Charter of values: Old dogs, nous tricks

Paul Wells on why it’s make-or-break for the entire sovereignty movement
Andy Clark / Reuters

“Hé, si vous voulez, là, on va cesser de parler des francophones du Quebec, voulez-vous?” Jacques Parizeau told the crowd at the Montreal convention centre on the night of the 1995 referendum. Hey, if you want, let’s stop talking about Quebec francophones. “On va parler de nous. À 60 per cent, on a voté pour!” Let’s talk about us. And 60 per cent of us voted in favour of sovereignty.

Later in the speech, Quebec’s premier made his remark about “money and ethnic votes,” much more widely remembered today. Parizeau announced his retirement from politics the next day. But it’s that nous—us—that’s worth examining now.

Defining “us” is tricky, or at least it becomes tricky whenever you define it to mean “some of the people I know, but not others.” Senior members of the Parti Québécois viewed Parizeau’s speech, at least officially, at least later, as a transgression against polite discourse. His speechwriter at the time, Jean-François Lisée, made haste to say he didn’t write this one. “I said, ‘You bet it’s too harsh,’ ” Lisée told the CBC later.

But history has a sense of humour, so 12 years after Parizeau’s speech, Lisée published a book entitled, simply, Nous. The book advocates a fundamental shift in strategy for Quebec’s sovereignty movement. A year ago Lisée became a senior minister in Pauline Marois’s PQ government. The uproar over Marois’s proposed “Charter of Quebec Values” is the fruit of that strategy.

“We must make a simple realization,” Lisée wrote six years ago. “The majority nous is at the centre, at the heart of the nation, and this situation gives it rights and duties.” Denying this realization would lead to “the equality of languages” and “the equality of histories.” It would lead “either to removing the cross from Mont Royal or to adding a Star of David and an illuminated crescent, rotated annually so none is in the middle for long, with space left over for future demands.”

Elsewhere in the book, Lisée takes pains to condemn Parizeau’s speech. But for kicks, imagine if Parizeau had read aloud from the paragraph I just quoted on that night in 1995. Ho ho ho, we can’t take down the cross! Ho ho ho, we can’t put up a Star of David! Think that’d have gone over any better?

“There predominates in Quebec a group that has defined and continued to define the historical, cultural, linguistic and economic space,” Lisée wrote, continuing to channel his old boss. “It predominates by the force of numbers, vitality and the will to endure. This is what, until recently, we were not supposed to say.” Instead, Péquistes used to speak only about a “civic nation” bound by laws and territory. “André Boisclair knew no other.”

That last sentence is designed to bring any debate among Péquistes to a resounding close. Boisclair is a gay, Harvard-educated Montrealer who led the PQ in 2007 to its worst defeat in 37 years, largely because a third party mowed the PQ’s lawn by appealing to some francophones’ mistrust of ethnic minorities. Marois replaced Boisclair as PQ leader four months later. Lisée published his pamphlet four months after that. The rest is current events.

When Bernard Drainville, another minister in today’s post-cosmopolitain PQ government, released the text of his proposed Charter of Values—complete with handy wall charts showing the articles of clothing (Veil! Kippah!) that will heretofore be banished from public servants’ bodies while at work—he had the handy effect of smoking out two federal party leaders who have been equivocal until now. The Liberal, Justin Trudeau, has opposed the charter since the PQ started putting up trial balloons nearly a month ago. The New Democrat, Thomas Mulcair, has most of his seats in Quebec, and had resisted comment until now. So, mostly, had the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, although he did tip his hand when asked about the PQ plan in Toronto: “Our job is making all groups who come to this country, whatever their background, whatever their race, whatever their ethnicity, whatever their religion, feel home in this country and be Canadians. That’s our job.”

On Tuesday the trial balloons became official government policy. The NDP and Conservatives came out unequivocally against the PQ. Speaking for the government, Jason Kenney suggested a possible federal court challenge.

This, too, happens to be one of the tactical tricks Jean-François Lisée cooked up during the long years before he entered electoral politics. In his 2000 book Sorti de secours, Lisée suggested the PQ cook up some scheme that would be rejected by the rest of the country, so Quebecers would feel insulted and want to secede.

Such a plan would depend for its success on a clear distinction between Quebec public opinion and the actions of national parties. So far it’s not going well for the PQ. Mulcair and Trudeau are Quebecers whose parties hold 66 of the province’s 75 seats. The Bloc Québécois did not hurry to embrace Marois’s scheme. Every Montreal mayoral candidate opposes it, as does the Quebec Federation of Women.

The inspiration for the PQ’s decision to retrench is purely electoralist. It is a reaction to 30 years of failed efforts to make the sovereignty movement every Quebecer’s fight. Forced generosity having failed the PQ, the party is falling back on cynicism and pettiness. It’s make-or-break for the entire sovereignty movement, and I’m pretty sure Marois, Lisée and Drainville just broke it.

On the web: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at macleans.ca/inklesswells