There are many places in the country where a self-described “Jewish redneck from Calgary” would get a standing ovation for preaching his liberal-baiting, small-government, pro-oil-sands gospel. Conventional wisdom suggests that Quebec, home to powerful unions and subsidized daycare, isn’t one of them.
Yet, there was conservative commentator, author and cheery scourge of the left Ezra Levant in front of an overflow crowd at a Quebec City hotel last weekend, deriding government intervention and touting the wonders of Alberta’s oily bounty—in English, no less—and winning roars of approval.
The people behind Réseau Liberté-Québec were ebullient. The RLQ, which calls itself a “citizens’ movement” and not a political party, managed to bring together a fair chunk of the province’s fractured conservative movement in one place, attract considerable media attention, and even draw the ire of a few token lefties, who delivered a load of horse manure to the hotel steps earlier in the day. “Quebec’s right is more and more ardent, tenacious, resilient and credible,” whooped RLQ co-founder Joanne Marcotte in a speech.
What is perhaps more surprising than a conservative Québécois love-in is the RLQ’s frank disinterest in the issue of sovereignty, as well as a desire to put an end to the province’s enduring sovereignist-federalist divide. The RLQ has even perked the ears of several disaffected Parti Québécois members from the party’s right flank, including former cabinet minister Jacques Brassard. “I’m still a sovereignist, but the debate hasn’t advanced for a long time. Today, our obsession should be to create wealth and to get off federal government welfare,” Brassard said, alluding to the $8.6 billion the province receives from Ottawa each year. “Politically, I’m an orphan. No political party represents my interests.”
It seems many Quebecers feel the same way. According to a Léger Marketing poll, a majority of voters want to put both the Liberals and the Parti Québécois out to pasture. Fully 30 per cent of Quebecers would support Force Québec, a right-of-centre party that currently exists only in the minds of former PQ ministers François Legault and Joseph Facal, largely because it would mothball the sovereignty issue. The poll numbers suggest the theoretical party would hurt the Liberals, wound the PQ and obliterate the Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), the province’s floundering right-wing party.
It is only one poll, though, one that may well be an expression of the province’s hostility toward Quebec’s political class. Still, as the survey and the RLQ’s recent noisy sortie shows, the province’s conservatives seem willing to move past Quebec’s long-standing obsession. As it stands, Quebec is one of the few places in the free world where the two dominant parties are comprised of people from both the left and the right; they are divided instead on whether the province should remain part of the country.
“Everywhere else you have a left and a right,” says Philippe Gervais, a lobbyist and former Conservative campaign director. “That’s how you build societies. Here, we keep having the same debate without ever addressing the real, fundamental problems.”
Extracting leftists from the sovereignist cause is another story. Most if not all the progressive policies that have come to define Quebec—labour laws, a sizable social safety net, rent control, tuition freezes—were the fruit of the Péquistes. Similarly, all four of the province’s union federations implicitly or explicitly support the separation of Quebec from Canada.
Yet as the 2007 election of NDP MP Thomas Mulcair showed, it isn’t impossible to sell federalism to the left in the province. Mulcair’s provincial cohort, Québec Solidaire MNA Amir Khadir, recently told Maclean’s of his misgivings about the endless chicane between federalists and sovereignists. “[Quebecers] are caught in a prison of the nationalist question,” he said. “It’s why we have to completely shuffle the cards in Quebec.” (Québec Solidaire is sovereignist, though less obsessively so than the PQ.)
Some think it is impossible for any political movement to avoid being labelled. “You can’t not position yourself in Quebec,” says Alain Noël, a political scientist at Université de Montréal. “The national question is never going to be fixed, because it’s existential. It’s always going to colour our debate.”
Complicating matters are Quebecers themselves, who are seemingly as conflicted as ever. In the same week they expressed a desire to move beyond the national question, yet another poll suggested a majority of Quebecers think it is impossible to govern the province without addressing Quebec’s place within Canada. As comedian Yvon Deschamps once said, “Quebecers know what they want, and what they want is an independent Quebec in a strong Canada.”