Last Friday evening, while most of southern Quebec was busy battling a monster snowstorm, the Legault government was busy invoking closure for the fourth time in eight months. After Bill 21, Bill 9 and Bill 34 were rammed through last year, debate on Bill 40 was unceremoniously shut down.
Bill 40, which — among other things — abolishes school boards and replaces them with service centres, was adopted early Saturday morning in Legault’s absence. Even though Bill 40 has a whopping 300 articles, a few days before invoking closure, the government decided to table 82 new amendments, representing an additional 112 pages of new reading material that needed to be studied. By Friday evening, mere hours before invoking closure, an additional 15 amendments were thrown on that pile, including one that meant French school commissioners woke up Saturday morning to find out they were essentially out of a job.
All this despite the protests of all three opposition parties and the education branch of the CSN, the province’s second-largest trade union. The latter represents more than 30,000 people working in 1,600 schools across Quebec, who are — rightfully — worried that they will end up with a poorly crafted bill that will wreak havoc in their workplaces. New Brunswick and PEI have already learned the hard way how badly implemented educational reforms can backfire.
I’ve always been a fast reader. My elementary school teachers would always ask me to slow down when I was reading out loud for the class. I go through reading material quickly. Attempting to understand 300 articles of complex legislation, to which an additional last-minute 150 pages of amendments have been added, is not like speed-reading through a novel. The intricacies of a bill that will pretty much change the entire functioning of Quebec’s elementary and secondary educational system does not deserve to be quickly skimmed through or pondered by tired MNAs in the wee hours of the morning after a long workweek. Forcing exactly that, by using closure, is not only arrogant and reeks of autocratic tendencies, it’s also deeply irresponsible.
Having no kids of my own, I have never felt one way or another about school boards. Because of work, however, I was required to listen to some of the hearings that have taken place these past few months. By listening to testimonials by school commissioners and teachers from Quebec’s French- and English-language school boards I became aware of how little I knew about their daily functioning and how vital a role they seem to play in supporting teachers and students across the province. You can only acquire this information by allowing people — experts in their field — their say.
Premier François Legault doesn’t seem to be too keen on that. He himself admitted, during the foreign-students debacle, that when things move too quickly, mistakes are made. But he wants to speed up the democratic process of debate, despite the protests of teachers and parents who feel unheard and disrespected.
Funnily enough, the premier doesn’t seem to have any sense of urgency when it comes to Indigenous kids under the government’s care. They’ve been left outside the school system, deprived of the education they’re entitled to. Even though the government’s quick intervention would be welcomed here, Legault, who has insisted on warp speed for everything else, seems somehow comfortable with setting a lackadaisical pace and dragging his feet.
What I believe to be most disconcerting so far is how Legault has managed to normalize shutting down debate, how easily he has repeatedly allowed his government to squash dissent and reach for closure. It’s as if he forgets that what separates democracy from other political philosophies is the principle and practice of finding solutions via dialogue. When questioned about invoking closure again, Legault told reporters that MNAs had to stop “wasting time.”
Opposition parties were, of course, quick to jump on those comments. The Parti Quebecois’s Veronique Hivon said that the “government seems to have invented an entirely new concept, that of ‘democracy by timer,’” alluding, one assumes, to chess players who play a tournament with clocks and are under strict time limitations for each of their moves.
Québec Solidaire’s Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois tweeted, “The [premier’s] declaration is very revealing of his vision of democracy. For him, the National Assembly is a burden, an obstacle.”
Liberal MNA Marwah Rizqy tweeted, “The session has barely started and already another closure! What a lack of listening!”
I’m not sure how Premier Legault perceives the democratic process, but it’s not a race. The politician who pushes the most legislation through isn’t declared the winner. Democracy can be messy and time-consuming, even frustrating at times. It requires patience and compromise. Legault seems to display a serious streak of authoritarianism. He’s no longer operating a business and is no longer the CEO of a private company. He’s the premier of all Quebecers, even those who didn’t vote for him, and it seems as though he’s forgotten this.
A healthy democracy not only requires checks and balances, it welcomes them. Ramming through legislation because the process is not moving along as quickly as he would want it to, doesn’t make the premier an efficient go-getter slashing through bureaucratic red tape. It makes him careless and impervious to the recommendations of expert opinions.
The premier constantly repeats that all these decisions have been pre-sanctioned because they are “the will of the people” who elected him is not a good look. It reveals him to be the populist many worried he would be. To view opposition as tedious and unwanted is to misunderstand the basic concepts of democracy.
Legault’s populist authoritarianism and unfettered majoritarianism essentially espouses a system of governance built solely around the interests of the majority without any checks and balances or even consideration for minority dissent. Repeatedly quashing opposition and fast-tracking laws that affect us all to cater to the 37 per cent of Quebecers that voted for the CAQ is incredibly dismissive of the 63 per cent that did not. ■
Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.