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Quebec, Angry and Torn

Pinched voters vent against rich, poor, immigrants and the political class.

By Richard Warnica, 27 Mar 2007, TheTyee.ca

Mario Dumont

ADQ's Dumont: flinty populism

For more than 30 years, the Parti Quebecois has relied on voters like Remy Parent. The 25-year-old nursing student wears a thin goatee beard and sees through a pair of square black glasses. He is young, Francophone and undeniably left wing. Add in the fact that, for most of his life, Parent saw anglophone Canadians as, in his words, "a bunch of assholes," and you probably couldn't create a more prototypical PQ supporter.

You've probably already guessed where this is going. Parent, despite his demographic match, was not planning to vote PQ last night. Sovereignty, he told me, was just a ruse the party now used to get "dumb people" to vote for them. Other issues now occupy Parent's mind. And with nationalism out of the picture, he was parking his ship in a new berth.

Remy Parent was one small part of a big split in Quebec politics last night. For 30 years, two parties and one issue have dominated the province. But not anymore. Despite the best efforts of Jean Charest's Liberals and André Boisclair's PQ, voters across the province rebelled. Some, like Parent, defected to fringe parties such as Québec Solidaire and the Greens. While others, many others, chose a populist career politician who straddles the line on separation and openly questioned some of sacred cows of the Quebec consensus on the campaign trail.

By night's end, Quebecers were divided almost evenly among the Liberals, the PQ and Mario Dumont's Action Démocratique du Québec. The Liberals will form another government, but a much reduced one. From 76 seats before dissolution, the Grits fell to around 46 (the exact number could change with final counting). Jean Charest, meanwhile, barely won his Sherbrooke riding. The PQ, meanwhile, dropped from 45 to the high 30s, sliding, for the first time since Réne Lévesque brought them to power in 1976, into third place in the national assembly.

The big winner though, was Dumont. His party, written off before the election, went from four seats to over 40. Dumont himself now leads the official opposition.

'We took everything French'

What it means is that, for now, separation is off the table. Both Dumont and the Liberals are opposed to future referendums and Boisclair is in no position to force one. Ironically though, it also means Quebec may be more split than ever. As the nationalist question faded in this campaign, new ones emerged. Dumont's middle class, small government appeal revealed an emerging discontent with the so-called Quebec model social welfare state. What's more, as the campaign displayed, Quebec's identity, too, is again an open question. The most homogenous Canadian province is struggling like no other to accommodate immigrants into its fold. And it's not likely to get easier any time soon.

Richard Lemmett, 60, owns a small bed and breakfast just outside Montreal's downtown. He was born in the city, the son of an Italian immigrant father and a francophone Québécois mother, and has lived there almost his entire life. Lemmett's views on the state of his province are unequivocal. The middle class, he says, are paying the way for rich and poor. He feels overtaxed and under-serviced. What's more, he resents what he sees as the cushy lives and high salaries of provincial bureaucrats, many of whom he thinks are working redundant or unnecessary jobs.

"In 1976, when the PQ came to power, we took everything French," he told me last week. "We should have stopped with the cuisine."

Battling manifestos

Lemmett's frustrations are hardly unique. The consensus on social issues, from health spending to taxation, that has dominated Quebec since the Quiet Revolution has fractured, and the break lines splinter through both sovereigntist and federalist camps. The ADQ's strong showing yesterday is at least to some extent a symptom of that disquiet. But while Dumont fueled his small government message with a flinty anti-metropolitan populism, it was a small group of elites who put the issues into the mainstream.

In the fall of 2005, 12 prominent Quebecers from either side of the nationalist debate published a manifesto titled Pour un Québec Lucide (For a Clear-Eyed Vision of Quebec). The group included former Parti Québécois premier Lucien Bouchard and well-known federalist editorialist André Pratte, as well as university presidents, professors and economists. The manifesto highlighted what the authors saw as factors in a looming fiscal disaster for their province. Demographic decline, high public debt and high taxes had Quebec en route for economic decline, they argued. The only solution was to trim spending and cut taxes, even at the expense of cherished programs like $7 a day public daycare, cheap ($1,200 a year, the lowest in Canada) university tuition and generous pharmacare.

The document touched off a storm of public debate and prompted a counter-manifesto, Pour un Québec Solidaire, that argued just the opposite, that the Quebec model could survive, that the problems facing the province were not nearly as dire as the 'Lucides' claimed. The authors of the second manifesto went on to found the party Québec Solidaire and the debate -- Lucides versus Solidaires -- temporarily dominated the public discourse. But when election time rolled around, the fault lines exposed by the Lucides versus Solidaires debate were expected to fade.

Henry Milner is a professor of political science at the University of Montreal. He told me in an interview at his home last week that neither Jean Charest nor André Boiclair expected to have to take a side in the debate during the campaign. Charest, for one, though likely a believer in the Lucides' message, remembered the public outcry when he tried to implement some modest reforms early in his mandate. Instead the incumbent planned a campaign around an old standby: federalism.

'Reasonable accommodation'

Relying on a federal budget that was to be delivered late in the campaign and that contained hundreds of millions of dollars in new money for Quebec, Charest argued that his party could win a better deal from Ottawa than could the PQ. What's more, the man he expected to have to fight was bound by a platform promise to call another referendum on separation if elected, something few in the province told pollsters they wanted.

Boisclair, meanwhile, was also sympathetic to the Lucides pleas. But the ADQ strength made it impossible for him to acknowledge his feelings. "The ADQ was taking the right of the PQ vote," Milner said. "He [Boisclair] had to move his party some way to the left." Dumont's surprising strength had a similar effect on Charest. It's hard to run a campaign on an anti-referendum platform when the possibility of a referendum is all but off the table.

Before the vote, I spoke to Guy Leroux, an ADQ spokesman. Leroux said the ADQ was to thank for both shunting the nationalism question aside and for questioning the big government consensus. But he also raised another issue that was huge in this campaign: what became known as "reasonable accommodation."

Quebec today remains Canada's most culturally homogenous province. As the only French-speaking outpost among hundreds of English and Spanish speaking North Americans, the Québécois have long jealously guarded their identity. So maybe it shouldn't be surprising that immigration and integration have become such hot buttons there. But just how big the issue became in this campaign was not just surprising, it was at times bizarre.

'Just to show I'm angry'

The issue peaked in the last days of the campaign with a controversy over Muslim women having to lift their veils before voting. But it started long before that. Issues as serious as the requisite pork content in pea soup, the proper head gear for child soccer players and whether or not towns should be allowed to ban stoners of women all popped up at one time or another. Remarkably, all three party leaders consistently sided against accommodation.

Before the campaign, the other leaders "didn't want to touch the issue," Leroux said. "We were running the risk of being seen as racist" by bringing it up. But by campaign's end Boisclair and Charest were fighting over themselves to argue that pork-free pea soup was not pea soup at all. The Montreal Gazette, the province's largest English language daily even ran a cartoon that asked what's next, diabetics demanding sugar-free sugar shacks?

The rest of Canada looked on with bemusement while Quebec politicians took seemingly outlandish stances on seemingly irrelevant issues. But Henry Milner argues that it shouldn't be surprising that the issue of integration is different in Quebec. Trying to find the middle ground between integration and multiculturalism is far harder in a group that is itself a minority, he said. Québécois culture is forever at risk of being subsumed by the great English mass that surrounds it. So people living among them, but not of them, are seen as much more of a threat than they are in the rest of the country.

Back at the protest in Montreal, Remy Parent considers his reasons for voting Québec Solidaire. Other politicians, he told me, aren't just lying anymore, they're not talking at all. "I'm going to vote for them just to make the others speak," he said, "just to show that I'm angry...that they must make a change."

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