. In especially vile fashion, the Bloc’s leader Yves-François Blanchet also refused to expel four Bloc candidates who publicly made Islamophobic comments.
Posturing as a gentleman alpha-male, Blanchet led a good communication campaign and harnessed some of the environmentalist opposition to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, constantly opposing the Energy East tar sands pipeline. This, in addition to Trudeau’s refusal to commit to not contesting Law 21 (together with a crowded electoral stage and tight three-way contests in many ridings), certainly contributed to the Bloc’s ability to take nine seats away from the Liberals. Yet, Blanchet’s green stance sounded hollow, coming from a former provincial environment minister who had, in 2013, declared himself as a “partner” seeking to work together with oil companies. As a matter of fact, the Bloc’s green proposals were dampened by its CAQ alignment strategy, which led Blanchet to say that he was “neither for nor against” the “troisième lien” – a nonsensical CAQ bridge project in Québec City decried by scientific experts from all corners, which will perpetuate car-centered urban sprawl in this region. Likewise, Blanchet refused to oppose the LNG Saguenay natural gas pipeline and terminal project favoured by the CAQ.
As for the NDP, it had already lost a lot of ground in the 2015 election after its 2011 surge (which had stemmed from a protest vote against Stephen Harper’s Conservatives rather than from any kind of deep-seated implantation of the party in Québec). NPD leader Thomas Mulcair was sunk during the 2015 campaign by Harper’s Islamophobic wedge politics and an economic platform that was outflanked on the left by the Liberals on many points. The NDP’s 2019 platform under leader Jagmeet Singh was better, but not transformative in any meaningful and exciting ways. And some of its most interesting proposals, like a public drug coverage plan and a public daycare network, are policies that have already been in good part implemented in Québec. Singh also ceded too much ground to the Bloc on environmental issues and, as an open practitioner of Sikhism, the NDP leader had to fight an uphill battle in Québec, where opposition to “religious symbols” is peaking. The upshot was that, of the 15 seats lost by the NDP, ten went to the Bloc.
Opposition to religious symbols and “laïcité” is canalized and legitimized through an understandable aversion to religious institutions in Québec, where the Catholic Church held so much sway over social and political institutions and private life until the 1960s and beyond. As such, it is also weaponised as racist and xenophobic dog-whistling by politicians and becomes the stuff of a mounting right-wing nationalism. The class cleavage has always been refracted and muffled by the national question in Québec. Independentist aspirations were largely entangled with class interests and struggles during the rise of Québécois nationalism over the 1960s and 1970s, and this was still the case to some extent during the 1995 referendum on Québec sovereignty. Since the mid-2000s, mainstream nationalist leaders (first from the Parti Québecois (PQ) and later from the CAQ) have opted for an increasingly uninhibited ethnocentric white nationalism. The latter is mixed with an “étapiste” (stagist) sovereignty strategy and a doubling down on neoliberal policies.
Mainstream nationalist leaders have a base for this strategic perspective – around 30 percent of the population consistently backs Québec sovereignty in polls – and the CAQ is successfully expanding this base with a mix of ethnocentric nationalism and “autonomism”. This strategy has now been projected on a federal plane with disturbing success by the Bloc, as Blanchet has toned down his party’s sovereigntist discourse and is leaning toward Legault’s autonomist posture, all the while promoting the CAQ’s ethnocentric nationalism.
This formula has been successful, for now – though mostly outside the island of Montréal, where the Bloc only saw one candidate elected (while the CAQ only saw two). This success cannot be explained by the fact that Québec is “just more racist” than the rest of the country, as an increasing number of people seem to believe outside of this province. This is actually not the case. A recent Ekos poll, for instance, showed that “only” 30 percent of Québécois believe that visible minorities “take too much space” against 46 percent of Ontarians and 56 percent of Albertans. Political consciousness is contradictory and the potential for people to lean toward racism or toward solidarity within a multiracial working-class exists everywhere within the Canadian state (and beyond). Racism and intolerance take a sharper and especially clearly articulated form in Québec in large part because of political forces that are seeking to harness the potential of these things to support their political project, while also silencing class divides. These politicians’ project involves no break with neoliberal capitalism and is derailing the fight for Québec’s independence.
Against these political forces and ethnocentric nationalism, socialists must work with broader left forces in Québec to fight racism by integrating the independentist project with a social, political, economic and ecological program. This program must serve the interests of the working-class majority, develop multiracial working-class solidarity, political capacities and ambitions, and point beyond capitalism. Effectively fighting for such a program calls for a break with the division of labour between electoral work and trade-union and social movement organizing that has been and remains the hallmark of the NDP and that is still too present in Québec Solidaire, in spite of this party’s potential to develop a truly new kind of politics.
The struggle for Québec’s independence must go beyond nationalism and a provincial outlook. It must be inscribed in a pan-Canadian and internationalist strategy developed against dominant Anglo-Canadian nationalism, while embracing a clear decolonial perspective and supporting First Nations’ fight for self-determination. The politics of mainstream ethnocentric nationalism has derailed the fight for independence, which can nevertheless be renewed as an element of a socialist strategy and project within the Canadian state.
Xavier Lafrance is a member of Québec Solidaire. He teaches political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.
 Martin Luckacs suggested this important point to me.