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National Opinion Centre

Why have the politics of race and religion erupted yet again in Quebec? Why is Premier Marois’ Parti Québécois determined to legislate a Charter of Québécois Values, defined as the formal separation of Church and State, gender equality, and the French language?

Over the past three decades, French-speaking visible minorities – mainly Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist – residing mostly in their quasi-segregated ethno-cultural communities on Montreal Island, have repeatedly requested that Quebec’s public and para-public institutions respect and recognize their respective cultural and religious symbols, norms and practices.  Many and varied reasonable and some not-so-reasonable accommodations have been arrived at via an informal process by the municipal and provincial governments and agencies as well as by para-public institutions such as hospitals and school boards. However, many of these accommodations were and are perceived by the majority of Catholic Francophones, living largely in rural and suburban communities, as unreasonable and unnecessary. Why?

During the Quiet Revolution, 1960-2000, an elite of urban, middle-class Francophone Québécois constructed a dynamic nationalistic, secular, interventionist, technocratic Quebec state.  Traditional Catholic Francophones reluctantly accepted this remarkable development for neo-nationalist reasons. Most wanted Quebec recognized as a distinct society within Canada and believed that Jean Lesage and Robert Bourassa Liberal governments would achieve this goal. This did not happen.

After 1994, economically hard-pressed and increasingly conservative Catholic Francophones became very angry that the state and its para-public institutions were facilitating what they claimed were unreasonable accommodations for non-Christian religions. They contended that all such accommodations were/are preventing the integration and eventual assimilation of Quebec’s religious visible minority communities into the Québécois majority Christian society. In January 2007, the ‘Herouxville Affair’ gained national and international notoriety when Herouxville’s village council issued a resolution warning of the imminent dangers of making unnecessary and unreasonable accommodations for Quebec’s religious visible minorities. Council members called upon the Quebec state to legislate restrictions on unreasonable accommodation policies and practices.

The rural/suburban backlash against the non-Christian religious visible minorities found a political voice in Mario Dumont’s Action démocratique du Québec Party.  The ADQ was created in 1994 in the aftermath of the defeat of the Meech and Charlottetown Accords and in the lead up to the 2nd Quebec referendum on secession in the fall of 1995.  The party was very critical of the high number (45,000) of immigrants who settled in Quebec every year. A fiscal and social conservative, Dumont called upon all Québécois to affirm their identity and values vis-à-vis the cultural communities. He proposed a Quebec Constitution that would encompass “reasonable accommodations” granted to the ethnic and religious minority communities. Dumont’s fiscal and social conservative platform proved to be quite popular among hard pressed Catholic Francophones in rural/suburban Quebec. Dumont’s ADQ gained considerable momentum in the polls as the province moved toward the election set for 26 March 2007.

In February 2007, the beleaguered but wily Liberal Premier Jean Charest, desperate to undercut the rising popularity of Dumont’s ADQ and to cash in on the moribund Parti Québécois led by neophyte André Boisclair, decided to tackle head on the controversial issue of unreasonable accommodations.  Making a nationalist appeal to the hearts and mind of all Québécois Charest declared:

“The Quebec nation has values, solid values, including the equality of women and men; the primacy of French; the separation between the state and religion. …These values are fundamental. They cannot be the object of any accommodation. They cannot be subordinated to any other principle.”

Hoping to buy time and cool the raging debate over the place and role of ethnic and religious minority communities in Quebec, Charest appointed a federalist political philosopher, Charles Taylor, and a secessionist historian/sociologist Gérard Bouchard as Co-commissioners of the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences. To the dismay of Premier Charest and the commissioners, the province-wide hearings covered by all the media provided a ready made platform for emotional outbursts from both the advocates and the critics of state legislated and regulated “reasonable accommodations”.

The Commission’s controversial Report, released in 2008, and massive tax cuts amounting to nearly $1 Billion dollars came too late to rescue the floundering Charest government in the March 2007 election. The Quebec Liberal Party was reduced to a fragile minority government with 48 seats (76 in 2003) with 33% of the popular vote (down from 46% in 2003). Dumont’s ADQ, with the support of the Harper Conservatives in Ottawa and disenchanted rural/suburban Francophone voters, formed the Official Opposition by winning 41 seats (4 in 2003) with 31% (18% in 2003). The PQ was in third place with 36 seats and 28% of the vote.

However, the ADQ failed miserably to capitalize on its role of Official Opposition. Mario Dumont, to the shock of his caucus and constituents, was enticed into supporting two Liberal budgets and much of the government’s legislative agenda. In just over 18 months, an astute Premier Charest called a snap election for 8 December 2008.  The QLP won a razor thin majority with 66 seats and 42% of the vote. The PQ, under Pauline Marois, returned to its role of Official Opposition with 51 seats and 35% of the vote. The ADQ, without a clear platform and financial assistance from Prime Minister Harper – the beleaguered Conservative government was facing a major economic recession and defeat in the House of Commons — was reduced to a mere 7 seats with 16.4% of the vote. Dumont retired from politics in March 2009 and his ADQ soon disappeared from Quebec’s political landscape.

Pauline Marois, an original PQ hard-liner from the party’s founding days under the leadership of René Lévesque, set out to rebuild party unity in the face of rebellious factions on the far left and the far right of the Parti Québécois. For Premier Marois’ increasingly troubled PQ party this task became a huge challenge given the serious and ongoing socio-economic problems, which were compounded by the 2007 Great Recession, that have confronted the Quebec society for some time. These problems fuelled the growing disunity within the PQ party and accelerated the steady decline of support for the secession movement outside the PQ. Given these circumstances, in the lead up to an early election in the hopes of gaining a majority government, it is not overly surprising that Pauline Marois, once she became premier, would opt to resort to the politics of race and religion to re-energize the Parti Québécois.


This is the second of a three part series by Michael Behiels.  In part 3, which will be published in the coming days, Behiels explores the question of whether the PQ’s Charter of Québécois Values be a springboard to a majority government.  Click here to read part 1 of this series: “Understanding the origins of Quebec’s policy of coercive conformity”

Michael Behiels, Emeritus Professor, University of Ottawa. He has written and lectured extensively on Canadian political affairs, with a particular focus on political, ideological and constitutional development pertaining to the Canadian federal system and Quebec’s role within the federation. His latest co-edited book is The State in Transition: Challenges for Canadian Federalism (Invenire Books, 2011).


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