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

Commentary

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.It 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.Her 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.True 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.Hypothetically, 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.A 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. 

Malcolm Jolley: Subtle, straightforward, and sometimes spicy: Encountering Jardìn Oculto’s Bolivian tree wines

Commentary

Jancis Robinson once called Nayan Gowda a “winemaker without portfolio” in a profile piece that tracked his prolific career as a winemaker and consultant across continents. That was in 2013, and when I met the dapper Englishman on a press trip to the Loire Valley in 2019, the man who had both at one point been a chef at The Ivy in London and then worked in IT for JP Morgan had gone back into tech as the publisher of the world’s largest winemaker job board. Except, he had one more project on his horizon: a winemaking gig in Bolivia.

The temporary job in Bolivia turned into a South American COVID lockdown and the one harvest he’d gone there to manage turned into two. Mr. Gowda seems to have put down roots at Jardín Oculto, the winery in the Cinti Valley. The name translates as “Secret Garden”. The latitude there is 20 degrees, or ten degrees closer to the equator than the normal limit for growing the vitis vinifera grape,Vitis vinifera, the common grape vine, is a species of flowering plant, native to the Mediterranean region, Central Europe, and southwestern Asia, from Morocco and Portugal north to southern Germany and east to northern Iran. There are currently between 5,000 and 10,000 varieties of Vitis vinifera grapes though only a few are of commercial significance for wine and table grape production.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitis_vinifera but the valley is in Bolivia’s high desert plains. The average elevation of the vineyards in the valley is 2,000 meters above sea level, making it cool enough, especially at night, to grow fine wine grapes in what is essentially a river oasis in arid land.

I had been following Nayan’s Bolivian winemaking and lockdown adventures by way of his Twitter account. I wondered if some strange twist of fate might get me in front of his wines at some point. Then, at the end of September, I noticed that he was posting from Turin in Northern Italy, which was precisely where I was heading the next day. A brief exchange established the good news: Nayan and Jardìn Oculto’s proprietress, María José Granier, would be at the Slow Food Terra Madre Salon del Gusto 2022—with the Jardín Oculto wines.

A few days later I bumped into Nayan at Terra Madre one morning in one of the busy tents full of regional Italian foods, where we were independently (and greedily) sampling as much cheese, salumi, and whatever else was on offer. He explained that Marìa José was on a panel discussion early that afternoon and then their wines would be part of a structured tasting that evening. When I complained that I waited too late to get tickets to the sold-out tasting, he said that was fine because he had extra bottles and would be happy to taste the three wines he had brought to Italy with me at the enoteca that afternoon. 

When I ran into Nayan Gowda, I was in the company of my Calgary colleague, the journalist Shelley Boettcher. When I introduced them and explained in vague terms what he was up to in Bolivia, Nayan brought out his phone to show us pictures of the vineyards. Except they didn’t look like any vineyards I had ever seen. The vines, planted in the 19th century by Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries, were trained to go up trees, and interplanted with all kinds of other fruits and crops. Picking the grapes requires a ladder, and the fruit that the pickers can’t reach is literally left for the birds.

María José Granier’s family, Nayan explained, are established winemakers in Bolivia but had only heard and seen San Roque, the vineyard on his screen, a few years ago. María José took on Jardín Oculto as a next-generation project in 2019 and went on Nayan’s Facebook group to find an oenologist“Oenologists are the professionals who supervise not only production in the winery but also the storage, analysis, preservation, bottling and sale of wine.” https://www.bodegasmontecillo.com/en/what-is-an-oenologist-and-how-do-you-become-one/ who wasn’t afraid to do something different. Having made wine in such exotic locations as Kazakhstan, Nayan answered the request himself. The wines we were to taste from the 2021 vintage were made after his first vintage in 2020.

We found an empty table in the outdoor seating area of the enoteca. The wine pavilion at Terra Madre was stocked with over 400 wines to taste, all from Turin’s home region of Piedmont. A few other Terra Madre delegates who were hanging out in the enoteca joined our group and we stood in a semi-circle around Nayan who introduced the wines from Jardín Oculto’s San Roque.

First up was the 2021 Vischoqueña Blanc de Noir. Vischoqueña is an “indigenous grape”, in so far as it’s not found outside of this particular area of Bolivia. Nayan is trying to figure out its parentage and where it may have come from, but for now it’s a bit of a mystery. Blanc de Noir refers to the technique of making a white wine from red (or black) grapes. It’s most often used for sparkling wines, though Jardín Oculto’s version is a still wine.

Nayan explained, as we swirled, that Vischoqueña typically makes an oddly aromatic red wine, so his intention with the white version was to make a more straightforward “linear” sipper where the fruit was left to “do its thing”. It was lovely, crisp, and mineral with citrus and tart McIntosh apple notes. An aperitif wine that brought water to the mouth.

Next up was the 2021 Moscatel de Alejandría. Muscat of Alexandria is the most common version of this aromatic white grape, which was spread around the Mediterranean, including their kingdom in Spain, by the Moors who prized it as a table grape. Often made in a sweet style, it’s not always my favourite. So I was very pleased to find that Nayan and María José’s wine was subtle in white flower aromatics and lime citrus and a slightly bitter dandelion finish.

Our last Bolivian tree wine was Jardín Oculto’s red, the 2021 Negra Criolla, made from the single Los Membrillos vineyard. When one thinks of South American reds, it is hard not to imagine warm-climate, powerful, and big fruit wines from Bolivia’s southern neighbours.

The Negra Crollia, made with the Spanish grape that is often called Criolla Chica in Argentina, País in Chile, and Mission in California, was light-footed and a little spicy. Red cherry notes underlay a touch of smokiness and seasoning of pepper. When I gave my pepper note to María José, she laughed and said that the vineyard included a pink pepper tree.

Production is still very small at Jardín Oculto, hampered still by the pandemic and supply chain crisis. But Nayan Gowda and the Granier family are forging on and looking for export markets, even just for pride of placement. Canadian importers take notice: the market for Bolivian ladder-picked, old-vine tree wine is wide open.