A Vote Against Xenophobia?
Steve Saideman parses the meaning of the PQ’s defeat in the Quebec election.
Paterson Chair in International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs
I usually write on Canada’s international relations, but as a former resident of Quebec and as a scholar who has written on xenophobia, I have a few thoughts on the outcome of Quebec’s latest election. The first is that xenophobia didn’t work this time. The second is that where we go from here is not so clear. The most certain outcome of PQ’s failed campaign is that Quebecois sovereignty is not dead but in a deeper coma than previously believed.
The take home message by many is that appealing to people’s worst nature, fear of those who are different, did not work during this campaign. The Charter of Values, or the Charter of Xenophobia, was quite popular before the election and was a deliberate effort by the PQ to split the CAQ and to put the Liberals into a difficult position. Pauline Marois called the election precisely because this cynical appeal to fear seemed to be working. Yet her party only got 25 percent of the vote, an awful showing compared to the expectations a month ago and relative to previous outcomes in Quebec’s history. So, it could be viewed that the the election’s results are a condemnation of fear-mongering.
Yet, it is hard to tell if it was really the Charter of Values that doomed the PQ, since there was other elements at play. Indeed, the PQ stepping all over its message marked each week of the thankfully short campaign. Having Quebecor’s Pierre Karl Peladeau join the party seemed like a good idea but turned the focus to referenda and sovereignty. Given that Quebeckers are even more tired of sovereignty politics than the rest of Canada, this was not a good move. Plus his anti-union past did not mesh well with the PQ’s key partner—big unions. Other events, such as the outbreak of concern that McGill students were going to steal the election distracted the media and the politicians from talking about the Charter. So, it might not be so much that the Charter of Values caused people to swing away from the PQ and more that the party failed to focus on fear and xenophobia as its core, ahem, values during the campaign.
So, the election does not really tell us whether xenophobia was condemned. Indeed, the Liberals eventually provided a counter-proposal to the Charter of Values that was fairly Islamo-phobic, so we really do not know where they will go with those “values” now. But we do know one thing: independence is not a priority for Quebecers. While 40 percent of the voters selected the Liberals that had taken the most open and clear stance in favour of Canada and federalism, another 23 percent or so chose the CAQ, a party built on the desire to move past the sovereignty debates. Thus, nearly two-thirds of Quebec voters are opposed to sovereignty. This matches the polls taken before the election far better than the surveys focusing on support for the Charter of Values.
To be clear, support for or against separatism swings depending on events. The PQ bounced back from the 1989 election, for instance. However, the PQ has not gained more than 35 percent of the vote since 1998. The problem for the PQ is that the rest of Canada has learned not to stoke the fire of Quebecois nationalism. Few are interested in re-opening constitutional questions. Indeed, Senate reform is likely to flounder as serious discussions would require revising the constitution.
The separatist movement is not dead, but it is likely to be put aside for the next several years. Given the stronger support in the pre-election polls for the Charter of Values and the pandering to the xenophobes by all three of the major parties over the past year, xenophobia is unfortunately more likely to be a relevant issue in Quebec politics than referenda. In sum, the news from yesterday’s election is largely good, but xenophobia may still be a tactic that parties in Quebec (and elsewhere) may find tempting to deploy.