In 1995, on the eve of the second Quebec independence referendum, Jean Chrétien the 20th Prime Minister of Canada, either through fear of an independent Quebec or through appearing traitorous to his home province, mentioned rather bizarrely, his desire to having been present at a seemingly innocuous battle fought nearly 236 years ago.
The battle in question was that of the Plains of Abraham, located on a farm a few minutes east of Quebec City. The battle lasted only 20 minutes, and through one volley of British musket fire, the fate and identity of North America had been entirely transformed.
Chrétien’s wish to having been in New France in 1759, so to awake the French commander-in-chief, thus alerting the Quebec garrison to the British threat (a feat that would have almost certainly won the French the battle) may not seem so controversial when considering the plight of the Franco-Canadian. They had already suffered forced deportation in Acadia, with some academics even going so far as to call it genocide. Soon after, they would face government-mandated assimilation and the stark humiliation of colonialism.
Chrétien’s comments, however, may not be so simple. This, after all, was the Prime Minister of Canada, the de facto leader of the Federalist campaign, and the man who threatened martial requisition of Quebec if the province chose to invoke independence. The very fact Chrétien expressed desperate remorse over an event that leads directly to a Canadian Quebec suggests a rather more complicated relationship between English and French Canada.
This speech rang like the desperate concession a Middle-Eastern dictator might give to an ethnic minority: yes, your nation was grouped with ours for the sake of geographical efficiency, or simply through an act of spectacular colonial ignorance, but you’d have a lot more money if you stayed!
The awkward Anglo-French relationship has been at the crux of nearly every major Canadian issue since the idea of the colony began to form in the minds of British and French aristocrats. From Voltaire in the 18th century, despairing at the loss of human life over “a few acres of snow,” up until Justin Trudeau’s lawless desire to placate the Quebecois, resulting in the SNC-Lavalin scandal; the preservation of a Canadian Quebec has come to define the identity of Canada.
The consequences of Quebec’s artificial grouping with English Canada has been overt ever since the October crisis in 1970. Since then, relapses of separatist sentiment have occurred almost methodically; resurfacing every decade or so. Bear with me, dear reader, as I illustrate this point: ten years on from the October crisis was the first Quebec Independence referendum, which the sovereigntists lost by a margin of ten percent. 15 years later, came the second independence referendum, which the sovereigntists lost by a margin of a single percentile. Another 17 years goes by and we have the most recent scare in 2012.
If those decreasing margins are anything to go by, Canadians should let out a collective sigh of relief that no referendum was ever materialized in 2012.
It comes as a surprise, then, that after each of these crises, political commentators could be so brash as to declare the separatist movement dead. One, perhaps, could be forgiven for saying so after Pierre Trudeau’s cooly handled October crisis, yet to say so after 1995, or even after Jacques Parizeau’s immigrant-bashing, is either an act of extraordinary hubris or laughable historical ignorance.
Quebec’s Dormant Separatism
When the CAQ came to power in 2018, political commentators and politicians again failed to take note of history. Throwing caution to the wind, they described the CAQ’s electoral victory, which arguably derived from their apathy towards separation, as being “the end of the [sepratist] dream.”
Again, this argument can be somewhat justified. For the first time in over half a century, a provincial election was not a vote between federalism or separatism, but instead, economic and political preferences. Additionally, the strongly pro-separation Parti Quebecois were all but wiped out, losing in the process its official party status. Perhaps, after all this turmoil, Quebec separatism had indeed given out its last sickly cough.
I’m afraid that this is nothing but blind optimism. The very same arguments made by those wishing to dismiss separatism, like those mentioned above, are ironically the best points of attack for those who see separatism as dormant. The mouth-opening success of the radical Quebec Solidaire, for example, who favour separatism, and who performed strongly amongst the youth vote, suggests a new generation of pro-separatist voters.
Admittedly, Quebec’s independence has never been further away. The separatist parties are divided, and by having a Quebecois Prime Minister in Ottawa, it is difficult to argue that Quebec is being taken advantage of. However, sentiment does change, as does the political climate, and if independence ever does occur, and if the infeasibilities are ever overcome, then the very survival of Canada is at risk.
I mean not to ring the words of those reactionary prophets of doom, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, western politics has slogged down a path of fragmentation in reaction to globalization. If the once non-existent, buried emotions of nationalism can rumble from the depths as it has in Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders, and Bavaria, and from supranational organizations like the EU and the USSR, then who can reasonably suggest that it will not erupt in Quebec, where differences are so overt, and from Canada, a country that seems to personify globalization itself.
Quebec Premier François Legault has called Don Cherry “a clown” after he was fired for his poppy comments. Speaking to a Quebec City radio station, Legault told listeners that he was “very happy” that Cherry had been booted.
The premier went on to say that “He’s a bit of a clown … I’ve often seen him whining against francophones. Now he’s doing it against immigrants.”
It is unsurprising that Legault is celebrating Cherry’s ousting. The Hockey icon often takes every opportunity to insult the Quebecois. In the past, Cherry has made televised comments about the Quebecois, accusing them of being effeminate for wearing visors, and ruining the Canadian game.
On Twitter, French Canadians also expressed their support of Sportsnet’s decision to fire Cherry. The general sentiment was that this decision was a long time coming. Some users expressed irritation that Cherry was fired for an alleged derogatory comment about immigrants, and not the comments he made about Quebecois for years.
Finance Minister Eric Girard celebrated on Twitter today, for what he proclaimed to be a milestone in Quebec’s credit rating.
According to Girard, the DBRS Morningstar global credit rating agency officially upgraded Quebec’s rating from A (high), where it has remained since 2006, to AA (low), thus raising La Belle Province’s economic outlook from stable to positive.
“Excellent news! The rating agency DBRS raises Quebec’s credit rating to AA “low.” A first for Quebec! The agency highlights the remarkable performance of the Québec economy and the responsible management of public finances,” said Girard in a tweet translated by Google.
The announcement from Morningstar came on Tuesday, only days following the Coalition Avenir Quebec government (CAQ) government leader Premier Francois Legault unveiling of a provincial “economic update,” which will run a $4.8 billion surplus for the province until March 2020.
Quebec expects to run a $1.4 billion surplus at the end of this fiscal year, which according to Morningstar, puts the province in a good position, as the improved credit rating means Quebec will generally have lower borrowing costs for the province.
Montreal has been subject to a spree of organized crime shootings. In this year alone, there have been 17 murders in the greater Montreal area, according to Global News. These shootings have become increasingly brutal and audacious.
Despite this, the police have, so far, declined to comment on whether Montreal has experienced a disproportionate amount of crime this year. This doesn’t just pertain to organized crime, however, as sporadic crime is also on the up in the city.
The Montreal police have been criticized for their lack of transparency in reporting these crimes to the general public. In Toronto, for instance, the police will publish crime statistics every month. This does not happen in Montreal, and the level and growth of crime remains opaque.
The only method available to the press and the general public is to file a freedom of information request—a process that is painfully slow and tedious. When the Montreal newspaper, La Presse, attempted to compile a list of the number of murders, attempted murders, and shootings, they were unable to do so due to the lack of statistics.
Many crime experts have blamed the increase of organized crime on a power vacuum within the mafia underworld.
The Conservatives took only 10 seats in Quebec in the 2019 election, one less than in 2015. Some of these were safe seats. The Conservatives beat a second-place Bloc Quebecois by over 17,000 votes in one riding and by over 10,000 votes in 4 more ridings. In two others, they beat the second-place Bloc by 6,306 and 4,813. The only really close CPC win was in Chicoutimi-Le Fjord, by 614 votes. The CPC also beat Maxime Bernier, People’s Party of Canada leader, by over 6000 votes. The CPC’s average victory was over 10,000 votes in the 10 Quebec ridings they won.
Elsewhere in Quebec, the Conservatives did terribly. They rarely placed second and, even where they did, were still, in most cases, way behind the winner. Meanwhile, in Ontario, the Liberals swept all 25 of Toronto’s seats, and 24 out of 29 seats in the surrounding suburbs. That’s 49 Liberals to 5 Conservatives in the GTA. In 2011, by comparison, the Liberals and NDP each won only 7 Toronto seats and the Conservatives swept the GTA. How many Quebec seats in that 2011 Conservative majority? Five.
Scheer’s team obviously hoped to pick up seats in Quebec. They apparently didn’t ask “Is that realistic?” and “At what cost?”
Why it is so important to the CPC to pander to Quebec, to the point of being weak on the nation’s economic interest, religious freedom, and life issues, when Harper won his only majority with only 5 seats in Quebec? How many seats were they hoping for? Fifteen max? Here is their track record: 0 (2004), 10 (2006), 10 (2008), 5 (2011), 11 (2015) and now 10 seats in 2019. They have nothing to show for their pandering, but they lost of 90% of GTA seats.
Scheer needed Ontario. He seemed to believe that saying very little of substance and taking no bold or innovative position on anything would do the trick, and that the Prime Minister’s own antics and scandals would bring him down. Evidently, voters needed more.
By “more” I don’t just mean in terms of policy difference, although Scheer’s party could have offered far more of that. I think voters needed to see more in terms of character difference. They know Trudeau is entitled, hypocritical, and untrustworthy. But what about Andrew Scheer, the career politician? Is he much different? On the campaign trail, it didn’t seem like it.
He needed to do more than attack a politically wounded Trudeau. He needed to present himself as a leader. Responding to brownface/blackface, Singh at least seemed sincere and concerned for Canadians. Scheer’s initial outrage seemed feigned. And in the debate, he seemed to relish attacking Trudeau too much–like he was happy blackface happened. Glee at another person’s failings isn’t a good look. But on substantive policy issues, he had little to offer. He was unclear on how to get pipelines built or how to balance the budget.
Honestly, I can’t think of anything Scheer said that made him stand out, except maybe that Quebec should be allowed to collect federal tax and to have more control over immigration. Scheer obviously hoped to pick up seats in Quebec and did plenty of pandering to that end. He even refused to say that he would legally fight Quebec’s efforts to block needed national infrastructure projects like pipelines.
Scheer was also unclear in his responses to questions about abortion (will you control your caucus on the issue? do you support funding abortions in other countries?). I’ve heard commentators say the CPC blew this election because Scheer is (personally, anyway) pro-life and socially conservative, while Quebec is very socially liberal. They fail to see that their obsession with gaining seats in the most liberal province is hurting them beyond it.
There are plenty of socially conservative voters in the GTA, and the Greater Vancouver Area, for that matter. For example, the prominent, pro-choice Conservative Lisa Raitt lost her GTA seat badly (by over 9,000 votes), whereas the openly pro-life Conservative Tamara Jansen took a GVA riding that the Liberals had won in 2015 by almost 6,000 votes.
Certainly, many potential CPC voters are pro-choice, but that doesn’t mean they can’t respect and support pro-life politicians. The evidence from swing ridings is that they can. But it’s easier to respect a politician who makes their position clear. Scheer did not.
Scheer gave his socially conservative base no reason to vote for him. He reneged on the promise of a tax credit for private school, which many southern Ontarians choose for religious reasons (even if they are not rich). He was ambiguous (or worse) regarding the freedom of caucus members to introduce bills to protect pre-born children, saying he would fight efforts to reopen the debate, but also that his party allowed different opinions and free votes(?). Unlike Harper, he was unwilling to state that his government would not fund abortion overseas.
That was not the only chance for principled leadership that Scheer flubbed. Quebec’s Bill 21 may have offered Scheer the clearest opportunity to distinguish himself as a principled leader and to give swing voters in the GTA and GVA a reason to vote CPC.
Like Trudeau and Singh, Scheer offered no plan to push back against Quebec’s Bill 21. Unlike Trudeau and Singh, Scheer did not even criticize the bill, but merely affirmed his own commitment to religious freedom and diversity.
Fairly or unfairly, many people remain suspicious of the Conservatives’ commitment to religious freedom for minority faiths. The barbaric practices “tip line” gimmick in the 2015 election certainly didn’t help.
Those whose resting assumption is that the Conservatives do not like diversity would have had a solid reason to question that assumption had Scheer been the only one defending Quebec’s minorities. Religious voters who often vote Liberal based on their perception that the Liberals are the party that defends minority faiths might have changed their vote. And religious people who typically vote CPC would have had more motivation to go vote.
Scheer should have combined opposition to Bill 21 with opposition to the Liberals’ Summer Jobs attestation requirement, linking the two together in voters’ minds. The message: of course Trudeau doesn’t support religious people in Quebec–he’s discriminating against them across Canada. Canada Summer Jobs was Trudeau’s secularism law. In Quebec, it’s no public sector jobs for people who visibly express their faith. In Trudeau’s Canada, it’s exclusion from public benefits if you don’t profess Trudeau’s ideology. Which is worse?
Scheer’s office was maddeningly slow and cautious in its response to Canada Summer Jobs. The CPC seems so irrationally terrified of being painted “anti-choice” that they fail to show leadership on such fundamental issues as freedom of religion and expression.
One defence of Scheer’s silence on Bill 21 is that Conservatives respect the division of powers between federal and provincial government. Frankly, this supposedly principled reason hardly seems like the real reason for the Scheer campaign’s pandering. But if it was, it was mistaken. First, Scheer could have criticized the bill and called on Quebec to repeal it without violating the legal division of powers–that would simply be showing leadership.
However, Scheer could also have made the case that Bill 21 is constitutionally unacceptable, not only as a violation of the Charter (for which Quebec can invoke the notwithstanding clause), but also as a violation of our 1867 Constitution. Before the Charter was enacted in 1982, Canada’s courts protected religious minorities (particularly in Quebec) by holding that religion and political speech were matters beyond provincial legislative competence, meaning a province could not make these the direct target of any law, though they could be regulated incidentally. This protects minorities against regional biases.
Scheer professes to take religious freedom seriously. He has criticized the Liberals for closing the Office of Ambassador for Religious Freedom–which had a mandate to promote religious freedom abroad through diplomacy–and said he would reopen it. This would be much more convincing if he were willing to vigorously defend religious freedom at home, first. In this campaign, perhaps caving to liberal pundits and political consultants, Scheer failed to do so.
Scheer has done his best to present himself and his party as officially pro-choice. He said next to nothing about the issue of medically assisted suicide, even as the Liberals promised to expand it. Avoiding “life issues” seems par for the course among CPC’s leadership. Will weakness on freedom of speech and religion follow?
Principled leadership won’t always be rewarded politically, of course. Voters are flawed, too. But the irony is that Scheer’s political pragmatism gained him nothing. Rather, it cost his party in terms of credibility, image, supporter turnout, religious swing voters, and seats in Parliament.