Marois on first year in power: 'I'm very proud of what our team has accomplished'

QUEBEC – Quebec Premier Pauline Marois says she is proud of her first year in power even though she admits it’s been difficult.

That could be seen as an understatement for someone coming out of a tumultuous 12 months that began with a possible assassination attempt while she was giving her election-night victory speech last Sept. 4.

While Marois has been praised for her response to the Lac-Megantic train disaster, her government was initially characterized as improvisational for its many flip-flops and then divisive because of its plans to regulate religious identity.

Quebec’s economy has also taken a hit, losing jobs while the rest of the country saw them created. But Marois didn’t want to dwell on the economy on Wednesday.

“It was difficult, but that’s normal for a minority government,” she said before heading into a cabinet meeting.

“I’m very proud of what our team has accomplished for Quebec… We re-established social peace.”

Marois was referring to the tumult surrounding last year’s student protests, which were highlighted by regular marches in the streets. Some of those turned into violent clashes with police.

The protests have since quieted down but protesters staged a pair of noisy marches in Montreal on Wednesday night to protest government policies.

Police estimated a few hundred people took part in two marches that converged in a downtown park to hear speeches accusing the Marois government of not listening to the citizens on such issues as tuition fees and welfare reform.

The protest routes were not given to police, as required by law, and was declared illegal, but police let them proceed.

Earlier in the day, Marois said is proud of efforts to protect the elderly and defend the French language, although a proposed bill that aimed to toughen Quebec’s language law looks to be dead on arrival.

The province was also widely mocked for an overzealous language inspector who told an Italian restaurant owner he had too much Italian on his menu in what came to be known as “Pastagate.”

Her government is preparing for another cultural clash as it heads into its second year.

A hotly debated _ and in some circles widely criticized _ Charter of Quebec Values is poised to be revealed next week.

A draft version leaked in the media reportedly proposed a ban on religious clothing for public servants. Polls suggest the idea of restricting religious garb is quite popular in Quebec, and the second-place PQ has seen a bump in the latest polling.

However, opponents of the idea inside and outside Quebec describe it as an outrage.

So the year in power concludes just as it began _ with emotional identity debates. A new language law and a secularism charter had been prominent features of the PQ’s election campaign.

Months of student strife and a scandal-tinged nine-year run in office for Jean Charest’s Liberals resulted in voters deciding to turn things over to the PQ on Sept. 4, 2012, making Marois Quebec’s first woman premier.

That victory was marred when a gunman attempted to storm the PQ victory celebration at a downtown Montreal nightclub, killing a lighting technician and seriously wounding another stagehand.

As he was whisked away the suspect proclaimed, “The English are awakening.”

Marois was hustled from the stage in mid-speech by bodyguards but returned moments later to calm the crowd and urge them to file out quietly as police investigators started to comb the club for clues.

The PQ burst from the gate with a series of nods to its activist base, announcing plans on its first day in office to shut down the asbestos and nuclear industries in the province and hinting that a shale-gas moratorium might continue indefinitely.

There was also a promise to abolish a $200 health tax _ to be offset by a retroactive tax hikes on wealthy Quebecers.

The PQ was forced to scale back many of its ambitions.

The health levy continued to exist, as a progressive tax that hits people as their income rises. A proposed toughening of Quebec’s language law was watered down and even Marois now doubts it will ever pass. A prominent environmental activist had to resign as environment minister in controversy.

The PQ even had to pare down its ambitions with respect to Quebec independence. The government couldn’t even remove the Canadian flag from the legislature building, as it had under previous sovereigntist governments, because it couldn’t get the votes.

Treasury Board president Stephane Bedard said Wednesday that job creation will be the focus of the next year but no goals have been set.

A job-creation plan is to follow the next economic update by Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau in October or November.

A budget is also expected in the spring and that could be pivotal for Marois’ government, which will face a Liberal opposition which is now leading in opinion polls under new leader Philippe Couillard.

Recent employment figures have been bleak news for Quebec: The province lost 40,400 jobs since the beginning of the year while more than 82,000 were created in the rest of Canada.

Marceau acknowledged government revenues this year are currently below projected levels because of weaker-than-expected consumer spending, which has an impact on projected cash flows from the provincial sales tax.

However, both he and Bedard said the government is on target to achieve a balanced budget in 2014.

Marceau, who said the government’s goal of having a zero deficit is a “firm commitment,” acknowledged he might make “adjustments” to the government’s budget commitments but would not be specific.

Bedard said there is no question of raising taxes. He explained the government had pursued its goals through tight controls on spending and insisted the government would not adopt “any budgetary measure that will have a negative impact on employment.”

“We have a rendez-vous with economic growth,” he said.

(By Nelson Wyatt in Montreal with files by Jocelyn Richer in Quebec City)