Skip to main content
opinion

Yves Boisvert is a columnist with La Presse.

Now that the "Charter of Quebec Values" is dead, are we going to introduce mandatory testing of Quebec-ness for immigrants?

The proposal advanced Monday by the Coalition Avenir Québec looks to be illegal, unconstitutional and above all, economically and socially stupid. But it is nonetheless testimony to a troubling shift in Quebec nationalism.

From 1976 to 2007, Quebec was essentially two-party territory, with the federalist Liberals and the independence-minded Parti Québécois trading places in the National Assembly.

Because of the stigma attached to ethnic nationalism, the PQ was cautious to present an open and progressive version of it and to condemn any form of xenophobia in its ranks.

Then came a new brand of nationalists, the Action Démocratique du Québec. After splitting from the Liberals, the ADQ branded itself as "autonomist" – against separation, but not totally federalist. The party stunned observers by becoming the official opposition in the province's 2007 election, leaving the PQ back near the curtains.

How did the ADQ do it? By surfing on the back of the "reasonable accommodation" crisis. After many incendiary and ill-reported stories in the news media, many people came to believe that immigrants and religious minorities got special treatment in Quebec. The day would soon come, it seemed to some, when ham and oreilles de crisse (fried pork rind) would be banned from sugar shacks.

Most of the ADQ's 41 MNAs proved vastly incompetent and were kicked out at the next election. Nevertheless, 2007 was a trauma for the PQ, long Quebec's identity champions. The modern, urban approach advocated by then-leader André Boisclair had to be dropped.

Look at Prime Minister Stephen Harper, many PQ strategists advised – he doesn't try to please the "flat white" crowd. He tours Canada from one Tim Hortons to the next. And while we were trying to befriend Montreal's ethnic communities, the ADQ was stealing our brand in the regions, they said.

Meanwhile, the Liberal government commissioned two respected academics, Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, to assess the situation. They concluded that the crisis was one of perception, especially among Quebeckers who were not in regular contact with immigrants or minorities. The reality was that the province's cultures live very well together.

Liberals thought this was finally over and did not apply the commission's recommendations. PQ intellectuals and party members proposed different initiatives, such as a "Quebec citizenship," but let this controversial stuff sit mostly on the back burner during the next campaign.

I remember a discussion with a pollster during the 2012 provincial election. Focus groups revealed that the perception of "unreasonable accommodation" was still on many voters' minds, even though the parties had dropped it.

This is what inspired the values charter, and what is now driving CAQ Leader François Legault's proposals.

Mr. Legault, a businessman and former PQ industry minister, must know that Quebec lost 25 per cent of its immigrants between 2003 and 2012. He must know that the ones who departed are among the most skilled and best trained. He must know that his proposals to have newcomers tested on their history and French skills can't stand legally.

But the fight is on to form the alternative to the Liberals. And since the public finance reform agenda has been claimed by the Liberals, identity politics is the battlefield.