It was a traumatic year for Quebeckers, who were successively subjected to a four-month, often violent student revolt, then to an election that resulted in a gaffe-prone minority government and finally to a nauseating outpouring of corruption scandals.
The year started with polls predicting the demise of the Parti Québécois after some party militants had launched a series of public, vicious attacks against their leader, Pauline Marois. But she bravely stood her ground and eventually won the nickname of Concrete Lady – a reference to Margaret Thatcher’s iron-like determination. After this episode, though, Ms. Marois returned to her usual impulsive and rather soft style of leadership.
By midwinter, the tables had turned. The Coalition Avenir Québec, the third party that had soared in the polls during the previous year, began to lose steam, and the PQ was enjoying a small lead in voters’ intentions.
Then came the student revolt – a huge turmoil over a small matter (a modest hike of university tuition fees) that, incredibly, turned out to be even more divisive than the two referendums on sovereignty. The atmosphere, especially in the Montreal area, became so emotional that lifelong friends stopped talking to each other and families were fractured.
The revolt had a larger dimension, as a coalition of trade unions, the PQ and a host of leftist groups used the student conflict to wage war against the Liberal government of Jean Charest. Ms. Marois, who had often called for a rise in tuition, made a spectacular flip-flop and turned herself into an unconditional supporter of the student rebels, happily sporting their “red square” emblem.
This probably cost the PQ the majority it could have won in the election because, on this issue, two-thirds of Quebeckers were on the side of the government. Many were disgusted to see the Official Opposition take the side of the “street” against a duly elected government.
By September, Ms. Marois had fulfilled her dream of becoming Quebec’s first female premier. This achievement, though, was marred by what appeared to be an assassination attempt on the very night of the election and also by the fact that her victory is hardly a first for women in Canada.
The PQ minority government’s first steps were pathetic. Its half-baked initiatives (most notably a retroactive tax on higher revenues and investment income that the PQ had never mentioned during the election campaign) met a barrage of fury.
The Péquistes quickly backed away from their most controversial plans, but they never enjoyed the honeymoon usually bestowed on newly elected governments. Others took comfort in the thought that things would be much worse if the PQ had won a majority.
Yet, according to the latest opinion polls, the PQ is ahead of the opposition by a small lead, thanks in part to the disorganization of the Quebec Liberal Party, which is both leaderless and badly tainted by allegations of illegal financing. The Liberals will choose a new leader in March.
The year ended with a flurry of devastating revelations on corruption, as the Charbonneau commission unveiled a system of kickbacks in public works contracts. Until now, the public has mostly heard about corrupt contractors and corrupted civil servants at the municipal level, but it’s expected that the next round of hearings, in January, will target former provincial politicians. Who knows what consequences this will have on the next election?
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