Since the English leaders’ debate on September 9 there has been a broad consensus in Quebec that a question the moderator put to Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet was unjustified Quebec-bashing.
Newspaper columnists railed against the question, which, they say, smeared all Quebeckers as racist, and the Quebec National Assembly unanimously passed a resolution calling on debate organizers to apologize.
Three of the federal party leaders — the Liberals’ Justin Trudeau, Conservatives’ Erin O’Toole and the New Democrats’ Jagmeet Singh — joined in the call for an apology.
Then, this past Wednesday, during question period in Quebec’s National Assembly, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, leader of Quebec’s progressive Québec solidaire party (QS), broke with the consensus.
He told Quebec’s premier François Legault he doesn’t have the right “to decide on his own” what Quebec’s values are.
Nadeau-Dubois recognized that a good many Quebecers support the Legault government’s highly-contested secularism law, Law 21. But, the QS leader added, many others (including the members of Québec solidaire) oppose it, and they are just as Québécois as those who support it.
Nadeau-Dubois insisted Premier Legault cannot “symbolically expel” opponents of Law 21 “from the Quebec nation.”
The stated aim of Law 21, which François Legault’s government passed in 2019, is to protect the secular, non-religious character of Quebec society — and particularly, the Quebec state.
The law achieves that goal, principally, by prohibiting people who wear religious symbols, such as a hijab or turban or kippah, from holding key public sector jobs, such as school teacher, police officer or crown prosecutor.
NDP Leader Singh, who is a lawyer by trade, would not be able to work in the public prosecutor’s office in Quebec, unless he agreed to remove his turban while at work.
Throughout the current federal election campaign, Bloc Québécois Leader Blanchet has touted his party’s unequivocal, full-throated support for Law 21.
Blanchet frequently exhorts the other federal leaders to refrain from using government of Canada resources in support of citizens who might challenge Law 21 in court.
During the only English language debate of the current campaign, moderator Shachi Kurl tried to ask the Bloc leader about his support for the highly-disputed secularism law.
Unfortunately, Kurl overly complicated her question, and posed it in an inappropriately aggressive way, with both an assumption and an accusation embedded in the question.
One botched question precipitates a storm of protest
For the record, here is the now notorious question, in full:
“You deny that Quebec has problems with racism yet you defend legislation such as Bills 96 and 21, which marginalize religious minorities, anglophones, and allophones. Quebec is recognized as a distinct society but for those outside the province, please help them understand why your party also supports these discriminatory laws?”
Blanchet took vigorous exception to the question, especially to the reference to racism. He said Kurl seemed to have assumed the answer in advance — and he had a point.
Aside from the question’s inappropriately accusatory tone, it was confusing and unfair for Kurl to put Bill 96, a proposed strengthening of Quebec’s French Language Charter, in the same basket as Law 21.
Bill 96 is before the Quebec National Assembly now. It contains numerous provisions to assure that businesses serve customers in French, display French signs, and make it possible for their workers to function in French. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees are currently exempt from most French language requirements. Bill 96 would lower the threshold to 25 employees.
If passed, Bill 96 might inconvenience some, but it not would have anywhere near the negative impact of Law 21.
The secularism law — Law 21 — quite explicitly targets vulnerable minority groups, such as Muslim women. Indeed, in 2019 when it introduced the law the Legault government openly acknowledged it defied some basic principles of human rights.
In order to shield Law 21 from court challenges, Legault’s government not only invoked the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ notwithstanding clause, it also significantly changed Quebec’s own rights’ charter (“La charte des droits et libertés de la personne“).
Sadly, by framing a question about Law 21 in an unnecessarily loaded way, moderator Kurl failed to afford watchers of the English leaders’ debate a chance to hear Blanchet justify the harm the law inflicts upon thousands of Quebeckers.
Instead, the debate moderator allowed the Bloc leader to portray himself, and the people of Quebec who support these laws, as victims of an unfair smear.
On Wednesday, the Québec solidaire leader decided it was time to shift the focus away from Quebec’s widespread sense of grievance and back to the source of the controversy, Law 21 itself.
Legault is not father of the nation
Nadeau-Dubois, who is 31 years old and first attained prominence as a student leader, has just taken over as parliamentary leader of Québec solidaire.
In his very first question in that capacity, the QS leader chose to talk about Premier Legault’s high-handed and arrogant leadership style.
“The premier,” Nadeau-Dubois told the National Assembly, “has succumbed to one his worst faults. He has done his best imitation of Maurice Duplessis [the authoritarian, nationalist premier of Quebec from the late 1930s until his death in 1959].”
Legault, the QS leader continued, “has declared himself father of the Quebec Nation. I am sorry to burst his balloon, but somebody has to. The premier is leader of his government…but he should be careful before he claims to incarnate Quebec as a whole. I remind the premier he only got 37 per cent of the vote in the last election. That does not give him the right to decree…who is Québécois and who is not…”
The QS leader went on to say that millions of Quebeckers are fed up at the way Legault presents himself as Quebec’s “saviour and redeemer.”
“We are not his faithful, and we are tired of his sermons,” Nadeau-Dubois declared.
Premier Legault answered first by saying the great majority of Quebeckers support Law 21. He went on to associate pro-sovereignty and socialist Québec solidaire with the Liberal party. Both “support multiculturalism,” Legault said.
The Quebec premier then took exception to Nadeau-Dubois’ comparison of him to Maurice Duplessis.
To this day, that long-ago premier is remembered as something of a dictator. Many Quebecers still refer to the Duplessis era as “La Grande Noirceur” (The Great Darkness).
“Duplessis had many faults,” Legault fumed. But, he added, Duplessis did successfully “defend the Quebec nation.”
For good measure, the premier noted that whatever we can say about Duplessis, he was most definitely not “woke,” as is the youthful leader of Québec Solidaire.
Later the same day Nadeau-Dubois posted a photo of himself holding a Chinese saucepan, a wok.
“Je ne sais pas ce que François Legault a contre les woks,” he wrote. “Personnellement, j’utilise le mien chaque semaine.” (“I don’t know what François Legault has against woks. Personally, I use mine each week.”)
Media pundits have speculated that the kerfuffle over the English leaders’ debate question could increase support in Monday’s election for the Bloc, which had been fading earlier in the campaign.
That might happen, although there is limited evidence of a big Bloc boost in most recent public opinion polling.
Maybe Nadeau-Dubois knows something about Quebec voters Legault and Blanchet don’t.
Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.