Yves-François Blanchet debate Bill 21 Bill 96 Bloc Québécois

Quebec-bashing is not the issue, but a divisive debate question made it one

The English debate was a disaster for unity and a gift for Blanchet.

It was the first and only English-language debate and it was a mess. It frankly made me grateful for my ability to understand French, allowing me to benefit from two — far better, in my opinion — debates beforehand. 

First off, the format. It gave leaders very little time to explain their platforms or to engage in any meaningful one-on-one exchanges. They were reduced to yelling over each another. The result: a cacophonic shouting fest. 

Then, the tone. Moderator Shachi Kurl vacillated between being overly aggressive and speaking to the leaders as if they were five-year-old children. Her constant need to cut off those speaking only added to the confusion and sense of urgency that a final debate already has.

Then, the opening questions to all leaders. The way they were framed took away from their essence. More specifically, the question addressed to Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet was a failed attempt at “hard-hitting” that came off as accusatory and biased. As a result, the focus immediately shifted from the substance of the question itself, which was perfectly legitimate, and viewers remained solely focused on what many in la belle province perceived as a moral judgement and a forgone conclusion: Quebecers are racist. 

Question or statement? 

Let’s look at the question again. “You denied that Quebec has problems with racism, yet you defend legislation such as Bills 96 and 21 which marginalize religious minorities, anglophones and allophones. Quebec is recognized as a distinct society but for those outside the province, please help them understand why your party also supports these discriminatory laws.”

The framing is awful and reads as a statement. Nowhere, however, does she say that Quebecers are racist, as many front-page headlines and politicians now claim. Does the Quebec government deny the existence of systemic racism? Yes. Kurl should have been clearer about what she was referring to. I don’t think Blanchet, or any other Quebec politician, has ever denied that racism exists. Quebec, like every other place in the world, has problems with racism, but it’s no better or worse than anywhere else in the country. The focus and the criticism here in Quebec have been on the governments’ denial to acknowledge systemic racism. 

All this necessary nuance, however, was lost in the framing of the question that immediately made both Blanchet and every Quebecer watching bristle and feel personally attacked. Which is a shame, because the question itself deserves to be asked. 

Stop minimizing discrimination

Quebec Bill 21
Quebec-bashing is not the issue, but a divisive debate question made it one

Is Bill 21 discriminatory? Yes. We’re allowed to say that without being accused of Quebec-bashing. After all, are the many Quebecers who oppose the legislation engaging in Quebec-bashing, too, or do they not count as real Quebecers?

Does Bill 21 disproportionately affect and marginalize religious minorities in this province? Absolutely. I’ve lost count of the women I’ve interviewed who had to abandon a career or leave their home because they no longer felt welcome here, could no longer pursue their dreams, or are now stuck in a position with no hope of a promotion despite their competency. While we’re busy talking about Quebec-bashing, who’s defending and protecting the Quebecers being bashed by Bill 21?

“To say that those laws are discriminatory, or even racist, it’s ridiculous,” said Premier François Legault the day after the debate.

Only it’s not ridiculous and it’s not a value judgment to state that this legislation discriminates. It’s a fact. Judge Blanchard explicitly concluded that Bill 21 is discriminatory and disproportionate in its harmful effects. Human rights and constitutional lawyers have also said as much. The CAQ knows this, too. It’s why they were forced to push through the legislation by a) using closure, to shut down debate by opposition parties who disagree with the legislation, and b) use the notwithstanding clause to pre-emptively shield it from a legal challenge. They know it most likely wouldn’t stand up to a court challenge because of its discriminatory nature.

Regardless of the good-faith intent of most Quebecers who support Bill 21, what is the direct consequence of this legislation, if not discrimination? While the bill certainly enjoys support among xenophobes and Islamophobes, I do believe that most of its supporters simply favour secularism. The problem with Bill 21 is that it’s the furthest thing from secularism. Instead of legislating separation of church and state (which already exists in Quebec), it legislates anti-religion, in essence imposing the beliefs of the majority onto to the minority. That violates minority rights.

Why Bill 96 was mentioned 

The same goes for Bill 96, which the CAQ is selling as just an “update” on Bill 101, but really isn’t since it includes significant changes that are of concern to those affected. The reason the moderator lumped them together is because, by pre-emptively using section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and elevating the Charter of the French Language above the provisions of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, Bill 96 prevents people from any judicial recourse if they feel their rights have been challenged. 

By using the notwithstanding clause twice, the government has essentially admitted that these pieces of legislation violate both the Quebec and the Canadian Charters of Rights and Freedoms and don’t want them facing legal challenges. Important reminder: Bill 96 isn’t currently law; it’s proposed legislation and the National Assembly will be holding hearings on it soon. But to most Quebecers who haven’t been following the debate on it closely, it just felt like an unnecessary attack on Bill 101 and Quebec’s language laws. They shouldn’t confuse the two.

Understanding both sides

Green Party leader Annamie Paul debate Canada leaders
Quebec-bashing is not the issue, but a divisive debate question made it one

I understand many of my fellow Quebecers’ reactions to the English debate. I bristled at the tone of the questions and even felt bad for Blanchet during the exchange with Green leader Annamie Paul. I thought she had a fantastic overall performance that night, but she was unnecessarily rude and condescending to him by “inviting him to educate himself” without even looking him in the eye while saying so. It was not only harsh, but utterly counterproductive. Who in the history of all debates has ever changed their mind about something by being treated in that tone? 

But — and here’s the “but” that many, now busy being outraged, won’t spare a moment on — a Black Jewish woman was standing on stage listening to the repeated denials and downplaying of a man who had just spent the last hour shamelessly making everything about him. And by “him” I mean Quebec. Every discussion that evening — even the topic of Indigenous affairs and reconciliation — was a direct pivot to Quebec for Blanchet. I get that being the spoke in Canada’s wheel is literally the Bloc’s raison d’être, but his tone-deaf attempts to claim Quebecers and Indigenous peoples are in the same boat — while his ancestors came here on one to colonize the latter — was, frankly, exhausting. 

I understood Paul’s exasperation being told, “Sure, systemic racism exists, but I’ll only talk about it on my terms, later… when things are less aggressive.” Setting the terms of a discussion and dismissing the severity of an issue are power plays and what BIPOC people deal with their entire lives. Every time there’s a social movement seeking to recalibrate injustice, those in power always tone-police. To some, it might have felt rude, but she was perfectly within her rights to put up her hand while interrupted and say, “This is my time, sir.” Here’s someone who, by her own admission, “had to crawl over a lot of broken glass to get here” listening to the lacklustre denials of a man who, without question, has had it much easier. So, I get her anger. 

Contempt goes both ways, sadly

From a campaign standpoint, Paul’s behaviour conveniently became the wind beneath Blanchet’s wings, which he will use to coast on straight to election day. I hope he sent Kurl a nice thank-you gift afterwards, because she singlehandedly delivered Quebec nationalists the perfect excuse to rile up nationalist sentiments, even in Quebecers who are staunch federalists. It was all so predictable. Just as predictable and opportunistic as political leaders now decrying Quebec-bashing and filing angry petitions aiming to appease those who are angry.

Blanchet skillfully knows how to use every opportunity to yell Quebec-bashing and accuses Canadians of mépris (contempt) at the drop of a hat. Did anyone call Blanchet out for tweeting before the English debate, “A moment of reflection and preparation, and because it’s necessary, in English.” Because it’s necessary… Mépris you say? What do you think English Quebecers feel reading something like that? Their language is a mal nécessaire? Imagine, for a minute, if an English leader had tweeted something like this out, referring to the French language as a “necessary evil.” Imagine the outrage, the denouncements from the National Assembly, the million and one Journal de Montréal columns. There was zero reaction. French Quebecers rarely pay attention to the disdain and disrespect paid to English Quebecers and Canada as a whole. It’s permissible. Who cares about Goliath when David is fighting so hard to catch a break? Only English Quebecers aren’t Goliath. They’re Quebecers, too, and they’re being told they and their language don’t deserve respect. 

Criticism of Quebec legislation isn’t Quebec-bashing

Legault immigrants French
Quebec-bashing is not the issue, but a divisive debate question made it one

I’m not defending the debate or the moderator because there’s little to defend. Quebecers now decrying Quebec- bashing are justified in doing so. But I’m also tired of Quebec politicians and pundits pretending that legal challenges to Bill 21 or the assertion that it’s discriminatory legislation (a fact, not an opinion) is de facto Quebec-bashing. Stating that a Quebec law is discriminatory does not equate saying that Quebec is racist. And those who support Bill 21 need to stop being personally offended that it’s being challenged and seeing it as an attack on Quebec’s autonomy. In a free and democratic society, citizens have the right to challenge legislation that violates our Charters, and it’s up to the legal experts to decide the outcome, without politicians and pundits hijacking these important and necessary motions to simply vote-pander or rally up support for their base. 

Voters deserve better than this dog and pony show we’re currently being treated to. While it may play well to his base, it’s disingenuous for Legault to tell Canada to “mind its own business” on Bill 21 while it’s being challenged. Why, you ask? Because, a) these Quebecers being marginalized and discriminated against by the legislation are also Canadian citizens, and b) the court hearing the challenge is the very same one that protects francophone minority rights in the rest of Canada. 

Minority rights are the very bedrock of a democracy, otherwise all we have is just a tyranny of the majority. If legislation discriminates, it needs to prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that there is an immediate and valid reason to do so (Bill 101 did that, in my opinion) — not because of the majority’s dislike and distrust of religion. Legault’s intervention is even more disingenuous when one considers he’s doing so while simultaneously telling Quebecers, in true Duplessis-like paternalistic style, that the Liberal, NDP and Green plans are “dangerous” and urging them to vote for the Conservatives. 

Losing sight of what’s important

The worst part of the debacle of a debate is how it took all our eyes off the prize. Less than 10 days before an election and no one is discussing policies or problems. No one is focusing on platforms and pressing issues. A party that is vague on women’s reproductive rights and a national daycare system, would repeal the gun ban and has members who don’t even believe in climate change is dangerously close to power. 

The Herron CHSLD inquiry, currently taking place here in Quebec, is a house of horrors. The details being shared are an indictment of our healthcare system and the government’s utter failure to act in time. There should be a collective condemnation of the CAQ’s response and yet Legault is coasting on his popularity and most Quebecers are busy being angry at some Angus Reid pollster we’ll probably never see moderate a debate again. Where are our priorities? 

While I already voted in advance polls, I find myself demoralized and not in the least bit impressed with anyone. I’m tired of the posturing, the vote-pandering and the vague promises, and I’m certainly tired of the political interference. Considering what’s at stake and what’s happened in the past 20 months, this election (as hasty and unnecessarily called as it was) is a very important one and the campaign should have been treated as such. Instead, it’s been a cacophonic free-for-all. We get the government — and the leaders — we deserve in the end. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.