Quebec election barn burner .. one way or another Canada really is starting to change?

Mar 27th, 2007 | By | Category: Canadian Provinces

Even if you were expecting some kind of shock and awe from the Quebec provincial election, you have to be surprised. The organizer for the Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ) who told CBC Newsworld he didn’t believe the numbers himself summed it all up. Fairly early on the CBC election desk projected at least a Liberal minority government. The just too wild prospect of Premier Mario Dumont at the helm of an ADQ minority, which seemed almost likely at about 9 PM, happily enough faded. But the new National Assembly seat standings remain close. And Liberal leader and current Premier Jean Charest almost lost his own seat in Sherbrooke. The only altogether clear thing at the moment is that a new era of some sort has certainly begun in Quebec politics – and probably in the rest of Canada too.

Who knows just what it all means … a few early meditations?

TUESDAY, MARCH 27, 2007. 4 AM EDT. The people of Quebec, as much ancient and modern Canadian history has already shown, are a crafty electorate. They are especially adept at taking wild gestures of democratic political protest and pushing them almost to the point where who knows what altogether bizarre prospect beckons – and then stopping just short of that point, in the interests of stability and common sense.

About an hour after the vote started to be counted last night, it suddenly seemed that what Jean Charest later called the people’s history-making “challenge to the political class” really might be pushed to the point where Mario Dumont and perhaps almost 50 largely untested and even unknown new ADQ members of the National Assembly would have to try to form some kind of minority government at Quebec City. And perhaps even awkwardly open doors to radically turbulent winds of change in la belle province (and probably the rest of Canada too).

For some of us at any rate the mood was vaguely reminiscent of the earlier moments in the 1995 sovereignty referendum, when it seemed that the Yes side was actually going to win a bare majority of the vote. On the one hand you are exhilarated by the thought that now this usually just annoying issue is finally going to get seriously interesting. On the other you are appalled by the prospects for sheer lunacy that also seem all too latent in what appears to be going on.

In the end, however, the evening always finally seems to end with some reassertion of the parallel Quebecois / Canadien instinct for stability and common sense in an arduous physical environment (shared, like the rugged sport of ice hockey, in various sober northern ways with various other parts of Canada) – or something like that. And on March 26, 2007 even the earlier false reports that Liberal Premier Jean Charest had lost his own seat in Sherbrooke were banished from the airwaves by the hard and cold final political facts. As of the present moment the Canadian Press is reporting that the Liberals (or PLQ) won 33% of the province-wide popular vote, to 31% for the ADQ, 28% for the PQ, and 8% for Others. This translates into 48 seats in the National Assembly for Charest’s Liberals, 41 for Mario Dumont’s Action Democratique du Quebec, and 36 for Andre Boisclair’s Parti Quebecois. (And voter turnout was apparently about 71% – a bit higher than the last Quebec provincial election in 2003, but not at all as high as some were hoping and/or fearing.)

However you cut these results, of course, they amount to an astoundingly hard slap in the face for both the more established “federalist” Liberals of Jean Charest and “sovereigntist” Pequistes of Andre Biosclair – and a stunning boost for M. Dumont’s ADQ. (When the National Assembly elected in 2003 dissolved to make way for this 2007 election, it had “72 Liberals, 45 PQ members, five ADQ members, one independent and two vacancies.”) As the Globe and Mail has put it, on Monday, March 26, 2007: “In an outburst of populist anger, Quebeckers overturned the province’s long-standing political order … and elected their first minority government in more than 125 years.”

The very good news, some in the rest of the country are already saying, is that the sovereigntist PQ has wound up in third place in 2007. The prospect of a third Quebec sovereignty referendum in any too near future is suddenly quite dim. Some on TV have already argued that the fundamental federalist-sovereigntist cleavage in Quebec politics since the Parti Quebecois formed its first government in 1976 has at last been succeeded by the sort of right-left cleavage that defines ordinary democratic politics in the rest of the Western world. And some pundits are already saying that Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives must be looking at the rural-suburban-populist political sociology of the 41 seats Mario Dumont and his rather right-wing ADQ have just won, and thinking that this sets hopeful fresh markers for them as well.

All these notions may carry certain grains of truth. But the new worlds of both Quebec and Canadian politics that the 2007 Quebec election almost certainly does portend also seem to us to have considerably more complex and tricky depths than many mindlessly extravagant extensions of these grains of truth might lead you to believe. Mario Dumont, as everyone paying attention should know by now, is no kind of traditional “federalist” in Quebec. (And neither for that matter is Jean Charest nowadays.) If the sovereigntists are finally losing their traction in the province that is not a province like the others, that is largely because so many of their traditional goals have already been realized – especially since Mr. Harper’s so successful federal parliamentary resolution of this past November, on the Quebecois as a nation within a united Canada (whatever that may mean?). Exactly what Mario Dumont thinks about many other things still seems unclear even to him. Some of what he said about senior citizens in his victory speech did not sound all that conservative. And whatever it is finally all about, his populist conservatism only attracted somewhat less than a third of the Quebec popular vote, even this time out. (Though that could be more than enough to give Stephen Harper a majority government in Ottawa, arguably enough.)

Some with especially long memories may also be reminded of the old right-wing Quebec nationalism of Maurice Duplessis. Or even the old Quebec federalism of Real Caouette’s Creditiste emulators of Social Credit in Alberta many moons ago now. (Or even a proposition that the English Canadian political scientist Gad Horowitz sometimes provocatively advanced in his University of Toronto classes of the 1960s: “An independent Quebec could only finally be a pale imitation of Franco’s Spain.”) To argue that what has just happened in Quebec is an altogether fresh wave of real progress and democratic political advance, that is to say, may be jumping to far too big a conclusion far too quickly. Those who take this kind of thought to heart, of course, will likely have parallel doubts about Mr. Harper’s new Conservative Party of Canada as well. And in the end, even when you make all the necessary allowances, it is hard not to feel that the Quebec election of 2007 has brought at least some beginnings of very welcome fresh air into the wider Canadian public debate. M. Charest himself may have finally struck some kind of right note in his speech at the end of the evening – which was, more than one seasoned observer remarked on TV, more impressive than anything he had managed to do during the election campaign. The people of Quebec, he said, had decided to write a page of history and challenge the political class, and he welcomed the challenge. He may want to remember these words himself, as he tries to navigate what lies ahead in Quebec politics now.

L. Frank Bunting’s preliminary report on the subject from before the results on Monday, March 26 appears below :

QUEBEC ELECTION 2007 .. first of many more breaths of fresh air in Canadian politics at last?

My late mother-in-law from Levis, Quebec moved to what is nowadays called “the Greater Golden Horseshoe” in Southern Ontario in the early 1940s. She was not especially interested in politics herself. But one thing she noticed early on was that people in Ontario generally were not as interested in politics as the people of Quebec.

This still seems true enough today. According to Le Devoir, in the Quebec provincial election of March 26, 2007 “le taux de participation, qui a chut 70,42 % en 2003” is expected to reach “au moins 78 80 %” – a current level of democratic voter turnout that puts most of the rest of Canada to shame (64.9% in the 2006 federal election, e.g.). The 2007 Quebec election results that we will know soon enough have also remained unpredictable right to the end. Yet, whatever they are, even outside the province that is not a province like the others you can already almost taste some kind of quiet liberation from the latest dead hands of the past.

Waiting for Godot (Boisclair, Charest, Dumont) etc …

Along with the rest of the counterweights editors I will be watching the election results more or less carefully once they become available after 8PM EDT tonight. And we will be reporting on any and all decisive trends almost as soon as they happen. The best English language source for following the results yourself on TV will almost certainly be CBC Newsworld – or the companion RDI if you’re up to watching it all in the mother tongue of la belle province. Meanwhile, here are two recent reports from cyberspace:

VOTING UNDERWAY IN QUEBEC ELECTION: “Millions of Quebecers began voting … after an enthralling campaign that raised the possibility of the province’s first minority government in modern times … I hope (the election) will be a turning point for Quebec society,’ said Mario Dumont of the surprising Action democratique du Quebec as he voted in his riding of Riviere-du-Loup … Rarely in recent electoral history have people had the feeling that their vote could be so important and make such a difference’ … Liberal Leader Jean Charest and Parti Quebecois Leader Andre Boisclair also voted … Boisclair voted in his Montreal riding of Pointe-aux-Trembles, while Charest cast his ballot in his riding of Sherbrooke.”

CANADA’S DOLLAR FALLS AS POLLS SHOW SEPARATISTS GAINING SUPPORT: “Canada’s dollar fell for a third straight day as voters cast ballots in Quebec provincial elections, which polls suggest may produce a separatist-led minority government … The polls indicated Quebec Premier Jean Charest has lost support. The nation’s second-largest province hasn’t had a minority government in more than a century … Investors are taking the risk off the table before the Quebec election results,’ said Jack Spitz, director of foreign exchange trading at National Bank of Canada in Toronto. But that seems short-lived. Once this event is out of the way, I see the Canadian dollar rallying because there are many currency-friendly news [events] out there.'”

For our own counterweights editors’ perspectives on the deeper depths of just what is going on, see Citizen X’s report of late last month: “THE QUEBEC ELECTION .. bigger things are looming over Canada now (well, sort of)?” Meanwhile, stay tuned. We’ll be back with at least a first report on the early results, soon enough after 10 PM EDT / 7PM PDT.

Ms. Gagnon’s last-minute musings …

For those who want just a few more background notes right away, Lysiane Gagnon, who has been interpreting the mysteries of Quebec politics for Canadian anglophones in the pages of the Globe and Mail for many, many years, has an interesting enough column today as well. The first few paragraphs capture the flavour of her remarks:

“It’s been a topsy-turvy campaign.

“Premier Jean Charest was supposed be a formidable campaigner. He wasn’t. His campaign was dull and erratic. Parti Qubcois Leader Andr Boisclair was supposed to lose his temper, and his nerve. He didn’t. His performance, while not stellar, greatly exceeded expectations. And Mario Dumont? Well, little Mario was supposed to play the smart but lonely politician with whom the disenchanted and the undecided would park their votes — until voting day, when people would dutifully return to one of the two major parties. But Mario Dumont was the star of the campaign.

“And the result may well be something Quebec has not had in more than a century — a minority government. The parties are in a dead heat and the pollsters will not venture to say whether the winner will be the Liberal Party or the PQ.

“What is sure is that Mr. Dumont’s Action Dmocratique du Qubec is a force to reckon with, and the likelihood of having another referendum on sovereignty is weaker than ever. Even if the PQ manage to form a minority government the party would be unable to pursue its sovereigntist agenda for lack of support from the other two parties.

“By exposing some of the deep undercurrents of the province’s hinterland, the campaign laid to rest several myths about the province, especially the one that describes Quebec as the most left-leaning province, the “most progressive in Canada,” as many Quebeckers love to brag. The ascent of the ADQ showed that large swaths of the province hunger for centre-right policies — for lump sum payments for parents who don’t use the public daycare, for a leaner government, a return to traditional values, restrictions on immigration and conformity to certain standards. The party that is gaining strength in Quebec is a close cousin of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.”

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