Quebec election: Couillard announces new green initiatives

Quebec election: Couillard announces new green initiatives
Quebec election: No place to go for anglophones
Lip readers across Quebec are trying to solve one question coming from the debate: did the leader of the Coalition Avenir Quebec whisper the words shut up to Jean-Francois Lisée.

During the session Lisée was discussing a topic and he said that Legaults "millionaire friends" will be benefiting from a CAQ proposal on tax breaks.

The camera then cuts to Legault, and he mouthed a word which was not clearly heard: some believe he whispered "ta yeule," Quebecois slang for shut up, while others think he could have say ayoye, which simply means wow.

For non-francophone voters, the illusion of a viable alternative to the Liberals seemed to disappear as soon as the campaign got underway.

Concordia University political science student Christopher Kalafatidis plans to vote for the Liberals on Oct. 1. I want a government that will stand for the anglophone community strongly and I want a party that will stand for diversity strongly." Pierre Obendrauf / Montreal Gazette

That was Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault’s message to English-speaking Quebecers in the lead-up to the Oct. 1 election.

Speaking in English at a party convention on May 27, Legault reached out to Quebec’s 1.1 million anglophones, assuring them his party had no intention of taking the province out of Canada.

“We’re in a new era. There’s no threat of referendum anymore, so there’s no reason to stick with the Liberal Party, which has taken you for granted for decades.

But the illusion of a viable alternative for non-francophone voters seemed to go “poof” as soon as Quebec’s 42nd general election campaign got underway.

At the beginning of the one-on-one exchanges, Lisée diverted from the topic of health care and launched into a series of questions about Québec Solidaire’s party structure.

Legault’s proposal to cut immigration to 40,000 arrivals per year from 52,000 and reject newcomers who fail to pass a French test and Quebec values test within three years appears to have sent most non-francophones scurrying back to the safety of the Liberal Party.

The party leaders didn’t shy away from criticizing the Liberals’ track record of the health care system and widespread budget compressions over the last four years.

And Legault’s dire warning on Sept. 6 that current levels of immigration could result in his grandchildren not speaking French only deepened the disconnect with English-speaking voters.

The tension was almost palpable as Quebec party leaders launched into confrontational and fiery exchanges for the crucial and final debate in the provincial election campaign.

“I think it’s fair to say that now that Legault’s gone all Quebec identity and immigration, I see a lot of anglos saying, ‘Not again,’ said Philippe Fournier, creator of the Qc125 vote-projection blog.

“Who pulls the strings in Québec Solidaire?” Lisée asked, ignoring pleas from the debate moderator for him to stick to the subject of health care.

The campaign has had its bright spots for English-speakers, notably Quebec’s first-ever English televised leaders debate on Monday. It was an opportunity to vent over the National Assembly’s unanimous resolution against the Bonjour-Hi greeting — and to elicit promises from all four leaders to maintain the Secretariat for Relations with English-Speaking Quebecers created by the Liberal government.

Legault’s decision to link immigration to the survival of French escalated what could have been a reasonable discussion on the appropriate number of newcomers, said Graham Fraser, a visiting professor at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and formerly Canada’s Commissioner of Official Languages, as well as a journalist and author.

The party leaders also sparred on the hot-button issue of secularism with differing opinions on Quebec civil servants wearing religious symbols at work.

“To touch that existential soft spot is to transform a policy issue into an existential survival issue and send a pretty powerful message to everybody else that he thinks we’re part of the problem and not part of the solution,” Fraser said.

Depicting immigration as a threat to Quebec identity pushes the buttons of English-speaking Montrealers, for whom diversity is a fact of life, said Harold Chorney, a professor of political science at Concordia University.

Recent polls have suggested the fourth-placed party has been gaining ground and could pick up seats at the expense of the PQ in Montreal.

“I can walk outside my door and it’s completely multicultural and multi-ethnic,” Chorney said.

“We can be rich. We’re capable of doing better,” he said, referring to the Liberals’ longstanding reign in Quebec.

“I think strongly that the majority of the English-speaking community detests the xenophobic, anti-immigrant line,” he said.

“Do you want a police officer to wear a hijab?” Legault asked Couillard, suggesting he ignored the wishes of Quebecers.

That sort of discourse is offensive to a community where “virtually everybody is a descendant of an immigrant,” he said.

Couillard accused him of removing peoples rights, shooting back “How many police officers in Quebec wear a hijab?”

This election marks a historic moment — the first time in nearly half a century that both of Quebec’s leading parties favour staying in Canada, notes Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies.

“We’ve just woken up to this new reality where the sovereignty issue is not part of the election anymore,” he said.

But despite the realignment on sovereignty, English-speaking voters are still between a rock and a hard place, Jedwab said.

Couillard said his team saved money to reinvest in public services and offer more to Quebecers, including seniors.

Make that a ROQ and a hard place, he specified, referring to the mainly francophone regions outside Montreal, or rest of Quebec (ROQ), where Legault has aimed his messaging during the campaign.

Lisée also agreed, saying it was time to invest in nurses and pharmacists in order to better serve patients.

“Right now, the CAQ is emerging as a very regionally rooted party, a non-Montreal party,” Jedwab said.

The CAQ leader argued a premier “needs to foresee” and be more proactive in promoting secularism.

By framing issues in terms of “francophone vs. non-francophone; immigrant vs. non-immigrant,” Legault’s message “somehow gets translated to them or us,” he said.

Massé looked somewhat frustrated as Lisée kept questioning her about who holds the real power in the party.

That’s why, aside from urbanites tempted by Québec solidaire, there’s little chance most anglos will be exploring new political horizons in the Oct. 1 vote, he said.

Immigration and identity politics once again were at the forefront as the leaders of the main parties faced off for the third time Thursday night — a debate that got sidetracked time and again, notably when the PQ's Jean-François Lisée demanded to know just who is Québec Solidaire's leader.

“They’ve grown up with the Liberals. To switch to another party is a very big step,” he said.

"I'm being asked not to ask questions that are too hard of Manon Massé," Lisée said. "But I have a supplementary question to ask: This is a leaders debate.… If you aren't the leader of Québec Solidaire, then who is and why isn't he here at the leaders debate?"

“So even if at the beginning at the campaign, a lot of people were questioning the Liberals, I think what’s happened over the course of the campaign is that issues are still being framed on the basis of language and identity, and that has made any frustrations that anglophones feel about health care, for example, become secondary,” he said.

The polarization between multiethnic Montreal and the ROQ is particularly noticeable in CAQ strongholds like the “couronne,” or outer suburbs north of Montreal, noted Simon Langlois, a professor emeritus of sociology at Université Laval and author of Refondations nationales au Canada et au Québec (Septentrion, 2018).

The debate opened with one-on-one sparring on health care, with Legault asking Couillard if he thought health care had improved in any way in the 15 years since former Liberal premier Jean Charest introduced the retired neurosurgeon to Quebecers as "the saviour of health care."  

Most English-speakers also oppose the CAQ’s promise to abolish school boards, seeing it as an attack on one of the community’s few democratic institutions.

"Québec Solidaire is now an important player in this campaign, and the co-spokespeople, Manon Massé and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois are terrific. But they're spokespeople. Who is the boss of these spokespeople? Who are they speaking for?" he explained in the post-debate scrum.

As for the PQ, even though leader Jean-François Lisée got high marks for his performance in Monday’s English debate, there’s no enthusiasm for his proposed “Bill 202” — a tougher language law that would force companies in Quebec with between 25 and 50 employees to function in French, and require students at English universities to pass a French proficiency test before graduation.

QS's Massé asked to explain her roleThe format of this debate gave the co-spokesperson of Québec Solidaire, Manon Massé, ample opportunity to make her points, and the fact that her party is creeping up in the polls has clearly not been lost on the PQ leader.

Lisée would also compel anglophone CÉGEP students to attend a French CÉGEP in the hinterland for a term.

"You guys know there's no leader of Québec Solidaire," she said to journalists. "We're two co-spokespeople, a man and a woman. You know why? To always make sure there's one man and one woman who are the spokespeople of this party."

Members of Concordia Universitys Political Science Students Association watch the English-language debate at a downtown pub in Montreal. Pierre Obendrauf / Montreal Gazette

On the subject of provincial-federal relations, Lisée invoked the same Machiavellian screed as in the first French debate — that Quebec gets a better deal when a pro-sovereignty party is in power because it makes federalist politicians afraid.

Concordia University political science student Christopher Kalafatidis, 22, is planning to support the Liberals when he votes for the second time in a provincial election on Oct. 1.

The CAQ leader was asked by TVA host Pierre Bruneau whether Quebecers could trust him on such an important subject as immigration, after he responded incorrectly to questions on how the immigration system works earlier this week.

“I want a government that will stand for the anglophone community strongly and I want a party that will stand for diversity strongly. Those are two things I really care about,” said Kalafatidis, the president of the Political Science Students Association of Concordia University.

The final debate, carried on the French-language TVA network, proved to be the testiest yet, as the four leaders debated each other on a variety of topics, one on one, looking for their opponents' weaknesses.

Québec solidaire is “absolutely young and hip. I think their brand is incredible,” he said.

“It’s nice to see a party that can advocate for an independent Quebec and inclusion,” he added.

"Here in Montreal this week, there are people who do their groceries with that budget," responded Couillard. "You need to know that, otherwise you're not sensitive to them.

While the Green Party is unlikely to win a seat, “hopefully just to exist is positive for Quebec, because it shows there’s popularity for environmental issues,” he said.

"Our position is simple," said Legault, reiterating his vow that immigrants who fail to pass a French test and a test on Quebec values would not be allowed to stay in the province.

Even though CAQ’s immigration stance has alienated anglos, the issue is not galvanizing the community the way the debate over the PQ’s Charter of Values did in 2014, Kalafatidis said.

“I haven’t felt the same type of fear or anger or frustration this time around,” he said.

“It’s really going underneath the radar. I think it’s because people don’t want to believe that the CAQ has the capacity to form a government. That could work to the community’s disadvantage, because if we don’t take the threat seriously and we don’t mobilize, the CAQ could form a government,” he said.

In 2014, English-speaking Quebecers — who normally have low voter turnout — showed up at the polls in droves to defeat the PQ and its values charter, said Claire Durand, a polling expert and professor of sociology at the Université de Montréal.

She said, “2014 was the first election where non-francophones voted as much as francophones.”

"Why do you want to remove the rights of a Quebec woman?" the Liberal leader retorted. "You're talking about her like she's not a person."

For example, participation rates on the West Island rose to 81 per cent in Jacques-Cartier, 79 per cent in Nelligan and 77 per cent in Robert-Baldwin, outpacing the provincial average of 63 per cent, she said.

"What breaks our public services are deficits. [Your party] gave them to us," Couillard replied. "We took care of them. We fixed the problem." 

In 2008, turnout in those ridings hovered between 40 and 50 per cent, rising to the high 60s and 70s in 2012, Durand said.

The non-francophone vote also played a decisive role in some ridings outside the English-speaking heartland in western Montreal, she said.

“We have this idea all non-francophones are in the West Island. This has changed a lot,” she said, noting that non-francophones account for 35 per cent of voters in the longtime PQ stronghold of Ste-Marie—St-Jacques, which Québec solidaire’s Manon Massé won by fewer than 100 votes in 2014.

"We've learned to share power," Massé told him."It's a necessary democratic practice, when you want to change the world." 

The other two were Crémazie (now Maurice-Richard), and Laval-des-Rapides, both won by the Liberals.

Lisée's refusal to return to the health care topic was a strange moment, provoking a barrage of questions from journalists after the debate ended.

The risk now is that the high level of cynicism among anglophones will cause them to disengage from the election, Jedwab said.

It is a priority for CBC to create a website that is accessible to all Canadians including people with visual, hearing, motor and cognitive challenges.

“It’s a group that feels that it’s Liberal by birth but it hasn’t felt very empowered. It doesn’t feel that its votes have a lot of influence over the way in which decisions get taken in Quebec,” he said.

“The risk is that if the CAQ gets elected, then it probably will have even less, which is a paradox, because the community already feels disempowered and will feel even more disempowered if the party that’s elected is a regionally driven party with a regional agenda.”

English-speakers by First Official Language Spoken (FOLS): 1.1 million — 13.5% of Quebec’s nearly 8.2 million residents

The Quebec Liberal Party pledges to maintain the Secretariat for Relations with English-Speaking Quebecers it created in November in response to longstanding demands from English-speaking organizations for better representation.

In April, Kathleen Weil, the minister responsible for anglo relations, announced $25 million in funding over six years to promote community vitality, better access to health and social services, efforts to keep young graduates in Quebec and employability.

The Liberal government backed down on abolishing school boards after opposition from the English-speaking community.

The PQ proposes a “cultural concordance” bill that would encourage non-francophones to integrate into Quebec’s French-speaking culture.

It would pass “Bill 202”, a stricter language law that would force companies of 25-50 employees to function in French and force university students to pass a French proficiency test before graduation.

The PQ would require angophone CÉGEP students to compete one term at a French CÉGEP outside Montreal.

The party recognizes the historic presence of the anglophone community, and would require both French- and English-speaking CÉGEP students to acquire a good knowledge of francophone culture.