Dan Delmar: Legault’s dominance in Quebec is more compromise than crisis

Legault positioned himself masterfully as an intergenerational caretaker
Quebec Premier Francois Legault waves to guests as he and his Coalition Avenir Quebec government is sworn in, Tuesday, October 18, 2022 during a ceremony at the legislature in Quebec City. Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press.

Some businesspeople say they would rather be lucky than good at what they do.

In the case of newly-reelected Quebec premier François Legault, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish his strategy from his good fortune. 

Recognizing, as Legault did when he founded the Coalition Avenir (Future Coalition) a decade ago, that this province’s myopic nationalist political class was on a collision course with modernity required a fair amount of foresight, wisdom, and patience in the face of critics who predicted his generically-titled giant tent would be an uninspiring flop. 

That no Caquiste has properly conceptualized the so-called “autonomist” model for Quebec-Canada relations, that the Legault government is deliberately overzealous in its cultural policies (language and secularism bills 96 and 21), and that the premier has reneged on a signed commitment to implement his own democracy minister’s well-received 2019 electoral reforms seem to be secondary concerns for voters in times of crisis. 

Legault positioned himself masterfully as an intergenerational caretaker, a father figure (as former pundit and new CAQ MNA Bernard Drainville mused on election night) to nationalists when the movement has been described as one that is entering a phase of gérontologisation, systematizing preparations for end-of-life (at least the predominant ethnocentric variety that dominated much of Quebec’s political establishment in the wake of the Quiet Revolution). 

As political parties worldwide become more polarizing, the CAQ offered Quebecers a pragmatic yet, for federalists, somewhat problematic constitutional compromise: pulling out of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms on matters related to culture and the predominance of the French language. This Quiet Compromise between federalism and sovereignism seems to suit the federal Liberals, content in merely signaling virtue on minority rights, leaving those affected by improvised late-stage nationalist policies to fend for themselves in court or to décâlisse, to unceremoniously leave to pursue opportunities in more liberal jurisdictions.

Opposition collapse

Controversial as he may be, Legault is arguably the most successful Canadian premier of the current era. His dominance of Quebec politics, however, is due to a confluence of a few factors, some of which are beyond his control. 

Today’s CAQ is the second iteration, the first being a more centrist-leaning, broader coalition of federalists, noncommittal soft nationalists, and some disaffected sovereignists; it was trying to be too much to too many and didn’t work, ending in two straight third-place finishes for Legault. Liberals remained the undisputed option for federalists and the CAQ struggled to find its base until 2015 when it veered toward the nationalist centre-right of the political spectrum in a successful bid to siphon off Parti Québécois voters instead.

Legault’s reengagement with the ethnocentric policies he previously left behind with the PQ alienated a minority of federalist-leaning Caquistes, including the party’s founding president and current Liberal opposition leader, Dominique Anglade, who resigned in 2018 citing concerns over Legault’s increasingly “radical” discourse on identity and immigration.1It is worth noting that her late father Georges Anglade was a prominent Haitian-Québécois democracy advocate and academic who was jailed and then exiled by the François “Papa Doc” Duvalier regime. Yet her father’s commitment to democracy, unfortunately, didn’t come up much during his daughter’s bid to become premier. Yet she did not share much insight regarding previously-stated concerns about the CAQ’s ethnocentric pivot. Being vague on liberal values was a strategic mistake and part of an unsuccessful attempt by Liberals to appeal to an overserved nationalist demographic.

In the months before the election, Anglade went so far as to side with Premier Legault and the sovereignist Bloc Québécois in demanding the federal government overrule Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer, allowing Quebec to maintain a disproportionate number of seats in Parliament. Just as eager to placate nationalists regardless of the corrosive effect on democracy, the federal Liberals have joined their provincial counterparts in accepting this and other illiberal compromises. 

Anglade and her strategists succumbed to a popular nationalist media-driven narrative that positions Quebecers as clear supporters of ethnocentric policies when even the most favourable polling on these questions fails to convincingly support the thesis.2Her ambiguity on matters of principle certainly contributed to the party’s worst election performance in its over 150 years of existence—she came close to “killing” the party after this month’s election, a recently-deposed Liberal MNA said in advocating for her resignation. Anglade “was dealt a bad hand,” observed former longtime Montreal Gazette columnist Don Macpherson, but still “played it badly.”

Despite the boost from fawning nationalist pundits, Legault also remained mostly unchallenged by the second and third opposition leaders, both sovereignists whose politics are simply too radical for mainstream voters.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a prominent figure in the province’s historic student protests of 2012 and now co-spokesperson of Québec Solidaire, vowed to spend over half a billion dollars to explore sovereignty even though a majority of his own supporters polled rejected the idea.3True to its socialist-communist roots, a QS government would have nationalized all seniors homes and added an additional 35 percent tax on estate inheritances, among other counterproductive policies that would punish the middle class in an attempt to lash out at the rich.

Even more inexplicable praise was heaped onto another struggling sovereignist revolutionary, PQ leader Paul St. Pierre Plamondon, who finished fourth; this included a win in his own riding, made possible when his QS opponent withdrew, caught on camera removing PQ flyers from an east end Montreal resident’s mailbox.

The media praise heaped onto Nadeau-Dubois and St. Pierre Plamondon, the idealistic, boyish, and well-branded next-generation sovereignists, continues to be wildly out of sync with the views of Quebec voters who granted them eleven and three seats respectively; only about 1.2 million Quebecers can stomach voting for a sovereignist party. 

Pundits described them as the most principled candidates, but to progressive, cosmopolitan, and antiracist Quebecers, it must be increasingly difficult to muster enthusiasm for sovereignist ideologues who, for instance, casually utter the N-word on live television during an official election debate.4Hypothetically, moderator Pierre Bruneau asked, would leaders feel comfortable speaking the title of an (inappropriately) revered nationalist work in a classroom? Nadeau-Dubois and St. Pierre Plamondon then volunteered themselves as participants in a free speech litmus test, speaking the title of the offensive and outdated book in the presence of Anglade, the first Black woman to lead a Quebec political party. The book by former Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) leader Pierre Vallières draws an indefensible comparison between the oppression of French-Canadians and Black Americans.

This period of reflection and realignment for Quebec politics will bring forth important questions about the merits of ethnocentric nationalism, including: Are we that different from other Canadians, as Vallières and his progenies suggest? The continued unpopularity of sovereignist parties despite nationalist media amplification suggests the matter is nearly settled.

Democratic détente or crisis?

Though Legault’s lopsided victory was all the more effortless due to opposition ineptitude, the fact of the result—90 CAQ seats to the opposition parties’ 35—has led to widespread calls from across the political spectrum to implement a mixed-proportional representation model in time for the next election.

A Radio-Canada simulation based on the last electoral reform proposal workshopped by the Quebec government during the CAQ’s first term shows Legault would have still won a majority, albeit less convincingly.

“François Legault received three times more votes than his nearest rival and it is a scandal that he governs by majority,” observed nationalist pundit Mario Dumont, himself a victim of the Westminster model as the former head of a defunct startup party. After nearly two decades, the Action démocratique (ADQ) was absorbed into the CAQ; it peaked as official opposition in 2007 and Dumont turned to punditry shortly thereafter. “I dare to imagine how those who speak out against this have managed to get a good night’s sleep since Erin O’Toole was sent back to Opposition with one percent more votes than Justin Trudeau!”

The only leader who could claim a halfway-legitimate democratic grievance might ironically be the populist-leaning Éric Duhaime, leader of the Conservative Party of Quebec, who received about 100,000 votes less than QS but was unable to earn a single seat.5A result that poll aggregators predicted with great accuracy due to Duhaime’s failure to construct the broad, riding-by-riding base of support needed to gain legitimacy under the Westminster model (conservatism as a brand is not popular in Quebec yet Duhaime still increased the fledging party’s popular vote nearly tenfold and is expected to remain leader).

There’s something to be said for the threshold of legitimacy imposed on political parties by the system, obsolete as it may be. A former radio talk show host and strategist with the defunct ADQ, Duhaime’s irresponsible courting of the vaccine-skeptical vote and alarmism over pandemic restrictions lifted months ago are markers of the sort of potentially subversive populist movement the system’s most ardent proponents would argue, for the sake of national stability, should be kept far from government.

What’s the deal?

Legault is a pragmatist and dealmaker who co-founded Air Transat out of the ashes of a defunct regional carrier—it’s safe to assume that there’s a lot about his successful compromise position that is yet to be revealed.

The CAQ has benefited from an understanding, spoken or unspoken, with Ottawa over minority rights in Quebec. 

Given that it is led by a Liberal named Trudeau, the lack of formal resistance to the CAQ’s autonomist agenda by the federal government has been surprising, to say the least, for disillusioned Quebec liberals and a plethora of minority groups. How long will the federal government tolerate violations of minority rights?

Shifting demographics in Quebec—mostly left-leaning millennials and younger cohorts overwhelmingly rejecting ethnocentric nationalism—makes this province poised to become one of North America’s most progressive, tolerant, and, as Legault fears, “woke” societies. In the meantime, uncomfortable compromises are being made to facilitate a transition away from the Baby Boomers’ identity politics. 

There is something about the current era in Quebec-Canada relations that feels inescapably engineered—by pollsters, pundits, and consultants—to foment apathy among federalists and sovereignists alike, to avoid difficult conversations about where Quebecers and Canadians stand on human rights, and how these shared values should be expressed in the Constitution.

Once their time in politics is over, perhaps both Legault and Trudeau will argue that the compromise was a necessary transitory period for Quebec; others would counter that the demographic shift away from nationalism is already irreversible and that these leaders lack the courage to acknowledge a new reality.

What seems indisputable is that Legault’s compromise is what Quebecers feel is acceptable for the moment, given the choices presented to them. His victory was not aided by voter suppression techniques, there is no evidence of widespread corruption in government, and his four opponents were granted ample, even disproportionate media attention. 

It was as fair a fight as the system allows under the circumstances, and as traditional political movements struggle to find relevance in increasingly polarized environments, the challenge for Quebec’s opposition forces will be to look beyond this transitory epoch to engage new voters with bold, pragmatic ideas. They will have to, as Legault puts it with a phrase that has resonated, look away from the vielles chicanes, the old constitutional disputes that neither contemporary nationalist nor federalist leaders have the capacity to resolve. 

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