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Quebec’s ‘kinder, gentler’ populism


QUEBEC – François Legault was elected more than a month before the November 2018 Macleans cover depicting Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, Ontario’s Doug Ford, Manitoba’s Brian Palliser, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe.

True, Legault is a small-c conservative with a populist agenda.

He differs, however, with the Macleans’ “Resistance” five on their main point.

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Legault believes climate change is real, although Quebec opposition parties question his commitment, pointing out that while opposing the Energy East oil pipeline, the premier favours a natural gas pipeline from Western Canada to Quebec’s Saguenay region.

He is at ease with carbon taxes and committed to the California-Quebec cap-and-trade market for carbon credits.

It was the California-Quebec-Ontario carbon market, until Ontario’s newly-elected Premier Ford withdrew.

That was the first of Ford’s many populist measures from the downsizing of Toronto’s city council to cuts in services for Ontario’s francophones, more cuts in education, healthcare, libraries and youth protection.

Legault did not follow Doug Ford’s now-dead “buck-a-beer” pledge.

Instead his government took a less-permissive tack, challenging federal jurisdiction by raised the age to buy and consume cannabis from 18, the age set by Ottawa, to 21 in Quebec.

Ford is among Canada’s least popular premiers, to the point he stayed hidden during the federal election campaign in an effort to boost Scheer’s chances.

But Legault is up there with Scott Moe as one of the two most popular premiers, with popularity ratings of 60 per cent and more.

Legault likes to credit his favourable ratings to delivering on the promises his Coalition Avenir Québec party, favouring the French-speaking majority.

In fact, the most controversial measures the CAQ has adopted were inherited from Action démocratique du Québec, a populist party that was absorbed into Legault’s CAQ.

ADQ leader Mario Dumont came close to toppling the Liberal government of Jean Charest in Quebec’s 2007 election, proposing the abolition of school boards, an end to “reasonable” accommodations of religious minorities, judged unreasonable by Dumont, and limits on immigration.

Legault has adopted that agenda and more.

Last weekend, for the fourth time in the 16 months Legault’s CAQ has been in power, closure was imposed to adopt a controversial law from the ADQ playbook.

The premier complained that the opposition was stalling on Bill 40, to abolish elected school boards, and called for time limits on debate.

The opposition was echoing the worries of the boards, parents and teachers who believe school boards fill a needed role.

The ADQ objected to school boards as a waste of public money and pointed out low voter turnout for school board elections.

In fact, the estimated saving, according to one teachers’ union, is a paltry $11 million.

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The boards, renamed service centres, will play the same role, with limited input from parents and the education department calling the shots.

While Bill 40 was being debated under closure, the CAQ introduced new amendments, one allowing the expropriation, free of charge, of municipal land or buildings for new schools.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante has objected that the city will lose money and she will have to raise property taxes.

Legault told reporters that when he was education minister, and tried to acquire municipal land for schools, “there were battles that lasted years.”

The amendments also fired 700 elected school board commissioners immediately and the bill, which has turned into an omnibus bill, sets out training requirements for teachers and transferred to parents’ committees the procedure for revising students marks.

Legault transformed Quebec’s “reasonable accommodation” debate, sparked by media reporting more than a decade ago, suggesting Jews and Muslims were given preferential treatment, into a debate on secularism.

Bill 21, the first CAQ law adopted under closure last June, with two notwithstanding clauses to override both the federal and Quebec human rights charters, states that Quebec is a secular society.

There is no debate on the neutrality of the state, but Bill 21 also bans the wearing of religious signs, on the job, by a wide swath of public employees, including teachers.

The second CAQ law adopted under closure reduced to 40,000 from about 50,000 the number of immigrants Quebec would accept in 2019.

Employers objected that limiting immigration, at a time when there is a labour shortage, is counterproductive.

Foreign students, allowed to enrol in post-secondary education, as a path to citizenship, were informed their skills were unwanted.

There were protests, revealing that most of those students were from French-speaking countries, and were fitting in nicely.

One woman, from France, who finished her studies and started her own business, hiring Quebecers, was told she would have to leave.

Following media reports, the CAQ government backed down on her expulsion.

Legault likes to say that his measures are popular, pointing to reactions from CAQ supporters on his Facebook site.

At the Jan. 29 third anniversary of the Quebec City mosque shootings, mosque spokesman Boufeldja Benabdallah said Bill 21 is only adding to the problems of Quebec City’s Muslim community, who remain under attack.

Legault, attending the commemoration, defended Bill 21.

Later, on the premier’s Facebook page, posters sent anti-Islamic comments, some vulgar, and also posted views that the mosque shooter, who killed six men and seriously wounded another six, was a hero.

Legault and his ministers repeated their position that Bill 21 is moderate, deploring Islamophobia.

The objectionable postings were removed from the premier’s Facebook page.

Doug Ford has managed to anger many in Ontario.

Polls showing Legault is popular reflect the views old-stock French-speaking Quebecers, who worry that immigration is a threat to Quebec’s French character and mostly older Quebecers upset about seeing a Jewish kippah or an Islamic hijab.

Legault sees his nationalist populism as “kinder, gentler,” as the first President Bush described his conservatism.

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Nevertheless, Quebec’s minorities affected by measures reducing their employment prospects and curtailing the number of newcomers allowed to settle in the province, do not share this view and are finding it difficult to feel at home in Quebec.

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