François Legault deaths quebec recoveries covid-19

Quebec Premier François Legault

Sorry, but François Legault is not all that

It’s a natural inclination to rally around leadership in times of crisis. But there are limits.

I’m deeply grateful for much of the political leadership I’ve seen in Quebec and Canada this past month as a global epidemic has killed nearly 100,000 people worldwide and has temporarily — if not irrevocably — altered our lives.

Compared with U.S. President Donald Trump, who’s bragging about being “a ratings hit” with his White House briefings and incapable of even offering condolences for thousands of Americans who have died and will continue to die because of his lagging leadership, most of our political leaders have stepped up to the plate and treated COVID-19 with all the seriousness it deserves.

Granted, it’s not hard looking like a hero next to someone as intellectually and temperamentally unsuited for a crisis such as Trump. But there is something quite unsettling about watching the rally-around-the-flag phenomenon that always spikes during a crisis or war — which in turn reduces criticism of governmental policies — manifesting itself very clearly right now, both here in Quebec and across Canada.

Of course, it’s a natural human inclination to band together and rally around leadership in times of crisis. War terminology is often used in government briefings because that’s exactly what it feels like. And since war makes for strange bedfellows, partisan divisions and minor squabbles seem trivial and lacking in solidarity during difficult times. We’re not supposed to question or be too negative, we’re supposed to lift each other up.

For some reason, this temporary leniency is supposed to extend to journalists whose very job it is to ask hard questions. As a result, I’ve recently seen some members of the media unfairly criticized by the public for being “too tough” or “too sensationalistic” too “eager for dirt” simply for asking uncomfortable follow-up questions or critically analyzing a government’s game plan. Solidarity should not prevent vigilance and, as journalism professor Colette Brin recently said on social media, “We may be in a crisis, but we are still in a democracy.” The job of media remains one of being a government watchdog, of reporting the facts — even the uncomfortable ones. Media is not in the business of propaganda or soothing frayed nerves.

The fawning over our leaders during times of crisis is predictable and understandable. I, too, have fallen victim to it. A recent EKOS poll showed that confidence in the federal government is at 75 per cent, the highest score the EKOS has ever received. Several of Canada’s premiers are also “scoring above their usual levels among their respective voters” according to EKOS. I’m watching people say that Doug Ford is “crushing it” on Twitter, while a recent Toronto Star op-ed lauded the Ontario premier as “the unlikely leader that his province needs.”

The guy who gutted the Toronto healthcare network and eliminated $52-million worth of health policy and research? The guy who told Ontario families to “go away and have a good time” during March Break, a day before the federal government was cancelling all non-essential travel? That guy is crushing it?! Suddenly he’s a hero just because he praised Prime Minister Trudeau for his leadership and refused to discuss politics until the crisis is over? Is the bar set that low? Yes, it is.

I’m about to say something that will displease many Quebecers, currently in a state of adulation over our premier. François Legault deserves many of the accolades he’s been receiving so far, and probably will continue to receive for the weeks and months to come. He has handled himself well. But he shouldn’t be immune from criticism and we shouldn’t lose sight of the healthy and necessary ability to criticize our decision-makers just because we’re in a state of deep uncertainty and unprecedented danger.

While François Legault’s often paternalistic fatherly act has always rubbed me a little the wrong way, and I’m no fan of CAQ legislation like Bill 21 and Bill 9, which marginalized and harmed minorities, I can certainly see his appeal during a time of deep crisis. People need stability and reassurance when they are deeply anxious. They need someone to act like they’ve “got this” and someone has their back.

François Legault and his team have been extremely successful in conveying this type of reassuring “we’re in this together” message and getting the tone right so it always hovers somewhere firmly between empathetic but also decisive and firm. It’s no small feat.

During his daily briefings, François Legault is routinely flanked by media darling and non-stop meme generator Quebec Chief Medical Officer Horacio Arruda and the always stoic and calm Minister of Health and Social Services Danielle McCann. They are the yin and the yang of his Père de famille approach that many Quebecers appreciate — now more than ever.

Even his little “boomer” expressions and habit of saying off-the-cuff remarks that used to get him in trouble are now seen as endearing and charming.

When journalists asked why SAQ outlets would remain open and considered “essential services” during a pandemic, Legault explained that he didn’t want to see chaos in the grocery store and that some people still needed alcohol to cope. He then added, with a twinkle in his eye, that “people should go for walks to reduce stress, but sometimes a glass of wine may also help.”

Of course, his response went immediately viral on social media. Is there anything more relatable, more socially acceptable to many of us than a glass of wine to take the edge off? Particularly when the world seems to be bursting into flames?

According to a Leger Marketing poll published in Le Devoir mid-March, a whopping 93 per cent of Quebecers older than 55 approved of François Legault. The recent EKOS poll had him at 95 per cent approval. As a friend said, those are dictator numbers.

Another added element that bumped his support even higher was Legault’s decision to directly address anglophones — even if it’s just a prepared three-line paragraph — during this crisis. It has not gone unnoticed and has been greeted with immense gratitude by Quebec’s English speakers.

But people need to be reassured so desperately that there seems to be this overriding desire not to question those in authority, lest that veneer of confidence wash off. It’s okay, however, to acknowledge that things aren’t perfect. That the government machine has occasionally been slow and way too secretive with official data, often contradictory in the dissemination of information, a little too optimistic in its delivery, considering the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases. We can laud our government for doing its best and still admit that we have many shortcomings to tackle.

François Legault
Jeanne Mance Monument by Louis-Philippe Hébert, Hotel Dieu Hospital

Our healthcare system, for example. François Legault may keep referring to Quebec nurses as our “guardian angels” but frustration and exhaustion have been plaguing this predominantly female work force that’s been overworked and underpaid for years. Calling nurses “guardian angels” may be nice, but why haven’t these angels been better treated by their government? All I’ve seen are forced overtime, questionable work conditions and collective agreements that always leave them fighting for more. Sure, the Liberals’ budget cuts didn’t help our healthcare system prepare for this crisis, but the CAQ’s fixation on identity politics since coming into power, instead of tackling urgent needs, have done us no favours now either.

Take a quick glance at the “Je dénonce” platform (created as a site for Quebec nurses and other health professionals to report dangerous practices during the COVID-19 crisis) and you’ll see many testimonials related to the lack of protective equipment and safety practices that put them and their patients in danger.

And while it’s perfectly understandable that an unprecedented crisis like this pandemic might require drastic measures, suspending the collective agreement for nurses and granting exceptional powers to healthcare employers — like increasing workdays to 12 hours or suspending the right to strike if conditions are unacceptable — are questionable decisions. Should these nurses not have the right to protect their health and the health of their patients just because there’s a crisis?

There’s also the issue of pregnant women being denied the right to have a childbirth partner at the Jewish General. François Legault subsequently ensured that right at every other hospital, suggesting that patients of the Jewish General can simply transfer to other hospitals. For one thing, that has not proven to be realistic for women near the end of their pregnancies. And why the double standard?

Another thing that bothers me: In the lead-up to April 1, I patiently watched the government’s daily briefings every day. Every day, a journalist asked specific questions about tenants unable to pay rent, and every day François Legault has deflected the questions by referring them to the federal government’s aid program.

Legault kept urging landlords to be “understanding” and “patient” with tenants unable to pay. He’s basically relying on the goodwill of landlords not to harass or demand payment from people who are currently stuck at home isolating — most of whom have lost their jobs and have no income coming in. You can’t ask Quebec to go on a break if you’re not willing to ensure that Quebecers can do that without major detriment to their livelihoods. There’s nothing wrong with continuing to put our federal and provincial governments’ feet to the fire and insist they do more to help us. This is a crisis of unprecedented magnitude and it’s not unpatriotic or petty to ensure that no one gets left behind. Being left to the goodwill of landlords, employers, or — even worse — banks and credit card companies is a recipe for disaster.

As I wrote for a recent Ricochet piece, “In Italy, the government cancelled mortgage payments. Spain nationalized all its hospitals and healthcare providers. In El Salvador, the government cancelled all rent, electricity bills. water, phone, and internet for three months. In France, all taxes, rent and utility bills have been cancelled for certain companies.” More can still be done.

This public fawning over our public officials won’t last long. It’s a temporary and perfectly understandable human emotion in the face of a temporary terror. Once things return to some semblance of normal, the honeymoon will be over, we’ll start to see more criticism of our elected officials and I’m confident that absolutely no one will be “crushing it” in the polls.

But in the meantime, journalists can’t afford to stop asking the tough questions and the public needs to stay informed of the facts — even the ones that scare us. It’s a crisis, but it’s still a democracy. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.

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