With the provincial elections now behind it, and the final results being tallied, Québec appears to have given the Liberal Party a clear mandate with a strong 70 seat majority representation in the Assemblée Nationale (Quebec’s provincial parliament).
Or did they? The 33 days leading up to the election were marred by bitterness, much mud-slinging and campaign messages that focused on everything from Québec sovereignty to solving the provincial debt crisis. And of course, the famous Charte des valeurs (Charter of Values). But in the midst of all this, something else seems to have emerged. Many have argued that the PQ won the previous election (they won a minority government) because the Liberals were too corrupt. It was argued that it wasn’t so much the PQ winning as the Liberals losing. If the Liberals could only clean up their act, they would win again. In only a year and a half they appear to have down this, and captured a resounding majority in the elections, which supports the previous argument. But my opinion is that this is an all too simplistic conclusion.
I was born and raised in Montreal, from immigrant parents, who came to Canada and settled in Québec because they felt this was the land of opportunity. Moreover, they loved the people. My Dad started a business and employed dozens of Québecers, and became one of the numerous small businesses that are a critical part of the Québec economy. At the height of the nationalist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, when there was a real chance Québecers would vote to leave Canada, they chose to stay regardless of the outcome. This was their home. As the son of immigrant parents, a native Québecer myself, I grew up learning English and French, and learning to appreciate and respect both languages and cultures. I also gained a strong appreciation for the historic circumstances and the resulting strong national identity that French-speaking Québecers feel. They are proud of their language and their culture, as they should be. And Québec is very much a unique part of Canada.
Living in a minority position first under British rule and then as part of the much larger English community of North America, as well as under the thumb of the Catholic Church, French-speaking Québecers had an upwards battle to not only maintain their language and culture but to give it an opportunity to flourish. And this they did. And it wasn’t the numerous laws like Law 101 or other laws designed to protect the French language that accomplished this, as many would argue. It was their collective will to assert themselves and to demand change that ultimately allowed them to succeed. For those who remained in Québec who were not part of the French-speaking majority, they adopted and welcomed the change. Moreover, immigrants from other countries wanted to be part of this community, speak French or learn the language, and be part of the culture. The English-speaking minority, also long established in Québec, largely embraced the change as well, although there are till many stubborn elements of this community that refuse to yield to this day (they are becoming less in numbers as the years go by).
Today’s Québec is very different from the one I grew up in. The Internet has truly made the world smaller and brought Québecers and everyone else closer together. This generation understands that they are part of a larger global community, and more concerned about opportunity and well being. They have transcended the siege mentality that gripped much of the nationalist movement of my time, and have embraced progress and change while. More importantly, their inclusionary philosophy has encouraged both the English-speaking minority as well as new immigrants to learn to speak French, learn and appreciate the culture and heritage, and be part of a growing Francophone family. This is an important change. Whereas in my time it was felt that we had to force people to learn French and go to French schools (I would argue that this only encouraged more people to do the opposite), today’s immigrants are sending their kids willingly. They want to be a part of it, and increasingly identify themselves as part of it. And the culture only benefits as a result. Beyond assimilating some of the best qualities of people from other countries, it ensures the culture will continue to grow. The rate of decline of babies born to native French-speaking Québecers (those claiming descendence from the original French settlers) continues to decline at an alarming rate, and immigration is one sure way to counter this trend.
The Parti Québécois (PQ), long seen as the voice of the nationalist movement, seems to have lost touch with this generation. Pauline Marois, its now former leader, made things much worse this time around. The “us versus them” mentality they have grown to espouse was not what René Lévesque, its founder, intended. Lévesque wanted an inclusive society that pursued its own destiny. Exiting Canada is still the PQ’s mandate (clause 1 in its charter), but the principles governing the party have changed. Whereas many of the moderates who shared Lévesque’s viewpoint have left, the more extreme elements of the party remain. And they have attracted more of these elements since then. For the PQ, it is still “us versus them”. The French language and culture is under constant attack. We must defend (the term defend was used numerous times in various speeches throughout the campaign, not just from Marois). Again, siege mentality. Meanwhile, the population they hope to connect with has moved on. With its founder deceased, the PQ seems to have lost its way, perhaps its very soul.
Which may explain yesterday’s results. Many Québecers, both French and English speaking, many of them prominent former PQ politicians, showed a clear aversion for many of the principles being defined in the Charter of Values. Many were also shocked to hear Pierre Karl Péladeau actually call for a separate Québec, the first time this was overtly declared in the campaign and resulting in the PQ being on the defensive for the rest of the campaign on this topic. No one can fault him for this, it is in his party’s charter after all. But it does not seem to resonate anymore with today’s population. Perhaps this is because Québecers today feel that they can assert themselves as a nation while still being part of the larger Canadian community. Perhaps. The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) gained many seats at the expense of the PQ in this election. They are a new party with new ideas, but they are still largely unproven. They could well be the new party of the future. But their time hasn’t arrived yet. And given the choices yesterday, the Liberals seemed like a good safe bet. As some noted: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
This isn’t over yet. The Liberals have a lot of work to do to make good on their promises to the Québec electorate. If they go back to the corruption and incompetence that helped get them defeated in the previous election, it can be expected that Québecers will make a different choice next time around. Which is not a bad thing, of course. It does seem clearer, however, that the PQ may not be part of that choice the next time around.