The revolt of the regions: what Quebec and New Brunswick’s election teach us about populism

Written by Abram Lutes on October 19, 2018

Quebec and New Brunswick’s elections have brought populism to Canada and reveal similar problems

For those who have watched variations of right-wing populism spread throughout the Western World, the recent provincial elections disprove the idea that Canada is immune to the new, upstart, political right. This brand of politics has been rushed into the spotlight by the People’s Alliance of New Brunswick (PANB) and the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ). These populist provincial parties are new and highly charismatic with outspoken leaders. They champion a mix of fiscal conservativism and nationalism (or “regionalism” in the context of NB).

Both the PANB and CAQ have mobilized a mainly rural base. Raymond Blanchard, research agent for the Fédération des étudiantes et étudiants du Campus universitaire de Moncton, pointed out the importance of “forgotten regions” in the PANB’s appeal. Leader Kris Austin’s riding of Fredericton Grand-Lake is a case in point; the rural portions of this riding have short-staffed public services, a disconnection from urban Fredericton, and a mostly unilingual Anglophone population. CAQ also won most of its victory in the rural regions of Quebec – areas both negatively affected by Liberal Party austerity and alienated from increasingly cosmopolitan Montreal.

The PANB and CAQ represent a repudiation of Trudeau liberalism and traditional Canadian left parties. Both the NB and Quebec Liberals took the election outcomes as a direct rebuke, while the Parti Quebecois was reduced to fourth-party status and the NB NDP won no seats.

Bowling with the People

 A year ago, Quebec activist Donald Cuccioletta commented to CBC: “Dammit, the CAQ goes bowling with the people! I haven’t gone bowling with the people.” I couldn’t help but think about Cuccioletta’s comment when a New Brunswick labour union official confessed that the number of union members planning to vote PANB far outstripped those intending to vote NDP. Had Austin gone “bowling with the people” in Miramichi, where a union milltown voted for his party?

Since Brexit and Trump first signaled that the populist right was on the rise, there have been numerous attempts to explain it. The left tended to focus on how racism, sexism, and chauvinism have been used to garner political support from large numbers of primarily white men. While these undeniably play a prominent role and are frequently used to secure a political base, they present an incomplete explanation.

Since the 1970s, a brand of liberalism has dominated Western politics; decision-making authority has been delegated to unelected bureaucracies and international institutions (IMF, European Union, and NAFTA). Sovereignty and democratic decision-making, say mainstream politicians, are out of date. Better to leave the important decisions to self-appointed global “experts.” This “we know best” elitism has served to alienate people from politics. This “de-politicization” left ordinary people out of making fundamental decisions about public policy and the overall direction of society. They were substituted by specialists, unelected supranational bodies, and secret deals between elites.

Meanwhile, social democratic parties have swung from their traditional base in industrial workers and farmers towards a focus on the “middle class” – professionals, academics, and urbanites. They have also defanged their economic programmes, accepting the premises of globalization and neoliberal capitalism and avoiding nationalization and references to socialism. The NB NDP, while social democrats on paper, succumbed this shift. Jennifer McKenzie, the leader who ran in the working-class Saint John Harbour riding, is a small-business owner who spent most of her life in Ottawa.

Identity non-Politics

The last element of social life that has been kept political is identity, an important prop in maintaining the depoliticization of collective institutions. With the decline or repression of anti-capitalist politics, newer social movements in the West sometimes struck deals with the corporate world in what Nancy Fraser calls “progressive neoliberalism.” Space is allowed for individuals to promote compensation for grievances based on their individual identity and experience of racism, sexism, etc., as well as symbolic gestures towards mending these grievances on the part of elites, without challenging the overall economic framework. Globe and Mail’s “Black on Wall Street” exposé is a case in point: a focus on the few Black elites in Canada while ignoring working-class Black issues.

With identity as the primary framework for politics, it was inevitable that the right-wing would eventually make use of it. Fascist Richard Spencer describes his views as “identity politics for white people.” CAQ leader Francois Legault pursued a similar policy, using ethnic nationalism to rile voters while disavowing left-wing aspects of Quebec nationalism like the welfare state. Likewise, the PANB has signaled that they are the party of the Anglophones by placing bilingualism as the primary problem in NB and not running candidates in Francophone majority ridings.

For the People

 The situation that confronts NB and Quebec could only arise in the absence of a substantial left alternative to neoliberalism. The NB NDP, for example, took rural northern regions for granted in their campaign. They focussed on students and urban centers – major constituents of progressive neoliberalism. Meanwhile, the NB Greens and the socialist Quebec Solidaire (QS) made significant strides through the opposite strategy, re-orienting their primarily urban base of progressives outwards towards the regions.

QS and the Greens, respectively harangued as too extreme and unelectable, have begun a revitalization which might pull angry regional voters like the Miramichi trade unionists back towards a progressive political movement. Rather than viewing the fight against racism, sexism, etc., as primary over economic or class issues, they were linked together masterfully in the QS’ campaign and in much of the Greens’ rhetoric. QS focussed on “clear and concrete propositions,” while the Greens willfully waded out of the ivory tower towns into forgotten regions to give voters a voice.

QS shows that today’s progressive platform requires a repudiation of neoliberalism and, therefore, an assertion that governments can, and should, take an active role in organizing society to suit its constituents’ needs. A viable strategy for rural revitalization in NB must include a similar vision, where state-owned enterprises and stimulus spending can bring back jobs and services.

The solution is not the doubling-down on identity politics which has become so compatible with neoliberalism. For historical reasons, the Francophone left in Canada understands this better than progressive Anglophone. I observed that progressive Anglophones, based mostly in Fredericton, often took to social media to denounce PANB voters for having failed their moral litmus test, denouncing specific regions as beyond saving. The response from the Acadian community was more like Joe Hill’s old adage: don’t mourn, organize. The neoliberal policies that caused a decline for rural and working class voters are now acting out against liberal-progressive norms. They are also why many of this country’s poor are Indigenous, Black, or Arab, and, in NB, Francophone.

There is much to learn from this political moment, we have a province to save.

Abram Lutes is fourth year Renaissance College student and a board of director of the NB Media Co-op.

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