On June 1st, 2017, Premier Philippe Couillard announced that the time has come to reopen the constitutional debate in Quebec. The response across much of Quebec and Canada was: WHY?

As it turns out, the announcement is merely a confirmation of a promise Couillard made in 2013 when running for leadership of the province. Back then he boldly said he planned to get Quebec to sign the constitution by Canada’s 150th anniversary. As it stands, Quebec has never signed the Canadian constitution. In order to understand why, we need to go back in time.

(The story is a long one, so apologies to any history buffs who feel that vital information is missing.)

Before 1982, Canada’s constitution remained in London and only the British government could amend it. However, the act of getting permission from Great Britain became a purely symbolic act as Canada and other former British colonies asserted their independence. All Canada had to do was ask the British to amend their constitution and the crown would rubber stamp their request. Nonetheless, in the late 1970s and early 80s, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, father of our current prime minister, came up with a plan to bring Canada’s constitution home.

Trudeau’s plan consisted of repatriating the constitution, modifying it by entrenching his charter of rights, what we now know as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and establishing an amendment formula. In order to do so, he got provincial leaders together, one of whom was the father of the Quebec Sovereigntist movement, René Lévesque.

The goal was to get the provinces to agree to Trudeau’s plan. At the same time, the Prime Minister put the question of what was allowed to the Supreme Court in a case we now know as the Patriation Reference.

The Supreme Court had to answer many questions, but the main one was whether Ottawa was bound by law to get the consent of the provinces to amend the constitution. The Court said no.

Quebec wanted recognition of itself as a distinct society, a veto over constitutional amendments, as well as an opt out clause that would allow provinces an out of certain aspects of the constitution with some kind of compensation so they would not have to pay for any federal actions that were not in their interests. Lévesque and Quebec were denied, and the constitution was repatriated and entrenched without Quebec’s consent.

Two more attempts were made to get Quebec to sign the constitution, but both failed. As it has never consented to the current constitution, Quebec remains bound by it only because it remains part of Canada.

With Couillard’s announcement came the release of a two hundred page document outlining his government’s vision for Quebec and its place in Canada. The document cannot be called a plan because it sets no timeline for Quebec to sign and no step by step procedure his government would want to use.

The document has a lot of words, but says nothing of value.

It asserts the Quebecois identity as “our way of being Canadian” but when it comes to identifying the people of Quebec, the text limits them to four groups: French speakers, English speakers and the First Nations and Inuit. Allophones such as the Jews, the Greeks, the Italians, Eastern Europeans and the Asian communities who helped to build Quebec are almost completely left out.

The only time Allophones are mentioned in the text is in the context of “interculturalism” and “integration” which, when put together, sound dangerously like assimilation. Since Quebec policy treats Allophones as potential Francophones by making their children go to French school, this is hardly surprising. The text also fails to address the growing problem of Xenophobia in Quebec, which begs the question as to whether the document’s definition of the English Speaking Quebecois refers exclusively to white English-speakers in the province.

What Couillard’s document does do is reiterate what Quebec wants from a relationship with Canada as party to the constitution:

  • Recognition of the Quebec Nation
  • Respect for Quebec’s areas of jurisdiction
  • Autonomy
  • Flexibility and asymmetry
  • Cooperation and administrative agreements
  • Shared institutions

This is all sealed together with the assertion that Quebec’s “full and complete participation in Canada” must come from a “concrete and meaningful recognition” of the province as “the only predominantly French-speaking state in North America and as such, heir to a rich and unique culture that must be protected, supported, and developed.”

Couillard’s plan to reopen the constitutional debate has been met with mixed feelings.

Bloc Québecois leader Martine Ouellet acknowledges that it’s a political move but welcomes it as an opportunity to reopen discussions about Quebec sovereignty. Though the Parti Québecois has decided to put aside the issue of sovereignty for the time being, leader Jean-François Lisée commended Couillard for acknowledging the need to address Quebec’s place within Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has more or less said it’s not a topic to be reopened, while Amir Khadir, an MNA for Québec Solidaire, claims it’s a ploy by the Couillard government to deflect attention from the scandals surrounding the Premier and his party.

It is Khadir’s interpretation of Couillard’s move that seems the most plausible. A simple Google search of Couillard’s name with the word “scandal” will reveal much about the shortcomings of his government. There is everything from the arrest of deputy-premier Nathalie Normandeau for corruption, to Quebec Health Minister Gaetan Barrette’s mismanagement of our health care system and Barrette’s defensive victim-blaming, to the police surveillance scandal, to the Bombardier executive bonus scandal available to learn about online. With his government up for reelection next year, there is much Couillard needs to deflect attention from.

Let’s not take the bait, and keep our eyes where they belong: not on a can of worms that should not be opened, but on the government holding the can opener.

For decades, the political scene in Quebec has been in a quagmire. The national question has dominated the discourse, replacing the left-right axis found almost everywhere else with a sovereigntist/federalist one.

Two parties have benefited both greatly and equally from this setup – The Parti-Quebecois (PQ) and the Liberal Party of Quebec (PLQ) have been in power since the 1960s.

At first, many progressives felt they had no choice but to park their vote with the PQ, knowing that a better and more just world would always take a backseat to sovereignty, language and national identity. Federalist progressives, on the other hand, could either vote PQ and hope there wasn’t a referendum or hold their nose, push their ideals to the side, and vote Liberal.

Recently, other options have emerged, most notably Quebec Solidaire (QS) and a re-born provincial Green Party. Unfortunately, the two-party system seems too powerful to break. If there was ever a time for someone to come along and prove, once and for all, that the PLQ and PQ were just two sides of the same coin, neither being a place for progressives to park their vote, now would be that time.

Looks like the savior of Quebec politics may have just arrived. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Pierre-Karl Péladeau, or PKP as his friends, enemies and pretty much everyone else knows him.

A Short Honeymoon

Since becoming PQ leader, at least officially (as if it was really a contest), PKP has enjoyed some positive numbers. Support for the PQ is up and so is support for sovereignty.

Not surprising, really. A party that was down in the dumps after losing badly now has a leader with name recognition beyond the political sphere. He’s an avowed sovereigntist, too.

pkp je veut un pays

Who can forget him almost shouting “Je veux un pays!” It is, after all, the moment that pretty much derailed the Marois campaign.

He is a businessman, known for getting what he wants. He wanted a national right-wing cable news network, he got one. He wanted to raise our cable and internet rates, he did that, too.

You can see how some have faith that this businessman who wants to make Quebec a country can achieve that goal, too. They can ignore the fact that their new savior of Quebec is famous for creating a network accused of Quebec bashing on many occasions as long as he gets the job done.

The honeymoon, however, may be short-lived, and cracks in his armour may begin to show sooner rather than later.

Not a Great Business Man

One of the issues the PQ has had to deal with constantly over the decades is that their nationalist ideals were out of touch with economic reality. And an independent Quebec would spell financial catastrophe. In the early days, the party took an approach that opposed the capitalist system, so unconventional economic ideas were possible. Things have changed.

The PQ now wants to show that separating from Canada is possible and good for business. Who better to lead this initiative than a businessman with a proven track record, right?

pkp sun news canadian flags

Well, if you look at PKP’s track record as a businessman, it’s really not that great. Sure, Quebecor is a powerhouse, but it’s the house Pierre Péladeau, PKP’s father built. Since PKP took over, Quebecor has underperformed most major media companies in Canada and failed at international expansion with Quebecor World. Not to mention the fact that Sun News is no more, after just under four years in operation.

Is this what the PQ is basing their pro-business future on? At this rate, he’ll get his country, but it will only last three years and a bit.

Not a Union Man

The PQ has always relied on union support to win power. Not only does their new leader lack any pro-union cred, his name is as reviled in union circles as the Trudeau name is hated in sovereigntist ones.

No matter how corrupt Quebec politics may be, selling the man who locked out workers for over a year to union membership is just a non-starter. This is when the recognition factor starts to work against Péladeau.

The unions really don’t have many other options. The Liberals, the party of austerity and pension cuts are out of the question. Will they actually bite the bullet and back QS, a party with only three seats? Time will tell.

Without union support, the PQ will be desperate to pull any type of progressive allies they can. PKP is also the man who directed his media outlets to discredit the student protests in 2012. So a Marois-style appeal to more radical elements of Quebec society is out of the question.

One Issue Party

René Lévesque was first elected on two promises: to make Quebec a better place to live through progressive social policies and to hold a referendum. He delivered on both.

rene levesque

He wanted to show just what kind of a country Quebec could be before giving people the chance to make it his dream a reality. Lévesque must now be rolling over a homeless man in his grave.

PKP wants a country, too, but it’s the same sort of country Quebecers already have through Harper. His nationalism is purely ethnic and linguistic with no hint at being progressive on any other fronts.

A Smaller Base

The PQ has always had two main bases of support: progressive sovereigntists and conservative nationalists. Marois clearly favoured the latter and risked alienating the former, but PKP has no chance with the former to begin with. The only support he will get from progressives will come from those who want a country at all costs.

It is a much smaller base to pull from. If the union support is out, he’ll just have to wrap himself in the Quebec flag and pray for a miracle. The best he can hope for is opposition or maybe a minority government if the Liberals really screw up bad.

But where will all that formerly potential PQ support go? It won’t be to the Liberals for sure. Progressives may just not turn up to vote, or possibly it will galvanize behind another party, one that puts actual societal change at the forefront, leaving the national question on the backburner.

If that happens, and the discourse in Quebec politics shifts to a new axis, people will have one man to thank: Pierre-Karl Péladeau.

A wise man once spoke ill of political parties. He suggested that they should exist only for as long as it takes to accomplish their goals, and that once this is done they disband, for they tend not to age very well. The longer a political party continues to amble along, the higher the chance it will grow inept and corrupt. It will lose sight of its original purpose and become increasingly defensive in trying to justify its existence. Given enough time it will become the personification of all the errors that it originally sought to correct.

The wise man that I’m paraphrasing is none other than René Lévesque, and he was speaking specifically of the future of the Parti Québécois from around the time he resigned as premier back in 1985.

Much to ‘Oncle René’s’ likely chagrin, the PQ has become the tired old party of Quebec politics and the 2014 election has demonstrated their current incarnation is wholly unfit to govern the province because of how it chooses to self-identify. Marois made the decision to make this election about institutionalizing discriminatory hiring practices and running headlong into another interminable round of go-nowhere constitutional negotiations. I cannot recall another instance in Canadian politics in which a major political party has been so thoroughly out of touch with the population it represents; and therein lies the problem.

The PQ has demonstrated, unequivocally, that they call the shots on who they consider to be Québécois. They, somewhat like the federal Tories, are disinterested in appealing to anyone ‘outside the tribe’, anyone who isn’t already a diehard supporter and, as such, narrowed the margins on who will vote for them by a considerable degree. In sum, those who will vote PQ will have had their minds made up well before the writ was dropped. How anyone in the PQ camp could have thought this was a good idea is beyond me. Perhaps it proves the point – the Parti Québécois is so convinced of the justness of their cause they’re completely blind to how they’re perceived by the public they ostensibly hope to represent.

And so today we pull the trigger, but let’s face it: the decision has already been made. Philippe Couillard will be the next premier of Quebec and it’s entirely possible he’ll win enough seats to form a majority government.

This reality is not a consequence of any grand vision or sensible plan on the part of the Quebec Liberal Party or its leader, but entirely as a result of how they responded to the unmitigated political disaster of a campaign put on the Parti Québécois.

In boxing it’s called ‘rope-a-dope’ and Muhammad Ali used it to successfully defeat George Foreman in the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle bout held in Kinshasa. The technique involves one man taking a defensive position from the outset and letting his opponent flail away until exhaustion, at which point the defender begins exploiting the inevitable mistakes and subsequent weaknesses until overcoming his opponent. By propping himself against the edge of the ring, Ali was able to transfer the shock of Foreman’s repeated blows onto the elasticity of the ropes rather than his own body. All of Foreman’s effort was for naught, and the more frantically he tried to land the perfect punch the more he opened himself up to increasingly debilitating strikes.

Forty years later the same basic concept may have been used by Couillard and his tacticians to expose the xenophobic, intolerant and unreservedly opportunistic péquiste government for what it truly is. And frankly, we’re better off for it. Everyone who ever questioned the PQ’s social-democratic and progressive integrity has been vindicated. We now have actual proof the PQ is more concerned about correcting imagined threats to our culture and bickering with the federal and other provincial governments than it is with the well-being of the people of Quebec.

QC_polling_campaign_2014

In 2013-14 the PQ sold out its base. First they rammed through austerity measures and increases to tuition, alienating itself from the student movement that played an important role in getting Jean Charest evicted from power. Then they proposed a Machiavellian charter ostensibly designed to ensure men and women are equal in our province and that secularism reigns in the civil service, but in reality effectively institutionalizing discriminatory hiring practices and forcing religious minorities – a significant number of whom are women – from their jobs.

So much for social democracy and progressivism.

And then, just when you thought the PQ couldn’t make any more appallingly foolish political decisions, they turn around and hire the union-busting C. Montgomery Burns of Quebec media, Pierre-Karl Péladeau. The man who owns Quebecor and Sun Media/Sun News Network, the media conglomerate nearly single-handedly responsible for all the yellow journalism, anti-Quebec, anti-Canadian and general anti-immigrant sentiment in the whole country, this was to be the economic wizard of a newly independent Quebec.

Needless to say all of this didn’t sit very well with Quebec voters. On the idea of a referendum Quebecers of all languages, religions and cultural backgrounds are emphatically opposed. The simple reality is that we’re poor, a have-not province, and independence isn’t going to change that (other than eliminating equalization payments and creating a lot more debt). The people of Quebec want jobs, good jobs, jobs they can work until they retire that will afford them a modest middle class lifestyle and the means to raise a family. Dreams of independence went over like a lead zeppelin – what are the people here to dream of when their bread and butter concerns aren’t being addressed? And the more Pauline Marois or Françoise David pushed the dream of an independent country, the more they pushed themselves away from a sizable group of people in this province who are savvy enough to question the near fanatical devotion of separatist politicians to the cause.

We’ve been preached to enough. The people of Quebec have toiled for many generations under those who proselytised to the masses with ideas of future paradise in exchange for present-day suffering.

By the end of the day we may have four years of uninterrupted Liberal governance to look forward to and a neurosurgeon for a premier. We’ll have a man who got his start under Charest but has so far managed to keep his name out of Charbonneau Commission hearings. We’ll have a man who doesn’t believe multi-lingualism will threaten the sanctity of Quebec culture. We’ll have a man who was either in cahoots with or was duped by Arthur Porter (and I’ll add the list of names in the latter camp is far longer than those in the former) and who made the choice to legally deposit his earnings from some years working in Saudi Arabia into an offshore tax haven, rather than his home province where he’d lose about half to the state. Perhaps most importantly, we’ll have a man with enough political intelligence to be against another referendum and virulently opposed to the very essence of Bill 60. In my opinion, given the poverty of our provincial politics, this is the lesser evil, the best-case scenario.

But don’t take this as any kind of personal endorsement either. I’m not impressed across the board, and haven’t yet decided whether or not I’ll spoil my ballot. This is merely an opinion on the campaign and what I believe to be the likely outcome, no more or less.