Justin Ling is a freelance journalist and author of the Bug-Eyed And Shameless newsletter.
It was an odd tableau: François Legault, the Premier of Quebec, praying at a homemade shrine to the province’s longest-serving leader, Maurice Duplessis.
Mr. Duplessis’s 18-year tenure as premier has been dubbed “La Grande Noirceur” – the Great Darkness. Normally his name is a dirty word in the province. Yet in the scene for Infoman, the Québécois political-satire show, Jean-René Dufort walks up behind Mr. Legault, looking puzzled. “What are you doing?” he asks. The Premier responds: “He was the leader of the nation. Now, it’s me.”
The scene was, ostensibly, a joke. But it’s a worrying comparison that keeps coming up.
Mr. Duplessis’s brand of intense nationalism and pugnacious politicking pushed Quebec’s democratic norms to the breaking point. Seeing Jehovah’s Witnesses as a threat to the dominant Roman Catholic Church, his government used the machinery of the state to shut down their businesses, ordered police to target their communities, and passed laws that eviscerated their civil liberties. He appealed to antisemitic prejudices, cracked down on labour unions, and punished ridings that elected the opposition Liberals. When Mr. Duplessis died in office in 1959, Maclean’s journalist Ralph Allen wrote: “the province he loved, cajoled, ruled and bullied for 20 years was certain to be better off.”
More than a half-century later, Quebec is poised to re-elect with a sweeping majority the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) and its leader, Mr. Legault, who shares some of Mr. Duplessis’s habits – contempt for the rule of law, a willingness to ignore Quebeckers’ civil liberties, and a remarkable aptitude for stoking division for his own political ends.
Mr. Legault is set to romp back into office thanks to an electoral system he once swore to fix. In 2018, he signed a pact with other opposition parties to ensure that the election that year would be the last to use the first-past-the-post electoral system, even promising that “we won’t do like Justin Trudeau did.”
The CAQ got as far as tabling a bill to schedule a referendum on that reform, but it withdrew the plan in 2021, citing the pandemic. Mr. Legault has since haughtily declared such reforms are “not a priority for Quebeckers,” adding in September that “nobody is fighting on the bus in Quebec to change the voting method.” With his commanding lead in the polls, it is little wonder that he now wants to keep this electoral system; if the projections are correct, Mr. Legault stands to win upward of 80 per cent of the seats in the National Assembly with less than 40 per cent of the vote. It is cynical all the same.
While in power, he has also leveraged the culture wars to divide and conquer competitors and Quebeckers alike. His odious Bill 21 has stripped citizens of their right to expression in the workplace, forcing women who wear the hijab out of the classroom, forbidding men who wear the turban from being police officers, and casting a pall over Quebec’s ethnic-minority communities.
Mr. Legault has even cast any opposition to the law as anti-Québécois, even when the criticism comes from Quebeckers. When Shachi Kurl, moderating a federal election debate last year, asked leaders whether Bill 21 was “discriminatory” – a word used by the Quebec Superior Court – Mr. Legault was apoplectic. “The Quebec nation is under attack,” he declared.
Last year, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, one of Québec solidaire’s co-spokespeople (Québec solidaire doesn’t have a leader, per se), admonished Mr. Legault for doing his “best imitation” of Mr. Duplessis – for imagining himself as king of the nation, and for deciding unilaterally “who is, and isn’t, Québécois.”
Mr. Duplessis “had plenty of faults,” Mr. Legault retorted, “but he defended his nation. He wasn’t a ‘woke’ like the leader of Québec solidaire.”
Yet Mr. Legault has attacked the very foundations of the Quebec state himself. Quebeckers are guaranteed rights by the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a document their state has never patriated, as well as Quebec’s own charter. In introducing Bill 21, Mr. Legault invoked the notwithstanding clause on both the federal and provincial charters. What’s more, he shut down debate on the bill in the National Assembly.
Then, he introduced the ham-fisted Bill 96, which forces all immigrants to learn French in their first six months in Quebec, severely limits when languages other than French can be used at work (including in health care), could impose enormous difficulties on Indigenous communities, and allows the government to search businesses and seize documents. Mr. Legault used the notwithstanding clause again to ram it through.
Not satisfied with merely overriding these protections of Quebeckers’ civil liberties, Mr. Legault has also twice amended the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms to enshrine his own political project. The amendments enshrined “state laicity,” or the state-imposed secularism, and established that “French is the only official language of Quebec and … the language of integration into the Quebec nation.” Both Charter amendments passed by simple majorities, effectively destroying the principle that such a para-constitutional document should only be modified by consensus.
Mr. Legault’s supposed effort to preserve this Quebec identity has consistently overlapped with his demonization of foreigners. If his CAQ is re-elected, Mr. Legault has vowed to slash immigration levels despite a systematic labour shortage that threatens Quebec’s already strained health care and education systems. He justified this by citing the threat he said immigration posed to Quebec’s “values”: “Quebeckers are peaceful, they don’t like bickering, they don’t like extremists, they don’t like violence,” he explained. He later apologized for those comments, but this past week he told reporters that if Quebec maintains its current immigration levels it would be “suicidal.”
So much of Mr. Legault’s political philosophy revolves around the idea that he, and he alone, decides what is best for Quebeckers: not the Canadian Charter, nor Quebec’s own; not the experts, not the courts – and in some cases, not the available science.
There, his similarities to Mr. Duplessis are striking. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Legault twice imposed a curfew, making Quebec the only jurisdiction in North America to take such a draconian measure – dispatching police across the province to harass and ticket anyone caught outside of their home after dark. Youth, particularly racialized youth, found themselves saddled with hefty fines just for being outside. And yet, even today, the Legault government cannot produce a single scintilla of research establishing the efficacy of such a move. It was only after the end of the second curfew, enacted in January, that a Radio-Canada access-to-information request revealed that the rights-stripping policy was based off little more than a gut feeling.
He has also largely cowed his critics. While Quebec maintains an impressively healthy media market, journalists and columnists have consistently given Mr. Legault a pass on his paternalistic approach to governing. Through the pandemic, most opposition parties were similarly apprehensive about challenging him – partly out of a spirit of crisis-time collaboration, but also because they were clearly intimidated by his sky-high approval ratings.
In some cases, he has even deployed the law against his opponents. When Québec solidaire sought to let university students know that they could change their address to vote where they lived for their studies, the CAQ registered a complaint with Quebec’s chief electoral officer that they were running an “organized scheme” to break the law.
This isn’t to say that the problems Mr. Legault has identified don’t exist. The French language should be protected and promoted, and the state should improve how it welcomes immigrants. Unfortunately, the rest of Canada often belittles those priorities as inherently racist or problematic. Mr. Legault weaponizes that unfair characterization to great effect.
But he does not get to claim a monopoly on tackling those challenges in whatever way he chooses. Both the Liberals, led by Dominique Anglade, and Mr. Nadeau-Dubois’s Québec solidaire are proposing credible plans on how to continue building Quebec’s national project while promoting the rights of cultural communities.
The only truly bad choice in this election would be to reward Mr. Legault’s four years of abusing democratic norms, vilifying his opponents and deepening societal divides in Quebec with even more power.
Editor’s note: (Sept. 30, 2022): A previous version of this piece suggested that Quebec’s Bill 96 limited when languages other than English can be used at certain workplaces. The bill limits use of language other than French.