If Québec Solidaire and Option Nationale merge, the stakes may be higher than you think

Québec Solidaire delegates vote this weekend on whether to join forces Option Nationale. Jonathan Montpetit argues a merger would alter the political environment for two increasingly rare species in Quebec: sovereignists and progressives.

Option Nationale's hardline sovereignist stand and ambivalence to multiculturalism could bleed QS support

Québec Solidaire MNA Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, left, with Option nationale leader Sol Zanetti in October. QS delegates will vote on the merger this weekend. (The Canadian Press/Jacques Boissinot)

It would be a union of the small with the microscopic, but should Québec Solidaire and Option Nationale proceed with their proposed merger, it would alter the political environment for two increasingly rare species in Quebec: sovereignists and progressives.

On Saturday, Québec Solidaire riding delegates will vote on whether to approve a proposal that would see it absorb Option Nationale, whose members will vote, in turn, later this month.

​On the surface, the merger makes a lot of sense. Both are small parties operating in the shadows of the Parti Québécois when it comes to sovereignty, and both position themselves on the left side of the spectrum.

Option's founder, Jean-Martin Aussant, was part of Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois's deliberative forum, Faut qu'on se parle, before Nadeau-Dubois joined QS in the spring.

"That merger is, for us, the next step in our work of putting together all the political forces that really want to change things," Nadeau-Dubois, one of QS's spokespeople, said earlier this week. 

Sovereignty at any cost

As the larger of the two, there is more at stake for Québec Solidaire.

It currently holds three seats in the National Assembly. Since Nadeau-Dubois — hero of the 2012 Quebec student strikes — joined the party, it has climbed in the polls, nearing 15 per cent.

Support for Option Nationale, by contrast, doesn't even register on most polls. The party's candidate mustered less than one per cent of the vote in this fall's byelection in Louis-Hébert.

But in agreeing to let itself be swallowed by QS, ON's leadership managed to wrangle some significant concessions.

​For one, its leader, Sol Zanetti, will be allowed to run as a QS candidate, and in a favourable riding at that. ON also managed to persuade QS to take on its hardline approach to sovereignty.

The two parties have long agreed that, in the event they win a provincial election, a constituent assembly — a meeting of ordinary citizens — should be called to draw up a constitution that would then be voted on in a referendum. 

In 2016, QS members agreed the assembly should not be forced to endorse independence. ON insists the constitution must back independence. 

Since Nadeau-Dubois joined the party earlier this year, QS has seen its support increase in the polls. (Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

It is the ON position on the constituent assembly that the new party would adopt — something that makes some QS members uncomfortable.

"We're giving a lot of concessions to Option Nationale," said Kathleen Gudmundsson, a delegate for women for the party's Verdun riding association. "I don't support sovereignty at any cost."

Gudmundsson said she will vote against the merger. Two other Montreal riding associations — Saint-Henri–Sainte-Anne and Laurier-Dorion — also appear set to vote against the proposal. 

The party's president, Nika Deslauriers, acknowledged earlier this week that it was the sovereignty question that was proving to be the most divisive aspect of the merger. 

Option Nationale officials, moreover, have been critical in the past of Québec Solidaire's dedication to multiculturalism and its defence of higher immigration levels. That's made QS members worried the party is sacrificing its progressive values for the sake of trying to build votes among more identity-focused sovereignists.

"I could go as an observer, but I don't have the heart to watch this party that I have been so committed to building go through a train-wreck," said May Chiu, an anti-racism activist who was a candidate for Québec Solidaire in the 2008 election.

A battle over scraps?

Should it adopt the more hardline sovereignty position, QS could unwittingly be creating an opening for the upstart (or restart) provincial NDP.

Québec Solidaire has been a de facto choice for many federalist progressives in the province. The unlikelihood of a QS electoral victory makes it a safe bet for those turned off by the right-of-centre policies of the Liberals and Coalition Avenir Québec but unwilling to back the referendum-prone Parti Québécois.

Québec Solidaire's Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and Manon Massé held a press conference with Option Nationale's Sol Zanetti. (Radio-Canada)

After much talk, NDP-Quebec looks finally set to re-enter the political ring it left in the early 1990s. It fielded a candidate in the Louis-Hébert byelection and will choose a leader in the new year, in time for the fall provincial election.

It may be tempting to think of all this as a fight over the electoral scraps left by the big three parties, and indeed after the Liberals, CAQ and PQ are done their meal in the next election, there will be few votes left over. 

But there are two broader processes underway in the province that make the potential QS-ON merger worth monitoring. 

One is the rightward shift in Quebec's political discourse, be it on issues of the economy, immigration or culture. The second is the gradual and long-term decline in support for sovereignty. 

Already, the 2018 election is shaping up to be a two-way race between the Liberals and the CAQ.

If the PQ continues to sputter, an innovative younger party, one able to articulate the reigning constitutional ambivalence, could be poised to replace it. Eventually.

With files from CBC's Daybreak and Radio-Canada