Gra­ham Fraser

The Bor­ing Cam­paign that Wasn’t

Policy - - In This Issue - Gra­ham Fraser

By the end of its third week, it was be­ing billed as the most bor­ing Que­bec elec­tion cam­paign in gen­er­a­tions. No René Lévesque, no con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis, no sovereignty on the bal­lot. But by the end of elec­tion night, the nar­ra­tive had clearly be­come more com­pli­cated than a walk in the park, and in ways that put the polling in­dus­try, again, on the de­fen­sive. Vet­eran Que­bec observer and for­mer of­fi­cial lan­guages com­mis­sioner Gra­ham Fraser re­counts a cam­paign in which lan­guage and im­mi­gra­tion be­came key plot points.

When François Le­gault, the leader and founder of the Coali­tion Avenir Québec (CAQ), made his way through the elec­tion night crowd on Oc­to­ber 1, he seemed al­most over­whelmed, ad­mit­ting to re­porters that he was sur­prised.

The pub­lic opin­ion poll­sters had in­di­cated that, af­ter lead­ing for a year, Le­gault’s CAQ had slipped dur­ing the cam­paign, and that the race was very tight. On Septem­ber 20, CROP even pre­dicted a Lib­eral vic­tory.

But within min­utes of the polls clos­ing, it was clear that the CAQ was cruis­ing to a ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment, end­ing up with 74 of 125 seats in the Na­tional Assem­bly and 37.4 per cent of the vote.

The elec­tion trans­formed the po­lit­i­cal map of Que­bec. The Lib­er­als, whose pre­vi­ous low wa­ter-mark still pro­duced a river of red along the Ot­tawa river to Mon­treal’s West Is­land and out Au­toroute 10 to the East­ern Town­ships, lost 3 of 5 seats in the Ou­taouais and were wiped out in the Town­ships. The old­est party in Que­bec had its worst re­sult in its 151-year his­tory: 32 seats, and 24.8 per cent. But the night was equally dis­as­trous for the Parti Québé­cois (PQ), which fin­ished fourth, be­hind the CAQ, the Lib­er­als and the left-wing Québec sol­idaire, with only nine seats and 17 per cent, its low­est share of the vote ever. The party was elim­i­nated in work­ing­class rid­ings in the east-end of Mon­treal—los­ing seats it had held since 1970—in Que­bec’s Lower Town, Sher­brooke and Rouyn-No­randa.

The elec­tion trans­formed the po­lit­i­cal map of Que­bec. The Lib­er­als, whose pre­vi­ous low wa­ter-mark still pro­duced a river of red along the Ot­tawa river to Mon­treal’s West Is­land and out Au­toroute 10 to the East­ern Town­ships, lost 3 of 5 seats in the Ou­taouais and were wiped out in the Town­ships.

And Québec sol­idaire surged, win­ning 10 seats and 16 per cent of the vote.

PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée stepped down im­me­di­ately; Lib­eral Premier Philippe Couil­lard, who won his seat, re­signed as leader and as an MNA three days later.

The worst was not over for the Lib­er­als. While Couil­lard re­signed his seat, the Lib­er­als also kicked a mem­ber out of cau­cus for hav­ing leaked in­for­ma­tion to the CAQ and the fol­low­ing week the PQ won a rid­ing re­count, tak­ing an­other seat from the Lib­er­als. Fi­nal score: CAQ 74, Lib­er­als 29, PQ 10, QS 10.

It is a po­lit­i­cal tru­ism that the Lib­eral Party of Que­bec is the old­est party with the deep­est roots and that the only way it is de­feated is when a ri­val pulls to­gether a coali­tion of all the po­lit­i­cal streams that op­pose the Lib­er­als: na­tion­al­ists, con­ser­va­tives, and dis­en­chanted Lib­er­als. Mau­rice Du­p­lessis did it in 1936, René Lévesque did it in 1976, and now François Le­gault has done it. On elec­tion night, Le­gault’s re­marks were con­cil­ia­tory, and the next day, at his first news con­fer­ence, he stressed that the new gov­ern­ment would have three pri­or­i­ties, each one in an area he was per­son­ally com­fort­able with: the econ­omy (he was a for­mer busi­ness­man); ed­u­ca­tion (he had been a min­is­ter of ed­u­ca­tion); and health (he had been a min­is­ter of health). It was only the fol­low­ing day that two of his mem­bers, and prob­a­ble cabi­net min­is­ters, said that the new gov­ern­ment would be push­ing ahead with its most con­tro­ver­sial pol­icy: forc­ing gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees to forgo re­li­gious at­tire (crosses, kip­pas or hi­jab) as a con­di­tion of em­ploy­ment, with the threat to use the not­with­stand­ing clause of the Char­ter of Rights and Free­doms—an echo of On­tario Premier Doug Ford’s

ap­proach to gov­ern­ing—if this were chal­lenged.

It was a blunt re­minder of the most dif­fi­cult part of the CAQ cam­paign.

On Septem­ber 6, Le­gault spoke to re­porters in Saint Colom­ban, a small town abut 70 km north­west of Mon­treal on the edge of the Lau­ren­tians. Un­til then, the cam­paign had been a com­bi­na­tion of gaffes (usu­ally about tweets and other em­bar­rass­ments that can­di­dates had not shared with their par­ties) and gro­cery lists of ide­o­log­i­cally in­dis­tin­guish­able prom­ises: sub­si­dized school lunches, re­duced tran­sit fares and child care fees, and im­proved old age homes.

But in St. Colom­ban—hardly a cen­tre for im­mi­gra­tion in Que­bec—Le­gault ex­pressed the con­cern that be­cause of im­mi­gra­tion, Que­bec’s grand­chil­dren might not speak French.

With this, he touched on one of the his­tor­i­cally pri­mal fears in Que­bec so­ci­ety: Im­mi­gra­tion could mean the dis­ap­pear­ance of the French lan­guage.

Sud­denly, it seemed he had seized the agenda in the most dra­matic way, evok­ing French-speak­ing Que­bec’s ex­is­ten­tial-night­mare fear. It evoked the song “Mommy” that Pauline Julien had recorded in 1974, which was sung in the voice of a small child who won­dered why she no longer spoke French. (“Mommy, mommy, how come we lost the game? / Oh Mommy, mommy are you the one to blame? / Oh Mommy, mommy, tell me why it’s too late, too late / Much too late.”)

That same year, Lib­eral Premier Robert Bourassa’s Bill 22, mak­ing French the of­fi­cial lan­guage of Que­bec, be­came law. In 1977, the first PQ gov­ern­ment passed Bill 101, the Char­ter of the French Lan­guage, dou­bling down on the lan­guage pro­tec­tions that were in­her­ent to its in­de­pen­dence plat­form. And 30 years ago, the late Lise Payette pro­duced a doc­u­men­tary called “Dis­paraître” which sim­i­larly raised the spec­tre of the dis­ap­pear­ance of Que­bec as a French-speak­ing so­ci­ety.

Le­gault’s in­ter­ven­tion pro­duced head­lines. “Im­mi­gra­tion: Le­gault joue la carte de l’iden­tité” said the front page of Le Devoir. (“Le­gault plays the iden­tity card”)

There was a pun­dit con­sen­sus: Le­gault had seized the ini­tia­tive and de­fined the bal­lot ques­tion, and fo­cused at­ten­tion on his de­ter­mi­na­tion to re­duce the flow of im­mi­gra­tion to Que­bec from 52,000 to 40,000 a year.

But 10 days later, in Cap Santé—a pic­turesque town on the St. Lawrence be­tween Trois-Rivières and Que­bec City—he was asked by a re­porter how long it took an im­mi­grant to be­come a Cana­dian cit­i­zen.

“A few months,” Le­gault replied.

Ac­tu­ally, it is three years, the re­porter cor­rected. It got worse. The next day, af­ter say­ing he had stayed up al­most all night study­ing the is­sue, he fum­bled an­other ba­sic ques­tion, was un­able to name a bilin­gual prov­ince in Canada (New Brunswick is the only one) and joked that, clearly, he would not be a can­di­date for a high school quiz show.

Le­gault ex­pressed the con­cern that be­cause of im­mi­gra­tion, Que­bec’s grand­chil­dren might not speak French. With this, he touched on one of the his­tor­i­cally pri­mal fears in Que­bec so­ci­ety: Im­mi­gra­tion could mean the dis­ap­pear­ance of the French lan­guage.

But for his op­po­nents, it was no joke. For Couil­lard and Lisée, it was a golden op­por­tu­nity. The is­sue was no longer about iden­tity—or the Lib­eral re­sponse— that there is a cry­ing need for im­mi­grants to deal with the short­age of work­ers—but about com­pe­tence.

Lisée was mer­ci­less. “It’s not a ques­tion of be­ing a quiz show con­tes­tant. We didn’t ex­pect that from him. But we did ex­pect that, on his ma­jor file, that he would know the steps to ac­cess cit­i­zen­ship, since he wants to play around with them. That he thinks it takes a few months to be­come a cit­i­zen means he is guilty of ig­no­rance for some­one who claims to be the great im­mi­gra­tion re­former.”

Couil­lard joined in, ar­gu­ing that by sug­gest­ing Que­bec should have to­tal

con­trol over im­mi­gra­tion, Le­gault was putting ex­ist­ing agree­ments at risk. “Through his in­com­pre­hen­sion, he would weaken Que­bec’s pow­ers.”

And that set the stage for a his­toric event: the first tele­vised English-lan­guage de­bate be­tween Que­bec’s po­lit­i­cal lead­ers ever, where Couil­lard and Lisée con­tin­ued to pound away at Le­gault’s prom­ise that im­mi­grants would have to take a French test and a test on Que­bec val­ues af­ter three years and be forced to leave if they failed.

Sud­denly, af­ter a year with a com­fort­able lead in the polls, the CAQ be­gan to slip, and it looked like a pos­si­ble photo fin­ish.

Im­mi­gra­tion was the cen­tre­piece of Le­gault’s cam­paign, the wedge is­sue that dis­tin­guished him from the Lib­er­als, and he did not know the ba­sics. But by bungling the de­tails of cit­i­zen­ship, he opened him­self up si­mul­ta­ne­ously to both Couil­lard and Lisée, and sup­port seemed to drain on both sides. Since the CAQ coali­tion con­sists of both dis­con­tented Lib­er­als and dis­il­lu­sioned Péquistes, this was a se­ri­ous wound.

Sim­i­larly, the English de­bate played to both Couil­lard and Lisée’s strengths and Le­gault’s weak­ness. An op­ti­mistic in­ter­pre­ta­tion would be that the English de­bate was a recog­ni­tion of the lin­guis­tic se­cu­rity of the French­s­peak­ing ma­jor­ity and its abil­ity to be gen­er­ous to the English mi­nor­ity. A more cyn­i­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tion would sug­gest it was an ef­fec­tive Lisée ploy to pull Le­gault onto thin ice; Le­gault is much less ar­tic­u­late in English than ei­ther Lisée or Couil­lard, and Manon Massé’s English is weaker still.

The third de­bate was re­mark­able in that Lisée turned on Québec sol­idaire ri­val Massé and pointed out that she was not, in fact, the leader of the party but co-spokesper­son. While he was crit­i­cized for his ag­gres­sive­ness to­ward a woman who has seemed the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of left-wing com­pas­sion, his out­burst did have the ef­fect of fo­cus­ing me­dia at­ten­tion on Québec sol­idaire.

Two years ago, QS had over­whelm­ingly re­jected a merger with the PQ. Lisée’s at­tack may have back­fired. For in the fi­nal re­sults, he was de­feated in his own con­stituency of Rose­mont in east-end Mon­treal, by for­mer La Presse colum­nist Vin­cent Marissal, and the PQ fell be­hind QS.

But ul­ti­mately none of it mat­tered. What ap­peared to be a close race turned out to be a sweep. The CAQ won de­ci­sively in ev­ery re­gion of Que­bec—ex­cept Mon­treal, where the English-speak­ing vot­ers re­mained loyal to the Lib­er­als, Québec Sol­idaire in­creased its pres­ence in the poor and work­ing class French-speak­ing rid­ings in the east end, and the CAQ had a break­through with two rid­ings in the far east end of the is­land.

CROP pres­i­dent Alain Giguère was re­duced to say­ing plain­tively that peo­ple said one thing to poll­sters and then did some­thing else in the pri­vacy of the bal­lot box. If it was a bad night for the Lib­er­als and the PQ, it was a very bad night for the polling in­dus­try.

What re­mains to be seen is whether Le­gault will be as dis­ci­plined as his first post-vic­tory pre­pared state­ment sug­gested. There were two vet­er­ans of the Harper PMO, Carl Val­lée and Cather­ine Lou­bier, ad­vis­ing on the tran­si­tion, and they know some­thing about mes­sage dis­ci­pline. Whether, as premier, he will ar­tic­u­late the darker anti-im­mi­grant and more par­tic­u­larly anti-Mus­lim sen­ti­ments he some­times ex­pressed is an­other mat­ter.

The Wash­ing­ton Post and Libéra­tion in Paris have both no­ticed his an­ti­im­mi­grant po­si­tion, Libéra­tion lump­ing him in with Don­ald Trump and Brazil’s right-wing au­thor­i­tar­ian Jair Bol­sonaro. Al­ready, Le­gault has had to dis­avow the en­thu­si­asm ex­pressed by France’s right-wing xeno­phobe, Front Na­tional Leader Ma­rine Le Pen, who hailed him as an anti-im­mi­grant kin­dred spirit. Le­gault re­sponded by say­ing that even with re­duced im­mi­gra­tion num­bers, Que­bec would be re­ceiv­ing more im­mi­grants per capita than the United States or France. “On va en pren­dre moins, mais on va en pren­dre soin,” (We will take in fewer, but we will take care of them) was his catchy cam­paign phrase, re­peated in his tweet re­ject­ing the Le Pen sup­port.

Now, this re­mains his big­gest chal­lenge, for the world is watch­ing.

Gra­ham Fraser is a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at the McGill In­sti­tute for the Study of Canada, and au­thor of the best­selling René Lévesque and the Parti Québé­cois in Power.

Wiki­me­dia photo

CAQ Leader François Le­gault and his wife Is­abelle Brais at a cam­paign event. Le­gault swept to a ma­jor­ity with 74 seats and 37 per cent of the vote.

Adam Scotti photo

Prime Min­is­ter Trudeau meets with in­com­ing Premier François Le­gault in Yere­van, Ar­me­nia, ahead of the Fran­co­phonie Sum­mit. Oc­to­ber 11, 2018.

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