Québec at a crossroads

So Quebeckers will be going to the polls on April 7th.  At issue is whether my fellow citizens will follow the Parti Québécois’ hard right turn on identity issues. The centerpiece of that turn is the so-called “charter of values” which would, among other things, alter the province’s own Charter of Rights and Freedoms so as to allow the government to prohibit anyone drawing a salary from the public coffers from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols.

What’s going on here? To begin to answer that question, one has to realize that many strategists within the governing Parti Québécois have come to the conclusion that unless a winning referendum can be held during the PQ’s present turn in power, the dream of an independent Quebec can pretty much be kissed goodbye forever. Were they to leave power without getting a “yes” on a sovereignty referendum, they would next be coming to power after 7 or 8 more years of Liberal rule. By that time, another 300 000 to 400 000 immigrants will have come into the province. As they see immigrants as far less likely than “old stock” Quebeckers to look favorably upon sovereignty, the proportion of the latter group who would have to be convinced to vote “yes” may on their reckoning simply be too high.

It is worth noting that this calculation represents the abandonment of the dream shared by PQ leaders from René Lévesque to Lucien Bouchard, according to which the appeal of an independent Québec might come to be felt even by Quebeckers who do not trace their origins back to the founding of the French colony. The present PQ leadership has come to see inclusion and sovereignty as incompatible.

A first step to holding a referendum is, obviously, that the PQ achieve a majority in the National Assembly. To do so, the brain trust currently running the show has come to the conclusion that they needed to own the “identity” file. Remember that less than a decade ago, the PQ was relegated to third party status by the upstart Action Démocratique du Québec, which opportunistically capitalized upon the (largely manufactured) disquiet that had been growing in the province over the issue of “reasonable accommodations” granted to religious minorities to go from near-death to official opposition status. The PQ obviously decided that they could never allow that to happen again. The present platform, with the Charter at its center, represents the party’s bid to reclaim that part of the electorate that voted ADQ, and which in the last election provided 19 seats to the Coalition Avenir Québec, a hodgepodge party that swallowed up the ADQ when that party collapsed after the resignation of its leader, Mario Dumont.

The strategy seems to be working. Polls suggest that the PQ is poised to win a majority government by appealing to a part of the electorate that sees one of the primary roles of the Quebec government as being the protection of Quebec’s identity against all manner of external threats. Muslims, who represent about 4% of the Quebec population, and who like most segments of the population are largely secular, have been a convenient target. The PQ has played shamelessly on a laughably unfounded fear of Muslim fundamentalism. The main target of the Charter is of course the hijab, the head covering worn by some Muslim women – Jewish kippas, Sikh turbans, and the like, have largely been collateral damage.

Many erstwhile supporters of the PQ, largely concentrated in Montreal and Quebec City, have been appalled by this, and have abandoned the party, many of them for the more left-leaning and more inclusive Québec Solidaire. But the PQ has calculated that losing a couple of urban ridings to QS is an acceptable sacrifice if it is able to take a plurality of the seats now held by the CAQ in suburban and rural ridings. Given the way in which voters are distributed in Quebec (as in other parts of Canada, urban ridings are far more populous than ridings outside urban centers), the PQ could achieve a workable majority in the National Assembly with as little as 36 or 37% of the vote.

Therein however lie the seeds of a dilemma for the PQ if indeed it does manage to win a majority in the upcoming election. A winning referendum requires (at least) 50% + 1 of the vote. The PQ would have to convince another 13 or 14% of the electorate to vote yes. In fact, the situation may actually be worse. Many of the voters who support the Charter and the other ingredients in the PQ’s identity platform, have actually not traditionally been sovereignists at all.  They are French-Canadian nationalists who spiritually and philosophically are closer to the defunct Union Nationale, the party that ran the province for decades until the 1960s under the leadership of Maurice Duplessis. They are, and have always been suspicious of the PQ, which has until now been made up largely of modernizers. While they may be willing to park their votes with the PQ in order to see the Charter implemented, polls suggest that they are not ready to vote for sovereignty.

If it is to convince more than half of the electorate to vote for sovereignty, the PQ will therefore have to swing back to the center in order to reassemble a sovereignist majority. Philosophically, this would not pose a problem for many of the péquistes currently calling the shots. There is indeed evidence to suggest that many high-ranking sovereignists currently in cabinet, including Jean-François Lisée and Pauline Marois herself, do not for a second believe the story they have been selling the electorate to justify the adoption of the Charter. Just a handful of years ago, Lisée derided those who made a fuss about the Muslim hijab. As Education Minister in the previous PQ government, moreover, Marois made much of the need to open up Quebec’s schools to the fact of diversity. Though they have found in Bernard Drainville, the Minister in charge of Democratic Institutions, a naïf true believer capable of selling the Charter with something resembling conviction (though which a remarkable dearth of arguments or empirical backing), there seems little doubt that they would be inclined to moderate the extremity of the policies currently being proposed if doing so were to get them closer to winning conditions.

I would not be surprised if that was indeed what ended up happening in the event of a PQ majority win. The same instrumental reasoning that led the present leaders to the conclusion that they had to engage in ugly wedge politics to get a majority of seats, might also lead them to the conclusion that, once ensconced in power, they would have to present a more smiling and inclusive face to the electorate. The recommendation made in the Bouchard-Taylor report – that only civil servants who embody the coercive power of the state should be subject to the prohibition on conspicuous symbols — would represent a natural point to which to retreat. It has been endorsed by three former PQ premiers (Lucien Bouchard, Bernard Landry, and Jacques Parizeau), and its adoption by the PQ would allow them to claim that they have been listening to those voices in Quebec that have expressed concern over the blanket prohibitions of Bill 60,

The problem is of course that the PQ may now be too beholden to the constituency that it has appealed to in order to achieve power in order to beat a strategic retreat. It’s hard to get the genie of intolerance and bigotry back in the bottle. It would be a tragic historical irony if the cunning calculations that have been engaged in by the PQ in order to put itself in a position from which it could launch a winning referendum led it ultimately to reinventing itself as the Union Nationale.

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