Being cynical about Quebec politics has perhaps never been easier

From the great bungling of Bill 96 amendments to seeing MNAs applaud after voting down an inquiry into CHSLD deaths, it’s been a banner week for feeling like a political orphan in this province.

Anyone who spends a fair amount of time scrutinizing any government at work will develop a healthy amount of political cynicism. Spend a few decades observing the sometimes-glaring contradictions, compromises, routine double-speak of our elected officials and the backtracking and broken promises that all political parties engage in at one point or another and it’s an inevitable by-product.

But last week confirmed, for me at least, why I so often consider myself a political orphan when it comes to provincial politics. I know many Quebecers feel the same way. 

The great bungling of Bill 96

Back in February, the Quebec Liberal Party bungled things (probably as badly as it could have possibly bungled things) by proposing (nay, insisting!) on an amendment to the CAQ’s new language bill, Bill 96. The amendment would require anglophones attending English-language CEGEPs to take three core CEGEP courses in French in order to graduate. The suggestion was made, I suspect, partly in good faith as a way of working together on French language protection, and partly as a strategic move for the Liberals to woo more francophone voters to their party and help stop the bleeding seven months before elections. 

With Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette initially prepared to exempt anglophones from the requirement, the Liberals insisted it be included, and went ahead and voted for it. The suggestion itself isn’t a bad one. As I wrote in last week’s column, I support the idea. We should all be striving for better French-language mastery. 

Zero consultation 

The problem? No one at the National Assembly (all 125 of them!) bothered consulting the experts — CEGEP teachers and administrators — to establish how applicable and realistic this amendment would be. Complex reforms with potentially long-lasting consequences for students’ academic success were voted in, yet somehow no one thought to consult the very people most equipped to offer them the insight they needed to make educated decisions.

Once CEGEP administrators and teachers caught wind of the proposed amendment, they were outraged. The Federation of CEGEPs called the amendment “appalling.” “Those considerations take time — months, years — to be thought out by specialists,” said Bernard Tremblay, CEGEP federation president, in an interview with Global News. “So, to see people — and, with all due respect, people at the National Assembly — not knowing what they were doing, and putting that into law, without consultation, was quite frightening.”

First Nations students thrown under the bus 

After Quebec’s English community, Quebec First Nations also voiced their concerns, slamming Bill 96’s amendment. The First Nations Education Council stated categorically that it would severely impact the futures of hundreds of their students, now forced to pass exams in their third language. What’s more, the council’s repeated requests for a meeting with Jolin-Barrette went unanswered. 

It wasn’t just panicked parents speaking out against this amendment, but educators on the ground who unequivocally told our MNAs that this will impact English-speaking and First Nations students and their R-Scores, as well as college administrations (dealing with severe teacher shortages) in detrimental ways. 

So, what did our MNAs do about it? Nothing. 

After Liberal leader Dominique Anglade (the very same politician who’s routinely criticized the CAQ for governing without consultation for two years) conceded her party should have consulted CEGEPs, they requested that the clause be removed. They even presented a compromise, by suggesting five French language courses for CEGEP graduation. Their proposal was rejected. 

Political partisanship guides all decisions 

Having heard the arguments of educators and CEGEP administrators, elected officials of all stripes should have acted in the best interest of young Quebecers, and, at the very least, delayed the amendment to implement reforms properly and without sacrificing students’ academic success.  

But they didn’t. 

Politicians proved more interested in scoring political points rather than working together for the benefit of all. Yes, even those Quebecers who (what a novel idea!) didn’t vote for them. 

Given the opportunity to delay the vote for the CAQ to study the Liberals’ proposal more closely, both the QS and the PQ refused. The PQ abstained from voting but demanded a vote be held immediately. The CAQ, not wanting to appear soft on language, had no choice but to vote no. 

Politics, not education 

“That’s a circus. It’s unbelievable that the Liberals ask us to protect (them) from themselves,” said PQ MNA Pascal Bérubé. 

He’s not technically wrong. Why should the PQ protect the Liberals from their own political fumble? Only politics isn’t Laser Tag or Flag Football — you don’t automatically win when your opponent loses. PQ and others who abstained wouldn’t have been protecting the Liberals but young students who’ll be the ones to ultimately feel the consequences of this badly thought-out, rushed-through idea. 

If one solely chooses to look at the issue through the narrow prism of partisan politics and political opportunism, it’s a cut-and-dry decision. Knowing there are probably few, if any, English-speaking families in the PQ’s voter base, and knowing the minority concerns of First Nations are not shared or on the radar of most francophone PQ voters, then it’s easy not to bother backing the Liberals on this issue. They will, after all, be the only party to pay a political price for this about-face in October. Why should the PQ’s concerns lie with the academic success of English-speaking Quebecers? 

Because they’re Quebecers, too. That should have been enough of a reason. And because these added obstacles will not only impact their individual futures but Quebec’s overall graduation rates — already not that enviable when compared with the rest of the country.  

If, as the QS, the CAQ and the PQ have always insisted, French-language acquisition is so important, why aren’t all parties working together to ensure that the best possible plan be implemented? 

Clapping while Quebec leads in COVID deaths

No better example of this self-serving political partisanship exists than when the CAQ decided last Thursday to vote down a request for a public inquiry into the deaths of thousands of Quebec seniors during the pandemic’s first wave – including the 47 who died at Herron under the most horrific conditions. Every single one of all 60 CAQ members voted against it. 

This time it was a PQ motion to hold a public inquiry that got shot down. It was a good and necessary motion, as millions of Quebecers want to know how much the government’s (mis)management had to do with Quebec’s deadly pandemic toll. It was not to be. The CAQ, by sheer force of its elected majority and in a clear attempt to shield itself from culpability, unanimously voted against it. In an election year, a public inquiry offers them nothing positive. 

Every single one of those MNAs who voted the motion down have families in their ridings mourning the death of loved ones — families who have questions and are haunted by “what if’s” they’ll probably never get answers to. None of these MNAs felt their responsibility rested with these people. Their loyalty and duty stayed firmly with their political leader and a party, already in pre-election mode. Polls continue to show Legault there will be no political price to pay — his actions indicate he knows this. 

The arrogance of political power was on full display when CAQ MNAs stood up to jubilantly clap for soon-to-be-departing ministers Marguerite Blais and Danielle McCann. A standing ovation while voting down a public inquiry into the deaths of more than 6,000 Quebecers is not only incredibly self-serving, but arrogant, in bad taste and short on empathy. 

Working together works best

Last year, when the Quebec government decided to set up a special court to hear cases involving sexual and conjugal violence, it wasn’t Jolin-Barrette’s doing. The work had started long before, in 2019, when the PQ’s Veronique Hivon proposed the idea after being inspired by victims coming forward to report their sexual assaults during the MeToo movement, only to be left discouraged by the process. 

In a powerful display of bipartisan female solidarity, she was quickly joined by MNAs Hélène David (PLQ) Sonia Lebel (CAQ) and Christine Labrie (QS). These political opponents worked together because everyone in the group felt that their number one priority was to find a way to re-establish faith in the system for sexual assault victims. When the special court became reality, they all won. But so did we. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.