Legault’s Identity Binge
The passage of Bill 96 and the renewed sovereignty talk are about ensuring a crushing majority for François Legault in the October election
For someone who lived and breathed Canadian constitutional reform and national unity through a dissertation in political science, the last few weeks in Quebec politics have whipsawed between an endless trip to the dentist and a visit to an all-you-can-eat buffet. On May 24, Quebec’s National Assembly passed Bill 96, the Coalition Avenir Quebec government’s bill reforming the Charter of the French Language. The bill strengthens a number of elements of the original 1977 Charter, or Bill 101, in particular limiting the total student enrollment at English-language CEGEPs, or junior colleges, places limits on employers’ ability to require English proficiency for employees, and puts a six-month limit on the ability of newly arrived immigrants to receive government services (there is wide disagreement on whether this includes health care from the single-payer system) in a language other than French. Only members of the “historic anglophone community” (those who would be eligible to attend a public school in English because their parents attended one anywhere in Canada) are not subjected to the new limits.
The enactment of Bill 96 turned out to be the start of a list of identity-related developments in Quebec politics, including
Premier François Legault demanding that the federal government give Quebec full authority over immigration involving family reunification (Quebec already has jurisdiction over economic migrants) in order to screen out those who do not speak French
The government stating that it will restrict access to Grade 12 programs at English private schools for those ineligible for public English schooling
The cancellation of an expansion of Montreal’s Dawson College on the grounds that financing francophone colleges is more important
Legault’s warning that French in Quebec is in danger of disappearing as it did in Louisiana after the United States purchased it from France in 1803
Legault’s insistence that mother tongue and language spoken in the home among non-francophones are more important than language use outside the home
The CAQ government using the party’s last policy convention before the election to state that its leading campaign theme for October’s National Assembly election will be “pride”
The CAQ announcing that it will discontinue the English version of its website
Legault declining to participate in a debate in English during the election campaign
The recruitment of two former parliamentarians from pro-independence parties to run as CAQ candidates in October, leading to speculation Legault could embrace his former position in favor of Quebec independence
Multiple attempts by Legault to goad Prime Minister Justin Trudeau into a public argument
Legault stating that his government, if reelected, plans to enact a written constitution
Cabinet minister Simon Jolin-Barrette telling the Journal de Montreal that the government wishes to end the applicability of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms within Quebec (the political scientist Léon Dion proposed the same thing to the Bélanger-Campeau Commission in 1991)
Radio-Canada airing Bataille pour l'âme du Québec, a documentary arguing that over the past 25 years, Quebec nationalism has shifted from a civic focus under René Lévesque to a blood and soil emphasis under current political leaders
It is an impressive list of developments for the final three weeks of the last sitting of the National Assembly for its summer recess, at the end of which it will be dissolved for the election on October 3. These developments have raised linguistic tensions in Quebec to a level not seen since the climax of the constitutional wars and the second independence referendum during the 1990s. Since the first decade of the century, there has been little discussion of the constitution or of Quebec independence, with the focus on the “reasonable accommodation” of linguistic minorities, which grew into the laicity debate. Why has the sovereignty debate, and accusations that the French language is only a few years away from disappearing, come charging back?
In short, it has not. As we have said, there is a provincial election on October 3, one that the Legault government should win handily. In fact, current polling points at this election resulting in one of the largest blowouts in Quebec electoral history, with the CAQ receiving around half the popular vote and more than 100 of the National Assembly’s 125 seats. The government could probably sit back and coast to reelection as Doug Ford’s Conservative government did this month in Ontario. Quebec’s opposition parties are in relative disarray, and do not pose a threat to the government in October. The Liberal Party, the former governing party and now the official opposition, has lost most of its support outside Montreal and among francophones. Its support among its non-francophone base has also slipped, with two new parties (Bloc Montréal and the Canadian Party of Quebec) competing for its heartland seats on Montreal’s West Island. The Liberals currently hold 27 seats and are likely to lose some in the election, as several long-sitting members retire from politics. Two newer parties, the urban-focused social democratic Québec solidaire and the populist Conservative Party of Quebec, hope their seat totals reach double digits.. The Parti Québécois, the pro-sovereignty party that has governed on three occasions, is at risk of disappearing from the National Assembly altogether.
The weakness of the PQ puts a large bloc of nationalist voters (17% at the last election) up for grabs, and the primary motivation behind Legault’s nationalist binge over the past month, including the blurring of his position on sovereignty, has been his hope to absorb the remains of the PQ into his CAQ, eliminating its primary nationalist rival. By going hard on identity as a campaign issue, the CAQ can also minimize the salience of the lingering COVID pandemic, high motor fuel prices, and rising inflation.
It is also possible that Legault sees not only the opportunity to be reelected, but to face a National Assembly with little organized opposition. If the CAQ wins 100 or more seats, it will leave only about 20 seats for four opposition parties. A party needs to hold 12 seats to be an official party in the Assembly, with official funds to hire staff and the right to challenge ministers in Question Period. It is possible that none of the other parties could reach 12 seats, making all opposition members independents, leaving the legislature without an official opposition and where the Question Period would be dominated by questions from the government backbenches. In recent weeks, there have been several incidents in which Legault, a former airline CEO, lost his temper in the legislature under opposition questioning, and he has been overheard saying that having to explain himself to the opposition is a waste of his time. Perhaps instead of cruising to victory, he dreams of eliminating parliamentary opposition altogether.
That aside, the shift to nationalism and identity and pride as the top priority is mostly electoral. However, the CAQ government is setting out a number of policy areas that could lead to conflict with the federal government, and a potential national unity crisis. In its new term. Indeed, were there to be little opposition in the National Assembly, the CAQ could well treat the federal government as its true opposition.