For those outside our benighted backwater, those were the words attributed to the late René Lévesque by our celebrated editorial cartoonist, Aislin (Terry Mosher), the morning after the Parti Québecois won its first provincial election.
Last night, their current leader, Pauline Marois won and became Québec’s first female premier. For weeks, the pundits and editorialists of English-language mainstream media did all they could to suggest such a victory would be the end of the world, or at least Canada as we know it, and urged us to support the neoliberal/neoconservative option as a means of blocking the dreaded separatists. In they were partly successful. They frightened some Anglo-Quebeckers half to death with the spectre of a collapsed economy and violence in the streets at the hands of the thousands of students and others who’ve been protesting (almost invariably peacefully) against the Liberals’ proposed tuition hike, “healthcare” poll tax and privatization, sell-off of natural resources to interests unconcerned with environmental consequences, etc.
Well, those fears notwithstanding, a significant number of us voted first and foremost against a corrupt, arrogant Liberal régime and the rest of the agenda by which a small “elite” with no loyalties but to its portfolios sought to eliminate the “Québec model” of social solidarity and concern for the natural world around us.
Secondarily, though, we split in a way that must gladden the hearts of the fear-mongers. The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), at first painted as closet separatists to drive votes to the Liberals but later as Quebec’s salvation from independent economic collapse, did not do as well as its business backers hoped. It did quite well for a new party and succeeded in attracting enough former Liberals and Conservatives to ensure the Parti Québecois would form the government. That this government will be a minority was assured by divisions between centrist and leftist positions, as well as between those for whom separation is a priority and those for whom it ranks behind social justice, environmentalism, economics or relations with Ottawa.
The timing of this election was a classic mistake by the Liberals–an attempt to run as the “law and order” which would crush the rebellion of the young (which it had carefully worsened for months to incite public fear) before the Charbonneau Commission it reluctantly empowered to investigate political corruption (after more than two years of mounting evidence and rising public pressure) could begin its revelations. Jean Charest assumed a Duplessis-like avuncular manner of “I know what’s best; all you need to do is obey and vote for me” but there were just too many legitimate questions he refused to answer.
The mistake of the other major leaders–François Legault (CAQ) and Pauline Marois (PQ)–was to answer too quickly. Both were caught out at times, saying things that didn’t match the party platform or were too easily distorted when quoted as sound-bites. Ironically, those who inspired the greatest confidence in the public were the leaders whose parties had been largely dismissed as unimportant.
In the televised debates, it was Françoise David of Québec Solidaire (QS) who came across as clear-headed and honest, and that won her a seat alongside her colleague Amir Khadir, who had already proven a lone MNA can do much. Though QS did not gain enough seats to hold a meaningful balance of power, their influence on debates should not be underestimated.
Meanwhile, Jean-Pierre Aussant of Option Nationale (ON) proved (again; see Elizabeth May) what a mistake it is to exclude the articulate leader of a small party in the hope of preventing it from gaining support. M. Aussant made clever use of social media to put forward his party’s sovereignist position and show himself to be sensible, articulate and even philosophical. Though he won no seats, he did win a good deal of respect; we will be hearing more of ON next time. Even the Quebec Greens (PVQ) who received the least coverage did pick up some votes.
The problem with this–if problem it is–has been to persuade some more-or-less leftish voters unhappy with certain aspects of the PQ to vote their consciences rather than strategically. As a result, the PQ not only did not attain the majority it hoped for but will be forced to set aside some of the less popular (or downright ill-advised) proposals like banning all religious symbols in government…except for the crucifix. If we do get a “secular charter” at all from this government, it will be one that’s fair to all. If we do get greater autonomy as concerns immigration, it will not give rise to racism but to better assistance to newcomers integrating into la Francophonie.
As I write this, Jean Charest, ex-premier and loser of his own seat last night, is declaring his love for Québec as he announces his resignation as leader of the PLQ. He is painting the performance of “his” government as a great success and insisting the new government must implement his Plan Nord and other measures as he had planned. I wonder whether he realizes how arrogant he sounds and how hollow his self-justifications are in the face of clear evidence that 2/3 of us just declared our lack of confidence in his vision and methods.
It’s a matter of public record that his social and economic future is assured. At least we now have another chance to do the same for everyone in the province. The 250,000-plus of us who took to the streets on Earth Day and various occasions during over six months of “student strike” (parents, teachers and others included) may no longer march banging pots but that doesn’t mean we can stop following the politicians closely. Charest may have quit but we can’t: the forces behind him are still operating, still determined to remove whatever checks exist against the rule of elitists and the destruction of our shared environment for short-term private profit.
No doubt many people will find this situation scary. To them, I can safely say, “OK, everybody take a Valium.” The world will not end today. The economy will not implode just because the PQ is in power. The mass protests over tuition hikes are over since the increases have been cancelled and the new government is committed to cancelling the unconstitutional law 12 (formerly Bill 78). We have a national assembly where the balance of powers is precarious enough to prevent any really radical legislation from passing.
In other words. life will return to normal for most of us. Suburbanites can go back to cursing both taxes and the poor state of the roads, the unemployed to cursing the lack of jobs and shredded social safety net, the sick and disabled to cursing the slow and bureaucratic aspects of healthcare, the well to complaining of high payroll deductions and sales taxes, the separatists of the delay in a referendum and the federalists of the continued minority interest in making Quebec a country.
Meanwhile, we can collectively deplore and worry about the shortcomings of our mental health services and gun controls, given the tragic event that disrupted Ms. Marois’ victory speech at the Metropolis last night. Friends and foes alike have commended her handling of a frightening situation, persuading those in the hall to leave calmly by the front while a shooting and fire at the rear entrance rendered it a crime scene. Two technicians were shot just outside the theatre, one fatally, and a fire set by a man in a bathrobe whose reported remarks suggest a connection to the election but whose actions were quite clearly irrational. Do not believe anyone who to make it seem some kind of terrorist act, as certain politicians and pundits are all to likely to try. There was nothing organized about this incident and no further violence is expected.
We’re a very mixed and somewhat mixed-up people, like most people in the modern world. Only the truly crazy think violence will resolve our differences. We, perhaps more than most, thrash these things out peacefully even if the arguments can get awfully loud. We decided we needed a change and we got ourselves one. We decided we wanted it to be in several mutually-exclusive directions at once, so it won’t be too drastic. Relax and enjoy the show for the next 18 months or so.