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Quebec Premier François Legault speaks at a news conference, Sept. 23, 2021, at the legislature in Quebec City.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

If you could sum up the year in Quebec politics in three items, it would be these: the provincial government’s plan to unilaterally amend the Canadian Constitution; an English-language election debate moderator asking a question on Bill 21 that was so ignorantly conceived and badly phrased that even Quebeckers opposed to the law were offended; and the Montreal Canadiens roster.

Each in their own way, these represent the new battleground in the province’s relations with the rest of Canada – and with itself. That battleground, in a word, is identity. And the man pushing it to the centre of everything is Premier François Legault.

His election in 2018 at the head of the relatively new Coalition Avenir Québec party marked the end of a half-century of power swings between the federalist Quebec Liberal Party and the separatist Parti Québécois. The CAQ is as nationalist as the PQ but opposes another referendum, just like the Liberals – and that magic formula has destroyed the long-standing Liberal-PQ dialectic.

The events of 2021 made it clear the degree to which Mr. Legault has reordered politics. A Leger poll in early October gave the CAQ 47-per-cent support, 27 points ahead of the second-place Liberals. The PQ, once the soul of the nationalist movement, was at 11 per cent.

Support for the CAQ, and for Mr. Legault himself, have remained high, despite the carnage in long-term care homes during the first wave of COVID-19, and the fact the province has had by far the highest death rate per capita in Canada.

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Mr. Legault’s apparent invulnerability comes from his constant focus on the protection of the French language, which most francophone voters see as fundamental to their identity, and which he plays up as being under threat.

That’s his justification for his plan to unilaterally insert two clauses into Canada’s Constitution – “Quebeckers form a nation”; and “French shall be the only official language of Quebec. It is also the common language of the Quebec nation” – through Bill 96, a proposed law to strengthen the province’s Charter of the French language, a.k.a. Bill 101.

It’s the reason why, also under Bill 96′s proposals, immigrants to Quebec will only be able to access government services in English for the first six months after arrival; why language inspectors will be able to enter workplaces without a warrant and seize documents and computer files; and why businesses will have to justify any requirement that a job candidate be bilingual.

It explains the existence of Bill 21, a 2019 law that bans police officers, judges, prosecutors and teachers from wearing religious dress, such as a hijab or a kippah, on the job.

It’s why Mr. Legault took it upon himself to criticize the Montreal Canadiens for playing a game in May with not one francophone in the lineup.

And it’s why Mr. Legault spun the clumsy words of debate moderator Shachi Kurl in September into what he called an attack on Quebec values. The episode, characterized within the province as just the latest outbreak of “Quebec bashing,” was a gift to Mr. Legault.

In June, out of fear of incurring the wrath of Quebec voters, all federal parties voted for a motion to “acknowledge the will of Quebec” to unilaterally add the two proposed clauses to the Constitution.

And during the 2021 federal election campaign, none of the party leaders dared criticize Bill 21. They only found their voice in December, after a teacher was removed from her job for wearing a hijab. But even then, they were at pains to be delicate in their criticism.

Ottawa’s stand goes further than acquiescing to Mr. Legault’s questionable policies. Bill C-32, a modernization of Canada’s official languages act that died when the election was called, but will almost certainly be revived, rethinks bilingualism as something primarily needed outside Quebec.

The Trudeau government now says protecting French in Quebec is “a fundamental premise of the federal official languages regime.” As such, Bill C-32 would make federally chartered companies in Quebec comply with Bill 101′s laws on the use of French in the workplace. It even says Supreme Court judges would have to be bilingual, a fraught proposal.

In 2021, Mr. Legault reinvented separatism. It’s no longer about Quebec leaving Canada. Now it’s about Canada leaving Quebec alone. And more than traditional sovereigntists ever did, he’s getting what he wants.

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