Ecosocialism in Quebec
An Interview with Benoit Renaud and Jessica Squires
Haley Pessin: Let me ask you about Révolution écosocialiste. How did this organization come about? What kinds of activism and political traditions are represented among your members?
Benoit Renaud: In terms of the history of the group, it was two steps. In 2012, when the student strike happened, it was the biggest social mobilization in Quebec since the 1970s. It had a tremendous impact. Up to that point, there were a bunch of different collectives that were not really functional. So, we tried to bring together the Left of the Left inside Québec solidaire (Solidarity Quebec), and that led to founding a group called Réseau écosocialiste (Ecosocialist Network) in 2013. It played a positive role in a few situations and brought together some new people who were university students. There was some energy at the beginning, but with time it fell apart and there was a need to assess. Why is this thing not working? What kind of organization do we want?
A few people who knew each other from being Quebecois political science students in Toronto decided to initiate a process of discussion to try to figure these things out—that eventually led to founding [Révolution écosocialiste].
Jessica Squires: We have a membership structure with dues, but it’s early, so it would be difficult to generalize just on the basis of who’s an actual member. We have a number of folks who were part of Trotskyist organizations, and maybe a few old Maoists. And then we have a number of folks who came into politics through intellectual work, through Québec solidaire (QS) as individual members, and through social movements. It’s a bit of a mix. There’s a tendency towards some of the old things that we did in other organizations that still seem sensible, holding reading groups, training sessions, a mix of public events.
The structure [of Révolution écosocialiste] is more democratic, or at least more decentralized, than most of us have been used to. There’s a tension about how to approach the question of leadership in the organization. Should the people organizing the meetings also exercise some political leadership within the organization? Is political leadership a shared responsibility of all members? Or is it somewhere in between? That was resolved for the purposes of the launch, but it doesn’t seem like everybody understood it the same way, so that discussion is ongoing.
HP: Why did you decide to organize around ecosocialism? Has there been a major movement around that in Quebec?
BR: Yeah. The three most influential social movements lately, for mass mobilizations, have been the women’s movement, students, and the environmental movement. Sometimes the union movement as well. The environmental movement in Quebec has been very strong for several years now. They’ve managed to win things. They’ve managed to push back against projects that were backed by the Quebec or federal government. There’s been several victories against pipelines and against gas power plants.
In 2012, it was mostly about the student mobilization, but the demonstration on Earth Day was organized jointly with the environmental movement, and also the unions. There was a demonstration in Montreal that was so big, nobody knows how big it was. It was something like 300,000 people, maybe 400,000. We’re still arguing about how big it was. We couldn’t actually see because it was just full of people. It was like a rock festival or something.
JS: It was supposed to be a march, but nothing happened for like two hours.
BR: It took three hours for the front of the demo to go far enough that the back of the demo could start marching. It was huge. So, ecosocialism is important because it’s that movement. The climate crisis is a way into anti-capitalism. Especially in relatively wealthy countries where people are generally comfortable in day-to-day life, for a lot of people the way to radicalize is to explain to them that capitalism is responsible for the climate crisis. We can’t stop that process if we don’t change the economic model completely. So the ideas of ecosocialism have been quite influential, a way of renewing thinking and activism around the issue of capitalism.
JS: There’s all kinds of issues with capitalism. We could have called ourselves Révolution écosocialiste et anticoloniale et féministe.
There are all kinds of problems that are inherent. But the climate question structures the global economy. And until it doesn’t, it seems right to put it at that level of the name of the group.
BR: It’s a way to be current and not be confused with other socialist traditions that might not take into account recent developments. In Quebec the word socialism is especially complicated to use because there’s the influence of France, where it means basically a reformist.
In the U.S. being a socialist is radical. And in English Canada, or the [United Kingdom], it’s like being a union activist who’s a bit more politicized than others. It can mean different things. So, we’re going to put our own label on our group before other people do it. Once people start wondering, “Oh, what’s that ecosocialist thing?” Then, we can talk about feminism and anti-racism and the other stuff comes in, it’s there in the Basis of Unity.
HP I have a question about your decision to organize explicitly as revolutionaries while also relating to QS, this broader political party. In 2012, QS started to gain momentum through the student strikes, which was a movement in the streets.
BR: Yeah, it did get significantly stronger in 2012—membership doubled.
HP: Wow, I didn’t even realize that! So, you had this mass social upheaval, strikes, and you have this electoral formation that comes out of it. In the Révolution écosocialiste Basis of Unity document, you talk about the need for QS to become a mass workers’ party. What do you think are the prospects for that to happen and what direction would QS need to go?
BR: In order to win what we’re trying to win, we need a movement that’s massive and a movement that’s radical. We need both. We don’t want to deal forever with the situation of having mass organizations that are reformist or electoral on one side and tiny radical groups on the other. We want to have a massive radical organization. We’re still debating that within the group actually, to what extent do we think that QS can evolve into a mass radical party? Can it radicalize and keep getting bigger at the same time, or do we have to choose between getting bigger and radicalizing? It’s a constant struggle and debate. The main argument that leads to creating a group that’s autonomous from QS is that in the end, the most determining factor in that equation is the mass movements. QS became possible as a political party because there were mass movements. If there aren’t more mass movements, whether labor or environmental or others, QS is likely to become more of a normal [reformist] party like the New Democratic Party in English Canada, for example.
JS: QS is a mass party. It’s not a traditional working-class party. It is to a certain extent a party that the working class identifies with, but there are pressures on it because it exists inside a capitalist electoral system. Elections are a machine. Party politics, parliamentary politics, it’s a machine with expectations. The mass media, they have their expectations. A perfect example of it is that QS has a secretary general, a president, and two spokespeople.
BR: We actually don’t have a leader.
JS: When the mass media says, who is your leader, who is the equivalent of [Liberal Canadian Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau or [right-wing Quebec Premier François] Legault? From the legal perspective, that person is our secretary general, but in our party that person does not play that role. We have two spokespeople that play that role. When the party was founded our structure was completely confusing to the mass media. We had to explain it to them over and over until they figured it out. Now, they report properly for the most part, but it took quite a bit of energy. And at the beginning we did fight for that. But now there’s less of a tendency for the party to fight for that new approach to politics because it is hard and it takes resources.
BR: How much do you adapt and how much do you resist?
JS: And where does it make sense to push and where does it not? In the leadership and those who make the decisions around prioritization in the party, there’s a well-meaning desire to get us better-positioned to be able to take power. From that perspective, it’s not a priority to stand on principle around questions like the one I just described.
So, I think that there are definitely times now when the party takes positions publicly that are not maybe what we would choose. [QS] is still rooted in the social movements and it has a tradition of internal democracy. There are always problems and they’re constantly being renegotiated.
QS could improve in its approach to racism and colonialism. There’s a tendency to shy away from facing those issues. QS has solid politics and action and amplification of movements around migrant justice, climate, anti-poverty. There’s a lot of good stuff happening.
BR: Part of the landscape that informed our decision to form the new group is the experience of SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) in Greece and similar [parties] like Podemos (We can) in Spain and France Insoumise (Insubordinate France).
The case of SYRIZA is useful and kind of worrisome. They’re the first of those new Left parties to take power. And it was a disaster, but the situation in Greece was awful to start with.
It wasn’t an easy one, but they went all the way to doing a referendum against a deal with the [European Union], winning that referendum, then signing the deal they said they would not sign. SYRIZA is like an alarm bell for anti-capitalists like us involved in that kind of party. We’re in a race against the clock. We don’t want QS to form a government before we’re ready to take them on if they go in the wrong direction, before social movements are strong enough, before the radical Left is organized enough.
HP: In the U.S., there is a rising socialist movement. There is this pressure to focus on winning elections as the main way of popularizing our ideas and our platform. What you’re saying is that there is this organic link between QS and the movements—if those movements are stronger, then we’re more able to achieve our program.
BR: QS would not exist If there hadn’t been massive social movements in Quebec between 1995 and 2012. There was a massive mobilization every couple years for that entire time. What led to forming the predecessor of QS in 2002 was the big mobilization against the Summit of the Americas in 2001. There’s that back and forth of mass mobilizations leading to progress and political organizing and more electoral success.
HP: Can you give us a picture of the political situation in Quebec?
BR: There are four political parties in Quebec that have members in the National Assembly, the provincial parliament. The current government is actually from a party that has never been in government before. For the first time since that party was formed, they won an election in 2018. So, they’ve been in power for more than two years. The current premier and leader of that party is a former cabinet minister from one of the older parties. He left that party and eventually created a new one. It’s called Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), which doesn’t mean anything, like most names of political parties: “We are a coalition for the future of Quebec!” They have a majority of the seats. That party is the most right-wing of all four parties. They have libertarian tendencies, but not very radical compared to stuff you might see in the U.S. It’s a government of bosses. The premier himself is a former CEO of an airline company. I think it’s the most businesspeople there’s ever been in government in Quebec. There’s usually a lot of lawyers and doctors, but this time it’s a lot of businesspeople. That’s an important element in the picture.
The second party in number of seats is the Liberal Party, which was the previous government party. They have a new leader who is the first person of color to be the leader of a main political party in Quebec. She’s of Haitian background. The Liberal Party historically has been the party of Canadian unity. They’ve been the ones fighting against the idea of Quebec independence. And so they have a lot of historic support among the Anglo minority in Quebec. The English-speaking minority is very liberal. They have a stronghold in parts of Montreal and also our region west of Montreal in Gatineau, where they still have two seats.
The third party is Québec solidaire—the party we’re part of on the Left. At the last election, QS got the same number of seats as Parti Québécois (PQ), which was unprecedented. At the previous election, QS got three seats and PQ got something like twenty, maybe a bit more. And in 2018, both parties got ten seats and one of the PQ members of the national assembly quit, they ended up with nine. So, QS is actually the third party at the National Assembly at the moment. We got our first seat in 2008, so it’s a significant progression to have 10 seats now.
Because of that expansion in the resources of the party, having ten members of the National Assembly brings money and staff. We got 16.5 percent of the vote, which also brings in more money. So the party has a stronger apparatus of people who work full-time. That complicates things because that milieu of about a hundred full-timers have a lot of control over what happens in the party just by the fact that that’s all they do, it’s their job. Regular activists who do that on weeknights and weekends don’t have the same influence over what actually happens. That’s part of why we felt the need to form [Révolution écosocialiste] to create a pole to counter those tendencies to bureaucratize and professionalize.
The fourth and last party in the National Assembly now is PQ, which was first in government in 1976 for about eight or nine years. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, they had two terms as a majority government. The last time PQ won an election, it was 2012—the year of the massive student strike—they barely got a majority, just a few more votes than the Liberals. They had a minority government that time, only in power about a year and a half. It was an awful government—the most right-wing that party had ever been. They stoked Islamophobic and xenophobic sentiments by putting forward a bill that was going to be very restrictive for religious minorities.
[PQ] lost to the Liberals in 2014 and 2018. Instead of having a comeback—the balancing act between the Liberals and PQ was the entire political landscape in Quebec for forty years—PQ ended up fourth in number of seats. It was a disastrous election for them, from 20-some seats to just nine. There’s an existential crisis going on there.
HP: What does this shift away from the traditional ruling parties of Quebec represent? What accounts for the success of these newer parties?
BR: The national question in Quebec is always central in some way. Throughout the seventies, eighties, and nineties, you had a strong polarization on the question of federalism versus Quebec sovereignty. That created a tendency for everybody to coalesce around two political parties. It was the Liberals for those who wanted to stay in Canada and the PQ for those who wanted independence. What’s been happening since the 1995 [Quebec independence] referendum is that the PQ is in a strategic impasse and they actually don’t know how to move forward on the national question. Also, as a response to the  referendum, the federal government and the rest of Canada don’t want to talk about constitutional issues or the Quebec national question. They’re trying to avoid it. That created space for a new kind of polarization with CAQ presenting themselves as a party that is right-wing on economic questions and for some kind of Quebec nationalism, but not independence. They are reverting back to older Quebec politics of right-wing autonomism, like from the forties and fifties, reminiscent of that.
On the Left, there was still enormous pressure against QS saying, “you are dividing the independence camp by creating that new party.” We went ahead anyway and they’re still saying that, but the fact that the PQ was not fighting for independence made those arguments empty. It was empty rhetoric, there’s no referendum on the horizon, there’s nothing going on. At some point they actually accused us of dividing the Left because accusing us of dividing the movement for independence wasn’t working, but the PQ has no credibility on the Left. That’s why both CAQ on the Right and QS on the Left have been on the rise and the two parties that dominated the landscape twenty or thirty years ago are having a problem.
JS: Another part of the reason why there’s been a shift to a different kind of polarization is because the modern movement for Quebec independence started in the sixties.
The arguments that used to work don’t carry as much weight because things have improved to some extent for Francophones in Quebec. Most young people do not remember the October crisis [of 1970] or even the 1995 referendum. There’s no recent experience for most people of Quebec oppression. There are still very clear economic, cultural, political arguments for Quebec independence, but the movement needs to reframe some of its arguments for a new generation.
It is not as obvious as it once was to people in Quebec why independence is necessary. That has created a space for a different kind of politics to become more dominant.
BR: By contrast, both of my parents were independentists from the sixties. I was born in the sixties and so I was raised to think that PQ was the good guys, but I learned early on that they were not always the good guys. I figured out I didn’t like them before I had the right to vote.
HP: Your Basis of Unity describes the relationship between the Quebec national question and the oppression within Quebec of indigenous people. There’s also the relationship between the Canadian state and pipelines built through the region, among other threats to the environment. Can you talk about the relationship between the national question and ecosocialism?
BR: The national question was one of the key debates in the lead up to founding the group. Among the different debates we’ve had over almost two years, it’s the one that led to the most difficult discussions. Some people left the process and didn’t participate in founding a new group because they disagreed on our perspective, but there was a majority that agreed with the text that you’ve read in translation. Our current approach to the national question is based on the idea that the situation has changed a lot in Quebec since the sixties. We can’t treat the national question the way we did back then because the reforms of the sixties and seventies in Quebec that people refer to as the “quiet revolution” have led to significant results. There was a law passed in 1977 saying French is the only official language in Quebec and all the children of immigrants should go to French schools. From 1960 to 1980, a lot of things changed. People who belong to the ethnic majority, people like me who are white Francophones, are actually part of a dominant group in Quebec now, which was not the case in the seventies.
In the seventies, even though the Francophones were the majority, they were still behind socioeconomically and in terms of political power. There was a weird political tradition in Quebec that the Minister of Finance in the provincial government had to be an anglophone. That lasted until the seventies or eighties.There’s a debate in Quebec right now on the national question. Some people are saying Quebec oppression is exactly what it has always been, nothing has changed and we’re experiencing racism basically in the same way as people of color.
On the other hand, there are people who say the whole Quebec question is over, like, get over it. Quebec is just a Canadian province like any other. We should just try to unite workers across Canada and forget about the Quebec national question.
Our position is somewhere in between. The Quebec question is still significant, but it doesn’t have the same content that it had in the seventies or eighties because of all those changes.
JS: The left has also evolved and the movement for independence has to some extent, but I think not enough—the things that the left or at least parts of the left have learned in the last 10 or 15 years about intersectionality and the lessons of indigenous movements and Black Lives Matter. The independence movement in Quebec doesn’t do itself any favors when young, white Francophones show up on a Facebook feed and say that Quebecois people experience racism. National oppression is a form of oppression, but it’s not the same thing.
BR: That PQ got the same number of seats as QS in the last election is a symptom of the strategic crisis of the sovereignty movement as it was during the two referendums in 1980 and 1995. The party that led those efforts back then is completely transformed by the fact that it caved in to various types of conservatism, but mostly to Islamophobia. They were completely taken in. There was a convergence of efforts between conservative nationalists, who have nothing in common with us whatsoever, and some Islamophobic thinking mostly borrowed from France.
HP: Laïcité, right?
BR: Yeah. Laïcité is the word that they use to describe what they think, but it’s actually not that. That’s a tradition in support of minority rights, historically. Laïcité in France was invented so that Protestants and Jews and atheists would have the same rights as Catholics in French society. That’s what it was for, originally. But, since the nineties it’s been flipped around and used against minorities, mostly Muslims. It’s now serving as a fig leaf for racism against people from North Africa and also Muslims from South Sub-Saharan Africa.
JS: On top of that, the current government—the CAQ—denies the existence of systemic racism, formally! They say there is no such thing as systemic racism in Quebec. There is racism, but it’s not systemic. And so you have that going on. So all of that to say that the independence movement has evolved a little bit, but is still figuring that part out. We’re never going to win independence for Quebec if it isn’t an approach to independence that is fighting for people in marginalized communities.
BR: And if we’re not in complete solidarity with First Nations and their struggles.
Feature Image Credit: Jeanne Menjoulet via Wikimedia Commons. Modified by Tempest.
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Haley Pessin View All
Haley Pessin is a socialist activist based in New York. She is a member of the DSA Afrosocialist Caucus and of the Tempest Collective.