National Column: Quebec is not as quick to light up

The sound of one hand clapping greeted the fulfillment of Justin Trudeau’s signature cannabis promise in Quebec on Wednesday.

To mark the occasion, the Journal de Montreal, the province’s most-read tabloid, gave pride of place to not one, but three scathing columns on the ills of the legalization of marijuana.

Not every Quebec media outlet was as negative, but on balance the coverage reflected the decisively mixed feelings the prime minister’s policy has elicited among the chattering class of his home province.

From day one, Quebec has been cooler to the federal bid to legalize cannabis than its sister provinces.

That was a constant over the three years the Trudeau government has spent making good on its 2015 election promise.

An Abacus poll published on Monday found acceptance of the policy to run at 63 per cent in Quebec versus more than

70 per cent in every other region of the country. On this, Quebec voters seem to be taking their cue from their provincial politicians.

The province’s outgoing Liberal government, last spring, argued (in vain) for a more restrictive federal law, and one of the first acts of the incoming Coalition Avenir Quebec government is expected to be a further tightening of the already tight provincial rules governing the sale of cannabis. Francois Legault’s election platform includes a promise to raise the legal age to buy marijuana to 21.

When the Liberals first set out to legalize cannabis, few Quebec watchers could have predicted that the province would adopt a more prohibitionist regimen than the rest of the country rather than welcome the change with open arms.

A more liberal approach to cannabis is often equated with a progressive agenda and over the past decades, Quebec has notoriously been ahead of the progressive curve in Canada.

At a time when issues such as abortion rights, same-sex marriage and medically assisted death were considered too hot for other governments to handle, the national assembly was blazing new trails with a minimum of public pushback.

The province has also tended to exhibit a somewhat more relaxed attitude toward tobacco and alcohol.

It came late to banning the first from public indoor venues and it has long boasted a lower legal drinking age than neighbouring Ontario.

Quebec’s population is aging faster than that of the other provinces and legal cannabis is most popular with the younger cohort.

But if age had anything to do with it, Atlantic Canada – a region that is greying as fast or faster – would exhibit a comparable level of ambivalence. It does not.

By all indications, Quebec’s more-reluctant-than-average embrace of legal cannabis has its roots in something more profound than concern over the consumption of marijuana.

Among the country’s provincial legislatures, the Quebec national assembly stands out for its capacity to craft consensus not just on sensitive social policies, but also on leading edge programs. Political support for the province’s extensive public child-care network, its pharmacare plan and its carbon pricing measures cross party lines.

But the flip side is a de facto suspicion of expressions of federal authority. That suspicion also crosses party lines.

No mainstream provincial party in Quebec (or elsewhere) had the creation of a legal cannabis market on its to-do or its wish lists.

Two of the three Journal de MontrÈal columns published on Wednesday alluded to the fact that on marijuana, the provinces were left with no option other than to do Ottawa’s bidding.

It is quite possible that over time, more Quebecers – including their political leaders – will warm up to Trudeau’s landmark move.

It is far from certain that the restrictive instincts of the CAQ government will survive the test of reality – especially in Montreal.

But that does not mean Trudeau’s Liberals – as they look to build a second majority victory on a strong showing of Quebec support next fall – should shrug off the cold shoulder their cannabis policy has been given in the provinceís political quarters.

The federal Liberals currently hold more Quebec seats than at any time since Trudeauís father retired in the mid-eighties.

And yet they have little more presence in the provinceís conversation than in the still recent days when Stephen Harper led a Quebec-light Conservative government.

The consistently low profile of Trudeauís Quebec team extends beyond cannabis to a host of other fronts that are potentially more central to the prime ministerís re-election bid next year. If the federal Liberals do not speak up for their policies in Quebec, no one else is about to do it in their place.

Twitter: @ChantalHbert
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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