A vote for a better focus

Quebec LogosAt its onset, the 2014 Quebec Election was about the Charter. In announcing the election, Pauline Marois exclaimed, “Nous ferons adopter une charte qui affirme les valeurs québécoises de l’égalité entre les hommes et les femmes et de laïcité. Nous le ferons!” (translated: “We will adopt a charter which affirms the Quebec values ​​of equality between men and women and secularism. We will do it!”). Looking back now, it may be easy to dismiss Marois’ election call as audacious, even foolish. At the time however, even if you disagreed with the policy, the political move appeared astute nonetheless. Though a surprise to many observers outside the province, the charter continued to show strong support in Quebec. In January, polls suggested the Charter had 48% support across the province, a result that coincided with the PQ’s 36% to 32% lead over the Liberals. Though not a large lead, given the Liberals concentrated support in urban ridings, it put the PQ well in reach of a majority government. Gaining a majority would give the PQ the mandate to implement the Charter, and in turn, take a significant step towards sovereignty somewhere down the line. And yet – that is not at all how it played out. Though we are now assured of four plus years of no charter and no referendum, we are still left pondering over the future of the sovereignty movement, and the Parti Québécois itself. In contemplating this future, it is worthwhile taking a closer look at exactly what did happen during the election. In particular, what were the views of the voters themselves? What were their concerns? What swayed their vote one way or another? A better understanding of the views of the people of Quebec is what will lead to understanding the future of the province.

Given the lead they had going into the campaign, it is understandable that observers would be looking for a turning point that changed the tide of the election. Though in other instances it may be difficult to positively identify such a defining moment, it appears almost unanimous in this case. It was the introduction of Pierre Karl Péladeau as a star candidate for the PQ. For those outside of Quebec, Pierre Karl Péladeau is the heir of media giant Quebecor, and has served as its President and CEO. PKP, as he is often referred to in the province, is a polarizing figure in Quebec – a fervent nationalist and successful businessman who has been known for his tough tactics in negotiating with unions (notably in the 2009 lockout at the Journal de Montreal). The impact of his entrance appears to have been two-pronged. For one, his anti-union record and right-wing leaning appeared at odds with the PQ’s social democratic core. More importantly, it was his spirited cry for sovereignty as he made his campaign announcement that made it a key election issue: “Je m’engage au Parti québécois parce que j’ai la conviction extrêmement profonde de faire du Québec un pays” (translation: “”I am committed to the Parti Québécois because I have extremely deep conviction to make Quebec a country”). There was no question as to what was top of mind for Péladeau, and it was his presence that shifted the focus of the campaign. Once focused on the Charter, the spectre of an imminent sovereignty referendum now seized the PQ campaign.

Though there was solid support for the Charter, the emergence of the sovereignty issue brought to the forefront the question of just how far the PQ would take it. At the onset of the election, James Mennie of the Gazette aptly asked, “values charter support: miles wide, but how deep?”  We look to the polls to find an answer to that particular question. In a Globe and Mail – Léger poll conducted in mid-March (immediately following Péladeau’s introduction), respondents were asked what they wanted to hear about during the campaign. The pressing issues identified were, in order, the economy and job creation, health, and public finances. On the other hand, the charter of values and sovereignty were seen as less important (27% and 20% wanted to hear more about these issues, respectively, while 63 and 69% wanted to hear less about them).  A snippet of an Ipsos poll conducted just prior to the election (see below) further reinforces just how far down the priority list you have to go to find both the Charter and sovereignty issues. With only 2% seeing sovereignty as either their first or second priority, it was clear that putting it front and centre did not inspire the electorate. Adding the paradox of bringing Péladeau and his fiscally conservative views into the fold, must have further confused, and unnerved, the party’s supporters.

Issue

Top Priority

Second Priority

Total

Create a better economy and jobs

28%

14%

41%

Provide better healthcare

17%

19%

36%

Ensure debt repayment and balancing budget

12%

12%

24%

Lower taxes

11%

12%

23%

Implement the Charter of Values

4%

4%

7%

A referendum for independence on sovereignty

1%

1%

2%

Priority issues in Quebec (Ipsos Poll Mar 28 – Apr 1, 2014)

With this confluence of an unappealing focus and an uneasy relationship between the premier and her star candidate, it wasn’t difficult for the opposing Liberals to take advantage. In essence, the simple repetition of their campaign slogan, “Ensemble, on s’occupe des vraies affaires” (“Together, we take care of real business”), was pretty much all that was needed. The rest is history. The Liberals drew even in the week following Péladeau’s arrival on the campaign, and finished with a whopping 16 point advantage over the PQ, securing a comfortable majority in the National Assembly (70 of 125 seats).

Where do things go from here? An Ekos poll conducted in the week prior to the election provides some insight into the future of the sovereignty movement. When asked to choose between a completely independent Quebec and the status quo, 65% chose the status quo (a high point for this indicator over the last 20 years).  Also of particular interest are the salient findings with regards to the demographics of the vote (see the graph below). The PQ’s greatest support is found among  45-64 year olds – a demographic that was around for the PQ’s initial rise to power in 1979 and the subsequent sovereignty efforts over the succeeding years. PQ support drops from 32% in this bracket down to 25% among 25-44 year olds and down to 22% among those under 25. Nevertheless, this may not be a trend wholly against the sovereignty movement. Québec Solidaire – who also support sovereignty, though with a different ideology than the PQ – actually have a growing support with the younger demographic. Their trendline along age grows from only 8% support among those 45-64 to 13% among those 25-44, and 15% among those under 25. As Québec Solidaire holds some of its roots in the New Democratic Party of Quebec, it is not a surprise that the orange wave that hit Quebec in the last federal election has had led to some crossover gains for Québec Solidaire provincially. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that though Solidaire holds sovereignist ideals, they are not so fervent as the PQ.  In the poll previously mentioned regarding the choice between an indepedent Quebec and the status quo within Canada, 77% of PQ supporters chose independence, whereas, Solidaire supporters display a 50/50 split between sovereignty and the status quo. As such, should Solidaire ever supplant the PQ as the sovereignist party of choice in Quebec, it’s a wonder what it might take to put a referendum at the top of their political agenda.

EKOS Poll, Apr 2014

EKOS Poll, Apr 2014

Though it is very much premature to suggest that we are at the end to the sovereignty movement in Quebec, it is certainly a more comfortable position we find ourselves in with a federalist party in control of the province for the next 4 years. No referendum is imminent, and the ill-titled Charter of Values has been put to rest (or at least shelved for the foreseeable future). In being a staunch federalist, one that values Quebec’s place within Canada, I am very glad for that. Not only do I value Quebec, but I believe we should all value the right of its diverse people to express their own beliefs free of discrimination and persecution. To turn a phrase oft used by those on the other side … “Vive un Quebec libre!”

 

Quebec’s Charter of Deplorable Values

“L’argent et la vote ethnique!” It was almost twenty years ago when premier Jacques Parizeau lashed out at what he saw as the lead culprits in the demise of his push for a sovereign Quebec. If you need a refresher on the 1995 referendum, the coverage has been made available on the CBC website. After uttering those famous words, Parizeau made an ambiguous comment about the Parti Québécois protecting Quebec from the future vengeance he expected from his opponents. I would contend he was in fact fixated on how he and his party would find their own path to vengeance. Though no longer led by Parizeau, it appears the PQ has found its vessel of revenge: Quebec’s proposed Values Charter.

Thousands gather to protest charter in Montreal (CBC)
Thousands gather to protest the charter in Montreal (CBC)

To review the essence of the policy, public employees will be forbidden to wear ‘ostentatious’ symbols of religion when on the job. Disallowed items include hijabs, turbans and kippas, as well as larger than usual crosses (see below). Allowed items are smaller more moderate symbols such as a small cross on a necklace, or a Star of David ring. Though the charter has been introduced under the pretense of conveying neutrality in the public service, these rules clearly show a partiality to Quebec’s Christian majority. A large cross like the one depicted would not be expected to be worn by even the most devout Christian, and it would certainly not be seen as a requirement in demonstrating one’s faith. In the case of the other disallowed symbols – the hijab, the turban, the kippah – these are clearly required displays of faith among a large number of the adherents of non-Christian faiths. As a result, the rules ask very little of the majority, and far too much of the minorities. Neutrality is not what this charter represents.

Quebec Values Charter Poster

Further evidence of this partiality comes with the glaring exemption to this supposed demonstration of neutrality: the crucifix is to remain in Quebec’s National Assembly. This exception has been made because this symbol is “emblematic of Quebec cultural heritage”. This speaks to the charter’s partiality rather than its intended neutrality: the crucifix is part of Quebec cultural heritage, symbols of other religions are not. If anything these bans and exemptions are precisely backwards of how neutrality could be effectively demonstrated. In representing the government of Quebec, it is the National Assembly that should be seen as a neutral institution. It and other edifices of public service should be seen as neutral without religious symbols. Furthermore, in being neutral they should allow the individual to practice their own beliefs without hindrance. The argument that all individuals must adhere to complete neutrality and not display their own beliefs while providing a public service suggests that we live in a society that is not at all tolerant to the varied religions and cultures that are represented within our population. I don’t know about you, but when I am approached by someone wearing a hijab, turban or kippah, my first impression is not that they are trying to force their religion upon me. In fact, I don’t recall ever getting that impression in the slightest. I am saddened to think that there are others that do. Unfortunately, leaders in Quebec have not always been ones to support multiculturalism.

In the aftermath of the charter’s initial introduction, I am somewhat surprised that it has not be soundly denounced by the masses. In Quebec, the results suggest support and opposition for the charter is relatively balanced: 43% support, while 42% oppose. Support actually grows significantly among francophones as 49% support the charter, while only 34% oppose it. In the rest of Canada, acceptance of the policy is much lower, with only 20% in favour, while 44% oppose, and the balance are unsure about the proposal. This uncertainty is not surprising, as there is surely a sympathetic ear for initiatives to divide church and state but a need for  closer inspection of the charter’s policy and true intentions. Thankfully, the past few days have provided a wake-up call for the PQ government. Despite the balance in support and opposition of the charter itself, confidence in the government itself has dropped. The opposition Liberals now lead the PQ in popular support 42% to 35% (compared to a 32% to 31% edge the PQ achieved in last year’s election). Though this may have led to some softening of the PQ stance, let us not believe that the fight is over.

The people of Quebec are very proud of their culture. They have every reason to be. Though I do not live it as they do, I am proud to be part of a Canada that includes Quebec as a fundamental component. Given there is so much to cherish in Quebec culture, I am saddened that the attempts to protect it continually impede it from flourishing. Celebrating the culture is the answer, not iron-fisted attempts to assimilate others into it. Many years have gone by since Parizeau’s bitter words, but those same attitudes are the driving force that has led to this terribly divisive policy. Dismayed as I am with the introduction of this policy, I am satisfied that it has once again shown the true colours of the Parti Québécois. What’s more, I am also confident that another long-storied trait of the Parti Québécois will soon surface as well – always losing the big fight.

ADDENDUM: In light of the recent resignation from his seat in Parliament, it is worth pointing out the courageous and poignant words of the Honourable Bob Rae during the coverage of the referendum back in 1995 (from the same clip at 18:25). I always found Rae an honest politician who stood for what is right and effectively communicated his positions. If circumstances had worked out differently, he would have made an outstanding Prime Minister.