The combination of a lie, some mud and the swirling depths of collective identity have made for a depressing Quebec election campaign.
Here is a province with immensely talented people and an abundance of natural resources, and yet where three-quarters of the population do not believe their health-care system works well, where provincial debt is the country’s highest, where unemployment is above the national average and where too many roads and bridges are rickety.
Those problems are the things one would expect politicians to address. Instead, within days of the election’s call, the descent began, in part because of the lie.
It was clear from press leaks and public statements that if re-elected, the Parti Québécois intended to hold a referendum. It was already preparing a white paper on sovereignty and planning a vast public-relations campaign with hearings to promote sovereignty across Quebec. It would be seeking confrontations with Ottawa, especially Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose government has a tin ear for the province and a low level of popularity there.
The PQ game was best revealed by its star candidate, the imperious media magnate Pierre Karl Péladeau, who said he was entering politics to make Quebec independent. But when it became clear the majority of Quebeckers wanted neither a referendum nor independence, the PQ began obfuscating, backtracking and resorting to other verbal evasions to cover up the party’s real intention.
It would have been honest to say: Vote for us, because we are sovereignty advocates and have been for half a century. So, yes, we will hold another referendum, and let the chips fall where they may. As in Scotland, which holds its referendum this fall, we will pose a simple, honest question, such as: Should Quebec become an independent country?
That approach would have been principled and honest, but then the PQ has never been confident that intellectual honesty was the right political strategy. And so, if the PQ does return to power, the party’s ambitions will remain the same but its strategy and tactics will contribute again to the enveloping uncertainty that often characterizes Quebec’s endless exploration of itself and its role in or without Canada.
This exploration has, alas, taken a nasty turn with the Charter of Quebec Values, with its invitation to play on fears of the “other” – Muslims and Jews, mostly. There is no threat whatsoever to the essential French fact of Quebec from a small handful of government employees who might wear religious symbols, as the vast majority of the province’s civic leaders have argued.
But in the breasts of pure laine Québécois resides this fear that somehow their identity and language, rooted in more than 400 years of collective existence, can be diluted, threatened and ultimately undermined.
When you look at where support for this charter is strongest, it is in those very regions of Quebec where there are few, if any, “others” – an old, tragic phenomenon of human psychology and dark political nationalism.
These areas are Péquiste strongholds, so that although the charter is a non-solution to a non-problem in daily life, it has been presented as another bulwark against imagined threats that grow from psychological fears and collective neuroses rather than objective realities.
The charter is, therefore, a very nasty bit of political manipulation appealing to the basest of human emotions, dangerous for social harmony, inherently divisive. It is the latest chapter in the long political book of identity politics in Quebec, and one of the saddest. That so many good people, including past PQ leaders, have stood against it offers some hope that in due course, the better angels of Quebec’s nature will prevail.
To the lying and navel-gazing has been added mud-slinging, with allegations of improper past behaviour being hurled against the leaders of the Liberal and PQ parties, some stretching back two decades. And, of course, looming over these allegations, although not tied to them, are the shocking revelations from the Charbonneau commission (with more to come after the election) of systematic and massive corruption stretching over decades, with no one ready to blow the whistle.