by Chantal Hébert

Three years ago this fall, the Parti Quebecois set out to affirm Quebec’s secular character through a so-called charter of values and the imposition of a secular dress code on the province’s public service.

It was the sovereigntist partyís most ambitious identity-related project since the introduction in the late 1970s of the French-language charter, a legislative framework that to this day enjoys support right across the party lines in Quebec.

The hope was to repeat that success and, in the process, bring the increasingly scattered sovereigntist forces back to the PQ.

So convinced was Pauline Maroisís government that it had an electoral ace up its sleeve that it declined to reach out to the opposition parties for a consensus.

When the other parties sought a middle ground with the government, the PQ doubled down on its civil service ban of religious garb instead.

The rest is history. Marois made the charter and its coercive measures a centrepiece of her re-election platform and led the party back to opposition after only 18 months in power.

Three years later, the PQ is still dealing with the fallout from the adventure.

At a time when some are making the argument that the federal Conservatives should similarly become the self-appointed keepers of Canadian values through proactive measures, the PQ saga features striking similarities to the nascent Conservative Party of Canada debate and offers some sobering lessons for those who would look to that avenue for electoral growth. Here are a few of them.

The PQ could never produce data to back up its assertion that coercive measures were required to preserve Quebecís secular character. The plan remained a solution in search of a problem.

The only data it did have in hand were polls that backed its conviction that it was popular.

But what the polls did not measure was the depth of the convictions of the respondents.

Many charter supporters had never actually encountered a public servant/teacher/nurse/doctor who wore a religious ornament other than a crucifix. For more than a few of them it was not really a ballot box issue.

As it turned out, those who opposed the charter and the imposition of a secular dress code were often more motivated to fight it by voting out the PQ than the reverse. If that sounds familiar it is because the federal Conservatives encountered some of the same dynamics with the niqab in the 2015 election.

The charter bid exposed irreconcilable differences within the sovereigntist movement, with elder statesmen such as former leader Jacques Parizeau publicly disavowing the project. In one of his last interviews – given shortly before his death, but after the PQís return to opposition – the late premier described the party he once led as “a field of ruins.”

Over the past week, the contention by Conservative leadership contender Kellie Leitch that would-be immigrants to Canada should be subject to ideological vetting has similarly brought to the surface divisions among high-ranking Conservatives on a scale not seen in public since Stephen Harper reunited the right under one party.

Far from expanding the PQís electoral base, the charter bid alienated two of the fastest-growing contingents of Quebec voters.

Among allophone Quebecers, the sovereigntist project has always been a hard sell. The natural allegiance of most immigrants to Quebec is to Canada, the country to which they swear their citizenship oath.

Still, in the past, the PQ had made some inroads in the French-speaking cultural communities. But many of more recent French-speaking newcomers to Quebec are Muslims.

They felt they were in the crosshairs of the charter. And then, support for the project declined precipitously as one went down the age cohorts. A decisive majority of younger voters opposed it.

Instead of dissipating the notion that the PQ was a party past its prime, the project fortified it.

Some of the charter fallout was on exhibit earlier this week when the candidates for the succession of Pierre Karl Peladeau gathered at UniversitÈ de Montreal for their first leadership debate.

Among the 300 students in attendance, one would have been hard-pressed to find much evidence of the diversity that is otherwise so manifest on the campus of Canada’s largest French-speaking university.

At the time of the last 1995 referendum, it was the federalist camp whose audience was mostly made up of grey heads. Today, the demographics are reversed.

If anything, the failed PQ venture unto the shifting sands of post-9/11 values has driven it further into the wilderness.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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