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Impolite topics, unpredictable critics

In Quebec’s distinct political culture, debate transcends the usual categories

Joseph Facal, Quelque chose comme un grand peuple. Montreal: Boréal, 2010. 320 pages.

Pierre Joncas, Les accommodements raisonnables: Entre Hérouxville et Outremont. Quebec City: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2009. 140 pages.

Reviewed by Henry Milner

These two books – and their authors – underscore two related characteristics that make Quebec distinct. The first is that Quebecers seem better able than Canadians elsewhere to discuss “politically incorrect” subjects – and yet do so in a generally respectful manner. Pierre Joncas’s Les accommodements raisonnables is especially illustrative of this, concretely addressing the question of the degree to which the majority should accommodate groups that settle in urban areas and turn their backs on their neighbours. Joseph Facal’s Quelque chose comme un grand peuple – the title is drawn from an expression used by René Lévesque – even more explicitly, if less concretely, takes on the issue of reasonable accommodation.

Facal illustrates the second of Quebec’s distinct characteristics, namely the existence of political space that transcends the usual partisan divide. While Joncas is a retired federal civil servant who has a reputation for fair-mindedness but has generally avoided the limelight, Facal is a prominent opinion leader and a frequent columnist in Le Journal de Montreal and panelist on Radio-Canada. But the opinions of neither fit neatly into the usual categories. Facal is an important figure in what might be termed Quebec’s third force, a voice that cannot be captured or easily dismissed by one side or the other of the partisan divide.

Like the United States, if not as intensely, Quebec has fairly clear political fault lines. (In Canadian federal politics, the traditional role of the usually powerful Liberal Party was to blur these fault lines. With the Liberal Party floundering, the lines seem to be emerging – except that no one quite knows where they lie). While American politics is polarized between an ideological religious right and a (vaguely) secular moderate left, Quebec, less deeply, has been polarized between a sovereigntist centre-left and a federalist centre-right. But this is a fault line that is transcended regularly and publicly by this third force, an informal group of prominent intellectuals and former politicians and mandarins.

The most visible public face of the third force is former Parti Québécois Premier Lucien Bouchard, who has staked out this territory in recent years. In 2006, in Inroads 18 and 19, we summarized the content of, and published reactions to, the manifesto entitled Pour un Québec lucide (For a Clear-Eyed Vision of Quebec), which gave the group a name that has stuck: the Lucides. The Lucides argued that Quebec’s development is blocked by the groups which have benefited from the policies of the “Quebec model” but are not paying their fair share in the form of efficiency-enhancing changes to public policy, such as shifting taxation from income to consumption and an end to cheap electricity.

Early this year Lucien Bouchard made public a plan for implementing a key proposal in the Lucides’ manifesto: raising Quebec’s low university tuition. Among those joining him in signing the “tuition pact” were former Liberal finance ministers Michel Audet and Monique Jérôme-Forget, economist Pierre Fortin1 and Facal, who had earlier been a cabinet minister under both Bouchard and his successor, Bernard Landry, and is now a policy adviser to current PQ leader Pauline Marois. Facal was also a member of the 2008 government task force on user fees headed by economist Claude Montmarquette, which went even further than the Lucide manifesto, calling for higher fees on daycare, driver’s licences and car registrations as well as tolls for some roads and mandatory water meters in homes and businesses. Though it did call for “measures to protect the least privileged members of society,” the report, which the Charest government immediately placed on the far back burner, portrayed the user-pay concept as the only way to influence users’ behaviour so as to reduce the waste of resources and find funding for quality services.

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About the Author

Henry Milner
Henry Milner is co-publisher of Inroads and a political scientist at the Université de Montréal.


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