Pauline Marois, the PQ’s "Quebec Identity Bill" and Divided Strategies on the Radical Left

Pauline Marois: white woman on a mission

On October 18 Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois proposed a new piece of legislation, Bill 195, the “Quebec Identity Act.”

This piece of legislation would create two classes of citizen within Quebec. You would have Canadian citizens, and then within this group you would have a second set, those who would pass a French exam and pledge allegiance to the Quebec nation.

Only those in this separate group would have the right to run in provincial, municipal and school board elections, or address petitions to the national assembly. Obviously, once this second tier of citizenship was established it could be tied to any number of other rights or privileges.

A bit of background perhaps…

For those from elsewhere: Pauline Marois is the head of the Parti Quebecois, which has revolved through the provincial government in Quebec (taking turns with the Liberals) for over thirty years now. When i was growing up people still talked about the PQ as if it were a progressive party, and many leftists a generation older than me still feel that way. And at one point in time there was some truth to this, as the PQ combined social democracy with an officially unracist nationalism.

(Of course, there were those who were clear on the actually racist underpinnings of the nationalist project, and the bankruptcy of social democracy, even back in the seventies.)

The PQ jettisoned social democracy early on, but continued to pay it lip service whenever this helped to rally the troops. It similarly rejected those separatist strategies which would upset the North American capitalist applecart – the PQ when first elected disappointed many people by not declaring independence, rather it would hold referenda asking for a specific mandate to “enter into negotiations” on the subject, or else later to establish a “sovereign” state which would retain all of the colonialist and capitalist hallmarks of the present “un-sovereign” one.

This watering down of both the left-wing and separatist elements in the party led to further confusion between these two different aspects of its program, and to the development of a “left” within the party which saw its “leftism” as having as much to do with being more nationalistic as with being more committed to social democracy or “socialism”.

All of which is in a sense irrelevant, or at least of purely historical interest at this point.

The year two thousand and seven can be seen as a turning point, a watershed of sorts in Quebec politics, as certain (decades old) changes in the class structure and the demographic balance finally found their corresponding political expression.

The PQ, which has at all times since the early seventies been either the government or the official opposition, was relegated to being a third rate rump party in the spring elections. Under the blandly center-right leadership of Andre Boisclair, the endless watering down of its nationalist content and the final erasure of its left-wing pretensions brought about the predictable results, as the party was eclipsed by the more openly and honestly right-wing and xenophobic ADQ.

Following the March elections, which were preceded by a wave of media-instigated racism around the “reasonable accommodation” soap opera, the PQ was confronted with a necessity to act, and act boldly, or risk permanent eclipse.

Boisclair resigned, and longtime party-insider Pauline Marois – who had already failed in two previous attempts to run for party leader – won the leadership by acclamation.

The task immediately confronting Marois’s PQ has been to win back voters who had drifted to the ADQ, and the way in which this is to be achieved is to further imitate the latter. So it is that “sovereignty” has been put on the back burner, replaced with the same amorphous, and essentially racist, concept of nationalism as that put forward by Dumont’s ADQ.

What we have seen since has been a calculated and deliberately public embrace of xenophobia, a public relations strategy of which Bill 195 is simply the latest and most obvious example.

Marois racist “Quebec Identity Bill” has been denounced privately and publicly by all manner of establishment voiceboxes. Including many longtime PQ supporters. It has been declared illegal, unconstitutional, unacceptable and a betrayal of all kinds of things good people hold dear.

In conversation, many point to the surrounding context of the racist reasonable accommodation hearings, and say that given this context, now is certainly not the time for any such piece of divisive legislation.

Which is a really curious criticism, if you think about it.

Marois obviously put forward this piece of racist legislation because of the surrounding “reasonable accommodation” shit. She is well aware of what she is doing: riding the wave. The fact that “to ride a wave” in politics is also to contribute to it, is no skin off her back.

The criticism that “this is not the time” begs a certain question, namely when would the right time be to legally establish two classes of citizenship?

This confusion says something about the mixed up ideas and unfinished thoughts which make up the left of the nationalist project, or also those leftists whose understanding of nationalism bleeds into sympathy.

The particular kind of racism which has popped up all over Quebec this past year bears perverted witness to changes in the class structure of Quebec and changing meaning of nationalism here over the past forty years. What has been going on is an example of what we discussed last August, the way in which “Quebecois nationhood” plays a role in people’s consciousness similar to “whiteness” in the united states, and as such racism is the likely response to social crises and tensions:

But where this increasing similarity is relevant is that white Québecois – and most especially nationalists – are liable to resist this globalized capitalism in ways that have more in common with white US workers than with the radical labour movement of the 70s. (Never mind the Patriotes!) Pat Buchanan-style, not Malcolm X-style, if you know what i mean: with an increased openness to racist demagogy and national chauvinism. Even (or perhaps especially) amongst people who admire Che, loathe Bush, and consider themselves to be social-democrats or even “socialists.”

Today the mandate to put immigrants in their place, to “let them know who’s boss”, runs like a knife through every political grouping, of both left and right. Quietly, often unreported in the media, and loudly, with banner headlines, individuals and groups are positioning and repositioniing themselves around this question, conveniently labeled “reasonable accommodation.”

Marois has risked alienating many of the PQ’s longtime supporters, but it’s a risk she is wise to take. The PQ can’t survive indefinitely on nostalgia for the Quebec nationalism of thirty years ago. It can’t attract voters based on what their class interests used to be.

Chances are most who are scandalized by Marois’ bill will continue to support the PQ anyway. And among those broad swathes of society who have come to identify more and more with a certain style of racism, the PQ can only gain.

Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of her proposal, a Leger marketing poll clearly showed how she had played her cards right: 35% felt she was the leader who best defended the “Quebecois identity” (as opposed to 30% for Dumont and 18% for Charest) and 52% of francophones supported Bill 195 (38% opposed).

On the left, two different anti-racist positions seem to exist in regards to the ongoing “reasonable accommodation” racism. For want of better terms, let’s call them the “anti-racism through secularism” and the “pluralist anti-racism” positions.

The “anti-racism through secularism” position has been adopted by certain people in NEFAC, and in l’aut journal, and in the historically “progressive” sections of the nationalist movement.

Noting that the “reasonable accommodation” brouhaha centers on religious practices of certain racialized groups, these people argue that the best way to defuse the rise in racism is to expose it for what it is. They propose doing this by insisting on greater secularism in all spheres of life and for all religions. These people agree that Islam, Judaism and Hinduism should not be catered to, but wish to deracialize the issue by also insisting that Christianity be pushed out of the public sphere. Muslim women not allowed to wear hijab, Jews not allowed to wear kippa, Sikhs not allowed to wear a turban, Christians not allowed to wear a crucifix, etc.

This position, spelled out for instance in some of the comments left on my blog here,
is an organic expression of the historical secularism of the Quebecois left, a direct consequence of the role the church had in propping up corrupt and oppressive governments for 150 years in this province. It also caries with it the imprimatur of the Quebecois feminist movement, which is very much the sister of the left nationalist movement that emerged here in the 1960s.

The second anti-racist position, that of “pluralist anti-racism”, has been elaborated by the (maoist) Revolutionary Communist Party and various anti-authoritarian groups based in Montreal like Solidarity Across Borders and No One Is Illegal, who just today spelled out their position condemning (amongst other things), the fact that “so-called progressives and feminists have used the [Bouchard-Taylor] Commission platform to promote their own sophisticated brand of racism.”

The pluralist position challenges without compromise the idea that the State or para-state institutions like trade unions or school boards should have any power to regulate or control how immigrants (or anyone else) expresses their culture or religious feelings. The pluralist position does not actually state that concerns about religious fundamentalism and sexism are red herrings, but at the same time it does not address these.

Despite the serious differences between these two positions, it is striking how little debate or criticism there has been between them. This is an example of the fragmentation of the radical left, and even of the anarchist section thereof, where the “pluralist” camp is very much based in Montreal, and seems to have weak ties to the francophone working class.

The “anti-racism through secularism” position strikes me as wrongheaded through and through. It seems to be a case of instrumentalizing racism rather than opposing it outright. i write that knowing some people who hold this position, and knowing them to be sincere comrades and anti-racists. But this is a point on which we disagree.

Mario Dumont and the ADQ rode the wave while making it, and did so to great success this spring, catapulting the “fringe” party into the center of Quebec politics. Pauline Marois has shown that she understands how this game is played, she has upped the ante, and unlike those mired in the past she’s giving the ADQ a run for their money – and she may just come out ahead.

These people are neither stupid not confused. Opposing them is our task. We need to move in that direction.


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