Quebec Election: The CAQ is Playing us for Chumps
Why else would they skip 30 debates on their way to a super majority?
Bonnie Feigenbaum was about to step in a pile of shit.
Not literal feces, of course, just the kind you walk into when your ego outruns your judgement. During a debate at Dawson College Tuesday, Feigenbaum — a candidate for the Quebec Conservatives — was asked how her party would protect LGBTQ rights.
“One of our candidates, Roy Eappen, he’s such a strong libertarian that he’s a gay man and he would defend the right of a business owner to refuse service to gays,” Feigenbaum said, completely misreading the room. It’s possible her comment was in response to another question (it’s all kind of blurry now) but I will swear on a stack of Bibles that she pointed to homophobic discrimination as a sign of someone’s political sincerity.
Upon hearing this, one of Feigenbaum’s opponents stopped taking notes and buried her face in the palm of her hands. The students, meanwhile, responded with a mix of jeering and cringes of second hand embarrassment. Maybe things have changed since I attended Dawson but, in my day, denying basic human rights was a bad thing.
Against everyone’s better judgement, I was invited to moderate Dawson College’s debate between five candidates in the provincial election. “Moderate” might be a generous description. I read questions to the candidates and tried (meekly) to keep their answers just short of two minutes apiece. After the questions — which were drafted by Dawson students — we turned the floor over to the youngins so they could grill the candidates.
And they did.
Feigenbaum’s faux-pas was followed by some tough questions for Liberal candidate Desirée McGraw, who’s running in one of Quebec’s few remaining Liberal strongholds, Notre-Dame-de-Grace. She was taken to task for her party’s bungling of the Bill 96 language law and its “dear God please don’t ask us that question” approach to defunding the police.
When one student asked McGraw to clarify her stance on policing, the candidate had a rare slip up. The answer, as I recall, was something akin to better training for police — who, in Montreal, stop Black men 4 times the rate of whites and Indigenous women at 11 times the rate of non-Indigenous women.
“So you’re saying more police but nicer police?” the student responded, with a coy smile on her face. “That is not what I said,” McGraw replied, struggling to hide her frustration.
Let me just get this out of the way: I think most political debates are stupid. They get even dumber when television cameras are involved. Given the choice between advancing the discourse and making good television, the suits will pick entertainment every time.
Why else would TVA Face à Face moderator Pierre Bruneau make such a big deal about getting candidates to say n**ger on television if not to inject drama into a decidedly undramatic election? It certainly wasn’t to stage any kind of policy debate or even — as Bruneau claimed — test the party leaders’s devotion to academic freedom. A TV studio isn’t a university classroom and it’s not like his question — which was about the Pierre Vallières book White N***rs of North America — struck at the core of Vallières work. It was a stunt, plain and simple, and it made Bruneau look less like a journalist than a carnival barker.
And while television manufactures a sideshow, none of the candidates are particularly focused on debate. Their job is to deliver their talking points and get the hell out of Dodge before they can say anything that’ll be used against them in an attack ad.
If anything, candidates spend years mastering the art of the non-answer. They drill down phrases that have been focus-grouped by The Party and craft catchy little phrases that’ll get them on the news. This isn’t some big secret, TVA even compiled a list of the SiCkEsT bUrNs from the Face à Face.
Most notably: “Mr. Duhaime, you should run for governor of Texas, you’d really be more comfortable there.” That was Québec Solidaire’s Gabriel Nadeau Dubois with an epic takedown of Conservative leader Éric Duhaime. Funny, sure, but it was closer to a pro wrestling promo than anything to do with actual debate.
And why not just embrace that aspect of it? I can see it now:
Announcer 1: François Legault is he getting ready to deliver the $500 (Body) Cheque to Dominique Anglade? There’s no recovering from this, it’s all over folks, it’s all…
Announcer 2: Wait! Is that… is that Desirée “Bonesaw” McGraw? What’s she doing here? Oh dear God, oh dear God she’s charging the ring with a steel chair! It could be lights out for Legault!
Announcer 1: And who's that with her? Is it? Is it Paul St-Pierre Plamondon’s evil twin, Peter? In all my 30 years of professional wrasslin’ I have never seen such a calamity!
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Even debates as flawed as ours serve a larger purpose.
They provide us with the kinds of unscripted moments so rare in this era of stage-managed politics. No, there aren’t crowds of loving electors and kissable babies spontaneously meeting Papa Legault wherever his campaign bus stops. Those babies have to be reserved ahead of time, by The Party. We know this but we accept the lie because it’s less bleak than the thought of our planet burning and a government determined to extinguish the fire by pouring gasoline onto it.
Of course, for debates to happen, you need willing participants and, thus far, the Coalition Avenir Québec are squirming their way out of anything that would expose them to further scrutiny. And can you blame them? Every time Legault steps in front of a microphone, he gets himself in trouble.
In last week’s debate, for instance, he finally admitted his government commissioned a study on its gazillion dollar infrastructure boondoggle — le 3ieme Lien. But that’s not the bad part. He refuses to release the study (presumably because its findings are embarrassing), making his the first government to promise a signature project (it would be the world’s longest commuter tunnel) without any research backing their cause.
So the CAQ is dodging and ducking debates. Because if the party leader is sloppy enough to tell reporters — unprompted — that more immigration in Quebec will lead to chaos, extremism and chicanerie, what’ll he say when there’s four highly-trained candidates sniping at him?
So far, the CAQ has refused invitations to debate:
According to a “non-exhaustive search” by Radio-Canada, the CAQ has turned down some 30 debates in this campaign so far. And if you’re curious, they didn’t send a candidate to the Dawson College event. And that’s too bad, because they’ve made the downtown cegep into one of their favourite political targets.
When the CAQ reneged on a promise to renovate the badly overcrowded cegep, Legault said his priority was francophone colleges. Not a surprising admission but also not the sort of thing you say when you want to be a premier who serves all Quebecers (yes even the spiritual descendants of General Wolfe).
And speaking of Anglos, the CAQ’s plan to radically overhaul cegep curriculum with Bill 96 is going terribly so far. The law comes into effect in less than a year and sources at Dawson College say the government hasn’t even populated a working committee to figure out how to implement these reforms.
“It’s utter chaos, they have no idea what they’re doing,” one source at the college said. “We don’t know who’s out of a job, who’s going to teach the new classes they’re implementing, we don’t know anything.”
But for all their capacity for self-sabotage, the CAQ is sailing in the polls with 40 per cent popular support. Statistically, it’s a four-way tie for second place between QS, the Liberals, the Conservatives and the Parti Québécois.
So while I was happy to watch candidates fight over electoral table scraps, I’m not terribly enthusiastic about the state of democracy in Quebec.
Which brings me back to Bonnie Feigenbaum. I disagree with almost everything her party stands for. She’s running for a party whose leader fanned the flames of conspiracy theories during the deadliest pandemic to hit North America in over a century. But at least she showed up, took her lumps and took the Liberals to task over their record in opposition.
McGraw, for her part, was pushed (by students) to explain why she chose to run for a party who bungled bread and butter issues like language and have a horrible climate record after years of inaction in government.
“I could run with another party or I could join the Liberals and fight for change from the inside,” McGraw said, during the student question period. “I chose to fight.”
McGraw co-founded the Climate Reality Project with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and she’s been a Canadian delegate to the United Nations, tackling issues like biodiversity and the Kyoto Protocol (R.I.P.). There’s a good chance that if the Liberals sack Anglade after they get creamed on Oct. 3, McGraw is on the shortlist of candidates to replace her.
If you’re a senior staffer at the CAQ, wouldn’t you at least be curious to see how she fares in a low-stakes debate in front of a few hundred college students? Why not send a mid-tier representative to test McGraw’s mettle?
I guess the draw of a super majority is too strong in this election to risk going of script.
Remember to vote on Oct. 3.