Simon Jolin-Barrette and François Legault Boys Club bill 96

Photo by Jacques Boissinot

Quebec politics is still a Boys’ Club

Double standards still seem to excuse and protect men, while women need to be more than exceptional to catch a break.

Liberal MNA and education critic Marwah Rizqy has done an excellent job of holding Education Minister Jean-François Roberge’s feet to the fire this past year. She has repeatedly challenged him for his ministry’s questionable decisions and lack of clarity regarding back-to-school rules and the use of masks and air filters. Last week, she demanded explanations after a Radio-Canada bombshell revealed that Roberge never had public health’s approval for his ministry’s protocols for testing classroom air. Unfortunately, Roberge was not present in the Blue Room to respond. Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette, however, was. He didn’t provide any answers, but he did provide some theatrics. 

When Rizqy pointed out that the one person who could provide clarity was missing (technically not allowed in the rules of conduct), Jolin-Barrette jumped up and yelled out a very audible “Woa!” momentarily startling her and forcing MNA François Paradis to try and maintain some order in the house. In reaction to the outburst, Quebec Solidaire MNA Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois was heard responding: “Arrête de crier comme ça, Simon. Tu peux pas faire ça, man!” (“Stop yelling, Simon. You can’t do that, man!”)

Liberal MNA and education critic Marwah Rizqy

Routine behaviour by Jolin-Barrette

Jolin-Barrette’s outburst was childish and disrespectful. But the Premier giggling with him like a 14-year-old only days after lecturing Quebecers about bullying is probably worse. Instead of Legault calling him to order, he was encouraging him by treating it as the harmless outburst of a petulant child. Boys will be boys, amirite? 

Legault laughing it up

This wasn’t the first time Jolin-Barrette has behaved like this. After Liberal MNA Marie Montpetit recently spoke, he expressed his disapproval by banging loudly on his desk, surprising even Health Minister Christian Dubé, who was speaking at the time. I’m not sure whether he has anger issues, whether he feels compelled to bully his female colleagues or if it’s just a delay or distraction tactic when difficult questions are asked. But when I see these emotional outbursts, I’m a) annoyed that women are routinely treated as the ones incapable of controlling their emotions, and b) worried that he’s in charge of highly volatile files, like immigration, francization and secularism. 

To be honest, my expectations of Jolin-Barrette dwindled down to nothing after he decided to go jogging in the middle of heated debates on Bill 9 and Bill 21 in the summer of 2019. This was legislation that would go on to profoundly affect the lives of thousands of Quebecers, but, somehow, he needed to hit the trails. It smacked of arrogance and it’s a quality he has displayed more than a few times. 

No consequences for male ministers who mess up

Oddly enough, this attitude comes from someone who’s fumbled more than a few important files, embarrassing the government and forcing it to backtrack on major reforms (namely the PEQ) and creating stress and uncertainty for those affected. And despite his many fumbles, he hasn’t been sidelined. Instead, he has been rewarded. Legault keeps entrusting him with more important portfolios, like current reforms to Bill 101. 

Many have openly wondered whether he and Roberge would still be handling these important files if they were women. Many female ministers in Legault’s cabinet have been replaced for far less. Economy minister Pierre Fitzgibbon still sits as an MNA despite the National Assembly’s ethics commissioner finding numerous ethical lapses last year.

Legault’s decision not to take any action after the ethics commission’s report prompted Liberal MNA Isabelle Melançon to call out the Boys’ Club and denounce the double standards. “If Pierre Fitzgibbon had been a woman, there would have been a cabinet shuffle within hours,” she was quoted as saying back in November. In fact, when there have been shuffles, women have lost their ministerial positions and men have taken over (Indigenous Affairs minister Sylvie D’Amours being replaced by Ian Lafreniere) or they have been downgraded to less important files (Danielle McCann being replaced by Christian Dubé in the Health Ministry.) 

Women are often excluded from the Boys’ Club

Pauline Marois
Pauline Marois, “never part of the Boys’ Club”

It doesn’t help that Legault has an old-school paternalistic père de famille aura about him. He seems more at ease around men and seems to hold some antiquated ideas about women. Remember this doozy? “Les filles attachent moins d’importance au salaire que les garçons” (“Women attach less importance to salary than men do.”) As the person in charge of paying my mortgage, I can assure you, Mr. Legault, that I do not. 

Coincidentally, I’m currently reading the autobiography of Pauline Marois, the only female Premier Quebec has ever known. There’s a chapter in Pauline Marois: Au-delà du pouvoir where she describes having to work twice as hard, even while pregnant and later as a young mother, to prove herself in politics. Looking back on her choices, she now admits that she pushed herself too hard, returning to work only days after giving birth. But she admits that in that hypermasculine setting she was afraid that she would look weak if she hadn’t. She writes about her frustration in routinely being asked how she managed to balance work and family and how she would always respond, “Why don’t you ask the same question to Alain Marcoux or Pierre Marc Johnson who also have children around the same age?” 

Because she was trying hard to balance it all, Marois admits that when her day was over, she wouldn’t take part in any after-work social activities. She didn’t grab a drink or have dinner with any of her colleagues. She would go straight home to be with her children. So even though she didn’t allow motherhood to slow her down, she was, in her own words, “never part of the Boys’ Club.” 

It’s striking to sometimes see how little has changed. But it’s also encouraging to see how some things have. It’s been refreshing to see female MNAs like Minister of Public Safety Geneviève Guilbault and Catherine Dorion take their maternity leaves and no one batting an eye. Marois led the way and opened doors for that to be the norm today. But she, and women in politics at the time, had to sacrifice for others to benefit.

The Boys’ Club in municipal politics

Denis Coderre Boys Club
Denis Coderre

I see similar undertones of sexism in the conversations surrounding the current Montreal pre-electoral campaign. Denis Coderre is trying hard to position himself as the man of business, showing up to do the heavy lifting and get the city out of its pandemic quagmire. Valérie Plante may have been good for beautifying some parks, he seems to imply, but let the real men come in and save the day when it comes to money. 

Only the facts seem to contradict that unsubstantiated narrative that many unaware of their own bias will willingly believe. A recent La Presse article pointed out that if Plante has harmed Montreal’s economy it certainly doesn’t show in the numbers. “Montreal offers the second largest investment strategy in the world, according to a Financial Times publication.”

And this sexist fallacy that men are better for business persists, even while we’re starting to realize that countries which took more of an aggressive “Zero COVID” approach, instead of only trying to mitigate the virus while keeping businesses open at the cost of human lives, fared much better by both health and economic measures. Many of these countries, like New Zealand, Germany, Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Taiwan, were female-led.

Things may have improved slightly for women in politics, but much still hasn’t changed. Overt sexism may be frowned upon, but the double standards still seem to excuse and protect men, while women need to be more than exceptional to catch a break. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.