Why the PQ won’t back down

Martin Patriquin on an identity bill that throws moderation to the wind

<p>Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, centre, walks to question period Thursday, November 7, 2013 at the legislature in Quebec City. Her government will table legislation on secularism. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot</p>

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, centre, walks to question period Thursday, November 7, 2013 at the legislature in Quebec City. Her government will table legislation on secularism. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Jacques Boissinot/CP

So the Parti Québécois finally introduced its so-called ‘charter of Quebec values.’

You’ll note the lack of capitalization in the name. The proposed title, loaded as it was with the PQ’s usual shabby patriotism, was a last-minute victim of the National Assembly’s bureaucracy. Its title is now a Twitter-challenging 28-word clunker best described by the noise one makes when pronouncing its acronym: CALVDLEDNRDLEAQDEELFELHEELDDA. (In English, it translates to ‘Charter Affirming The Values Of Secularism And The Religious Neutrality Of The State, As Well As The Equality Of Men And Women, And The Framing Of Accommodation Requests.’)

The PQ’s trial ballooning of its identity bill was a long, drawn-out process fraught with  predictable outrage and outrage-at-the-outrage, so much so that it’s not really worth going over again. I’ve written plenty about how it’s a cheap vote-grabbing distraction from Quebec’s other, bigger problems; how the obsession with identity issues is a last-gasp effort on the part of the PQ establishment, larded as it is with baby-boomer separatists, to reawaken the moribund issue of separation; how even paleo-sovereignists like Jacques Parizeau are against the bill; how telling a Muslim woman what she can’t wear for sake of society is pretty much the same as telling her what she has to wear for the sake of her religion.

What I find more interesting is the timing and scope of the bill itself. And it requires an admission: I was wrong. About two months ago I wrote how the PQ wouldn’t push forward with the bill’s more controversial propositions. Since coming to power, the PQ has only retreated in the face of public outrage.

Abolishing the health surtax, freezing of electricity rates, increasing mining royalties, tax increases for higher income earners, retroactive dividend and capital gains taxes: the party has reversed itself in every case in its year in power. Surely, I reasoned, the minority government would do the same in the face of a collective spleen venting from the likes of the Quebec women’s federation, its main teachers union, every main Montreal mayoral candidate, three former PQ premiers and some 28,000 “Québec Inclusif” signatories.

But it didn’t. Just the opposite: PQ minister and charter architect Bernard Drainville has actually strengthened the main precepts of the bill and done away with any attempt at moderation. One example: the bill includes a provision outlawing the serving of kosher or halal food to children. It also removes the transitional period for those governments and institutions wishing to opt out of the charter for a renewable five years.

The hardening of the PQ’s position is the product of one or several things. In opposing the charter, the opposition Liberal party has essentially taken itself out of the Quebec values conversation. The PQ’s unbending support of its charter is a gambit to reclaim once and for all a monopoly of virtue over all that bleeds nationalist Quebec blue. The vote-rich ring around Montreal is largely made up of white Francophones who, like many suburbanites the world over, are forever wary of the vast, multicultural metropolis in their midst. The Coalition Avenir Québec remain a threat in these ridings; the charter could help them wrestle that support back to PQ ranks.

The charter itself is like electoral cyanide in Montreal—the economic centre of the province, and home to the biggest concentration of voters. Contrary to common sense, not having the support of the province’s largest city might actually play well for the Parti Québécois.

The PQ kissed goodbye what Parizeau called the “ethnic vote” long before the charter reared its head. Immigrants, like English people and Francophone federalists, won’t vote for the PQ anyway; why not just ignore them altogether? After all, our first-past-the-post system ensures that the Liberals will just win by that much more, without winning any additional seats. It’s far easier to focus on rural and suburban swing ridings in the Quebec hinterland, where votes are that much more valuable.

Of course, this strategy goes straight to hell should the PQ call another referendum, which is one-person, one-vote. But as former Bloc Québécois MP and noted charter critic Jean Dorion has noted, the PQ probably isn’t thinking that far.

Which brings us to the last reason why the PQ is holding fast to the charter: it’s about all the party has left. Quebec has lost over 45,000 jobs since the beginning of the year. PQ finance minister Nicolas Marceau has already mused about blowing off Quebec’s zero-deficit budget obligations. If you can’t appeal to the voters via their purse strings, so the cynical reasoning goes, why not appeal to their heartstrings?

There are evident risks to this strategy. Successive polls (like this one) suggest Quebecers are far less worried about what’s on a woman’s head than what the mobster is stuffing into his sock. As Parizeau’s sortie demonstrates, the charter has divided the sovereignist movement itself. There are inevitable court challenges should the proposed bill become law. And though Drainville et al. are loath to talk about it, there is the sticky matter of enforcement: what happens when, not if, a Muslim, Sikh, Jew, Christian refuses to remove his or her religious accoutrement?

But these are logical considerations, and logic has no place in pride. In one form or another, CALVDLEDNRDLEAQDEELFELHEELDDA is now a political inevitability in Quebec. God help us all.