Why the Quebec values charter hasn’t been a runaway success

Pauline Marois lost nearly as much support as she gained
Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois (C) embraces candidate Nicole Leger (2nd R) after delivering her concession speech at her provincial election night headquarters in Montreal April 7, 2014. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS) - RTR3KCJU
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois walks to question period Thursday, November 7, 2013 at the legislature in Quebec City. Her government will table legislation on secularism. (Jacques Boissinot/CP)
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois walks to question period on Nov. 7, 2013, ready to table her government ‘s legislation on secularism. (Jacques Boissinot/CP)

The Quebec values charter, so the received wisdom goes, was a boon to the Parti Québecois. Before it came up with the boffo idea of banning religious garb from the heads, throats and bodies of its public sector employees, the PQ was in a listless funk with the Quebec electorate. While personally more popular than ever, thanks in large part to her handling of the Lac Megantic rail tragedy, Premier Pauline Marois was leading a government hindered by its minority status and decidedly weak economic numbers. As well, this being the PQ, there was the added conundrum of a restless, referendum-obsessed base—a noise that PQ leaders ignore at their own peril.

The charter apparently changed all that. Introduced by way of a strategic media leak in the Journal de Montréal in late summer, the charter took eyes off  the party’s economic performance and helped consolidate its base. By exploiting a profound insecurity amongst Francophone Quebecers—the loss of French language and identity, particularly in the multi-culti disaster that is Montreal—the charter allowed the PQ to reclaim its status as the protector of the ‘Nous’ (‘Us’) without having to talk about separating from Canada. As such, it helped woo back the support of those who are as allergic to referendum talk as they are about the spectre of having a veiled woman renew their licence. A magic wand, in other words. A Hail Mary pass that connected.

A cursory look at the poll numbers suggest it certainly connected in the short term. As you can see in 308.com‘s snapshot below, the PQ’s upward march in polls accelerated last fall, in the wake of its charter project.


But what about in the longer term? An analysis by the Université de Montréal’s Claire Durand suggests the picture is less clear. Durand, a recognized expert in public opinion polling, looked at the evolution of support for the charter between fall 2013 and winter 2014 amongst three distinct groups: Francophones from Montreal, Francophones from outside Montreal, and non-Francophones.

To dispense with the obvious: support for the charter amongst non-Francophones remained in the cellar throughout, something the PQ surely counted on, if not hoped for. Stereotypes are often true for a reason, and suffice to say that the charter probably pushed the non-Francophone vote deeper into the Liberal’s embrace.

The support amongst Francophones, though, is murkier. Surprisingly, support from on-island Francophones actually increased as time went by, from 53 to 64 per cent, from the time the charter made headlines to its introduction in the National Assembly in October 2013. It then averaged out at about 61 per cent amongst Francophone Montrealers. On island support of the CAQ dipped about 10 per cent. Both were good news for the PQ.

Yet as popular as it was, the PQ’s global support in Montreal remained stable, at about 40 per cent. Why? Durand points to Québec Solidaire, the upstart Montreal-centric left-wing party. In many ways, QS is a throwback to what the PQ once was: solidly social democratic, progressive and, yes, fully ready to embrace Montreal’s multicultural reality and future. As such, the party is staunchly against the PQ’s charter project. “It hurts the sovereignty movement in the long run,” QS leader Françoise David told me in January. “There are tons of people in the cultural community who feel excluded from this project.”

Off-island Francophone support for the charter, meanwhile, was also a mixed blessing for the PQ. The party gained support, mostly at the expense of Québec Solidaire. Yet according to Durand’s analysis, PQ support in les régions settled at about 38 per cent.

The PQ’s charter bump came in the early winter months of 2014—though it wasn’t due to the charter itself, Durand argues. Rather, PQ support jumped as a result of the Liberal’s flubbing of the identity file. Liberal leader Philippe Couillard, who clearly hadn’t given much thought to the subject, was suddenly forced to discuss the legality of wearing chadors, veils and kippas while working for the government he sought to lead. MNA Fatima Houda-Pépin, a staunch secularist, left the Liberal caucus in protest. PQ strategists, armed with three consecutive favourable polls, sought to capitalize on Couillard’s seeming weakness by calling an election.

Yet for a variety of reasons, the charter hasn’t been nearly the electoral success the PQ thought it would be. Durand calls the charter support “weak and volatile”, largely because the PQ lost nearly as much support as it gained. For PQ strategists, minister Bernard Drainville in particular, it must be a vexing question: why would a piece of legislation tailor-made to exploit the deep fears felt by French Quebecers be only a mitigated success?

One answer may be Quebecers aren’t as obsessed about language and identity as they once were. For all the charter’s sound and fury, the charter barely registers on Quebecers’ radar of priorities. They are far more preoccupied with the meat-and-potato issues of government spending, taxes and corruption, according to a L’Actualité poll conducted following the charter’s introduction. The charter was 10th out of a list off 11 priorities. The 11th priority? A sovereignist government.

There’s another reason why Quebecers might not be so peachy keen on the charter, one teased out in a telling Léger Marketing poll from January. Support for the charter, at 57 per cent amongst Francophones, plummeted by 17 points when Léger raised the spectre that people might lose their jobs as a result of what’s on their head or around their neck.

And would they lose their jobs? The PQ itself is disturbingly vague on this elemental question. In the space of 24 hours, PQ candidate Évilyne Abitbol said those who refused to doff their religious garb would lose their job. Then PQ minister Jean-François Lisée said they wouldn’t. Then Premier Pauline Marois said the government would help find work in the private sector for those employees who refused to remove whatever religious symbol they wore to work.

A divisive issue from the start, the charter gambit may have fizzled because the PQ itself couldn’t properly answer for its inevitable consequences.