Outraged in Quebec? Wait 10 minutes--you’ll be outraged again

Martin Patriquin on a political pas de deux
Premier-designate Pauline Marois is sworn in as legislature member for Charlevoix-Cote de Beaupre during a ceremony where the 54 elected members of the Parti Quebecois are sworn in Monday, September 17, 2012 at the legislature in Quebec City. . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Nearly three years ago, in the midst of some sort of cover kerfuffle, I wrote the following about Quebec’s unique brand of political decrepitude:

On one side we have federalists, whose perpetual goal of “saving the country” has brought an equally enduring sense of self-entitlement amongst many federalist politicians. On the other the sovereignists, who purposefully stymie Canada’s political machinery if only to show to what extent the whole mess doesn’t work.

Back then, of course, we were in the former bit of the equation—which saw, among other things, the indictment of a sitting cabinet minister; a deputy premier (and municipal affairs minister) who received money, Céline Dion tickets and roses from a construction company owner; another cabinet minister who met at a swishy club with Frank Zampino, Paolo Catania, Bernard “Mr. Three Per Cent” Trepanier just prior to a notorious Montreal land sale that may well land Zampino and Catania in jail on corruption charges; the harvesting of millions of dollars in illegal campaign donations from a variety of engineering firms; and so on.

Today, after last summer’s jag of tear gas-drenched student riots and a subsequent provincial election capped by an attempted political assassination, Quebec has lurched to the other side of that equation. The Liberals gave us scandal and corruption. The Parti Québécois’s main course is language and outrage. Liberals gain power by promising stability and an end to les maudits chicanes over language and national unity, while the PQ returns once the population is thoroughly grossed out by inevitable indulgences on the part of the Liberals. Then as now, political corruption is as much of a problem than it was in the 1970s, if not more. Then as now, the language issue is just undead enough to wake at any moment. Such is Quebec’s political history for nearly five decades: a pas de deux between two entrenched camps that can’t seem to live without one another.

It’s why I can’t get outraged at anything language-related any longer. I know, contrary to what was reported at the time, how things like Pastagate—in which l’Office québécois de la langue française wagged fingers at a restaurant for using the word ‘Pasta’ on its menu—aren’t just isolated incidents perpetuated by overzealous inspectors. Before Pastagate (and WaterClosetgate and JoeBeefgate) , there was McKibbinsgate (2008), Cigargate (1998), Chinatowngate (1998), Gravestonegate (1997), and SmokedMeatgate (1996, 1986), among many others. These things inevitably happen when the regulation of words is set into law. The various ‘gates’, if you can call them that, are by-products, not anomalies.

And I know, with a few exceptions, that in nearly every case the OQLF has backed down when evidence of its hubris has been broadcasted to the world at large. Besides, if I get outraged now, I’ll just have to get outraged again in 10 minutes, when something else happens. It’s easier just to slip on hip waders and wallow around in all that inadvertent satire.

But back to the Parti Québécois. If you don’t quite understand what the current PQ government is doing, you can look back to when it was last in power and be just as confused, because in all likelihood it was doing the exact same thing then, for the exact same reason. Case in point: faced once again with a gloomy truth—its warhorse of sovereignty is about as popular now as it was 10 years ago—the PQ has dreamed up all sorts of gimmicks to gussy up the old gal. As part of its “sovereignist governance” plan, the party recently tapped Gilles Duceppe to co-lead a commission looking into the apparently awful effects the Conservative government’s changes to Employment Insurance will have on Quebec.

Asleep yet? No? Here you go, then: today, the PQ demanded that Ottawa “open the books” on supposedly nefarious dealings regarding the signing of the Constitution in 1982. Grrrrr! “It puts the legitimacy of the Supreme Court of Canada into question,” said PQ minister Alexandre Cloutier. Rawr!

That other noise you just heard, apart from an entire generation of would-be voters dozing off, is the dull rattle of history. The party was doing the exact same thing just over a decade ago; premier Bernard Landry, full of his usual bluster, promised sovereignty “within 1000 days”. He mused about a referendum in 2002. He commissioned another round of reports on the subject.

Apparently bored with the subject or, more likely, with his handling of the economy, Quebecers turfed Landry out of office in 2003. And the dance continued: Jean Charest’s resounding victory over Landry, declared the Globe, “[C]ould mark the beginning of new phase of co-operative federalism aimed at consolidating Ottawa’s drive for national unity in Quebec.”


If history has a habit of repeating itself, then Quebec history has Tourette’s and a stutter, making it repeat itself faster and more spastically than anywhere else. And if its history is any indication (and it most certainly is), then Quebec is in for another Liberal government sooner rather than later. Premier Pauline Marois leads an inherently unstable minority government. She has performed a near-record swan dive in the polls. The PQ has never been kind to its leaders.

Meanwhile, the Liberals just elected Philippe Couillard, a fairly popular politician whose pet cause is getting Quebec’s signature on the Constitution.

And so the dance goes on. Yay nous.