First Québec Debate: A stark choice being offered on, of all things, policy

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This election in Québec is anything but usual, and the leaders’ debate Thursday night made that clear.

For the first time in a long time, the heads of the major provincial parties talked about everything but sovereignty.  The idea of a separate Québec, that has hung so heavy over previous elections hasn’t made much of an appearance this time around.

Instead the leaders have found themselves arguing over, if you’d believe it, policy.

It’s a much appreciated change from the usual fare.  Well, to a point.

Thursday night’s debate on Radio-Canada — which is to say, the CBC en français — was a combative affair that occasionally crossed the line into outright vulgar.

If shouting is your thing, this was the sort of spectacle for you.  But despite the shambles of the discourse, there were arguments over where to actually take the province.

Health care was a central feature of the election so far.  It’s such a hot-button topic that early in the campaign Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said the man who has held the position of health minister, Gaétan Barrette, will be shuffled into the finance minister position if the Liberals re-form government.  It’s hard to imagine another election where a minister was so unpopular in their portfolio that announcing they will not be put back is probably the best way to go.

So, things were prepped Thursday to have health care the primary ground of disagreement for the leaders.

Couillard was attacked for an agreement the province recently signed with medical specialists in the province that significantly bumped their pay.

CAQ Leader François Legault was incredulous that the deal made any sense.

“Doctors in Quebec were paid about 40 per cent less than in Ontario,” Legault said, according to a Canadian Press translation.  “Then you gave them a 60 per cent raise.”

Both Legault and PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée have promised to cancel the nearly $1-billion deal if they form government.  But not only do they disagree with the Liberal’s policy, but they disagree with each other.

Even here, Ontario Premier Doug Ford made a splash.  Lisée took on Legault for his decision to sign a letter 16 years ago promising to set doctors’ pay along the lines of the other provinces.

“It’s not Doug Ford who sets the salaries of Quebec doctors,” Lisée said.

Also at issue were things like senior care and wait times.

But it was at the very end when one of the starkest divisions came about, this time over immigration.  Legault went on the offensive against Couillard, demanding he drop one of the Liberal’s candidates for, he said, smearing the CAQ by saying their policies were akin to “immigrant cleaning.”

Legault has promised to reduce immigration by 20 per cent, to about 40,000 immigrants per year.  He also wants to subject newcomers to tests on the French-language and cultural issues.

At the debate, Couillard stood his ground, accusing Legault of sowing fear.

It’s part of a long-running debate in Québec, where the province’s minority-language status compared to the rest of Canada has made cultural protection a theme of elections here.  Last election, the PQ had promised to introduce a “charter of Québec values” that would limit public servants from wearing religious symbols, like hijabs and too-large crucifixes.

This was a policy so unpopular, the winning Liberal government introduced a similar, if perhaps softer, bit of legislation on similar lines.

But, Legault’s promises go significantly further than any of the other leaders were willing to go.  He’s said that the province would remove those that couldn’t pass his government’s tests.

So, when Legault started pushing him, Couillard pushed back.

“You know why people react like this,” Couillard said, according to the Montreal Gazette.  “You scare them.  Don’t open the door to expulsions.”

“When you say expulsion, we’re not talking about expelling citizens.  We’re talking about expelling people who are not yet citizens,” Legault said.

It’s here where Québecers have a real, stark choice to make Oct. 1 when they head to the ballot box.  The CAQ have said their policy is based on protecting the French language and culture.  But there’s little evidence migrants coming to the province are not learning the language, more than 80 per cent of them do.  Nor are they coming in the sorts of numbers that Legault makes it seem they are, as though it was some sort of take over of the province.  (Interestingly, it seems as though inter-provincial migrants, say an anglophone Ontarian like myself, are far less likely to learn the language than migrants from other countries.)

So it’s here that, in some ways, the idea of Canada as a welcoming country could be most under threat.  Québec could be the first place where a serious push against immigration becomes a winning election strategy.  The CAQ have capitalized on the province’s weariness of the Liberal party, and this is a wedge Legault has shown willing to drive in early, as a way of shoring up his populist bona fides.

It’s an important choice facing the people of Québec.  We’re not often given the chance to vote on an issue that isn’t strictly about federalism.  In some ways it’s heartening, but the direction it’s taken has shown some of the downsides of a real election.  As we’ve just seen in Ontario, elections can have serious consequences, very quickly.

The leaders meet again Monday, for an English-language debate, and once more Thursday in French.

Now that summer holidays are over, people have started to tune in.  It’s a good thing, because now there’s something worth paying attention to.

Photo Credit: National Observer

More from Robert Hiltz     @robert_hiltz

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