What the Canadian left can learn from Quebec Solidaire's campaign

It didn't win, but the socialist party tripled its seat count in an election that was anti-establishment.
October 3, 2018, 4:24pm

Rarely has a politician been so thrilled to finish third out of a four party race in an election, but Manon Massé, the spokesperson of Quebec Solidaire, had a good reason to be: The socialist party tripled its seat count in Quebec’s National Assembly, and doubled the vote percentage they were expected to gain at the beginning of the campaign.

Although the party remains modest with only 10 out of 125 seats, just shy of official party status, this election allowed Quebec Solidaire to, as co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said in a victory speech, “play in the same league” as other mainstream political parties.

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To be clear, the “blue wave” that swept Quebec and granted the Coalition Avenir Quebec an overwhelming majority signals a shift to right wing nationalist politics in a province dominated by Liberal rule in recent years. But Quebec Solidaire stood out as the other surprise of this election. The two anti-establishment parties made significant gains while the two historically dominant parties in Quebec, the PLQ and the PQ, lost weight on the political spectrum.

Slowly but surely, Quebec Solidaire seduced young voters, who make up one third of the total electorate. So much so that the leader of the Parti Québécois (PQ), Jean-François Lisée, intensified his attacks on the small party in a last ditch attempt at salvaging the sovereignist vote that Solidaire also appealed to. In the end, he was defeated by a QS candidate in his own riding, leading him to resign.

Quebec Solidaire elected representatives in Quebec City, the Eastern Townships and the Abitibi region, an accomplishment in itself, as it had never elected anybody outside of Montreal before. QS will also be the only opposition whose leader(s) are still around after the election, as Liberal leader Philippe Couillard is expected to step down in the next few days.

With Canadian voters heading to the polls next year, there are some lessons that the Canadian left can learn from Quebec Solidaire’s campaign. Quebec NPD MP from Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie Alexandre Boulerice watched the election with interest, and believes that the anti-establishment vote, and the rejection of centrist parties, is a good sign for the NDP. “It tells us that people are ready for something else, to hear more radical, I shouldn’t use this word, so I’ll say audacious, messages,” Boulerice told VICE News in an interview. “It also tells us voters are sick of the same parties that have been switching power between one another for decades.”

Nadeau-Dubois and Massé were inspired by France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon (who gave the party’s election results a shout out on Twitter), England’s Jeremy Corbyn and America’s Bernie Sanders..

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Here’s what stood out from the campaign.

When two is better than one

Québec Solidaire doesn’t use a traditional party leader system — it has operated with two “co-spokespersons” since it was founded in 2006. Manon Massé, a seasoned feminist activist and community worker took care of the debates and would have been named premier if it had secured victory, while Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a well known former student activist, was instrumental in mobilizing troops and getting the vote out on Monday. “They were a good team,” Catherine Poulin-Collins, a student from Sherbrooke who was a volunteer for QS, said. “Manon was good as a leader, but Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois really reached out to people.”

During the campaign’s final debate, PQ leader Jean-François tried to capitalize on QS’s unconventional leadership structure, asking Massé “who really pulls the strings?” “That’s what I like about them,” said Alex Dornier, who voted for QS. “The whole process is democratic, and the members make all of the decisions.” With two leaders at the head of the party, Quebec Solidaire was able to redouble its efforts on the campaign trail and split up the itinerary when needed.

Nadeau-Dubois, an activist who was at the center of Quebec’s “ Maple Spring” in 2012 — when students led massive demonstrations against tuition hikes — is known for being a speaker that can light up a crowd, and many young people followed him to Quebec Solidaire. His notoriety as a student activist certainly helped to advance QS’s cause. “I have a strong sense of belonging towards him,” said Alex Tousignant, a stand-up comedian living in Montreal. “But Manon Massé really speaks to me, she would have been the best premier.”

“No political party has had this type of impact on me in the past.”

Issues

One of the main challenges Quebec Solidaire had to confront this election was moving past the label of pelleteux de nuage, which translates roughly into an idealist party that cannot implement its promises. QS decided to make a small number of specific promises. For example, it promised dental care for everyone, and free education, but campaigned mostly on climate change.

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“That’s what the campaign will revolve around: clear and concrete propositions,” Nadeau-Dubois told VICE before the campaign launched. It was Quebec Solidaire’s stance on the environment that really stood out, especially during debates, as the party was one of the only ones to discuss the issue.

“It was as if the leaders were all on a boat,” Dornier said, “three of them were talking about what they’ll have for dinner, and one of them knew there was a huge hole in the boat and realized it was sinking.”

Boulerice, environment critic for the NDP, was also surprised that it wasn’t at the centre of the campaign. “The two main parties had a very traditional vision of economic development,” he said. “It’s a short-term vision.”

Social media and striking images

There’s nothing revolutionary about incorporating social media into any serious campaign strategy these days. However, Quebec Solidaire’s use of “shareable” social content, explanatory videos that appealed to young people, as well as campaign events was instrumental in the party’s success. Boulerice believes his party will look for inspiration from the campaign. “Their use of social media was excellent,” the NDP MP said. “Their electoral posters were creative and gave room for citizen’s input.” For example, members of QS were invited to submit campaign visuals online, and many of them were used in the electoral campaign. One of them, a self-portrait of a young black’s person’s face (pictured below), was controversial as it was deemed racist by some people. The party held a viewing of the campaign posters before they started popping up on streets on in the hands of supporters.

For Alex Tousignant, it spoke to a specific part of the QS electorate: “They had a very inclusive campaign, especially with their vision of artists,” Tousignant, the comedian who’s been self-employed for four years, told Vice News. The party promised to create a fund for artists outside of Montreal if elected, and pledged $47 million for youth artists specifically.

“Catherine Dorion (an elected candidate in the city of Quebec who is an artist) made many positive videos on her webcam,” Dornier told VICE News. “She talked very humbly of our society models, it was always interesting and was very accessible. It’s not like the CEO of a big company that you can’t recognize.”

A movement

Campaigns of late have been framed around the idea of dividing or uniting. Just like Obama in 2008 and Sanders in 2016, Quebec Solidaire framed its message around one of “hope”, appealing in particular to young, disillusioned voters, and using a decentralized approach to organizing that encouraged people to hold their own events and liberalized mobilization. “Their videos gave me shivers when I watched them,” Poulin-Collins said. “No political party has had this type of impact on me in the past.” As such, Quebec Solidaire calls itself a “movement,” and the members attending Monday’s gathering had the feeling that they were part of something special. “It was very cool,” Dornier said, “it was full of young people, dressed like normal people, and not old men wearing suits.”

Although Quebec Solidaire was able to make significant gains, it still does not have enough seats to be recognized as an official party in the National Assembly, a designation that would entitle it to a certain amount of public funding and more speaking time in the National Assembly. And there is no denying that Quebecers overwhelmingly opted to lean right rather than the left, just like voters did in Ontario, New-Brunswick and in the United States in 2016. For Tousignant, even though the overall election results were disappointing, he is focused on “the small gains and victories.”

Cover image of Quebec Solitaire supporters as election results come in at the headquarters of Manon Masse in Montreal on Monday, October 1, 2018. Photo by Peter McCabe/The Canadian Press