It's usually satisfying for a pundit to anticipate the direction of a political wind, but I take no pleasure whenever one of my gloomy predictions about Quebec materializes. For example, I was scoffed at in August by several readers for musing on the Post's Full Comment blog that the Bouchard-Taylor Commission would likely stir up dormant sovereigntist mud at the bottom of what has been a relatively clear pond since the provincial Liberals took office in 2003. I asked: "Will 'reasonable accommodation' succeed where all other motivations for Quebec separatism have failed?"
Sure enough, a few short months later, calls for sovereignty to deflect the cultural singularities of "outsiders" are bubbling to the surface, amongst them from Andre Drouin, councillor of Herouxville, where the "accommodement raisonnable" brouhaha began. A more quantifiable sign that the political waters are growing murky was reflected in Monday's Post headline: "Outflow from Quebec rivals mid-90s numbers." Since mid-2006, more than 40,000 Quebecers have left the province, surpassing the previous peak of 38,000 in the years after the harrowingly close outcome of the 1995 Quebec referendum.
Here we go again. I've lived in Quebec for 43 years, and I've seen all too many variations on that article. It's always the same kind of people who leave and almost invariably for the same reason: the educated, the mobile and the broad-minded (many of them fully bilingual), because they're fed up with the overwhelming spoiler in what is otherwise a great place to live, the political toxin of ethnic nationalism.
Many of us who stay are also fed up, but we're just too pig-headed to abandon the majority of Quebecers -- in my experience responsible for as buoyant, law-abiding, peace-loving and comfortable a culture as you could wish to be surrounded by -- in the struggle for Quebec's soul. By "we" I obviously mean anglos and ethnics, but I also include our many ideological peers amongst old-stock Quebecois. The latter are, moreover, mortified to think that they will be tarred in the ROC with the same ugly ethnic nationalist brush as that deployed by Pauline Marois in the creation of her "Quebec Identity Act," a law that would on French-competency grounds put limits on potential Quebec "citizens democratic rights -- such as raising funds for a political party, amongst others -- that are taken for granted across the country.
Her bill can be directly traced to Herouxville's now-famous "code of life," which was denounced as racist in the English press (its otherwise sober critique of multiculturalism ran off the rails warning beheaders and stoners of women to stay away). Knee-jerk defensiveness immediately set in across the regions, and ADQ leader Mario Dumont, having already twigged to the issue's political potential, co-opted the less-accommodation-is-more position on the hustings. The rest is current history, with a stunned PQ humiliated in the March elections, shortly thereafter seeking its fourth leader in seven years.
A Hail Mary pass was needed if the PQ were to claw their way back into political relevancy. New PQ leader Pauline Marois, who knows her diehard constituency like the back of her imperious hand, aimed her "Quebec Identity Act" football at the big red Easy Button Dumont had unearthed in Herouxville. Touchdown! Last week's Leger Marketing poll found that 52% of francophones like it, and more ominously that 35% of those polled -- it was 30% for Dumont, 18% for Charest -- consider Marois the leader best positioned to "defend the Quebec identity."
"Citizens" belong to a country, not a province. Bill 195 runs counter to the Quebec and the Canadian Charter of Rights. Quebec chooses 70% of its immigrants, most of whom are already francophone, the rest automatically becoming fairly proficient in French within a few years. Thanks to Bill 101, their children are as francophone as Pauline Marois. None of that matters to ethnic nationalists.
What matters, if you're a sovereigntist leader, and not over-scrupulous about how you get and maintain power, is that you find the word, that magic psychological bullet, to tap into the xenophobia of your hard-line party members and the disproportionately vote-rich regions. Marois' proposed law is crazy, but Marois herself is crazy like a fox.
Sovereigntists have tried other bullets: "distinct society," "people," "nation" -- but none proved magical. Now we have Marois' "the Quebec Identity." The bill itself won't pass. Marois knows that. It was a sovereigntist trial balloon. Now that it's aloft and achieving altitude, she's planting seeds in the muck at the bottom of Quebec's political pond: She's betting that what will eventually pass is a referendum with the Yes side's placards trumpeting "the Quebec Identity" as its slogan.
From desperate separatists, a Hail Mary pass
Marois' proposed law is crazy, but Marois herself is crazy like a fox.