The Liberal quest is on for the elusive francophone voter.
After suffering its worst electoral defeat in 152 years in 2018, Quebec’s Liberals — in this case the youth wing — spent the weekend re-tooling party policies that they hope will eventually woo francophone voters in the regions back into their ranks.
The operation was clear from the get go: create a more nationalist profile for the party.
To that end, the 450 delegates gathered on the campus of Université Laval this weekend adopted two major resolutions to get the party reboot going.
The first states the Liberals, once in power, will draft a Quebec constitution with all the bells and whistles, including entrenching the current charter of rights and freedoms and the Charter of the French Language.
The second, and by far the most controversial, was a motion saying the Liberals will adopt a law on interculturalism that will guide a future government’s approach to welcoming and integrating new arrivals.
That motion sailed into the policy books with the support of 68 per cent of delegates after an intense and emotional debate where anglophone and allophone Liberals insisted they preferred the concept of Canadian multiculturalism.
Their views did not prevail.
The package of resolutions have to go up the assembly line to be voted on at a full party policy convention in November, but already the Liberal brass including interim leader Pierre Arcand have signed on.
That’s because many Liberals have seen the writing on the wall and know getting into the good books of voters who currently appear content with the Coalition Avenir Québec government is going to take time and effort.
Some Liberals want to play on the identity field that the CAQ dominates. One after another this weekend, senior Liberals conceded the party has been lax — at least at the level of perceptions — about the business of defending Quebec’s identity, culture and specificity.
Emerging after the vote, Dominique Anglade, the one declared Liberal leadership candidate who is selling herself as a nationalist — pounced on the approved interculturalism proposal, announcing the youth wing’s idea will be included in her leadership campaign platform.
It is her first formal promise of the campaign.
Other potential candidates, Saint-Laurent MNA Marwah Rizqy and former health minister Gaétan Barrette, who endorsed the interculturalism concept Saturday, will probably wind up following Anglade and include it in their platforms should they run.
That’s because for the coming months everyone in the Liberal Party will be saying they are a nationalist. They might as well start printing the t-shirts.
“I totally recognize that on this subject (of identity) we were not in turn with Quebecers and did not affirm ourselves enough,” Barrette conceded Saturday while chatting with reporters.
“We cannot deny the fact that for many Quebecers we (Liberals) had drifted from a certain way to see Quebec and our relation with the Quebec people,” added youth wing president Stéphane Stril.
“Our goal is to really show we are very Québécois in the wider sense of the term,” Arcand said.
Entrenching interculturalism in a law — an idea first pitched 10 years ago by the Bouchard-Taylor commission and re-floated recently by former Liberal leader Jean Charest’s son, Antoine Dionne Charest, aims to correct that.
As adopted, the motion states French is the language of intercultural relations, there is formal recognition of the presence of a francophone majority in Quebec as well as the respect for fundamental rights and freedoms.
It recognizes the Quebec nation is made up of many components including the francophone majority, cultural communities and linguistic and Indigenous groups.
Interculturalism has been on the Liberal books for about 50 years, but many in the party appear to have forgotten about it in the belief multiculturalism was policy.
Revisiting it also proved to be a painful exercise, with some Liberals taking to microphones to complain the party is headed down the same divisive path as the CAQ.
Last week, Mohammed Barhone, head of the party’s cultural communities committee, complained interculturalism will create a hierarchy of Quebecers and could lead to assimilation instead of integration.
Barhone was not present for the debate Sunday, but other delegates took up the cause at the plenary microphones, arguing interculturalism is not a Liberal value.
Hiba El Aidi, a delegate from the riding of Marguerite-Bourgeoys, said Quebec already has the Charter of the French Language, which forces immigrants to learn French.
Adding an interculturalism law will only serve to push immigrants away even more, she said.
“We (in the Liberal Party) need to stay open,” El Aidi said.
“I am a walking example of why multiculturalism works,” Westmount-Saint-Louis delegate Andrew Figueiredo told delegates. “And in case we forget, Quebec is part of Canada and will remain part of Canada.
“We should not turn today to the cynical, soft xenophobic rhetoric of the CAQ. We should stand for our bold progressive values and move forward including anglophones and cultural communities.
“We should make every single Quebecer feel welcome no matter their first language, religion or country they are from.”
“We need to build a Quebec where all cultures are brothers and sisters,” added Westmount-Saint-Louis delegate James Hanna.
Later, Arcand downplayed the party rift even as delegates continued to argue a few yards away from his news conference.
“There are bound to be lively debates on such sensitive subjects, there will always be people who feel threatened,” Arcand said. “I am not surprised.”
He insisted nobody will lose rights in the exercise.
The question remains: Are the policies enough for the Liberals to connect with Quebecers again?
The Liberals are desperate to shake off its image of a party which is “too Montreal,” at the same time as the governing Coalition Avenir Québec — which has cornered the market for francophone votes — maintains its stranglehold over the rest of Quebec.
The most recent polling data shows the Liberals were polling at about 10 per cent with francophone voters, which is bad news because these are the voters who actually decide election results because they are scattered in ridings across Quebec.
Truth be told, appealing to nationalist sentiments comes more naturally to the CAQ, which dined out on the theme — particularly identity nationalism — in 2018 and continues to do so today.
Premier François Legault never hesitates to play up his “Quebec first” philosophy, whether he is sitting down with the other premiers or congratulating a Quebec hockey player, artist or author on his Twitter account.
He did not attend Canada Day celebrations in his role as premier, but was very active for the Fête nationale.
Thus, the CAQ is not likely to give any quarter on its share of the nationalist francophone vote. The Liberal cause is not aided by the fact most of its MNAs represent Montreal ridings.
And in the past, the CAQ successfully branded former Liberal leader Philippe Couillard the multiculturalism Canada guy, rather than the Quebec guy, because of his passionate defence of minorities and distaste for intolerance in any form.
Yet Couillard himself favoured interculturalism, defining it in a 2017 government policy book called “Quebecers: our way of being Canadian.”