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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

The Quebec charter is a wedge issue solely of the mind Add to ...

In politics, they’re called “wedge issues” – ideas or politics designed to pit one part of the electorate against the others, usually around something highly emotional, even if not terribly relevant.

The Parti Québécois’s Charter of Quebec Values is just such a “wedge issue.” It is designed politically to rally so-called pure laine francophone voters around the PQ, because too many of them turned off the party and away from Quebec secession, the party’s reason for being.

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With secession a non-starter and the government stumbling on many files, the PQ’s popularity had sunk so low that it had little chance of re-election. Enter the values charter and its prohibition against most religious symbols worn by public employees.

Since the share of Quebec public employees who are not francophones is far below their share of the province’s overall population, the issue of wearing symbols was more existential than real. In the real world, as opposed to the abstract world of imagination, these religious symbols figured not at all throughout most of Quebec, and only marginally in and around Montreal.

But “wedge issues” are usually about “them against us,” and in this case, the PQ hopes that the “us” is francophones and their fear of the “other,” especially in vast swaths of the province where representatives of the “other” are seldom in evidence. The wedge was in the mind, rather than in reality.

What the charter has accomplished is a rare feat: an amazing coalition of people and institutions of prominence who are against the idea. Every provincial party in Quebec, except the PQ, has opposed the idea – to say nothing of the three federal parties. The vast majority of constitutional experts in Quebec and beyond say it is unconstitutional. La Presse has reported that even the government’s own constitutional experts have warned that it won’t pass judicial muster.

The two co-chairs of a commission into social accommodation in Quebec – Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor – oppose this charter. So does the Quebec teachers’ union and many mayors. The PQ’s federal cousin, the Bloc Québécois, split with the expulsion of MP Maria Mourani. Lisette Lapointe, a former MLA and wife of former premier Jacques Parizeau, the PQ’s Great Thunderer, said she couldn’t abide the charter. Even some secessionists have denounced it.

At least in the very short term, the charter has accomplished what the PQ hoped: an increase in the party’s share of the popular vote, according to an online survey (beware these!) by Léger Marketing. However, that same survey showed that overall support for the charter has fallen from 57 per cent in August, when it was the subject of stories based on leaks, to 43 per cent today, now that the proposed text is known and the fusillade of opposition has begun. What this poll does not show is where the charter ranks on a list of priorities of ordinary voters.

Without substantial changes, the charter has no chance of being approved by the National Assembly, where the PQ has only a thin majority of seats and three parties ranged against it. The PQ is obviously hoping that the charter will coalesce just enough francophone voters to allow it to eke out a majority victory should the PQ decide to use the charter as a launching pad for the next election.

The trouble is that the issue has nothing to do with the day-to-day concerns of ordinary Quebeckers, namely the economy and social programs. The charter is a diversion, deliberately chosen by a government in political trouble. There had been isolated instances of religious symbols causing kerfuffles, but nothing of ongoing systemic concern to merit this kind of attention and non-solution to a non-problem.

Those kerfuffles, however, did cause the previous Liberal government to appoint the Bouchard-Taylor commission on “reasonable accommodation.” The two men held hearings across the province, produced a long and generally well-received report – only to have its approach thrown overboard by the PQ. How embarrassing it must be – if the government can be embarrassed – that the authors of that report now reject what the government proposes.

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