SAINT-SAUVEUR, QUEBEC —
During the last provincial election campaign, Francois Legault was fond of repeating that Quebec would take in fewer immigrants but take better care of them. It was dog-whistle politics, aimed at his base.
His immigration minister, Simon Jolin-Barrette, was more transparent. Shortly after the election, he proclaimed that he would throw thousands of valid immigration applications into the garbage.
What was supposed to be an easy populist ploy has recently turned against Legault as employers in all regions of Quebec complain bitterly about a labour shortage that is crippling many businesses, just as the economy ramps back up.
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There’s no small irony in this turn of events as Legault was the separatists’ economic darling when he entered elected politics. He had made real money cashing in his chips at AirTransat and abandoning his business partners there. To the Parti Québécois, he was that rarest of birds, someone who came from the business world and who proclaimed to be the most ardent separatist of them all. Quite a combo.
When he also abandoned his separatist fellow-travellers, Legault used some of that business acumen to pull off a reverse takeover of the ailing ADQ, a floundering right-wing Party. Although its founding leader Marion Dumont had been a key player in Quebec politics, it had fallen on hard times since his departure. Legault saw a golden opportunity. He cleverly outmanoeuvred the ADQ’s boss, Gérard Deltell (today, Erin O’Toole’s House Leader) and brought the ADQ into the CAQ. Ten years later, Legault sits atop the polls while his former party, the Parti Québécois, languishes in fourth place with no chance of revival. A political masterstroke by Legault.
Despite the weird sound of its name, “C.A.Q.” stands for: Coalition for the Future of Quebec. It is Legault’s creation and its stated purpose is to strengthen Quebec and, in particular, its economy. That’s the irony. In pandering to the most regressive elements in Quebec society on issues like immigration and minority rights, he’s given Quebec a black eye that can only turn off outside investors.
Legault knows his base which, according to the most recent Léger poll is older, white, francophone men.
The coalition he oversees really knows the secret handshake of the old-guard, more reactionary elements of Quebec society, and he plays to that base constantly. His anti-religious minority law (Bill 21) and his anti-English law (Bill 96) are bookends to his anti-immigration policies.
Bill 21 makes it impossible for a practising Jew who wears a kippah to be hired as a Crown prosecutor. If you’re a young Sikh man in Montreal hoping to become a cop, your only hope is to go into the RCMP. No police force in Quebec is allowed to hire you if you wear a turban. A Muslim woman can’t be hired as a teacher if she wears a head scarf. There is an additional chapter on face coverings that clearly only applies to Muslim women. In addition to its generalized discrimination, the Law is specifically Islamophobic.
This is part of Quebec’s calling card and although several European countries have similar restrictions, no other jurisdiction in North America has such openly discriminatory laws.
Legault has used the so-called “notwithstanding clause” to try to shelter Bill 21 from being struck down by the Courts and he’s spoiling for the main event before the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, in Ottawa , spineless Federal leaders (Trudeau, O’Toole and Singh) have all capitulated. They are all too afraid of Legault to even say that the Federal Government should join the court challenges against Bill 21.
When Legault introduced Bill 96, which purports to unilaterally amend the 1867 Constitution (The B.N.A. Act) to remove entrenched language rights guaranteeing equality of French and English before the courts, all three federal leaders genuflected.
Yet here again, we see the populism and intolerance of Legault working against his stated goal of growing the economy. Bill 96 would also impose huge new burdens on companies used to doing their legal work in English as, of course, the constitution allows. Outrageous powers of search and seizure of computers and the like would be given to language inspectors. What company would want to sign onto that?
You can just imagine the conversations around the boardroom table at a major pharmaceutical company or auto parts manufacturer that may have otherwise been tempted by Quebec’s abundant clean electricity and lower salaries. Tough sell when your company and employees would be subject to restrictions that exist nowhere else on the continent.
Quebec has built up a network of government and trade union investment funds that are able to play a key role in helping the province overcome major economic bumps in the road, like the 2008 recession and the pandemic shutdowns.
Legault hopes to press them into service to get his province to the next level, economically. It won’t be easy. ESG (environment, social and governance issues), are core values for all major companies today. Legault continues to make Quebec an outlier on social issues like respect for minority rights and it’s not only hurting individuals, it’s hurting Quebec’s economic chances, as well.