Quebec Solidaire and Montreal’s east end, a love story?

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This article originally appeared on Rabble.ca.

“There’s somethin’ happenin’ here. What it is ain’t exactly clear” – Buffalo Springfield

It’s a Tuesday evening in Mile End, and the restaurant is packed. Somewhere in the area of 150 people make it difficult to move. At the front of the room Amir Khadir, co-spokesperson for Quebec Solidaire, tells a joke and the room bursts into easy, appreciative laughter.

Not surprising for a popular politician mid-campaign, except that the language Khadir is speaking is English, and the people in this room are Anglophones, federalists almost universally, and convened at the request of popular Mile End city councillor, and former Montreal Gazette reporter, Alex Norris.

Although he notes that his party, Projet Montreal, is a coalition which is officially neutral in the election, Norris gave a stirring and unequivocal personal endorsement of QS and Khadir in a barn burner of a speech to introduce QS’ lone MNA.

“While I’m not a supporter of sovereignty, the battle in a lot of these ridings [in central and eastern Montreal], is between the PQ and QS. There is no viable federalist option. So it’s a battle between two types of nationalism. One which is fearful of the future, inward looking and stigmatizes minority groups for electoral gain. The other which is forward looking and embraces diversity. This is the key difference between QS and the current leadership of the PQ. I think it is significant that QS defends freedom of conscience, and has an attitude of respect towards minorities, as opposed to stigmatizing already vulnerable people for symbolic purposes in order to mobilize public support.”

Khadir is quizzed repeatedly about his party’s position on sovereignty, which Quebec Solidaire supports. His response, that QS’ idea of sovereignty is an inclusive and democratic project diametrically opposed to the PQ’s vision of ethnic nationalism, seems to go over well with the crowd.

It takes Khadir over thirty minutes to get out of the restaurant, despite being insistently pulled by his ever-present political attache. Everyone wants a moment, but not to ask a question. Those were exhausted in the hour Khadir already spent answering them. Person after person grasps his hand and pledges their support.

For these Anglos at least, unease with QS’ sovereigntist orientation seems to be overtaken by a desire to elect progressive representatives, whose values, and ethics, live up to their expectations. Expectations which have been consistently thwarted over the years by Quebec politics’ confounding second axis, and our peculiar impetus to put the national question before the social one when casting our ballot.

It doesn’t hurt that, as Norris notes, most east end ridings will come down to a two way race between the PQ and QS. For the PQ, Anglos and immigrants are a convenient punching bag. Khadir and his party have taken a markedly different approach, courting minorities with a firm, and politically costly, rejection of populist policies on identity and language. For QS, as Khadir explains, we are all “nous.”

For progressives hoping for a repeat of last May’s Orange Wave, this has been a disappointing election campaign. QS, the only viable progressive party in the field, languishes in a distant fourth place, as three parties which range from centre to extreme right duke it out for control of our government.

But there are seeds of hope for Quebec progressives in what is otherwise an uninspiring election. Faced with a dispiriting choice between three parties who are each profoundly flawed in their own way, and all the attendant arguments for a strategic vote for the lesser of three evils, more and more Quebeckers are opting for “none of the above”.

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The combined support for three smaller parties with staunchly progressive platforms, QS, the hardline sovereigntist Option Nationale and the federalist Quebec Green Party, hovers around fifteen percent. ON are hoping for one seat, their leader’s, while the Greens look doomed to remain seat-less.

Quebec Solidaire, however, may be poised to surprise a lot of people on election night. After an initial dip in support as the conversation focused on the big three, and TVA shamefully excluded QS from their series of televised debates, a sparkling performance by co-spokesperson Françoise David in the main debate, and a steady build of momentum has returned QS to around nine percent in provincial polls.

No great shakes to be sure, but then QS aren’t looking to win in the regions. Their electoral strategy hinges on leveraging their popularity in the east end of Montreal to give Khadir some company when the National Assembly returns this fall.

From where I’m sitting, it seems to be working. As I write these words I overhear the conversation of a mixed group of young Anglos and Francos at the next table in my Plateau coffee shop. As their discussion shifts effortlessly from English to French and back again, they arrive at a consensus. They’ll be voting QS across the board, and hoping for a PQ minority government with QS holding the balance of power.

In the dying days of this campaign, as polls remain static and we seem destined for a PQ government, likely a minority, QS has refined its pitch. They’re now appealing for voters to pick QS over the PQ in hopes of delivering what you might call the holy grail for progressive voters: a PQ minority, forced to seek the support of QS to pass legislation. What seemed an impossible dream at the beginning of the campaign is now looking like a possibility, if still an outside one.

The weekend before Khadir’s meeting with the Anglophone community, QS held a rally in an east end park which attracted around 1200 people, which is comparable to rallies held by any of the major parties. Two days later I found myself at Dieu de Ciel, an impossibly hip local watering hole, as the bar launched its newest micro-brew: a bitter named “l’Amer Khadir” (a play on his name which translates loosely as “Bitter Khadir”).

Again, a huge crowd, this time mostly francophone, and entirely sold on QS. Increasingly, as far as I can see, PQ threats and cajoling to vote strategically to give them a majority are falling on deaf ears.

Khadir and David represent an ideal of integrity and principle that voters yearn for, and do not see in the flip flopping, pandering and corrupt records of the big three parties. This came across most strongly in the main debate, where David appeared to be the only adult in the room, rising effortlessly above the other three, who looked for all the world like a pack of squabbling children. 40% of Quebeckers agreed with the media consensus that she had won the debate, head and shoulders above the twenty odd who picked Charest.

For QS, the challenge is to make sure voters understand that in these ridings, the race is a “course entre deux” between them and the PQ. If voters fear the Liberals and CAQ, they may vote strategically for the PQ. If they see it as a choice between Norris’ two visions of nationalism, the strongly progressive east end seems likely to give Khadir the company he seeks.

As if to underline the steady trickle of anglos to QS, I opened my email yesterday to see the riding by riding candidate report cards produced by the Canadian Muslim Forum. The CMF is the largest Muslim organization in the province, and represents several hundred thousand Muslims, many of whom are anglophone federalists. They gave top marks in most ridings to QS, with the Liberals often second or tied. It says a lot about the success of QS’ efforts at outreach to immigrants that such an unlikely constituency is ready to line up behind them.

Meanwhile, the student movement vote is clearly coalescing around QS, as even the Montreal Gazette recently noted. If students turn out in large numbers, and resist the self-defeating anti-electoralist arguments within their own ranks, they could make the difference for QS candidates in close races.

It’s been abundantly clear for some time now that something is happening here in Montreal’s east end as momentum builds behind QS, the trick is figuring out exactly what that something is.

I would bet the house on Khadir’s re-election in his stronghold of Mercier. I’m almost as confident that when the dust settles on Wednesday, David will be joining him, winning a tough race against popular PQ incumbent Nicolas Girard in Gouin.

From there the picture gets cloudier and prognostication becomes something of a fools game. In Laurier-Dorion, a PLQ source admitted to me that their internal polls have them in third place, behind a tight two way race between the PQ and QS. This in a riding which is currently Liberal, gives some idea of that party’s troubles. QS confirm that their pointage shows a close race between candidate Andrés Fontecilla and the PQ, with the Liberals a not so distant third.

In St. Marie-St. Jacques, Manon Masse is hoping her third time running will be the charm. She’s up against Daniel Breton, a well known environmentalist who would likely be an MP if he had not defected from the NDP to the Bloc Quebecois shortly before last year’s election. QS claim their pointage shows them ahead, and Khadir says that if they win only three ridings, this will be one of them.

From these four, where a QS victory is as likely as anything else, if far from assured, we move into the realm of realistic long shots.

In Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Alexandre Leduc has quite the mountain to climb, as the PQ routinely pulls in upwards of fifty percent of the vote. He’s more likely to finish a strong second than to win, but if anyone can manage the near-impossible, it’s Leduc. A former colleague of mine at the Public Service Alliance of Canada, Leduc is a graduate of the now defunct “Dumont squad” at PSAC, once the largest organizing team in the country, and a relentlessly efficient machine that literally never lost a union drive.

Leduc is a supremely talented organizer, and he’s been on the ground with a team of union contacts and friends for over six months. He’s an amazing guy, who would make a superb MNA, and his youth, progressive values and take no prisoners attitude are a natural fit for the riding. Counting him out prematurely would be a mistake.

Finally there is the riding of Outremont, where another union employee, Édith Laperle from CUPE, is taking on Liberal Finance Minister Raymond Bachand. Holding this riding amounts to saving the furniture for the tanking Liberals, and losing it would be a humiliating loss.

My Liberal source tells me it’s between them and the PQ, with QS a close third. But sources on the ground in the riding, and most projection models, tell a different story. They suggest that it’s QS sitting in second, as the PQ presence is muted, to say the least. One thing is for sure, the Liberals fear losing here, and started shifting volunteers from safe ridings like NDG in the campaign’s second week. My source admits that they’re in tough, and Bachand is in very real danger. Could QS pull a rabbit out of their hat and knock off the finance minister? It’s unlikely, but far from impossible.

Finally, QS has one significant advantage over the PQ in these ridings. Given their narrow range of possible victories, they are able to concentrate their resources much more than the PQ. Over the last several weeks QS volunteers, organizers and money have been redirected from neighboring campaigns to the four mentioned above. Mercier is considered enough of a lock that Khadir and his personal team have been spending time campaigning in Laurier-Dorion and St. Marie-St. Jacques.

For my money, QS will take between two and six seats on election night. The smart money is likely on four or under. The open question is whether circumstances will come together to allow them to parlay that small contingent into the balance of power in a minority parliament. That would be the mother of all silver linings for Quebec progressives.

Follow me on twitter @EthanCoxMTL for live tweeting of election results from the Quebec Solidaire victory party.

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