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One week after the Federal election: The aftermath in Québec’s context (#380)

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.

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Philippe Couillard’s “premptive” damage control positioning and constitutional preps (#334)

The marriage of the “adrenaline-charged Super-Duo”, PKP (Pierre Karl Péladeau, the head of the Parti Québécois) and Julie Snyder (Québec’s best known super-star celebrity), this weekend was a reminder to all that the 2018 Québec election will be squarely about Québec independence.

Premier Philippe Couillard knows that this will be the #1 topic coming from the lips of the PQ for the next few years (a major shift from the past which saw the PQ be just as pre-occupied about subjects of day-to-day governance as the Liberals and CAQ).

The turfing of the Bloc Québécois leader a couple months ago, Mario Beaulieu, by his own party (and presumably by PKP) and the resurrection of Gilles Duceppe has shown to what extent the sovereigntist movement is prepared to go to in order achieve their goal.

Under PKP’s leadership, the entire movement is beginning to resemble more and more an extremely slick, well ran, and super-competitive board-room or corporation (of the likes of Wal-Mart when it tries to run all other competitors out of town), rather than that of a political party.

This is new.  We have never seen something like this before.

Although it continues to be new to the extent th at it has not yet found “solid” traction with the electorate, there have been polls which have shown a slight increase in support for the PQ and sovereignty (hovering around 35% or 40% at its highest.  But the numbers remain quite low considering that the figures group soft sovereigntists — who are less inclined to vote “yes” during a referendum, which would probably bring a “YES” to under the numbers I just provided….  But 35% still isn’t a number to laugh at).

Update 2015-08-20 – A new CROP poll today shows that the PQ’s support has fallen to 29% (35% for Francophones) in the days following the PKP/Snyder marriage.  Pierre Karl Péladeau’s personal popularity took a nose dive to 23%.  Perhaps people are seeing after all that the PKP/Snyder’s Party will only be about one topic, and perhaps people have had enough … for now.  The Liberals are only slightly ahead.

Three years can be an eternity in politics, and 2018 could be enough time for the movement to bounce back if the “corporation’s” PQ’s business political plan is effective.

Since 1995, the most effective method Federalist parties have invoked to avoid mass sovereigntist sentiments from reigniting has been to avoid a Federal-Provincial clash between Ottawa and Québec – especially one involving constitutional matters.

Both the Chrétien/Martin Liberals and the Harper Conservatives were of the opinion that slow and stable civil-service governance, and tackling each issue as it arrives (without opening the constitution) was the best way to prevent a show-down or constitution crisis.  I also have to admit that the fact that Harper has kept a very tight reign on the flow of information has probably, and ironically, helped somewhat too (in the sense that it has likely avoided unintentional slips-of-the-tongue from backbencher MP’s… especially preventing comments which could have inflamed sovereignist politicians and debate).

The Chrétien/Martin Liberals, and the Harper Conservatives firmly took a stand that a large degree of national reform could be achieved “on-the-ground” via small adjustments over time (supported by Common Law at the courts) rather than through re-opening the constitution.   In this sense, the constitution, its interpretations, and its application has been able to keep up with the times — turning it into a “living” document, without ever having to change the document’s wording or provisions.

They were of the view that the constitution could be re-opened at a date in the distant future once enough incremental “administrative” and “legal” reforms had occurred over a number of years (or decades) on the ground.  Thus, when it would come time to re-open the constitution, it would have simply been a matter of “updating it” to reflect “already-existing” realities (rather than having it “create new realities” in and of itself).

So far, this approach from Ottawa seems to have worked (on many levels, independent of one’s political affirmations or party beliefs).  It has been good for governance, good for Canada, and good for Québec.

Just as importantly, it had completely taken the wind out of the sails of the Parti Québécois and the Bloc Québécois.  It had given them nothing to grab on to – and a few times the movement had come to the edge of collapsing.

But lo and behold, something has changed this year.  It appears that both Mulcair’s NDP has expressed its desire to try to re-open the constitution (although Trudeau’s has  not expressed a desire to open the consitution on the campaign trail, he has said in his book that he would support such a move in the right “time and place”).

Trudeau’s book “Common Ground” talks in length about his disappointment in that Québec has not signed the constitution.  He did not necessarily believe in Meech or Charlottetown, but he did say that the constitution will have to be re-opened and signed by Québec eventually (something I also say).  But you get the feeling that his “right time and place” may be sooner than later.  I say this because the book gives you the impression that wants this whole issue to go away as fast as possible, and that he believes his terms will be the right ones.  Thus, if elected PM?  (Oh, Oh – there just might be a new constitutional round, and that could mean trouble).

Mulcair has even gone so far as to campaign on the issue of re-opening the constitution in order to abolish the senate (Oh crap – big trouble!).

Their intentions (Trudeau’s and Mulcair’s) might be good, but the timing could not be worse.

They would be putting Premier Couillard in a very difficult position, and they would be picking a fight with PKP-Snyder, as well as with PKP-Snyder’s grasp on Québec’s media, pop-culture elite, and their board-room games to capture the hearts and minds of Québec.

P.Coui1

Above;  Premier Philippe Couillard… If you’re not familiar with him, take a good look now, because if Mulcair or Trudeau (or both of them together) try to re-open the constitution, it will be this man’s face which you will see plastered all over English Canada’s news for the next several years as he tries to keep Canada together.

Although Premier Couillard is the most Federalist premier Québec has possibly ever had, such actions on the part of Trudeau or Mulcair would thrust Couillard into the political battle of not only his life, but possibly for the survival of Canada.

A new round of constitutional discussions would be messy – very very messy.

It would not be as clear-cut as what Mulcair says (and Trudeau isn’t letting us know what he would throw on the table – but if his book is any indicator, it could quite possibly be everything, since he seems to want to change everything [remember that Mansbridge interview a few years ago when Trudeau said he want to, quote “change the world”?] ).

  • This would result in the PQ crying for everything to be put on the table at a new round of constitutional negotiations (which is impossible to do), otherwise they would shift into war mode to raise emotional tensions to the maximum with which to convince Québécois to vote to leave Canada,
  • BC, AB, and SK would have their own demands (Christie Clark, Rachel Notley, and Brad Wall have all hinted they want bigger roles and controls (code for constitutional changes) for their provinces).
  • Ontario (under Kathleen Wynn) says Ontario want new mechanisms to prevent Ottawa’s “lack of cooperation” on matters of importance to her government (with the new Ontario Retirement Pension Plan being a prime example).
  • And then there are the Atlantic Provinces which would likely want their own constitutional provisions to counter the effects of what they believe is the “fight of their lives” to retain political relevance at the national level (as their populations continue to shrink as people move West).

This could not be better news for the PQ and the PKP-Snyder duo.  They must be salivating at the prospect of a possible Mulcair led government (and it would be even better for them if it is a minority government with Mulcair as PM and Trudeau as head of the official opposition – thus paving the way for re-opening the constitution, a demonizing of Canada, and emotions getting the better of everyone – including the public).

Last weekend was the Québec Provincial Young Liberals convention.  Premier Couillard is well aware of the unfolding situation which I just described.

True to his brain-surgeon style, Philippe Couillard is a strategist hors-pair.  At the Liberal convention, he announced that he will “not concede an inch to the sovereignists”.  

For the very first time, we have just seen Couillard shift into high gear anti-sovereigntist mode – that of pre-emptive damage control.

He knows that should the Federal NDP or Liberals come to power in October (as a minority or majority government), they may try to re-open the constitution.

Couillard wants to be ready and have his ducks all in place.

This weekend, he asked Liberal delegates to “quickly” (within hours) give him a short-list of what they would want to see added to the constitution should it be re-opened.  Precisely, he asked them “What is Québec’s role in Canada?”

Do not forget that Couillard is 100% pro-Canada.

His convictions make it so he would do anything to avoid hurting the federation.  He would want any propositions to work for his own electorate and all people in Québec, as well as for everyone else across the country.  In fact, at the Liberal congress, he delivered a fiery speech against sovereignty – one which carried an overtone which would have anyone believe we were already in full referendum mode.  

Thus his question to provincial Liberal delegates should not be viewed as something negative by the rest of Canada.

When he posed the question to delegates, he asked them to bear in mind issues such as:

  • Equalization program,
  • Health payment transfers,
  • Economic development file, such as infrastructure, Northern development, and Maritime strategies.

These are all soft (and safe) issues.  They are issues people across Canada can agree on.

Couillard also asked federal party leaders to make clear their stance on how they view Québec in Canada.  (After all, if he’s going to stick his neck out to confront the PKP-Snyder offensive, and if Mulcair & Trudeau are going to back him into a corner by forcing him to confront PKP-Snyder, he naturally wants Trudeau and Mulcair to also step up to the plate, to put their money where their mouths are, and to take some responsibility for their own words and actions).

The delegates gave Couillard their thoughts, and he sent off a letter to all Federal party leaders with his views on what he believes needs to be reviewed in the constitution:

  • Senate reform
  • Supreme Court judge nominations
  • Limitations on Federal spending in the areas of provincial jurisdiction,
  • A veto vote for any other constitution changes.

When elected in September 2014, Couillard told Harper that he would like to see Québec eventually sign the Canadian Constitution.  Ever since 1982, the fact that Québec has never signed the constitution has been the “raison d’être” and free wind in the sails for the sovereignty movement – precisely the ammo the PQ was always used to argue their point.

Couillard wants to put this to rest once and for all.

But as you can see, re-opening the constitution is a double-edged sword.

So while the rest of the country is talking about things such as whether Toronto should or should not host the 2024 Olympics, whether it should be illegal for regular citizens to transport wine from Halifax to Fredericton in their cars, or whether Alberta should or should not regulate the flavour of chocolate, Philippe Couillard is already beginning to fight the political fight of his life, and that of the future of Canada.

Owing to the fact that others in Canada do not seem to know what is happening, I just hope the rest of Canada does not (innocently and naïvely) act too surprised, offended, or dare I say “angry” when all of this suddenly comes to the fore should a new government in Ottawa try to do something risky such as “prematurely” (or foolishly) reopen the constitution at this point in time — or at the very minimum, before Couillard specifically tells Ottawa, and all the provinces (after back-door discussions) that he’s ready to go forward and safely deal with all of this.

After all, the rest of Canada will have had had someone in Québec who has long since been trying to do his damndest to avert what could have easy been a catastrophe had anyone else been at the helm.

What can I say… The two solitudes (Sigh).


Edit:  An earlier version say that Trudeau was disappointed with the failure of Meech and Charlottetown.  What I meant to say that he was disappointed with the “wording” of Meech and Charlottetown which lead to its failure (meaning his own deal, if he were dealing with the issues, would have proposed quite different matters to entice Québec to sign the constitution… or he would have waited for another time to open the constitution).  I corrected my post.