Big Quebec, little Quebec

Wells: The party of hope often wins in Quebec. This year, that's not the PQ

I was going to begin this post by pointing out that the Parti Québécois’s campaign-closing ad, touted by one of its candidates as showing “the best team with a positive vision,” is in fact the purest expression of a siege mentality and features, after promising to “defend Quebec values” (against whom?), a shot of Bernard Drainville, the author of the Law To Permit the Dismissal of Emergency-Room Doctors Who Wear Yarmulkes.

But I see that, in keeping with the PQ’s astonishing inability to maintain any kind of message discipline in this campaign, they’ve actually already come out with another campaign-closing ad. One presumes there’ll be three more before Monday. This one features the party’s star candidates smiling, woefully belatedly, as they try to say nice things. That’s actress Lorraine Pintal saying “We can’t refuse what the majority asks us: Live and work in French.” Then Pauline Marois re-asserting that “We’re the only ones who are determined to defend Quebec values.”

So this loathsome campaign ends, with variations, as it began, with the PQ defining who’s a good and bad Quebecer, whose behaviour threatens Quebec values and whose will be permitted. Jean-François Lisée’s blog has been instructive in this regard. The PQ Minister For Picking Fights on Twitter has devoted his blog to promoting his role as Head Real Quebecer In Charge of Thoughtcrime Corrections. Amir Khadir, spokesman for the tiny rival Québec solidaire party? “Lack of courage… lack of respect… opportunist!” decries Judge Lisée. Françoise David, the party’s other “spokesperson”? “A sad decline,” diagnoses Dr. Lisée. Students want to vote? Probably mobbed up, hints Inspector Lisée.

The ultimate expression of this folly is the so-called Charter of Values, which declares entire segments of Québécois society unemployable by the state as long as they wear relics of their religious faith. Other parties suggested amendments; the PQ stayed hard-core with the proposed law’s original text. It is intrinsic to the Charter’s logic that its plain text is insufficient to the task of cleansing Quebec of affronts to laïcité. That’s why nobody from the PQ said boo when the veteran rights activist Janette Bertrand began fabulating, at a designated PQ campaign event, about rich Arab students from McGill University stealing her apartment building’s swimming pool: at some point, being conspicuously Muslim, or Jewish, or Catholic anywhere in Quebec will be forbidden, if not by the letter of the law than by the likes of dear Janette.

The image conjured by this year’s PQ campaign has been that of Pauline Marois sitting on a high tree branch, vigorously sawing off the rest of the tree to protect her branch from root rot. Quebecers have been increasingly reluctant to get out onto the branch with her.

Most of my anglophone readers won’t believe this next bit, but it’s hard to overstate how different the sour and exclusionary tone of this campaign has been from some of the PQ’s best work in the past. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Jacques Parizeau’s 1994 campaign (which, I should note, he just barely won) and of the tumultuous year that followed. During much of that period Parizeau’s strategic goal was to reach out to elements of Quebec society that weren’t natural PQ allies — the women’s movement, aboriginal and immigrant populations, and sovereignists who didn’t consider themselves Péquistes — and the soft-focus optimism of his 1994 campaign was light-years removed from the glowering suspicion of the 2014 party:

These efforts accelerated rapidly after Parizeau’s election. He welcomed a 15,000-woman march on Quebec City and accepted most of their demands; the woman in charge of that rally was the same Françoise David whom Lisée now prefers to slag on his blog. Parizeau commissioned poets and actors to stage a live reading of a “preamble” to his sovereignty bill that was meant to put some love and poetry into the whole process. (Lucien Bouchard and Mario Dumont skipped that event, but I’ve always thought Parizeau was on the right track: romance is better than resentment for selling an impractical project.)

The PQ has always been the party of hope when it was winning. (I know, anglophones never felt it that way, but they weren’t the target market.) René Lévesque was a pure product of the Quiet Revolution, when Quebec left behind insularity and finger-pointing and tried to do great things in the world. Those of us who are too young to remember those days directly can get a taste of that spirit reading Rick Salutin’s classic play Les Canadiens (written “with an assist by Ken Dryden”), whose climax is set at the Forum on the night of Nov. 15, 1976; as the bewildered Habs play a winning game, they notice the crowd cheering at odd moments and realize the Forum’s scoreboard is showing election results as Lévesque’s PQ is elected to government for the first time. Salutin has said it’s a moment when Quebecers found new heroes. Whose hero is Pauline Marois?

While the PQ’s self-destructive campaign is the story of this election, I think too much commentary overlooks the contribution Philippe Couillard is making to his own success. And yet he’s making no secret of things. The biggest word on the side of his bus is ENSEMBLE, together. His ads are upbeat and explicitly inclusive in message:

And as I’ve written earlier, his discourse is so outreach-y it’s sometimes hard to believe. “There is only one kind of Quebecer,” he says, “first-class citizens, whatever their origin, who share Quebec identity and are as proud of it as any Quebecer is.”

The urge to designate and alienate outsiders exists in every community, as does the urge to welcome and integrate. They’re in constant conflict, and the victory of neither side is assured. If Quebec were in a deep economic doldrums or if it had suffered some perceived recent collective rejection from the rest of Canada, voters might be more willing to entertain an essentially paranoid discourse from the PQ. But it isn’t, it hasn’t, and they aren’t. Marois’s PQ wanted a smaller tent. They’re welcome to it.