Unlike many of his predecessors, Quebec Premier François Legault is not known for his eloquent elocution. He owes much of his political success to his ability to connect with average voters in the vernacular. Oratorical flourishes are just not his thing.
Mr. Legault made an exception to this rule after the Sept. 9 English federal leaders’ debate. A debate question directed at Yves-François Blanchet, summoning the Bloc Québécois leader to explain his support for “discriminatory laws” in Quebec, had outraged many in the province. Its tendentious phrasing implied that Quebeckers held less-than-evolved views on diversity. The moment called for a reply that rose above the Premier’s typical garden-variety prose.
The Coalition Avenir Québec Premier, hence, dug into the archives for inspiration.
“No matter what one says or does in Ottawa, Quebec is a nation, free to protect its language, its values and its powers,” Mr. Legault told reporters, recalling a stirring declaration made by Liberal premier Robert Bourassa after the 1990 failure of the Meech Lake constitutional accord recognizing Quebec as a “distinct society.”
Meech’s collapse led to a surge in nationalist fervour that culminated in the 1995 referendum on sovereignty. Just what was the uber-popular Mr. Legault – a former sovereigntist – getting at by reprising Mr. Bourassa’s phraseology? Was he just defending Quebec’s honour, or was he appealing to Quebeckers to show their indignation at the ballot box?
Le Devoir columnist Michel David reminded his readers that “it was the anger provoked by the rejection of the Meech Lake accord that led Lucien Bouchard to create the Bloc.” He wondered whether the fallout from the English debate “might breathe new life” into the party.
If the English debate did little to shake up the federal election campaign outside Quebec, it seems to have changed everything in La Belle Province. Until then, Mr. Blanchet had struggled to find his footing. He was accused of petulance bordering on arrogance. And he had twisted himself into verbal knots in his attempts to woo progressive voters in Montreal without alienating the Bloc’s mostly conservative base elsewhere in the province. By midcampaign, the Bloc appeared poised to lose a dozen or more of the 32 seats it won in 2019.
Mr. Legault’s tacit endorsement of Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole had served to sap the morale of many Bloc supporters. In 2019, the Premier helped the Bloc by calling on the federal leaders to mind their own business concerning Bill 21, the law on secularism that bans provincial public servants in a position of authority from wearing religious symbols on the job.
This time around, at a news conference to unveil his “demands” of the federal leaders, Mr. Legault did not even mention the Bloc. He made a point of praising Mr. O’Toole’s willingness to provide no-strings-attached federal cash transfers to Quebec. He called Liberal, New Democratic and Green Party promises to enforce national standards in areas of provincial competence “dangerous” for Quebec.
Then came the English debate and that question. “You deny that Quebec has a problem of racism, yet you defend legislation such as bills 96 and 21, which marginalize religious minorities, anglophones and allophones,” moderator Shachi Kurl told Mr. Blanchet. “Quebec is recognized as a distinct society, but for those outside the province, please explain to them why your party also supports these discriminatory laws.”
Amid the uproar, the Debate Broadcast Group defended Ms. Kurl. Her question referring to Bill 21 (enacted into law in 2019) and Bill 96, aimed at protecting French in the workplace (still awaiting adoption), “did not state that Quebeckers are racist.”
Quebeckers answered in unison: It didn’t have to.
The nuances surrounding debates about language and diversity in Quebec do not get much airtime in English Canada. But suffice it to say that there are other ways of looking at them than through the lens of the multicultural consensus that exists in the rest of Canada. Plenty of societies as equally evolved as English Canada hold very different notions about the separation of church and state. And language protection is a legitimate objective in any society.
Luckily for Ms. Kurl, francophone Quebeckers are used to being talked down to by the rest of Canada. While the English debate helped Mr. Blanchet put a poor campaign start behind him, it does not appear to have given him the boost that Meech’s failure gave Mr. Bouchard in 1993, when the Bloc won half of the popular vote and 54 seats.
Then again, only a fool would dare predict what Quebeckers will do at the ballot box.
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