I don’t like the PQ much, and I believe their recently released budget was an embarrassing affront to those Quebeckers who naively expected them to actually do the things they promised to do during the campaign. All the more so with a leaderless and election shy Liberal party guaranteeing their minority government the ability to govern as a majority in the near term.
But the carefully manufactured “scandal” which brought down PQ Environment Minister Daniel Breton, who resigned his cabinet post yesterday, is no cause for celebration. Easily lost in a sea of real scandals, and disgraced politicians riding off into the sunset, is the political assassination of a good man for the crime of considering, however fleetingly, a challenge to the status quo.
That his political enemies so easily took down Breton, and that the PQ so happily threw him to the wolves without so much as the pretence of a defence, is a clear message to anyone who would seek office to challenge the way things are: don’t, or you’ll be sorry.
First, the facts. Such as they are. Breton, a co-founder of the Coalition Quebec-Vert-Kyoto and one of this province’s foremost ecologists and environmental activists, beat out Quebec Solidaire star candidate Manon Masse for the seat representing Montreal’s downtown eastside and gay village in September’s election. It was the culmination of a political odyssey which saw him run unsuccessfully for the Green Party and the NDP, before finally joining the PQ.
His subsequent appointment to the Environment portfolio by Premier Pauline Marois was lauded by the progressive community, who saw in the new minister an ally who could be counted upon to restore the integrity and competence of a department which had become some sort of a sad little joke under previous governments.
Quebec has some of the strongest environmental laws on the books in North America, but suffers from a near complete inability to enforce them. A strong minister with the heft to fight for his budget line could therefore get a great deal done without the need to pass legislation through the fractured National Assembly.
Sadly, while activists were popping the bubbly, the corporate interests with most to lose under an activist environment minister were organizing to eliminate the perceived threat. This before Breton had done a single thing of substance.
First came the stories that Breton had visited the Office of Public Hearings on the Environment (a government body known for deliberate incompetence and staffed by Liberal patronage appointees), and loudly demanded, in a nutshell, that they get their act together. If they didn’t, he wanted these bureaucrats to know, they would be hearing from him.
Heaven forbid that the minister responsible would demand that a government agency live up to its mandate, and do its job (protecting the environment). But apparently his “interference” in this arms-length body was a “scandal”, one the opposition Liberals and CAQ had joined forces to “investigate” through the creation of a committee to question Breton.
Then along came a series of reports, largely originating in Quebecor owned media outlets, on every bad thing Breton had ever done in his life. So what exactly were these revelations, so scandalous that they took down a minister? A speeding ticket, a fine for failure to file taxes in a year when he had no income, driving without a license and filing an incorrect statement with EI. He was also reportedly evicted from two apartments for non-payment of rent. Some of these transgressions date back over twenty-five years, but their true common denominator is that they are the travails of someone who is not rich and powerful, someone who stands at odds with the elite in society.
Daniel Breton was not taken down for failings of character or judgement, it is to laugh as we watch the parade of politicians who embraced corruption with impunity trotted before the Charbonneau Commission, he was taken down for the crime of having been an activist, of having been, shudder, poor.
Breton made the same choice many activists do, to prioritize the welfare of others over his own. An intelligent and capable man, I don’t doubt he could have become rich and powerful if he had set his mind to the task. But he chose another path, to live an austere life committed to the health of this planet, and those who reside upon it.
God knows, he is exactly who we need in “representative” political bodies composed primarily of the rich and powerful. To be representative, our governments must include the poor, the militant, the 99%. They do not, and when these people somehow find their way to some meagre slice of power, they are taken out, with the vicious ferocity we saw in this case.
The sad part is, most of us saw it coming. When he was appointed, most of my friends responded by starting pools on how long he would last. The average estimate was six months. He lasted barely two. His stubborn unwillingness to play the game was the reason we saw a short political future for him, but in the end, he never got the chance to face a tough decision on a question of principle.
Pauline Marois’ gutless failure to defend him should surprise no one. He was appointed as a token gesture to the political left which still, sadly, comprises much of the PQ’s base. She knew he would be a thorn in her side, and his resignation no doubt sent a sly smile across her face.
Now she can point to his appointment as acquiescence to the demands of the left, and commiserate with progressives while she appoints a new, and very different, environment minister and proceeds with business as usual. Namely, sacrificing our environment and our well-being at the altar of runaway capitalism and austerity.
It’s a sad day for democracy, especially the “representative” notion therein. It’s a sad day for our environment, which was already having something of a rough century. And it’s a sad day for the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, who received the message loud and clear: there is no place for you in our politics. If you are so presumptuous as to dare get involved, you can count on being brutalized and discarded for that transgression.
Most of all, it’s a sad day for the many Quebecers who voted for the PQ. Marois, to her eternal shame, couldn’t ditch Breton fast enough, despite the preposterously flimsy nature of the case against him. He wouldn’t have lasted, so out of sync were his ideas with the “maintain power at any cost” crowd in the PQ, but their eagerness to show him the door is galling.
So in a political system we now know to be riddled with corruption and real misconduct, where the guilty retain their seats, their power and their influence with impunity, the man resigning is the last one who should be.
Daniel Breton was that rarest of breeds, an honest man in politics. I’ll miss him, but I’ll miss our democracy more. Because how can we be said to live in a democracy, when this is the fate of a politician who is so much as suspected of not representing the interests of the elite and desiring to challenge the established order?
The resignation of Daniel Breton is as much a symptom of the diseased state of our democracy as the sordid revelations of corruption emerging from the Charbonneau Commission. Our politicians are not there to represent us, for the most part. They are there to represent themselves, and the narrow interests of the incestuous circle of elites who meet in places like the now notorious private club 357C, where politicians and businessmen designed schemes to defraud taxpayers of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Daniel Breton was not on the list of those who met with mobsters and crooked businessmen at 357C, which reads like a rolodex of the rich and powerful in this province. In the end, that was his crime. He refused to play the game, and so the game played him.
I hope that Breton does not, in the words of Dylan Thomas, go gentle into that dark night. We need him, and men and women like him, now more than ever. Although I think he needs to find a new party if he wants to continue to rage against the dying of the light.
Follow @EthanCoxMTL on twitter for all the latest on Quebec, the student movement and progressive politics in general.
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