One of the most beautiful parts of living in a free country is often experienced in the morning. You open your curtains, look out at the country that awaits you, and realize it’s a brand new day with brand new possibilities. For many people waking up this morning in Quebec, however, there’s no such thing as a new day on the horizon any day soon. Instead they have been flung into the past once again after a tense election which came to a tragic conclusion outside of a Montreal theatre late last night when a madman opened fire, killing one bystander and injuring another critically.
The shooting took place outside of Montreal’s Metropolis Theatre as newly-elected Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, the head of the Parti Quebecois, was in the middle of her victory speech. Marois rose to the top of Quebec’s power struggle partly due to her predecessor’s scandal-plagued liberal government headed by former Premier Jean Charest, and her embrace of the underdogs in a massive and drawn-out student protest over Premier Charest’s hiking of student tuitions and his implementation of draconian laws meant to quell the huge protests which plagued the city of Montreal for months. Marois’ strategy worked, and last night she and her centre-left Parti Quebecois party were elected to form a minority government.
Since its founding in 1968, the Parti Québéois‘ platform has advocated national sovereignty for the province of Quebec and secession from Canada. In 1995 that dream nearly came true when a referendum on the matter came within a rat’s ass hair of working. But a lot has changed since then, and in 2012 the Parti Quebecois have regained power — less out of separatist sentiment and moreso out of “Charest fatigue” (for several years, polls have suggested that there is relatively little interest among Quebec residents in separating from Canada, but breaking with recent Parti Québécois tradition, Ms. Marois made it an important issue of her campaign). Nonetheless, the PQ win has reignited tensions between English and French Canada. David Olive of The Star wrote the following op-ed yesterday morning as Quebeckers were heading to the polls:
At this writing, it’s impossible to forecast an election outcome. Of two things one can be certain, though. Marois’s agenda is breaking up Canada, not tending to the welfare of Quebeckers. And even if the PQ is able to form a minority government, as polls favour it to do, a majority of Quebeckers have moved beyond the race-based politics of the PQ. No one dare call the 44-year-old PQ project racist, though that’s what any honest sociologist and political scientist would recognize it to be. And, saints be praised, that odious ethos has been steadily losing favour with Quebeckers. Marois did not get this memo.
Marois wants small business to conduct its internal affairs in French. She is afraid, apparently, of what members of the Korean family that runs the corner dépanneur are saying among themselves. Marois seeks a ban on religious symbols in government service and public places, including hijabs, yarmulkes and turbans, but drawing the line at Christian symbols. This is a reeking hypocrisy that France, in its genuine secularism, has avoided by keeping Christian symbols out of the schools as well. During the campaign, Marois has proposed legislation that would bar from eligibility for elected office those with insufficient fluency in French. What Star Chamber determines adequate fluency? Or would the PQ just rely on the existing custom by which non-“pur laine” Quebeckers who can’t trace their ancestry to Champlain have long suffered a glass ceiling in government, academe and business. Elsewhere in Canada, newcomers are simply expected to fit in, since it is manifestly in émigrés’ interest to do so. It’s not something you need to legislate, unless, like the more strident Quebec separatists, you suffer a clinically diagnosable insecurity complex, long after the overdue mission of “maitre chez nous” has been achieved.
As it happens, the self-isolation that always has been the PQ endgame has been rejected by Quebec universities in constant collaboration with their peers worldwide. And by the likes of Bombardier Inc., Rona Inc., Metro Inc., SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., Quebecor Inc. and Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc., francophone Quebec enterprises that have cracked markets in the RoC and worldwide. Marois has given every indication that a PQ government will revert to manufactured crises with Ottawa to persuade Quebeckers that they are an oppressed people, culminating in the psychodrama of a third referendum on sovereignty. This will advance the prosperity of Quebeckers not one iota.
Yet Quebeckers have become such adept global problem-solvers that for a majority, the cult of Quebecism is against their interests. Which diminishes their pride as Quebeckers not a bit. Quebeckers also have a growing sense of the price of “special status,” more code for the Orwellian dreamscape of separatists. (You can read David Olive’s op-ed in full by CLICKING HERE. You can also read The Financial Post’s “PQ Win Throws Corporate Deals, Resource Development Into Question”).
And Olive’s use of the term “Orwellian” to describe life in Quebec is becoming an understatement. The OQLF, or “Language Police” as they have come to be known (enforcers of the strict French language laws in the province), have begun handing out fines to such legacy businesses as Starbucks and Canadian Tire (a national retail and automotive franchise founded in 1922 which has become nothing less than a cultural institution at this point). These and other businesses which refuse to adjust their signage and graphics by adding a French description will be subjected to hefty fines and penalties (the Retail Council of Canada – which represents 43,000 stores across Canada – recently commissioned a legal opinion which concluded the OQLF is illegally changing the way it interprets the language laws). As mentioned earlier, tensions in Quebec’s political sphere have become so heated that during Marois’ acceptance speech last night in Montreal, a gunman killed one person and injured one more outside the building where Marois was giving her acceptance speech in front of hundreds of her party members. Marois was swiftly ushered off the stage as a precaution. The New York Times writes:
Montreal police officials said the shootings took place near a back door of the meeting hall. As Ms. Marois was stating her “firm conviction that Quebec needs to become a sovereign country,” she was pulled off the stage by two plainclothes officers. The officials said the gunman then set a fire behind the hall. Television images showed dramatic flames near a fire escape. Constable Daniel Richer, a police spokesman, said a 45-year-old man died in the shooting, and another man was hospitalized in critical condition. A third man, in his 30s, was hospitalized for “nervous shock,” he said. Later footage showed officers carefully retrieving a rifle from behind the hall as a handcuffed man lay nearby. The man, who was wearing a bathrobe, black underwear and a black balaclava, was later placed in a police cruiser. Several news reports reported that he used a French expression which can be translated as, “The English are awakening” or “The English are rising up.” (You can read the full story by visiting The New York Times).
The incident now casts a tragic cloud over a season of heated conflict in Quebec politics. What should have been a post-election period of celebration for some, and wound-licking for others, has now transformed into something else entirely. What happened outside the Metropolis Theatre should be a reminder to all Canadians that there is a fine line between passion and insanity. In his 1964 book Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault writes: “People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” Whatever your position is in this political theatre, check your rage at the door. Democracy was built on passionate beliefs and debate, but inflicting pain or hurt — whether by pen or by sword or by unconscionable laws — is not only immoral, it is inhuman. The stage is now set for Marois and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to somehow get along, and ironically enough, the dynamic could be potentially brilliant for the future of a united Canada. The Globe And Mail writes:
“‘If Stephen Harper plays his cards well, he could marginalize the sovereigntist movement in Quebec in a way it has not been since the 1960s,’ said Brian Lee Crowley, head of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa think tank. Although about one-third of Quebeckers voted to elect a bound-to-be-unstable PQ minority government, polls show historically low levels of support for sovereignty. That chronically weak support for a Quebec state is why Mr. Harper paid little attention to the sovereigntist threat while the Charest Liberals were in power. Now that the PQ is in, he must pay attention. But that doesn’t mean he has to play their game. Ms. Marois will demand new powers for Quebec over employment insurance, culture and communications, immigration and foreign policy, and who knows what else. The Conservatives, in response, will politely but firmly reject every demand. No negotiations. No accommodation. The federal focus will be on jobs, trade and eliminating the deficit — and nothing else. That, simply, is what a strategy of non-engagement entails.
Because their own governments were rooted in Quebec, previous Prime Ministers could not risk such a strategy. Because his government is rooted entirely outside it, Mr. Harper can risk no other. The national mood outside Quebec is powerfully opposed to being dragged back to the constitutional and cultural strife of the unquiet past. Mr. Harper will be guided by that mood. The PQ no doubt hopes that a strategy of non-engagement will anger Quebeckers. And if Mr. Harper seems arrogant or insensitive to Quebeckers’ needs, he could damage his party’s and the nation’s prospects.
The risk of such a strategy “is that it strengthens the hand of a PQ government that says Ottawa’s not listening, which helps stir the pot for a referendum,” observed Gerald Baier, a political scientist at University of British Columbia who specializes in Canadian federalism. “The potential reward is that it … confirms the reality that a lot of people in Quebec don’t care about the sovereignty issue as much as they used to.” If so, the sovereigntist cause could be dealt a blow from which it never recovers: an ironic and Pyrrhic outcome from Tuesday’s victory.
As saddened as I was to learn that someone like Pauline Marois can be elected Premier while championing some of the most draconian and Orwellian political positions found in the free world, it is equally disturbing to read the inflammatory words — both franco and anglo — that have been running rampant on social networks not only today, but in the weeks that have led up to this election. George Orwell himself once wrote, “To see what is beneath one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” And my advice to Quebeckers on both sides of the spectrum would be to let go of your egos and embrace the beauty that still lies right beneath your own noses. Even though your leader might be from a real-life version of 1984 you’re still surrounded by the beauty of Canada’s crown jewel. Just be sure to mind your Ps and Qs.