François Legault's Losing Strategy
There will be a reckoning and the CAQ will be made to answer for its anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack, a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.”
I was tempted to quote the Book of Revelations at the outset but I consider myself an optimist at heart.
We could despair at the inevitability of tonight’s election.
In a sane world, the Coalition Avenir Québec would have run a straight campaign and coasted to a majority. Their opposition is so fragmented, there was never a realistic chance anyone would unseat the party.
But we do not live in a sane world.
The CAQ summoned a werewolf in the electorate and — barring some astronomical error in polling — it will ride that monster to a super majority. One or two clumsy remarks about immigrants can be written off as an honest mistake by an aging politician. But when François Legault can’t get through one news cycle without screaming “Barbarians at the gate”, it’s clear that xenophobia was a strategic choice.
Here’s where — to quote a Jewish Anglophone Montrealer — the light gets in.
When the last vote is counted, François Legault will become the only premier in a generation to win consecutive majority governments. The last man to accomplish that feat, Robert Bourassa, has a street named after him in downtown Montreal. Legault is the most consequential Quebec politician of the 21st century. Even his biggest detractors have to concede as much.
But Legault and his party will have paid a steep price for this historic victory. Not just because they’ve eroded democratic norms and social cohesion for the past 36 days. That was true from the moment they re-wrote Quebec’s Charter of Rights on a bar napkin at the beginning of their first mandate.
In choosing to wage such such an openly xenophobic campaign, the CAQ has surrendered a giant swath of the Quebec electorate. They may not feel it now — with their opposition split in a four-way race for second place. But as more and more immigrants move off the island of Montreal and into the CAQ’s suburban strongholds, they will eventually coalesce around a party that doesn’t refer to them as extremists and chronic welfare recipients.
What’s worse, if the CAQ’s rhetoric was meant to advance its vision of Quebec nationalism and protect the French language, the party is in for a rude awakening.
“Most of the kids I work with are the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. And a lot of those kids don't consider themselves Québécois because, to them, to be Québécois is to be white,” says Ismaël Seck, who teaches high school in Montreal’s Parc Extension district.
“When the premier of this province speaks, he has a megaphone. And when he associates immigration with extremism, as he has in this campaign, a lot of people hear that and they feel excluded. Even children. Where do you think the next generation of French speakers will come from? Outside of France, the francophonie is strongest in Africa.
“You need to include these people, not alienate them.”
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When Seck’s father came to Quebec from Sénégal, he rented a single room in a rundown flat off St-Denis Street. And the only reason he could afford that was because he took on his cousin as a roommate. They slept in bunk beds, washed dishes and scrubbed floors to get through their first years in Quebec.
Eventually Seck’s father married a white francophone woman and — though he’s Muslim — he had their children baptized into the Catholic faith. Even after his parents got a divorce and his dad moved out, Seck’s father still put up a Christmas tree in his home every year. He wanted his kids to grow up thinking of themselves as Quebecers.
“We would even make tourtière — arguably the most québécois dish — but we simply didn’t include pork in the recipe,” Seck said. “When I hear all this rhetoric about immigrants refusing to integrate, it doesn’t match with what I saw my whole life.”
In just over one month on the trail, Legault insinuated that “extremist” immigrants are a threat to Quebec values, outgoing immigration minister Jean Boulet (falsely) claimed that 80 per cent of immigrants don’t work and refuse to learn French and the premier said that letting more than 50,000 immigrants into Quebec each year would be “suicidal” for the nation.
Not to be outdone, the Parti Québécois opened its campaign with a video depicting Muslim refugees as an existential threat to Quebec. The party also had to sack one its candidates Friday after a journalist stumbled upon his social media tirades against Muslims and immigrants.
In one particularly galling post, candidate Pierre Vanier wrote: “Give a hammer to a sovereignist, he will build a country. Give a hammer to a Muslim, he will crush democracy. Give a hammer to a useful idiot, he will give it to a Muslim.”
The leader of Quebec’s Conservative party, meanwhile, told reporters he’d consider building a wall between this province and the United States so we could keep refugees from coming in illegally. Again, a few of these sorts of statements might be written off as a gaffe but we’re way past that now.
After all, two-thirds of Quebecers want to see immigration kept below 50,000 people per year and a majority believe immigration is the biggest threat to the survival of the French language. We know that because, five months ago, the CAQ commissioned a Léger poll on immigration and then conveniently leaked the results to friendly media outlets. This was always going to be their strategy.
François Charih, the son of a Moroccan immigrant, says it was Boulet’s “80 per cent” comment that really drove the point home for him.
“He is the immigration minister, his job is to know those statistics. So he’s either the dumbest immigration minister in Quebec history or he knew he was spreading disinformation,” Charih said. “They made a choice to score political points on the backs of immigrants.”
“Sara” is a law student whose parents came to Quebec to flee the regime of Sadam Hussein. But when she graduates, Sara won’t be allowed to be a Crown prosecutor because of her Muslim faith. Because she wears a hijab, Sara doesn’t have the full rights of citizenship. The CAQ’s signature piece of legislation, Bill 21, bars people like her from representing the state in court, teaching in a public school or joining the police force.
So while many of us are just clueing in to the CAQ’s hostility towards minorities, Sara’s been living it for years.
“I hate to even have to say this but I was born here and this is my Quebec too,” said Sara, who did not want her name published for fear of online harassment. “And you know what, when the pandemic was at its worst, when the state needed immigrants and refugee claimants to work and die on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19, Legault called them guardian angels. Now that the worst of the storm is over, immigrants are back to being extremists and welfare recipients.
“The CAQ will win tonight and they’ll win big but I think this campaign will catch up to them. They ran a campaign attacking the most vulnerable groups in Quebec society. That’s not exactly a wise strategy long-term.”
The numbers bear this out. In 1996, visible minorities only accounted for 6 per cent of Quebec’s population. That figure more than doubled over the following 20 years. Most of that is due to immigration from Africa, the Middle East, South America and the Caribbean.
Contrary to Boulet’s crass statement about immigrants, the employment rate of newly arrived Quebecers is 69 per cent. That’s only marginally lower than the provincial average. They work in meat processing plants in Montreal’s North End and in hospitals across the province, they care for our elders and sometimes work two or three jobs to make sure their kids get a shot at a better life.
“My mom was a teacher when she came here but wound up working in manufacturing to make sure we had enough to eat,” said Thom, whose folks came here from Haiti in the 1970s. “When you make that kind of sacrifice, it isn’t for yourself, it’s for the next generation. It’s an incredibly selfless act and that’s something I realize as I watch my own kids grow up. Would I have been brave enough to move to a new country and start over? I dunno. But I doubt a lot of these politicians would. They’re cowards, as far as I’m concerned.”
Even if the CAQ aggressively limits immigration, the demands of our labour market will bring in people from across the planet. Most of them won’t be white and many of them will be from (gasp) Muslim majority countries.
In other words, the CAQ is courting a shrinking percentage of the electorate.
Their rivals are picking up on this. In the dying days of the campaign, Québec Solidaire has flooded its social media with videos of immigrants approaching party leader Gabriel Nadeau Dubois at events and telling them they’ll never vote for a government that demonizes them.
The Liberals, which once held a dominant share of Quebec’s visible minority vote, have pounded away at the CAQ’s xenophobia as well. Even Conservative leader Éric Duhaime — whose Islamophobic radio persona propelled him to national infamy — has emphasized how out of touch Legault’s party is.
Tomorrow we will wake up and assess the extent of the CAQ’s victory. Will they win 85 seats in the National Assembly? Ninety? A hundred? We’ll find out soon enough.
In the meantime, we can all take solace in the fact that there will be reckoning. It may not be in four years but there will come a time when the CAQ is made to answer for its slash and burn politics. And when that happens, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.
It’s been a hell of a ride but after the election I’ll be taking time off to catch up on some sleep. I haven’t taken a break since Wednesday was born and it’s starting to show in the quality of my work. So for your sake (but mostly mine) I’m going to hit reset and came back at it with fresh legs in a few weeks.
Have a great rest! Well deserved
Recall how it took a day or two after the ‘95 referendum for Parizeau’s money and ethnics rant for the reaction to coalesce. Outrage needs time to sink in before it takes root.