After 18 months of relative caucus solidarity, the resounding defeat of the Parti Québécois this week has lurched the party back into the familiar territory of outrage, conspiracy mongering and barely concealed backbiting. The defeat was either in part due to Quebecers’ collective “fear of a referendum” (PQ MNA Jean-François Lisée) or the PQ’s ambiguity toward such a thing (Alexis Deschênes). In a typically self-serving blog post, Lisée said Pierre Karl Péladeau didn’t sink the PQ’s fortunes—yet takes care to note how he had nothing to do with the media mogul’s recruitment.
Others classily blamed themselves (Pierre Duchesne) or unclassily blamed the media (“What was the deal you had with [Liberal leader] Philippe Couillard?” asked incredulous outgoing Péquiste MNA Émilien Pelletier during a press scrum.) Others went even further into the deep end, as Yves-François Blanchet did when he blamed “Liberal strategists” in cahoots with “Toronto polling companies” for torquing the Liberal lead during the election. Losing sorely is one thing; losing delusionally is quite another.
There were clearer heads. Notably, outgoing PQ minister Alexandre Cloutier and defeated Laval-des-Rapides MNA Léo Bureau-Blouin both admitted that the party’s so-called Quebec values charter wasn’t quite the boffo success the party had hoped for. An outright ban on “conspicuous” religious garb “was a difficult position to defend,” Bureau-Blouin told Metro the other day. Cloutier was more direct. The charter, he told Radio-Canada, suggested the PQ was “disconnected” from Quebec’s younger voters, “who are open to the world, who travel a lot and who speak a second or a third language.”
While impressive, the pair’s post-election candour on the Quebec values charter is far too late. One might reasonably ask where Cloutier and Bureau-Blouin, among other wary Péquistes, were over the last seven months, as the charter debate drifted into dangerous territory.
Where was Cloutier when charter architect Bernard Drainville echoed George W. “You’re with us or against us” Bush when he said, “You can’t pretend to fight against religious extremism and be against the charter”? Where was Cloutier, who possesses a brilliant legal mind and who clerked at the Supreme Court of Canada, when the province’s law society and its human rights commission both introduced briefs denouncing the blatant illegality of the proposed law?
While we’re at it, where was he when people like this were decrying those Muslims who “pray on all fours” and “wear costumes in public” during a parliamentary commission on the charter? I know where Bureau-Blouin was when de facto PQ charter spokesperson Janette Bertrand went off on two (imaginary) swarthy gentlemen who hijacked her pool for religious purposes: he was sitting beside her, fiddling with his iPad and not saying a damn thing in the face of these ugly words. Telling indeed.
Sure, I hear you: any member of a political caucus will keep misgivings to him or herself, if only for that hallowed caucus solidarity and the greater good of the party—electoral success, in the case of the charter.
There’s no mistake: prohibiting religious minorities from wearing religious symbols while giving or receiving any government service was nothing if not a campaign issue for the Parti Québecois. I recently spoke to Clifton Van Der Linden, founder and CEO of Vox Pop Labs. The company analyzed data harvested from some 475,000 potential voters who participated in CBC’s Vote Compass. (I quote him in our big election mop up here.) “The majority of respondents said they were in favour of much fewer accommodations for religious minorities,” Van Der Linden says. “Public opinion trends toward the charter. I can see why the PQ thought it was a good idea.”
As Van Der Linden points out, however, the charter wasn’t anywhere close to being top priority for Quebec voters. His data, which echoes the many polls on the subject, suggests economic policy, integrity and health care were far more important issues. The charter, he says, “wasn’t even close to the top five.” Translation: support for the charter was favourable, but shallow and easily overshadowed by pocketbook issues.
Yet the charter is hardly just another electoral promise that didn’t pan out. It had grievous consequences on Quebec society as a whole. Attacks on Muslim women went up, according to Quebec’s network of womens’ shelters. In this week’s cover story, I interviewed Hajar Nidbihi, who began wearing the hijab shortly before the introduction of the charter last fall. Her parents weren’t crazy about the idea, in part because they worried about how she would be received in Quebec society.
But nothing happened to her until the charter came along. Among other things, she was called “bin Laden” on the Metro and singled out on the bus. Her sisters and mother used to go on Sunday strolls through their neighbourhood, only to stop last fall. “I was worried that someone would say something to us, and I didn’t want my daughters to see me get angry,” Hajar’s mother, Karima, told me.
I want to commend Cloutier and Blouin for speaking out against their party’s attempt to scapegoat religious minorities for electoral gain. If only they’d done it when it really mattered.