The hour of reckoning Quebec anglophones know is approaching may be upon us sooner rather than later.
There are rumblings this week that, even with a fixed-date election set for Oct. 1, Premier Philippe Couillard could use his discretion on the length of the campaign to kick things off earlier.
So hand-wringing over the inescapable question that has long been looming draws closer: do English-speaking Quebecers stick with the Liberals, the staunchly federalist party the community has traditionally supported? Or do anglophones kick the tires of the Coalition Avenir Québec, the right-leaning party that has been topping the polls for months now? (Other options, of course, include the Parti Québécois, Québec Solidaire or the Green Party, though we’ll leave them for another day).
Like many Quebecers, anglophones may be experiencing fatigue with the Quebec Liberals, which have governed for more than 13 of the last 15 years. Sure, the economy is booming and public finances have rarely been in such stellar shape, but we’ve had some particular beefs over hospitals and school boards. And there is long-standing sentiment that the Liberals take English-speaking votes for granted — though the appointment of a cabinet minister for anglophones and the creation of an anglophone secretariat has muted some of the grumbling.
Still, many anglo Quebecers seem less enthusiastic about the desire for change gathering steam in the province, due to the main beneficiary of the restiveness: the CAQ.
Some anglophones may be skeptical that CAQ leader François Legault, a former Péquiste cabinet minister, has not changed his sovereigntist stripes, as my colleague Lise Ravary has suggested. But this is not the primary reservation.
The deep mistrust of Legault among many anglos has much less to do with an inability to get over 1995 than memories of the disturbing identity politics of 2014.
Anglophones recall with painful trepidation the short-lived PQ minority government that concocted the distasteful Charter of Values and used it to try to exploit social cleavages. We are in no hurry for a repeat.
Not so long ago, Legault was shamelessly peddling this ugly brand of populism, whipping up hysteria about women in burqas (or even burkinis). He has quieted his divisive rhetoric down of late — at least within earshot of anglophones. But the CAQ platform still calls for a reduction in immigration levels, “values” tests for newcomers and an expansion of the dress code dictating what religious minorities can and cannot wear if they work in the public sector.
Even if English-speakers aren’t the target of the suspicion and enmity the CAQ or the PQ have tried to drum up in recent years, it is an ominous reminder that we could be; that the “nous” we have taken strides to feel part of could suddenly turn on us, if our political leaders choose to alienate instead of unify.
Seeing minorities (usually Muslim women) marginalized for their difference is disconcerting to the anglophone community, which has itself been singled out in the past. To us, diversity — in culture, religion, language, dress and race — is a strength, not a threat to be neutralized. And many English-speaking Quebecers are also members of religious, racial or cultural groups that bear the brunt of identity-based animosity. Certainly we feel a strong kinship, keenly aware that when it suits the fear-mongers, all minorities get lumped together anyway.
Let’s not forget, either, that some of the CAQ’s other policies take aim at what the community holds dear. After fighting the Liberal government’s plan to abolish school boards on the grounds it would violate constitutionally protected minority language rights, the CAQ is proposing to do much the same thing. Although the party claims its plan to instead create “regional service centres” would respect these provisions, at best, this policy betrays a complete lack of understanding about what matters to English speakers and, at worst, constitutes a slap in the face.
Legault has also questioned the need for the newly created anglophone secretariat. So while he’s making statements in English and urging the community to “free” itself from voting Liberal, he is doing little to back up the overtures.
The English-speaking community is not a monolith obsessed only by language rights or the possibility of Quebec sovereignty. But its members harbour serious qualms about any incursion — real or rhetorical — on minority rights.
When the dog whistle blows, anglophones get their hackles up — no matter what else is being promised.