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Minority rights and climate change are key issues in April 7 Quebec election

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Quebec’s minority Parti Québécois government has called an election for April 7. The snap call by Premier Pauline Marois was made as polls show her party with a solid lead over its two large rivals, both to the political right. Her lead is thanks largely to confusion and disarray among right-wing rivals over the PQ’s proposed, reactionary ‘Charter of Quebec Values.’

The charter is to be the centerpiece of the PQ’s election campaign. The pro-Quebec sovereignty party proposes to tackle a non-existent problem by banning the wearing of attire or symbols expressing religious belief by any employee of the provincial public service. The measure would ban any appearance of religious symbols in workplaces, but Premier Marois says the large, Christian cross that hangs prominently in the Quebec Legislature will stay there because it forms part of Quebec’s “cultural heritage.”

Quebec’s left-wing party, Québec solidaire, is presenting a full slate of candidates and hopes to improve its standing from 2012 when it won six per cent of the vote and elected two members of Quebec’s National Assembly.

The party opposes the PQ charter of Quebec values. It has proposed its own version of a charter of secularism that would ban the wearing or appearance of religious symbols in the National Assembly and by state employees with policing powers.

Notwithstanding the disarray of the two other large, capitalist parties, the best laid election plans of PQ strategists could go awry. News reports are examining the prospect that the election was spurred by the likelihood of Premier Marois and her husband being called to testify before the Charbonneau Commission that is investigating corruption in Quebec’s construction industry. The commission was struck in 2011 by a then-Liberal Party government. That party lost an election one year later, thanks in part to revelations in testimony before the commission about systemic corruption and collusion with government in the industry, notably under Liberal Party government watch.

Revelations at the commission hearings have continued to rock the province, including details of years when the PQ governed the province.

Marois made a stunning announcement at the outset of the campaign on March 9 -- the notorious, anti-union media tycoon, Pierre Karl Péladeau, will run in the district of Saint-Jérôme.

Péladeau is reviled by union members and other socially progressive Québécois because of his long history of attacking unionized workers and their unions. During the 13 years after he took over the Quebecor family empire from his father, Péladeau imposed 12 lockouts on his employees, some of which lasted more than a year, including a two-year lockout at the Montreal daily tabloid Journal de Montréal from 2009 to 2011. (See related news links below.)

In a terrific irony, the founding leader of the Parti québécois, René Lévesque, revered by many in the province, is well known for helping to lead a strike at Canada’s French-language national broadcaster in 1958-59 prior to his entry into provincial politics.

Péladeau’s media empire includes the virulently anti-union and anti-Quebec Sun Media chain in English-speaking Canada.

As for Péladeau’s political views, Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hébert writes, “Sovereignty aside, [Péladeau] would be more at home on Stephen Harper’s economic team than in a PQ caucus.”

Péladeau insists he will not sell his ownership of his media empire should he be elected and should he be appointed to a PQ cabinet in the event the party wins.

Climate change issues

The Quebec election arrives at a time when the province is confronted by an aggressively expansionist fossil fuel industry in North America:

* Rising numbers of oil trains are arriving at Quebec’s three oil refineries or carrying through along the CN main line to Canada’s largest oil refinery, in Saint John, New Brunswick. The three Quebec refineries have recently built rail terminals to receive the same type of volatile crude oil from the Bakken field in North Dakota and Saskatchewan that exploded in Lac Mégantic, Quebec last July 6.

* The Quebec and Canadian governments are so far footing the bill for the estimated $2-billion-plus cleanup at Lac Mégantic. The oil and rail companies in the informal consortium that came together to cause the disaster are denying responsibility. No public inquiry has been convened, though the disaster killed 47 people.

* The largest Alberta tar sands pipeline proposal to date, Energy East, would bring tar sands bitumen via an all-Canada pipeline to Montreal and to Saint John for export (and possibly for refining if the oil companies decide to invest the hundreds of millions of dollars required to process bitumen).

* Just before her election call, Premier Marois announced approval to open up Anticosti Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence for oil drilling.

* Last year, her government declared a temporary moratorium on natural gas fracking in the St. Lawrence River Valley and introduced a law (Bill 37) to extend a moratorium for five years. The law was extensively examined and discussed by Quebec’s National Assembly but the election call cut off final approval. A U.S. company is suing the province for $250 million under the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement for delays caused by the interim ban.

The rightward shift of the Parti québécois under Marois opens considerable political space for Québec solidaire. Responding to the announcement of the candidacy of Pierre Karl Péladeau, QS co- leader Françoise David said the PQ has broken from its “pretense” of being a progressive party. “Today,” she said, “thousands of supporters can kiss goodbye to the party of René Lévesque.”*

“The risk [of Péladeau] applying his remedies to our social programs and public services is a path that no progressive will want to take.”

* René Lévesque was a journalist before entering politics in 1960. As a Liberal Party cabinet minister, he oversaw several of  Quebec’s major reforms during the ‘Quiet Revolution’ of the early-to-mid 1960s, including nationalizations of the myriad of private, hydro-electricity producers to create today's giant state utility, Hydro Québec. He broke from the Liberal Party and co-founded the pro-independence Parti québécois in 1968, becoming its first leader. He led the party to its first and second electoral victories, in 1976 and 1981.

The first PQ government adopted Quebec’s progressive language law, Law 101, and it staged the first Quebec referendum on sovereignty, in 1980. That vote lost by 60 per cent to 40 per cent. A second sovereignty referendum in 1995 lost by less than one per cent.

More reading:

* How Péladeau's PQ bombshell will lead to aftershocks in Ottawa, by Konrad Yakabuski, columnist, Globe and Mail, March 10, 2014

* Former Quebecor Media president running for PQ, by Alex Ballingall, Toronto Star, Mar 10, 2014

* Nebraska has little use for Quebec values charter-style law enacted 95 years ago, by Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press, in Toronto Star, Mar 9, 2014

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