Ding dong, the Charte is dead, which old Charte, the wicked Charte, ding dong the wicked Charte is dead…
If you are living in Quebec, you would have to be living under a rock not to know what happened during last night’s big election.
Only six weeks ago, Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois was running a minority government and wanted to get a majority so she could work more on certain pet projects, like the famous Charte de valeurs and building support for another referendum on sovereignty. She could have done nothing and remained premier for more than three years,had she chosen to.
She didn’t choose to. She called a snap election and diplomatically invited Liberal Party leader Philippe Couillard to do his worst.
Couillard’s predecessor as Liberal leader, ex-Premier Jean Charest, might have been Quebec’s least-liked premier. Charest was the object of a wide-ranging corruption inquiry and a recall petition with tens of thousands of signatures. His government proposed a plan to raise tuition fees, mishandled a student protest that turned into a months-long strike and passed dubiously democratic laws to quell the resulting street protests. As if that wasn’t enough, he was seen as being soft on the protection of the French language by encouraging middle schools to bring in more intensive English instruction. Many people believe the main reason the PQ came to power was that people just did not want to deal with Charest anymore.
No matter how well-liked and steady-handed Couillard, an unelected former neurosurgeon, seemed, surely people wouldn’t forget Charest that quickly?
The other parties (Coalition avenir Québec, sovereigntist fiscal conservatives, and Québec Solidaire, socialists)would stay on the margins, where they belonged, and may even have been persuaded to support certain PQ pet projects. The time was right.
Or was it?
Pauline Marois hoped to unite Quebecers around her proposed “charter of values”, which would have banned government employees (not only bureaucrats but medical professionals and public school teachers) from wearing “ostentatious religious symbols” on the job. I’ve written rants about this before. You were either for the Charter or you weren’t. It became a very personal issue. Among strangers, bringing up the Charte was considered indecent, like asking someone you barely know about their religion or their sex life. Among acquaintances and friends, throwing the Charte into a conversation was like throwing a bomb– a blazing row broke out among “fors” and “againsts”, or one side began to hold forth while the other sat in fuming silence.
Couillard and the Liberals came out against the Charte. Would it pass? “Over my dead body,” said Couillard. The anti-Charte crowd united behind Couillard’s Liberals and the pro-Charte vote split between the PQ and the CAQ, which wanted an even tougher Charte as well as sweeping cuts to taxes and “bureaucracy”, which would lead to “increased job creation.” Don’t these fiscal conservatives realize that cutting “bureaucracy” eliminates people’s jobs as well? Or are office workers not people? But I digress. The PQ’s last-minute, haphazard, Hail Mary tax cut plan was not enough to woo the CAQ voters back to the PQ fold. The vast majority of Anglophones– there are a million of us, don’t forget– would vote Liberal anyway.
The PQ had been perceived as a pro-labour, left-wing kind of party, and when the Marois government was first elected, it looked like it was going to make good on that promise, backing off on the tuition fee freeze and promising to bring prices back down on state daycare. But then, Marois recruited billionaire Pierre Karl Péladeau, the recent CEO of Quebecor Media which owns some of the country’s trashiest tabloids as well as a chain of bookstores, a cell phone, cable and video rental company and a right-wing English-language TV channel, Sun Media , which has been compared to Fox News. Péladeau was responsible for a long and poorly received lockout of unionized Journal de Montréal employees a few years ago (bye-bye pro-labour voters) and spent much of his time as candidate pounding his fist about the necessity of a referendum on sovereignty, which even most sovereigntists don’t want at the moment because they don’t think they can win. Bye-bye to the more patient sovereigntists, who defected either to the CAQ or Québec solidaire depending on their politics.
As the campaign neared its end, it became clear that the PQ was probably going to lose. But no one was expecting the kind of shellacking they received, losing more than 20 seats. Marois couldn’t even hold on to her own riding (district, in American parlance). The Charte’s most ardent supporter, PQ MNA Bernard Drainville, kept his seat, but had to acknowledge that the Charte was a dead letter.
I may be singing “ding dong, the Charte is dead” but I’m not singing along with those Federalists who are singing “ding dong, the witch is dead.” I actually rather liked Marois, despite her islamophobia, which I think came from being poorly informed (kind of like many of the Charte’s supporters). She wasn’t racist; she presides over a multiracial caucus. She always seemed very sincere and human. Many said that was a weakness, but I see it as a strength. There’s too much hypocrisy, fake smiling and hiding of real opinions and real emotions going on in our culture in today’s world.
I saw her once at the National Assembly with a group of schoolchildren. She seemed sincerely delighted to welcome them to the building. “This is my house, this is your house, this is the house of all the Québécois and all the Québécoises,” she said, with open arms. Not syrupy condescension or retained bewilderment but with sincere excitement. It was with sincere indignation and anger that she defended her positions, and with sincere sadness that she accepted defeat and resigned last night, watching all that she had constructed blow away. It was pitiful to watch.
Bye-bye, Pauline Marois. I don’t agree with you on very much at all. But I respect your tenacity and sincerity.