(Version française disponible ici.)
In his 1957 work The Colonizer and the Colonized, the Tunisian writer Albert Memmi observed the elites of a colonized society often took refuge in the safe haven of values left behind by colonizers. This “regressive” approach often involved a retreat to values of tradition, family and religion.
The demographic, political and economic balance in Quebec has changed so much since the 1960s that only those who love significant events in military history – September 13, 1759, to pick a random date – and who have not cracked a newspaper since the proclamation of the Act of Union, could still see parallels between the defunct Afrique française du Nord and Quebec today.
Instead, to better decode Quebec history, one should read Bande de colons, a recent book by Alain Deneault showing how much a third figure, the settler, a sort of executor, was needed in order to better understand where precisely French-speaking Quebecers stood between the colonized Indigenous people and the political and economic administrators of British descent.
But where Memmi can still help us is by showing us how banal and predictable Premier François Legault’s recent obsessions are among those who believe themselves to be the prey of the “Other,” a kind of enemy from within. Even when this Other (whether recent immigrant or allophone) is someone over whom we have all the power, they end up framed as nothing less than a colonizer in the making.
The parochialism of the CAQ
For some time now, the Coalition Avenir Québec has been setting themes for its fall re-election campaign: tradition, family, religion. All these issues are conveniently lumped under the umbrella of immigration, secularism and “Quebec values.” Legault and his team have calculated advantage lies in conducting the political debate against the backdrop of a culture war, real or imagined.
At a recent press conference, Québec solidaire leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois criticized Legault for not having a grand social project to offer Quebecers. Instead of tackling the worst rise in inflation in recent decades, the premier attacked the 14,000 people arriving in Quebec through the family reunification program because, he claims, they represent an existential threat to the nation.
Legault, a onetime advocate for Quebec independence, is looking less and less like a convert to federalism and more and more like a disappointed sovereigntist who has chosen to be the standard-bearer of some defeated revanchists.
In fact, when he was a Parti Québécois member of the National Assembly, Legault once had a grand vision for an independent Quebec. But, bitter at seeing it fail, he now retreats into Memmi’s values redoubt, as if Quebec of 2022 were Tunisia of 1957. Or Quebec of 1759.
Nothing good comes from bitter politicians. A PQer-turned-federalist like Legault should have the capacity to resolve the impasse that has plagued the PQ for decades: to run a good government within the federal framework, or achieve independence. Instead, he has retreated into a haven of old values.
Taking advantage of a free hand
With a strong majority of seats in the Quebec National Assembly, one might have expected the premier to spend his first term taking advantage of the current constitutional and fiscal context to ensure “the development and prosperity of the Quebec nation within Canada,” as promised in the first article of the CAQ’s party constitution.
Legault has a free hand to govern. He could embark on projects to benefit citizens, to solve intergenerational problems, to tackle the shortcomings of our public services, to confront the major issues of our time. (Having said that, steps he has taken to improve transparency in the health system are to be applauded.)
With the pragmatic eye of his accountant’s training, Legault could look at the needs of Quebecers, in schools, at the supermarket checkout, in urban heat islands, in traffic jams, in bulldozed wetlands, at the bottom of an abandoned mine shaft, at the open house filled with overbidders, or on Kijiji where renters are trying to find an apartment after a renoviction.
Coming from a former businessman whom the pandemic has accustomed to governing by decree, a politician who likes to think of himself as the man in charge, one would expect something concrete. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Tradition, family, religion
Legault does not seem convinced he has the tools to act. Is it because of his now-supressed belief Quebec can only flourish with independence? How else to explain his obsession with enemies from within? One can only conclude he sees himself as the leader of a colonized people. It is therefore not surprising to see him retreat to old values.
Former Parti Québécois minister Bernard Drainville, who served under Pauline Marois, sees this well. With his recently announced conversion to the CAQ, he will certainly have a copy of his Charter of Values (the failed PQ secularism law from a decade ago) in his briefcase on his first day of caucus after he is likely elected in October.
Perhaps it is wrong to claim that Legault does not have a grand social project to present to Quebecers today. His project is all about the traditions, family and religion, the preserve Memmi described of a colonized elite.
Preserving, for example, the Quebec tradition of letting heritage buildings take on water so thoroughly (whether it’s a 300-year-old seigneurial manor or a constellation of community health centres) no one could be blamed for sending in a wrecking ball. Or for letting the childhood home of one of the premier’s illustrious predecessors become a dump.
Allowing families to avoid the “fad” of densification and to count instead on more urban sprawl and redundant tunnels leading to it, much to the delight of the speculators and property developers for whom housing is merely a business opportunity.
Putting religious minorities in their place by establishing secularism in an already secular state, lest the great black cassock of theocracy return to veil Quebec, even if this threat is more imaginary than real.
One could go on. The list is as long as it is distressing.
If the premier believes it is impossible to act decisively within the Canadian federal framework, outside areas that should remain private like tradition, family and religion, and without inconveniencing our most vulnerable people, let him say so. Sovereignty is a political idea like any other. Reasonable arguments can be made to attack it or defend it.
If he believes, as he has said, that Quebec can flourish within Canada, let him behave like a true head of state and tackle problems with impending, incalculable consequences: climate change, the rising cost of living, unaffordable housing, the impasse of having a car-centric transport system in an era of decarbonization, the collapse of the health system under the weight of past cuts and an aging population, tax evasion, a dysfunctional voting system and crumbling infrastructure.
Former PQ premier Lucien Bouchard claimed to be a clear-eyed “lucid.” In view of the looming catastrophe that will be a large part of the legacy of Bouchard and Legault’s generations, we can at least console ourselves in thinking of the number of “lucid” people the future will surely produce.
Future generations will surely find leaders who see themselves as more than the elite of a people now deemed colonized. A generation who will lead an ecological transition and major reinvestments in the social safety net and democratic health.
But all indications are that the next four years will be marked by a somnambulism centred on tradition, family and religion, safe havens for generations that have twice seen their independence dream fail.