An Activist in the Assembly

MNA Amir Khadir Wants Tuition Frozen and More Options in Politics

Photo Laura Beeston

Although the province is a hotbed for progressive ideas, its political landscape is still defined by a 250-year-old language debate.

No matter how badly things seem to go for Premier Jean Charest, quite possibly the least popular Quebec politician in modern history, he can always count on his base of federalist, Anglophone voters to turn out for the Liberals on election day.

Across the aisle, the Parti Quebecois would be wise to exploit Charest’s increasingly unpopular austerity measures and widespread allegations of corruption for political gain. But instead the PQ is mired in its own internal debate—a power struggle over who best can protect the French language and lead the province to sovereignty.

While this never ending drama plays itself out in the media and through the halls of the National Assembly, one politician sticks out as an anomaly in provincial politics. As the leader and sole elected member of the left-leaning sovereigntist Quebec Solidaire party, Amir Khadir can tackle larger issues than Bill 101 and reasonable accommodation. Operating out of his modest Mercier riding headquarters on Montreal’s Mont Royal Ave., he doesn’t have to worry about alienating his base or breaking the party line with actual ideas: he is the party.

“Being a smaller party shelters us from a lot of problems,” Khadir told The Link. “Just look at what the big parties in the province are talking about. Right now you have Charest and [opposition MNA] Francois Legault arguing over language, but their point is essentially the same. They want to run the province like a business.”

Though he was only elected to public office three years ago, Khadir is well traveled in Quebec’s political scene. As a doctor, he was involved with humanitarian-activist organizations like Medecins du Monde and Doctors for Social Justice. He has long campaigned against the province’s increasingly privatized healthcare system and unsuccessfully ran as a Bloc Quebecois candidate in the 2000 federal election.

Criticized as being more of an activist than a politician, Khadir doesn’t stick to a regimen of well-defined talking points. Staying true to his roots as a student organizer in the 1970s, his ideas may not make for great soundbites but do tend to include those who feel left out of the province’s political discussion.

“Like so many western societies, we’re facing this huge debt,” he said. “But the problem is not that we don’t have enough wealth. It’s that wealth is out of public control. In the last six years more than $23 billion of the wealth of our soil was extracted. Of that amount, the people of Quebec saw less than three per cent of that.

“In the last 10 years, the PQ and Liberals have cut the taxes of the wealthiest Quebecers by $10 billion.

“So when people at the top are saying we have a debt problem, why aren’t they looking at that side? Why are they just cutting and cutting and cutting services? Why are they increasing the burden of taxation over citizens and students?”

With Quebec university tuition set to nearly double over the next five years, Khadir is among the few MNAs showing solidarity with the thousands of students threatening to approve strike mandates across the province.

“It’s Quebec Solidaire’s job to make student issues a more pressing concern in government. The PQ are letting the Liberals do the dirty work because, when they were in power, they were open to raising tuition,” he said. “It’s about social justice. We know that those who are that bottom of the economic ladder won’t be able to [have] access [to a] university education and they will remain at the bottom of the ladder.

“Unfortunately,” he added, “there’s one elected member in this party and I haven’t done enough to make it a more pressing issue.

“But there will be gains if the student movement organizes. Every time in the last 50 years that students have gained anything, it has been through united actions and not the government.”

Khadir’s outspoken nature has not always served him well. In 2010 he supported a group called Palestinian and Jewish Unity during their boycott of a shoe store in his riding. As part of the economic pressure tactics to push Israel out of Palestine, the group boycotted the store because it carried an Israeli-made brand called Beautifeel.

The Quebec Solidaire leader’s support of the action landed him in political hot water since the protest was seen as unfairly punishing the shop owner instead of the brand, which accounted for only two per cent of the store’s business. He later apologized for his involvement in the protest but remained steadfast in his support of boycott and divestment measures.

Perhaps Khadir’s biggest contribution to provincial politics is the notion that alternatives to Quebec’s traditional political battle lines exist.

“As long as people keep voting simply based on language issues we’ll be stuck with the same problems,” he said. “Now, sure my party is a sovereigntist party but there are other options. The Green Party, for instance, is a federalist party. Right now, it just seems like there are too many problems with the Liberals for someone to come along and reform the party to better suit its core values. People need a new choice.”