Montreal·Analysis

Québec Solidaire's big ask: Can it convince voters to back both sovereignty and a green revolution?

In tying the economic uncertainty of a "green new deal" to the political uncertainty of sovereignty, QS is asking Quebecers to believe it can deliver on not one, but two very big dreams.

Party says meeting its ambitious climate goals not possible within Canadian 'oil state'

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, left, and Manon Massé after being re-elected as Québec Solidaire spokespersons at the party’s convention in Longueuil, Que. on Nov. 17. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

If there was any question whether Québec Solidaire would softpeddle its pro-independence position to woo left-wing federalists, it was answered at this weekend's policy convention in Longueuil, Que.

The party remains sovereignist to the core, said Jean-Lesage MNA Sol Zanetti, former leader of upstart Option nationale, a small sovereignist party that merged with Québec Solidaire in 2018.

"Look at our current platform," Zanetti said. "It's more committed to independence, clearer and more defined than that of the Parti Québécois in the 1970s."

Québec Solidaire is a long way from controlling the National Assembly, but it is riding high following a surprisingly strong showing in last year's provincial election, when it ballooned from three seats to 10, leapfrogging the PQ as the province's second opposition.

Officials with Québec Solidaire say membership has doubled in the past two years, and includes a large contingent of young members that would be the envy of any political party.

The goal of the weekend meeting in Longueuil was to chart a course forward for the party, and sovereignty dominated the discussions.

Members weren't afraid of getting into the weeds of what an independent Quebec might look like.

T-shirts for sale at Québec Solidaire’s convention, including one that riffed on the logo of the iconic street wear brand Supreme. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Would it have its own army or just a civil defence force? Members voted for an army, although they preferred to call it an "anti-imperial" force focused on self-defence.

Would an independent Quebec ensure a territorial corridor of passage for Canada, linking Ontario to the Maritimes? It wouldn't, said members.

What would be the capital of the new country? The current provincial capital Quebec City, of course. Sorry Montreal.

Who wants to talk sovereignty?

The resolute focus on sovereignty was not a surprise. QS has, after all, backed independence since its founding in 2006. 

But it potentially creates a dilemma for Quebecers who like the party's progressive environmental policies, yet have little appetite for taking the province out of Canada.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the co-spokesperson for QS, claimed this weekend he's "never met a left-wing federalist in Québec Solidaire." 

Many of the party's younger members, however, seemed more interested in talking about cutting carbon emissions than federal job losses in a hypothetical Quebec state.

Alice Lefèvbre, a 25-year-old social worker from the Eastern Townships, joined the party during the 2018 election campaign.

She admitted that she encountered some resistance to the sovereignty question when she campaigned for her local candidate in Brome-Missisquoi.

"I've campaigned with people who speak English that are like, 'We like your ideas but independence, we can't vote for that,'" she said.

Alice Lefèvbre, 25, hopes the party’s brand of what she calls ‘inclusive’ sovereignty will eventually win over those skeptical of Quebec independence. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Lefèvbre added that the party's environmental stance remains the biggest draw for young people.

"I think that's the main thing that made Québec Solidaire's younger membership grow really rapidly in the last elections," she said.

No to pipelines, yes to independence

Environmental issues, though, occupied a relatively small part of the agenda during the weekend meeting.

Party members voted for a proposal to put the concept of "ecofiscalité," or environmental fiscalism, at the heart of its decision-making if it formed a government.

A QS government would, therefore, prioritize environmental concerns over economic ones in an effort to make Quebec carbon neutral by 2050 and "make polluters pay."

The Quebec government already possesses many of the powers QS needs to put its environmental plan into action. 

But the party's leadership is pushing the idea that in order to truly go green, Quebec needs to separate from Canada.

Exhibit number one for Nadeau-Dubois is Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who he accused of wanting to force a pipeline through Quebec to export "dirty energy." 

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks at the Rural Municipalities of Alberta conference in Edmonton Alta, November 15, 2019. (Jason Franson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

When it was pointed out that Kenney is not the prime minister of Canada and that nearly two-thirds of Canadians recently voted for federal parties that favoured carbon pricing, Nadeau-Dubois said the problem runs deeper than one election.

"It's not about Canadians as individuals," he said. "It's about the structure of the Canadian state that has been linked to the extraction industry for decades."

"Whatever party was elected, the same vision of economic development was put in place, and that vision was to expand Alberta's tar sands," said Nadeau-Dubois.

The party line is clear: the road to a green revolution leads through a sovereign Quebec.

Cutting carbon and creating a country at the same time

While discussions about the mechanics of independence are edifying for some die-hards, they may be less compelling for the average voter.

Even Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet has acknowledged as much. His party's recent federal election campaign was focused more on defending the governing Coalition Avenir Québec, a party that disavows sovereignty, than promoting independence.

For those voters who'd rather hear more about the fight against climate change, Nadeau-Dubois recently published a slim volume entitled Lettre d'un député inquiet à un premier ministre qui devrait l'être (Letter from a concerned MNA to a premier who should be).

In it, Nadeau-Dubois paints a portrait of Quebec society hooked on the benefits of the suburbs.

He accuses Premier François Legault of having a "blind spot" when it comes to environmental issues, "perhaps because this denial is comforting to your electorate," he writes, addressing Legault.

Nadeau-Dubois says politicians will have to convince Quebecers that giving up their low-density, car-centric lifestyle will not result in financial pain.

"I have no illusions about the work that needs to be done," said Nadeau-Dubois. "But knowing that we have battles to do doesn't mean that we have to abandon before doing those battles."

Socialist parties in Canada have long asked voters to engage in leaps of faith.

Saskatchewan's Co-operative Commonwealth Federation premier Tommy Douglas said "dream no little dreams." 

But his socialism was also grounded in a Prairie pragmatism that delivered basic improvements, like rural electrification, while pushing for big systemic changes, including universal health insurance.

In tying the economic uncertainty of a "green new deal" to the political uncertainty of sovereignty, QS is asking Quebecers to believe it can deliver on not one, but two very big dreams. That leap may be further than many voters can jump. 

About the Author

Simon Nakonechny is a videojournalist at CBC News Montreal.

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