We would show “a lack of courage and vigour,” Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard said addressing a Parti Québécois (PQ) convention in 1996, if we “pass down our grocery bill to future generations.” The party ignored his warning and seemed to forget it as soon as Bouchard left office. Now, the province faces the rising frustrations of a new generation saddled with paying for the old grocery bill.
Five hundred people will gather this weekend in Quebec City to re-establish “courage and vigour” through a new political movement, Réseau Liberté-Québec (RLQ, Freedom-Quebec Network). If successful, this movement could transform the Canadian federation.
The RLQ represents a reawakening of Bouchard’s common sense in reaction to the failed experiment of deficits and debt, of aimless social and political radicalism, of an overwhelming big government, and of a prevailing absence of personal responsibility.
The RLQ founding adds to the growing evidence that the political currents of Quebec are shifting, and that they have been shifting for some time. The province has a history of big political swings. It used to be the most conservative place in Canada and then within one generation in the 1960s it changed masters, trading church for state dominance.
Quebec’s political map is in flux once again, and another major shift may be in the offing. Mainstream parties have lost significant support. The PQ is not separatist or very socialist anymore, and has failed to reinvent itself. It has tried going further to the left and to the centre. It moved further to the left under André Boisclair. Now, a faction from the right of the party has rejected Boisclair’s centrist successor Pauline Marois, and is looking for a new home.
The ruling Liberals under Jean Charest lack ideas and have been stuck in neutral since coming to power in 2003. They seem to be held together by little more than the seduction of power, and their future is in question. Proving that politics does not tolerate vacuums, three new parties appeared and won seats in the last two decades: the Equality Party, Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ), and Québec Solidaire.
Québec Solidaire and the English-language rights Equality Party are Montreal phenomena and have no appeal outside select city neighbourhoods. But they are expressions of discontent, nonetheless. Equality emerged in 1989 to fight the language laws and quickly disappeared. Québec Solidaire was founded in 2006 by disgruntled PQ sovereigntists and marginal sectors of the left as the party abandoned its socialist and separatist roots. It is heavy on environmentalism, feminism and gay rights, and supports greater welfare services. Québec Solidaire’s expectation that they would be the beneficiaries of an anticipated change was unrealistic. Votes in Quebec aren’t swinging to the Left.
On the right, Mario Dumont’s conservative ADQ became a threat in the 2007 election. It picked up 41 (out of 125) seats and won nearly a third of the popular vote, becoming the province’s official opposition. But Dumont’s inexperience and lack of leadership cost the party significant momentum and support. There remains a significant political vacuum waiting to be filled.
Sensing the currents shifting, Réseau Liberté-Québec aims at bringing together right-minded Quebeckers. Their goal is not to create a new political party insists Éric Duhaime, one of the brains behind the new entity, but to foster a movement that can sustain a party of the right. One must plant before sowing, he says. They plan to feed the province’s appetite for political change with the right stuff.
Like the Prairie Provinces, Quebec has been fertile ground for new political movements, and for new political parties rising relatively rapidly to power. The high number of registrations for the RLQ meeting in Quebec City this weekend shows that the collapse of ADQ support has not caused the disappearance of common sense dissatisfaction with the overwhelming state presence in the province that many expected. Given the rising discontent with the inherited grocery bill of debt, high taxes, corruption, and inefficient government, the looming change might favour a vigorously libertarian, less intrusive government. The movement represents, to date, Quebec’s best hope for a conservative renewal in this generation.
If political frustration finds the right political vehicle in such a homogenous society, it could produce the kind of dramatic change seen in the rapid secularization of the 1960s. “The day that Quebec abandons the welfare state,” Duhaime told me last week, “we’re going to go more free-market than the rest of Canada.”