Thursday, April 21, 2011

An Orange Revolution in Quebec: The NDP in la belle province

I'm somewhat surprised by the latest CROP and Ekos polls coming out of Quebec, showing the NDP cruising into first place, and the Bloc vote steadily falling. But as I'll get to later in this post, there are good historical reasons to explain this trend. In the immediate context, to understand better why this is occurring, I'd strongly recommend reading Vincent Marissal in La Presse this morning, although the unilingual among you (ETA: or to be more accurate, those who can only read one of our two official languages) could get a slightly more negative appraisal of the cause of Layton's rise by reading Jeffrey Simpson's column in the Globe yesterday. Taken together, what emerges is that Layton personally is quite popular in Quebec, he fared very well in the leaders' debate, and, more importantly, the NDP in Quebec is running on the soft nationalist platform, endorsing an application of Bill 101 to federal institutions and an asymmetric vision of federalism.

Whoa! What's that you say, in English-speaking Canada? The grand old party of federal government control and centralization is advocating more powers for Quebec? What's up with that? Well, gentle reader, how about a brief history lesson...

It has been a rough and complicated ride for the left in Quebec over the last 80 years. The CCF, founded in the Depression years, encountered a Quebec ready for change, as decades of provincial Liberal dynasties were about to be cast off. However, in a province still heavily dominated by the Catholic Church, a socialist party was viewed with suspicion. And then things got worse, when Maurice Duplessis seized control of the would-be-progressive Union Nationale from his co-leader Paul Gouin and set about implementing his conservative vision for the province. For the left, this was disastrous, especially once the "loi de cadenas" or Padlock Law was passed in 1937, allowing the provincial government to lock down premises being used to promote bolshevism, a law widely used against unions and left-wing organizations. The arrest of Fred Rose, a Montreal-area Labour MP on charges of supporting communism in the wake of the Gouzenko spy affair in the mid-1940s didn't help matters.

Fast forward three decades, and Quebec's political Quiet Revolution led the provincial Liberals of Jean Lesage into office as the modernizers and pro-government intervention party. At the national level, Lester Pearson and then Pierre Trudeau's Liberals offered a safe option for left-wing Quebecers. Quebec's political culture opened up to government intervention and social programs. Indeed, the time should have been ripe for an NDP breakthrough in the province. However, in the 1960s, the party was seen as the standard-bearer for nationally-run social programs, which sold well to its constituencies in other parts of the country, but left them high and dry in Quebec, where the provincial government was fighting for more autonomy over social and cultural programs (including the Quebec Pension Program of 1964-65).

As Canada slipped into the 1970s, support for left-wing initiatives - support for unions, social programs and government intervention - were all growing in Quebec. But then things get derailed for the NDP. The Union Nationale collapsed, and the standard-bearer for all things progressive became the sovereignist Parti Quebecois, which promised a dynamic, interventionist, progressive - and largely independent - Quebec. Ever since the mid-1970s, a sizable chunk of the left-wing vote in Quebec has also identified with the sovereignist option, with many seeing the greatest potential for these policies outside of a more (small-c) conservative Canada. Quebeckers have come to love their social programs - witness the provincial daycare and drug plans. And so, in election after election, many soft nationalist, left-of-centre voters, particularly francophone ones, have supported the PQ at the provincial level, and later the Bloc federally (although the Bloc also attracts a lot of more conservative voters from rural Quebec who used to support the Creditistes and the ADQ). If you track the Bloc's positions on a lot of social issues at the federal level, they consistently end up left-of-centre. Heck, the CBC's who-should-you-vote-for tool pegged me, a Trudeau federalist, as a potential Bloc voter.

And so, under Jack Layton, the NDP has adopted a new strategy. While outside Quebec the party continues to champion a strong federal role in social programs, within the province they speak of accommodation and asymmetrical federalism. They embrace Quebec's protective language laws and sing the song of the soft nationalist. It helped with the Outremont breakthrough, and appears to be selling well in this election, when Duceppe has not been in his best fighting form. And talk of coalition government does sell very well in Quebec. So in these respects, an NDP surge in the province should not be seen as all that surprising (although it's understandable why are surprised given this long history), but long overdue, especially given that active support for separatism is quite low at the moment.

The big questions are as follows: a) Will this support hold until election day and be concentrated enough to yield more seats in the province? and b) Will the NDP's core voters in other parts of the country continue to support Layton and his party despite these promises made in Quebec, if and when they become more aware of them?

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At 8:02 am, Blogger Jae/Jennie said...

Thanks for the history lesson. Very interesting.

For you, though, a language lesson: even if I couldn't read French, that wouldn't make me unilingual (and there are lots of people in Canada like that).

At 8:04 am, Blogger Matt said...

You got me again Jennie. I'll try to curb this bad habit. We need a new term for people who speak only one of Canada's two official languages.

At 3:21 pm, Anonymous Eamon said...

Wouldn't anglophone work?

At 3:29 pm, Blogger Matt said...

Nope. Anglophone just means English mother-tongue. It doesn't mean that the individual doesn't speak other languages.

At 2:45 pm, Anonymous Eamon said...

Oh... and here I'd been assuming that the definition of anglophone was someone who primarily spoke english. After all, in early Canada pretty much anyone that was not French was referred to as an anglophone, but there were a number of groups that spoke other languages as well...


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