François Legault real Quebecer

François Legault doesn’t get to decide who’s a real Quebecer

“The Premier seems to operate as if he’s still the CEO of a multimillion-dollar business conglomerate and democracy is just his boardroom.”

Premier François Legault really doesn’t like dissent. Since being elected, the CAQ has repeatedly rushed through contentious legislation and then been forced to backtrack when faced with public criticism or the mundane business of democratic checks and balances. When that happens, the Premier isn’t shy about voicing his displeasure. 

In order to be able to pass Bill 21, the Quebec government invoked the notwithstanding clause, meaning the law couldn’t be challenged on the grounds that it violated basic rights according to certain sections of the charter. Section 23 of the charter on minority language rights, however, is not covered by the clause. Quebec Court Justice Marc-André Blanchard therefore concluded that it could not be applied to English schools. 

Premier Legault (without irony or self-awareness) expressed dismay that the judge’s decision would create two categories of Quebecers, summarizing, in essence, the very reason so many are against Bill 21. Judge Blanchard’s hands may have been tied by the notwithstanding clause, but he made it clear he considers the legislation to be unconstitutional and discriminatory towards Muslim women, violating both their religious freedom and their freedom of expression. 

The government immediately announced that it will appeal the decision — as it has the legal right to do. But, once again, by attempting to pre-empt dissent and a legal challenge, they managed to open a whole new can of worms with this court decision, not to mention guaranteed themselves years of court battles that will only serve to divide Quebecers and further marginalize those fighting for rights that they are, in fact, guaranteed under both charters. Social harmony and cohesion at its finest! 

Follow the leader, leader, leader… 

Legault seems to often operate as if he’s still the CEO of a multimillion-dollar business conglomerate and democracy is just his boardroom. Only it’s not. Democracy has checks and balances to protect minorities from majority abuse. Laws protecting them are not pesky roadblocks to be ignored or quickly cast aside, and informed dissent is the quintessential part of our democratic institutions. 

Legault and his government did everything possible to put a lid on the debate surrounding Bill 21. They limited public hearings to six days, barely allowed the opposition and the groups most affected to have a say, and then used closure to shut it all down, because, according to the Premier, speeches made by the opposition weren’t “constructive.” Democracy, you’re such a drag! 

Somehow, in the middle of this court challenge, Legault still had time to post a lengthy commentary on his Facebook page about the dangers of “radicals who want to censor, muzzle, intimidate and limit freedom of speech” and can’t seem to handle a divergence of opinion. Huh…

Here’s the pesky thing with democracy. It’s not enough to simply say, “But the majority want this” or “Au Québec, c’est comme ça qu’on vit ici” (whatever that generic catchphrase is supposed to mean). You need to prove that a majority decision does not trample on minorities who don’t have the demographic weight to outnumber a decision that discriminates against them. Minority voices aren’t just a cumbersome obstacle on the way to whatever someone decided they want. 

Most importantly, when it comes to basic human rights, and as history has tragically often shown us, it’s irrelevant what the percentage of people supporting this law happens to be. Politics is much more than just an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people. Fundamental human rights should not be voted on and should never be part of a referendum process. That’s why we call them rights and that’s why they’re guaranteed. And that’s why the CAQ needed the notwithstanding clause.

Dangerous identity politics

The Premier expressed his displeasure over the recent ruling and at things not going his way and decided to raise the stakes by lowering the bar. He decided that he would question how much of a real Quebecer someone who disagrees with the way his government went about pushing through Bill 21 really was. 

When Liberal Party leader Dominique Anglade stated that her party is in favour of secularism (as are most opponents to Bill 21, by the way) but that she would not renew the notwithstanding clause after its five-year-period, because she believes the legislation needs to be allowed to pass the legal test, she became a suspect Quebecer. In response, Premier Legault retaliated that Anglade “failed her leadership test” and is “incapable of defending Quebecers’ values.” Not at all patronizing.

This is a dangerous dose of wedge politics and populism, and unbecoming of a Premier who’s ultimately supposed to be representing all Quebecers. Who exactly gets to champion Quebec values? Isn’t it a little presumptuous to pretend to speak for all Quebecers when Legault is leader of a party that was voted in by only 37% of eligible voters? (That from a total of only 67% who cast a ballot if you really want to get petty.) Are most Quebecers, who didn’t vote for him or who disagree with him, legit Quebecers? With only two elected representatives from the island of Montreal, does the CAQ’s Bill 21 represent the values of the close to 4 million Quebecers who live in the province’s largest metropolis and the city where most of the residents directly affected by this legislation reside? Considering Montreal City Council in rare unanimity adopted a resolution condemning the legislation, I would confidently say no.

Who’s a real Quebecer?

Let’s put aside the number of voters who cast a ballot for the CAQ and only focus on the number of Quebecers supporting Bill 21. Approximately 60% of Quebecers are in favour of the law on laïcité. So are about 41% of Canadians, by the way. Are they paradoxically acting more like a “real” Quebecer according to Legault than the 40% of real Quebecers who oppose it?

40%, coincidentally is also the number of francophone Quebecers who voted “No” in the 1995 referendum. Does that decision make them fake Quebecers? Do they not believe in and defend Quebec values (whatever they may be), because most francophones voted otherwise? Are Quebecers who believe in multiculturalism traitors to Quebec? 

What about allophones and anglophone Quebecers who voted en masse to stay part of Canada? Are they not real Quebecers? Is Dominique Anglade as the leader of a federalist party not a real Quebecer? Are the Quebecers fighting to strike down Bill 21 because it contravenes the Charter of Quebec and Canadian values not true-blue Quebecers? What about Quebecers in the 18–24 age group who are overwhelmingly opposed to it? Are they real Quebecers or just young and confused? 

Is Montreal’s largest francophone school board, which also opposes the legislation, not comprised of real Quebecers? Are the women who are fighting for their bodily autonomy and right to wear a hijab freely while teaching or practising law not defending Quebec values, or is there something particularly feminist about women being forced to do something they don’t want to do or risk losing their jobs?  

Nativist populism

Alluding to Quebec values or Canadian values is dangerous politics. It’s populism at its most crass, scapegoating people who disagree with you, and demonizes your political opponents. It goes against democratic notions of openness and inclusivity during a worrisome rising tide of nativism and right-wing populism. And it’s used time and time again here.  

Kelly Leitch’s openly nativist populist campaign bid for leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada failed spectacularly when she attempted to screen for so-called Canadian values. But Legault’s populism is also an openly nativist brand, intent on attempting to speak for the Quebec nation, when it barely acknowledges, recognizes or takes into consideration components that deviate from the French majority. 

Telling Anglade that she’s not defending Quebec values because she simply refuses to shield Bill 21 from a court challenge and wants to allow the democratic process to unfold is needlessly divisive. Legault’s insistence on talking about how “our people” have now rediscovered their pride and how he wants to protect “our values” and “our way of life” has always scared me. 

Statements like these are dangerous because they reduce perfectly legitimate and democratic disagreements down to a test of belonging. If you don’t fit the confines of a specific kind of Quebecer, you don’t pass the authenticity test. You’re not a real Quebecer. You’re not “one of us.” You’ve failed. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.