The following is a commentary I wrote, in conjunction with consultations and discussions with Andrew Griffith of the widely read blog Multicultural Meanderings.
It is a blog worth following (it’s very unique and insightful).
It has been a week since the Federal election (although it feels like more). Stephen Harper is Prime Minster for a few more days.
It is not unreasonable to ask what has changed, in particular in Québec. Although Prime Minister-Elect Justin Trudeau will not assume office until November 4th, the answer is that actually quite a lot has changed.
In fact, everything.
This week we are seeing the convergence of two very important events in Canadian history. Their importance is not to be underestimated. How these two events are being viewed in Québec constitutes an earthquake of change.
First, the obvious event which everyone is talking about in Québec is how a Liberal government, headed by a new leader who appears to embrace a new spirit of openness (relative to the outgoing Prime Minister), embodies a focal point for cohesiveness in both a pan-Canadian and Québec societal sense, rather than regional or partisan divisiveness.
Second, and perhaps more profound, is that this week marks the 20th anniversary of the 1995 referendum for Québec independence. Yet, the manner in which this week is already unfolding, being talked about, and “felt” with the backdrop of a newly elected Trudeau-led government is something I would not have fathomed only a year ago.
Political commentators in Canada’s English media often report on events in Québec from the perspective of being “outside the fish-bowl looking in”. Sure, they can tell you which direction the fish are swimming, as well as the colour of the fish and the pebbles.
However, how the water tastes, the suitability of its temperature, and how the fish feel about each other (and how they feel about those peering in at them from outside the bowl) can only be told from the perspective of the fish themselves.
I’m going to take a crack at describing the tone in Québec from the perspective of the fish (ignoring the colours of the pebbles and the likes).
Let’s back up to a year ago.
Trudeau had already been head of the Liberal party for more than a year. Not only was his party in third place in terms of physical seat counts, but in the minds of Québécois, he might have well been in fifth place. The Liberals were stagnant from a legacy going back to the 1990s, years of leadership gaffes, and a lack of innovative policy.
For the longest time, Trudeau was not making decisions which demarcated himself as a credible replacement to Stephen Harper, and was viewed in Québec as the greater of the two evils.
A large part of the reason was that in the minds of Québécois, he was viewed as “the son of…”. To many Francophones in Québec, Pierre Trudeau (Justin’s father) is still viewed as the man who forced a constitution down the throats of Québec rather than finding common ground which could have seen Québec otherwise sign it. To this day, the constitution is regarded by Québec’s baby-boomer generation as being an illegitimate document, and by some as a reason to withdraw from Canada.
This all played against Trudeau (Jr.) for the longest time in Québec. He was viewed as leader who was set to go nowhere (another in a long line of Liberal Martins, Dions and Ignatiefs).
Let’s move forward by a few months to the winter of 2015 and what happened on the provincial political scene.
Pierre Karl Péladeau (PKP) was campaigning hard for the leadership of the Parti Québécois (PQ). With Harper at the helm of Canada, those in the sovereigntist camp saw PKP as the man to take on the Federal government and achieve sovereignty. He was a successful billionaire, he was business-friendy (able to connect with a new demographic) and he was viewed a potential “saviour” (to quote an often-used word in sovereignist circles last winter). The optimism towards PKP from both soft and hard sovereigntists alike had not been seen since the days of Lucien Bouchard.
Add to this mix that PKP’s wife, Julie Snyder, is Québec’s #2 pop-culture superstar, only eclipsed by Céline Dion. Thus, the PKP/Snyder power-couple was viewed as a potentially unstoppable force to woo the masses and lead Québec to sovereignty.
But starting last April, PKP proved to be awkward in his speeches. His stances on critically important issues were incoherent. For example, one day he would say the Bloc Québecois was utterly useless in Ottawa, and the next day he would say it was as important as oxygen is to life. He would attack immigrants as being detrimental to the sovereignty movement on one day, and then the next day he would say that he loves them and that they’re family.
It was clear that PKP was testing the waters in every direction to see what issues might find traction with the public rather than speak from consensus-reached convictions. It showed a side of him the public did not like. In the end he began to develop an aura of “playing” the public. It diminished his credibly, and prevented support from ever coalescing on a massive scale (he ended up winning the PQ leadership with only 58% of the membership vote, and he and his party have only ever hovered in the 32%-35% percentile range of public approval since his accession as party leader).
In addition, Julie Snyder’s injection of “showmanship” into sovereignist politics (using her TV programs to drum up nationalism, and even going so far as to give autographs in exchange for PQ membership cards at the subway entrances) has been viewed with more and more cynicism on the part of the public. The Julie card appears to have backfired, and her Princess Diana styled wedding in August seemed to be the straw that broke the back of a camel named “credibility”.
This past summer, the PKP/Snyder duo flopped faster than an ice-cream cone melts in the August sun. In Québec, you often hear the phrase “There was no PKP effect” (let alone any political honeymoon) when political commentators talk of the new PKP era of sovereigntist politics. The provincial Liberal government in Québec City has managed to remain at the top of the polls (although their overall polling numbers are not sky-high either).
Fast forward to the present and back to federal politics.
Three weeks before the Federal election the Trudeau Liberals attracted the public’s attention in both Québec and English Canada.
The Liberals developed a wide-range of policy proposals, and famously broke the mould needing to avoid deficits. They were able to position themselves as the ‘change’ option. This shift saw their “no-harm, broad-range middle-ground” brand positioned to the left of the Conservatives.
The NDP — hemmed in by fears they would constitute being irresponsible spenders — adhered to deficit-avoiding orthodoxy (in itself less distinct from the Conservatives). Given the NDP orthodoxy on avoiding deficits allowed the Liberals to carve a platform niche.
In Québec, a lack of enthusiasm for the PQ translated into a lack of enthusiasm for the Bloc Québécois. The Bloc was already dealing with a troubled recent past. It was not viewed as being organized (several months ago it voted in a highly unpopular leader, Mario Beaulieu, who was to be booted out a short while later and succeeded by a recycled Gilles Duceppe).
The Bloc was simply not viewed as a viable contender (the PQ and the Bloc were both riding on the same sinking ship – leaving the public to ask “Why bother?”). On election night, the Bloc had the lowest percent of the popular vote in the history of any sovereignist party in Québec (and only gained new seats through a division of the popular vote, which saw the majority of the popular vote in those same ridings go to the Liberals and NDP – and not to the Bloc).
Yes, the Conservatives played up the Niqab issue in Québec, and kept it front-and-centre. In past elections, the Conservatives’ success hinged on being able to play to their base. They believed the PQ’s 2013/2014 hijab/secular debate in Québec ignited the same base they were looking for. Many of the niqab announcements were made in Quebec..
Even if the public shared the view that the niqab should not be worn during citizenship ceremonies or in the public civil service, Québec’s and Canada’s public showed that they have a greater distaste for “wedge politics”.
Ultimately, the public proved they would rather vote against wedge politics than for policies invoked by such politics. In nutshell, the Conservatives overplayed their card. The tipping point perhaps came with the ‘snitch-line’ announcement (a new government hotline to denounce barbaric cultural practices) by Ministers Leitch and Alexander.
Combined with a lack of enthusiasm for Harper-style politics in many other areas of governance, it is noteworthy that the Conservative gains in Québec were with moderate Clark/Mulroney PC-styled MP’s, and not Harper-style MP’s (the Conservatives increased their seat count to 12 from 5 in Québec, however their share of the popular vote in Quebec only increased to 16.7 compared to 16.5 percent in the previous election).
The Bloc and the Conservatives both played politics on the “extreme ends” of the political spectrum. It left a bad taste in the mouths of both English and French Canada.
On the other end of the political spectrum was the NDP. Traditionally another “extreme end” party, Mulcair tried to moderate the NDP’s tone, pulling it towards the centre on many issues.
However, the feeling in Québec (and seemingly elsewhere in Canada) was that Muclair was trying to bring the party towards the centre on one hand, yet trying not to alienate his own far-left base on the other. It left room for vast amounts of doubt and uncertainty in the minds of the electorate. Not wanting to risk another bout of “extreme end politics”, the public quickly jumped off the NDP ship.
The niqab issue also played a role. Mulcair’s defence of the niqab was framed in legal terms in the context of the Charter and Constitution, a sore point with many in Quebec. In contrast, while having the same substantive position, Trudeau spoke in terms of values, a softer way of making the same point.
Who did this leave as the first choice for Québec and English Canada? The Trudeau Liberals.
Talk radio and TV interview programs tend to reflect a wide spectrum of the public’s thoughts towards issues of the day. What I find fascinating in all of this is that during the past week, Québec’s talk radio (even those commentators and radio hosts who have been cozy with the Conservatives / NDP / Bloc, or vehement anti-Liberals in the past) all seem optimistic — or at the minimum, comfortable — about Trudeau’s victory.
You get the sense that many are even relieved that there is finally middle ground which is finding broad-range consensus. It is a new middle-ground which has the allures of being acceptable to both the left and right elements in Québec’s society, in addition to Atlantic Canada, Ontario, the Prairies, and BC.
The newly elected Conservatives MP’s in Québec and elsewhere in Canada appear to be more moderate than Conservatives of the past. The NDP members who won their seats are more centrist than those who were voted out. All of this is resonating in Québec.
Many sovereignists for the first time are not sad to see the end of the BQ (that’s new). Yet this week in sovereignist camps, there has been quite a bit of talk about how they can learn from the federal Conservatives’ mistakes (as well as the mistakes of the Marois era).
There is now talk that the PQ may want to consider abandoning nationalist identity policies, and embrace all-inclusive (ie: a “multicultural’ish” but labelled as interculturalism, of course) style of sovereigntist policies in order to try to woo the youth and the electorate in the 2018 provincial election. The PQ may be looking for ways to capitalize the public’s sentiment enough is enough with divisive politics based on ethno-religious grounds (ie: the niqab and state secularism).
In this same vein, the BQ looks as if it may be trying to quickly create their own “Trudeau” by having 24 year-old (and defeated BQ candidate) Catherine Fournier slipped into presidency of the BQ. Fournier has been front-and-centre in Québec’s talk-show and panel circuit for about 6 months now.
She has taken many by surprise with her maturity and insight, and people are saying she’s a real change from the old guard. I don’t have any idea if she would be able to woo the youth to the sovereignist cause. However, she’s getting noticed, and she may be just the type to introduce a style of “multicultural’ish” sovereignty.
Yet, if open-style politics led to Trudeau’s election win, he may have already taken the sail out of the sovereigntist movement’s countermeasures (it is difficult for an opposition party to re-invent itself on a new platform when their number one challenger already owns that platform).
The question will be if he can avoid a Federal-Provincial clash of ideologies and values with Québec leading up to the 2018 provincial election (Harper managed to take the wind out of the sails of Québec’s sovereignist politics by staying out of matters of provincial jurisdiction and keeping a tight rein on what issues his MP’s were allowed to comment on… It remains to be seen how Trudeau will manage to juggle similar issues).
For the first time after a federal election, people on the street and in the media in Québec are no longer referring to the Canadian West as the “Conservative base” or the “Conservative West”. Yes, the majority of the Prairie ridings have gone Conservative, yet Québec’s political commentators are emphasizing the fact that that a large chunk of the Prairie’s Conservative ridings only saw Conservatives elected through vote splitting, with the majority of the popular vote in many ridings going to the Liberals/NDP – especially in cities which make up the bulk of the Prairie’s population and decision-making base: Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon and Winnipeg.
That’s a big change in the conversation in Québec, and an even larger change in how Québec views the rest of Canada.
To see almost no federalism-bashing or Canada-bashing in Québec following a very long and hotly (even venomously) contested election — even from those in the sovereignist camp who traditionally love to Canada bash — is quite a game-changer.
To think that we’re seeing this change in tone during the week of the 20th anniversary of the 1995 referendum makes it even more significant.