“Let every student of human nature take this as a rule---that whatever the mind seizes and
dwells upon with peculiar satisfaction is to be held in suspicion.”
~ Francis Bacon
Alright, the PQ won Laurier-Dorion. Everybody take a valium as a great man once said. The roof’s not caving in.
This may be the start of a recognition by non-Francophone voters that they have a normal stake in the Quebec political process. That there are more issues that matter on the social agenda that affect their everyday lives. And that they are making a call on the professed sensibilities of the PQ to be inclusive of all.
It also showed a maturing of the PQ. Bernard Landry staked his personal credibility on going door-to-door with winning candidate Elsie Lefebvre. The message was clear. No longer were ethnic groups to be regarded as “les autres”. This polyglot riding had as legitimate a call on the PQ’s attentions as any other that was “de souche”
We will probably be inundated by analyses of what all this means. Is this a watershed or just a reaction against many of the Charest government’s policies on labor, health-care and immigration that have caused so much division over the past year.
The analysts will focus on all the time-worn questions of how much of a signal this was; are we listening carefully enough and that great standard “Will Quebecers ever be satisfied.?” Perhaps the experts should have listened more carefully over the past year including the period of the federal election in June.
Some days before the national vote a political commentator called to ask me why there was such a vehement reaction here against the Sponsorship Affair. He had concluded that this was the root of the Liberal malaise in Quebec and the reason for the strong Bloc numbers. Sadly he had it wrong about Quebec. As does most of the country most of the time.
In Quebec, politics is a national sport. Whether through vote or voice it is participatory. And the populace comes equipped with a heightened recognition of, and a lower tolerance for, false piety. In simple terms, and with apologies to H.L. Mencken, if you are going to have intimate relations with a McCormick Reaper that’s your business but don’t run on a platform of family values.
The first stirrings of resentment came in reaction to comments by federal Liberals that “…this was the way politics was played in Quebec…”. The game is played hard here no doubt, but it is played hard everywhere contrary to the smug complacencies of most Canadians. The attack ads of the last campaign are eloquent testimony to that.
Quebecers had a nagging sense that the turmoil and tumult in Ottawa was a collective case of “…she doeth protest too much…” The sight of so many veteran politicians engaged in attempting to reverse their own deflowering was a bit too much to take even for hardy Quebec stomachs.
Real bread-and-butter issues got major play on the ground in this Province. The campaign led by labour and social action groups on the reform of U.I. seasonality provisions launched during the Federal election was not completely forgotten. This reached a crescendo some two weeks before the election when we were awash in signs on every fifth lamp-post asking “Qui à volé l’argent des chomeurs?”(Who stole the money from the unemployed?)
Much of the anger was actually aimed at the Charest Liberals but found expression at the ballot box in an anti-federal Liberal vote. In a society where some 40% of workers and their families have some relations to unions the social justice agenda cannot be successfully addressed through carefully worded election promises. The million person protest marches are still very fresh in Quebecers’ minds.
A Quebec Senator once made the point that the real two solitudes in Quebec are not between Francophone and Anglophone. The real two solitudes he said was the constant friction and creative tension between that half of Quebec society that was arguably the most politically progressive in North America and the other half who were truly the heirs of Duplessis.
The voters of Laurier-Dorion demonstrated that they feel fully enfranchised, and they also embrace, many of the disaffections shared by their Francophone co-citoyens. They voted where they live, and the old bogey-man of separation just didn’t cut it anymore. The political expediency of the health-care agreement last week could not shield the government from the fact that people want real answers to real problems. They want to know where their money is going. And they want an end to the ideological discord on the vital issues on the agenda of social justice.
Our hope for the future rests with the recognition by all Canadians that in the final analysis this Quebec is not simpy a society of battling federalists and separatists. This is the society where Louis-Joseph Papineau led the struggle for full emancipation of all minorities in 1832 eight years before England. This is the place where Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine battled successfully for the first experiment in responsible government in the British Empire. Here is the ground that responded to Georges-Etienne Cartier’s call to put aside petty differences and helped give life to the seeds of a great new country. Here is the culture that nurtured Laurier’s vision of an inclusionary and internationalist Canada of the 20th Century.
Quebec was the indispensable crucible that forged the heroism of men like Jean Marchand and Pierre Elliot Trudeau in the 1950’s and 1960’s who broke the back of a revanchiste right and a retrograde clergy and paved the way for a re-definition of what Canada is as a nation through their social policies of the 1970’s and 1980’s. This was the battleground for Jean Lesage’s “Revolution Tranquille” that made so many more of us true stakeholders in our governance and established a model that was followed nationally. And yes, this was the stage where René Levesque gave voice and vigour to a national striving but steadfastly maintained Quebec’s full dedication to democratic principles and pluralistic doctrines.
This is the Quebec we must draw from our institutional memories. This is the Quebec we must learn to talk to. A Quebec whose political patrimony yields much of the heart and soul of the Canadian progressive tradition. And if we can reverse our failure of faith in ourselves and abandon our cautions of contempt, we may finally begin to comprehend how stands Quebec. The voters of Laurier-Dorion may have made a start.