quebec division

2023: A year of drama and division for Montreal and beyond

“Quebecers, Canadians and, I suspect, most of the world feel a little worse for wear these days as we collectively navigate rising political tensions, stubborn inflation, creeping culture wars and global existential angst about what’s to come next.”

As 2023 comes to an end, it’s safe to say the year has been met with mixed reviews. Overall, it’s been a tough 365 days for politicians of all levels of government. Voters, too.

Quebecers, Canadians and, I suspect, most of the world feel a little worse for wear these days as we collectively navigate rising political tensions and division, stubborn inflation, creeping culture wars and post-COVID global existential angst about what’s to come next.

Provincially and municipally, both the CAQ and Projet Montréal are in their second mandates, while the Trudeau administration is in its third. All are therefore facing a certain level of expected voter fatigue, with many eager to see who else is out there, ready to whisper sweet nothings in their ear.  

Legault’s popularity tanks

Quebec election poll Parti Québécois Paul St-Pierre Plamondon CAQ
Parti Québécois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon

While Quebec Premier Francois Legault started the year with rock solid approval ratings, the year has ended on an all-time low note for him and his party, proving, once again, that six months can be an eternity in politics. With the CAQ having been in power for more than five years, Quebecers may now be seeing that little has been done to remedy long-standing issues in healthcare and education. The government has, instead, chosen to squander public funds and goodwill on arrogant decisions, resulting in more disillusionment and division. In many Quebecers’ minds, the CAQ appears increasingly disconnected from those it was supposed to serve, sending Legault’s ratings plummeting 16 points in just a few months.

PQ leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon had a much better year, steadily increasing his party’s popularity and devising interesting (sometimes smart, sometimes dubious) ways to stay in the public eye. Whether the PQ’s rise in the polls reflects support for its platform or is simply a reaction to overall anti-CAQ sentiment brewing remains to still be seen, but PSPP is certainly the only Quebec politician who’ll probably look back on 2023 fondly. 

In the meantime, Québec Solidaire and the provincial Liberals seem to be flailing around a little, still trying to establish a better connection with voters. If the CAQ manages to retain power in the next election, it won’t be because it steps up its game, but more than likely because opposition parties will not have managed to offer up viable alternatives to the current government. 

Federally, the Liberal Party and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, now well into a third mandate, are also feeling Canadians’ fatigue, with the Conservative Party’s Pierre Poilievre’s hot on Trudeau’s heels, increasingly thirsty for power. So far, Poilievre has been big on slogans and cheap partisan videos, but with few — if any — solutions to offer regarding real issues facing the country. Federally, the NDP appears to be missing in action. Provincially, the NDP had a breakthrough moment with leader Wab Kinew as Manitoba’s first First Nations premier forming a majority government.

The Valérie Plante administration has also had a rough year, as Montreal, too, deals with housing and cost-of-living crises and added budgeted expenses that have forced the administration to increase property taxes. Mayor Plante is also managing a city that has overwhelmingly rejected the CAQ’s platform and as a result is forever maligned and undermined by the provincial government, even though it remains Quebec’s economic engine and one of the most celebrated metropolises in North America. An OCPM scandal revealing disturbing overspending by bureaucrats shocked Montrealers and ensured the bloom is most definitely off the rose when it comes to Projet Montréal, a party that’s still, however, staying the course when it comes to the city’s green revival and urban planning goals.

A lousy year for Quebec’s English-speaking community

Dawson College Montreal
Dawson College

2023 has been the year that Quebec’s English-speaking community has felt the CAQ’s disdain, as the party continues its quest to prioritize what it believes its rural voting base wants: more protection for Quebec culture and the French language — if not in practice with tangible investments, at least by pushing through a parochial agenda that makes it appear to prioritize French by penalizing anything that isn’t.

Early in the year, Bill 96 and its dire effects on English CEGEPs was foreshadowing further disrespect to come. The government’s lack of consultation, lack of analysis of the impact on students and teachers and arrogance in pushing through policies and top-down decisions in an undemocratic fashion that penalized students and administrations caused a lot of anxiety, stress and uncertainty about the future for teachers, who increasingly felt they had been given directives and timelines that made no sense. 

Back in March, the chairperson of the Modern Languages department at Dawson College prophetically told me, “All parents should be really concerned — francophone, allophone, anglophone — about how this government treats our students and what they’re doing to ensure that our future is successful, because this is certainly not it.”

By the end of the year, most Quebec educators appeared to agree with her as provincial-wide strikes erupted with fed up teachers demanding better working conditions for them and their students, and better pay.

March was also when Quebec’s National Assembly passed a unanimous motion declaring Quebec no more racist than the rest of the world, which, I’m certain, was of great comfort to local victims of racism. When it comes to meaningless political gestures, it was only exceeded by December’s National Assembly motion to save Christmas

Roxham Road closes – little changes

airbnb fire
A memorial near the fatal Airbnb fire

March also saw the closure of Roxham Road, aimed at stopping asylum seekers from entering Canada via its shared land border with the U.S. Premier Legault rejoiced at the news, declaring the closure “a beautiful victory for Quebec” even though migration experts warned that closing Roxham was a short-sighted solution that betrayed a lack of understanding of global migration challenges. 

Since most refugees come to Canada through official channels and by air, closing it was not the miraculous solution some thought it would be. By the end of the year, official numbers would support the outcome migration experts predicted, but why should we listen to experts when we can listen to politicians make political hay of people’s desperation for political gain.

March was also the month when a deliberately set fire in Old Montreal in an illegal Airbnb, long considered a fire trap, tragically cost the lives of seven people, raising questions about persistent fire code violations and even prompting a Montreal tenants’ rights association to demand an outright ban on Airbnb in Quebec, which has significantly been contributing to Montreal’s housing crisis. 

Third link fail – the beginning of the end for CAQ?

Quebec CAQ government National Assembly

April was the month that saw the CAQ government renege on one of its biggest electoral promises: the third highway link between Lévis and Quebec City. 

“We are a pragmatic government,” Transport Minister Geneviève Guilbault was quoted as saying when she announced the cancellation of the multi-billion-dollar project. The CAQ would indeed prove that pragmatic (for them) politics lay at the heart of their governing MO, when barely a few months later, after the CAQ’s surprising by-election loss in in the riding of Jean-Talon to the PQ, a shaken Premier Legault once again, resurrected the project, causing many to question his flip-flopping leadership.

May would be the month the Great Canadian Passport Scandal of 2023 broke. When the federal government announced the new passport changes, Pierre Poilievre accused Prime Minister Trudeau of “not allowing Canadians to have heroes” and of depicting our history as “a retched pile of injustices.” Petulant nationalist crybaby sessions over… passport watermarks are just one more sign we live in a country that’s overbearingly privileged in comparison to most of the world.

Canada up in flames!

climate change wildfires direct link Canadians
Wildfire season in Canada, 2023

May was also the beginning of a record-breaking five-month-long wildfire season in Canada that would rage across the country well into September, burning 18.5 million hectares of land, resulting in dangerous air quality across North America, displacing thousands of people, creating destabilizing effects on our wildlife for years to come, and, perhaps for the first time, constituting a fiery wakeup call for many Canadians still in denial about how climate change can and will affect us all. So profound was the damage that the devastation was voted Canadian Press news story of the year

June was the month when Quebec’s National Assembly passed a bill giving our provincial elected officials a $30,000 salary raise. This, during a year that saw inflation rise, rents and mortgage rates increase, food prices skyrocket, food bank lines grow longer, and renovictions become commonplace as more Quebecers than ever worried about putting food on their tables. It was, to say the least, one of the government’s most boneheaded moves. Only to be surpassed by an even bigger tone-deaf decision a few months later, when the CAQ earmarked $7-million for the L.A. Kings hockey team to play two pre-season games in Quebec City that no one asked for. Neither of these two moves went over well with the hoi polloi.

Where’d the teachers go? 

Bernard Drainville
Bernard Drainville

August would be the month when the chickens came home to roost regarding the public education crisis in Quebec and our massive teacher retention problem. With only weeks to go before school started and with thousands of teaching positions still to be filled, Quebec’s Education Minister Bernard Drainville’s “one adult per classroom” recipe to tackle shortages was one cup comical and two cups alarming. Add shrugging shoulders, mix and stir. 

A teacher I interviewed at the time revealed that burnout was a bigger issue than she’d ever seen in her entire 31-year career, and that a real lack of respect for the profession was a major problem. “Big decisions are being made by people who are not on the ground, with some having no background in education and never having stepped into a classroom,” she said.

That disrespect for educational institutions would also later manifest in the CAQ’s assault on Quebec’s English universities, treated as troublesome vectors of Montreal’s “creeping anglicization” instead of valuable and long-standing Quebec institutions.

Saluting a Nazi

nazi house of commons parliament ukrainian
Anthony Rota and Yaroslav Hunka

September would prove to be the Canadian government’s most embarrassing moment in 2023 as members of its House of Commons joined in a standing ovation for a man who fought alongside Hitler’s Nazi forces. During an event honouring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, house speaker Anthony Rota invited and introduced the Ukrainian veteran as a “Canadian hero” in the Commons and prompted a standing ovation. Rota would later resign, and Prime Minister Trudeau would apologize on behalf of the government. 

Israel-Hamas war 

ceasefire Gaza Liberal NDP Bloc Québécois Conservatives
Palestine. Photo by Anas-Mohammed/Shutterstock

October 7 would ensure 2023 would end on a far heavier note than anyone would have hoped for. After Hamas gunmen launched an unprecedented and horrific assault on Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking hundreds of hostages, Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Israeli government began carrying out punishing air strikes across Gaza.

The 11-week-old conflict has produced a staggering human toll, with more than 20,000 Palestinians killed so far, including about 8,000 children, while more than 52,000 people have been injured — among them an unprecedented 64 journalists. These are numbers that UN officials and human rights groups do not dispute.

As the death toll in Gaza continues to grow amid a spiraling humanitarian crisis, more than 150 countries (including Canada) have voted at the UN general assembly for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages. The horror, shock and sadness of what’s happening in Gaza to innocent civilians has been felt around the world, sadly also manifesting as increased antisemitism and Islamophobia around the world, as hate crimes and tension-filled protests have increased everywhere. As the year ends, the likelihood of any lasting long-term peace appears remote.

English-language universities kneecapped

Quebec tuition university petition
Protest against English university tuition hikes on Oct. 30

Closer to home, a shocking decision in November by the Quebec government to double tuition rates for out-of-province students attending Quebec universities has shaken English-language universities to their core as it profoundly compromises their financial viability and sends a message to non-francophones in and outside the province that they’re not welcome here. In response, McGill and Concordia have introduced awards aimed at offsetting tuition hikes but no one knows what the long-term plan will be or whether a legal challenge is on the table. 

‘Rent control? Become a homeowner!’ 

Bill 31 lease transfers Quebec
Bill 31 protest poster. Photo by Toula Drimonis

Despite heated protests, and smack in the middle of one of the deepest housing crises in Quebec — which, by the way, both federal and provincial governments have been slow to react to — CAQ housing minister France-Élaine Duranceau pushed through Bill 31 in November, removing a tenant’s right to transfer a lease. Even though housing advocates and the City of Montreal have argued that lease transfers are a crucial tool in preventing abusive rental hikes, it’s been to no avail. The CAQ government has clearly shown — in both actions and words — that it treats housing as a privilege and not a right. 

Quebec in two perfect moments

Montreal alouettes grey cup parade
The Montreal Alouettes celebrate the Grey Cup win

November was also the month that produced two genuine and heartfelt moments that best encapsulated what Quebec is all about, far removed from politics and opportunistic pundits. 

The first was when an entire province came together to mourn les Cowboys Fringants lead singer Karl Tremblay, who died of prostate cancer. The wave of sadness and love that washed over Quebec represented not only Quebecers’ love of the iconic band, but in many ways, I felt that the collective mourning of a band that wrote for the “little people” mirrored Quebecers’ disappointment with politicians forever letting us down. 

The second, much happier, poignant moment was when the Montreal Alouettes won the Grey Cup against the Winnipeg Bombers and Als defensive back Marc-Antoine Dequoy, enthusiastically celebrating the team’s win in a by-now legendary post-game interview with RDS, put the CFL on blast for its lack of French — quickly going viral. It was an honest and unscripted outburst by a French-speaking Quebecer, tired of watching his language constantly sidelined in Canada, who took the opportunity given to him to passionately call it out. 

Now what?

françois legault new year's eve 2022 2023
François Legault

And here we are… December and the year is over. With massive strikes having rocked Quebec for weeks (tentative deals have just been reached), children behind in school, Quebec ERs overflowing again and current relations with the province’s English-speaking community beyond strained, Premier Legault has conceded that 2023 just wasn’t his year. Frankly, I’m not sure it was anyone’s… 

Back when the CAQ was re-elected in 2022, the right-of-centre party with a former CEO as its leader touted itself as the financially savvy choice to continue building the province’s economy. Now, it finds itself hopelessly mired in culture wars and lazy vote pandering. For all its talk of business smarts, and Legault’s obsession with comparing Quebec to Ontario, the only thing he appears to have gone toe-to-toe with Doug Ford on has been inciting public outrage and flip-flopping on decisions. 

Quebec’s inflation rate is currently the highest in Canada and Quebec Finance Minister Eric Girard reluctantly speaks of a “possible recession” but so far the government seems far more focused on catering to business interests and identity politics than it is in supporting the average Quebecer struggling to make ends meet. And those $500 cheques they bought votes with have long been spent. 

As 2023 comes to an end, the CAQ will have to reassess what kind of government it wants to be and what it chooses to focus on. Quebecers, in turn, will have to do the same. Do they want provincial leadership that seems hell bent on dividing and alienating Quebecers and every single minority group that’s been marginalized by this government, or do they want a more inclusive and confident Quebec that can buckle down to tackle the real challenges the province is facing, unencumbered by the grievances of the past? 2024 might be the year we find out which way we’re going. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.