No ordinary politician

Françoise David: feminist leader, party founder, movement builder

Celebrating one woman’s unique contributions to the left in Quebec
Photo: Québec solidaire

The single most impactful development on Quebec’s left since the 1960s is arguably the founding of political party Québec solidaire, and it would not have happened without Françoise David.

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Like David, I am a member of Québec solidaire. She and I were both at Université de Montréal to see it launched 10 years ago.

David started out as an activist before working to build a new, viable political party, one founded on essential progressive ideas, from the ground up. Earlier she had helped found Option citoyenne — a convergence of women’s, anti-poverty and social justice activists fed up with old (boy) politics — which would eventually merge with the Union des forces progressistes, the leftist party of its day, to form Québec solidaire.

David announced she was leaving politics this past week. Her departure is a huge loss for our movement and she will be missed.

David thus belongs to an exclusive group of individuals who can rightly claim they were instrumental in founding a new political party. The group is even smaller if we only consider progressive parties or those that didn’t emerge from a pre-existing party. Even then, the group is made up almost exclusively of people with past experience in government or a legislative body. Since the end of the 19th century, it’s been extremely rare for someone with David’s background to found a political party. The only other example I can think of is Podemos in Spain.

Today, Québec solidaire has three Members of the National Assembly, three dedicated, long-serving warriors for social justice. One is an immigrant, and two are pillars of the Quebec women’s movement. This is an amazing thing.

David announced she was leaving politics this past week. Her departure is a huge loss for our movement and she will be missed, but it is a testament to her hard work, along with others, that the party continues to be strong.

I am sure there are many ideas out there about David’s contributions to the movement. In my view, one of her most important contributions was her dedication to finding ways to unite people, despite differences. I am not always in favour of such a strategy, because I think sometimes compromise is just a disguise for liberal politics, a fig leaf for bad or mushy ideas. But the benefit this approach is that it almost guarantees a longer discussion than those I’m used to seeing in the union and student movements, where usually proposals are briefly debated and then voted on. While the latter approach can lead to clearer positions (although that is not guaranteed), there’s no time in that model devoted to understanding an issue from top to bottom.

Sometimes a longer discussion focussed on reaching something closer to a consensus can unearth important ideas on either “side” that were not fully considered by the other. The best example of this type of discussion is found in the recent debate surrounding Québec solidaire’s policy on sex work. To their credit, party activists sought out and listened to sex workers who held varying positions on the issue. They took those views seriously, and as a result many sex workers were present and participated in the debate at the Québec solidaire congress in 2015. Without the long-discussion approach, that moment of actual, concrete listening would never have happened.

The resulting policy is not as clear as I would like, but it has the benefit of coming from real debate between activists. This is to the benefit, in the end, of the women’s movement, and perhaps more important than having the clearest of political positions in a party program.

She may be best known from her time as a Québec solidaire candidate and then MNA, but David is first and foremost a movement builder.

However, sometimes this approach doesn’t work out so well. This was the case during a similar, earlier discussion on secularism and religious symbols, which resulted in a position vague enough to satisfy the vast majority, but also too vague to provide clear direction on some of the emergent debates in Quebec, particularly the “identity secularism” of the Parti québecois.

Another central contribution from David was her promotion of Québec solidaire, and its uncompromising support for Quebec independence, particularly during the 2008 and 2012 elections. The tone she struck in the mainstream press, and during her participation in the televised debates in 2012 and 2014, made a huge impact and demonstrated to millions of Quebecers why Québec solidaire is not like other parties. At the same time, she increased her share of the vote in her riding of Gouin from 36 per cent in 2008 to an astounding 46 per cent in 2012.

I want to say one more thing about David, and it may be the most important. She may be best known from her time as a Québec solidaire candidate and then MNA, but David is first and foremost a movement builder. In the 1980s, she founded a coalition of Quebec women’s centres that still exists today. In the 1990s, she was president of the Fédération des femmes du Québec. And then in 2004, as previously mentioned, she founded Option citoyenne.

Through it all, she has constantly encouraged women, especially young women, to get involved and to use their voices. These experiences were reflected in her 2014 book, De colère et d'espoir, which was widely hailed as a must-read, and a brilliant exposition of David’s passionate dedication to independence and social-justice feminism. Many have said it already, and I now join my voice to theirs to say thank you, Françoise David.

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