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Quebec Liberals and the Quebec identity

An insider’s reflections

by John Parisella 

Interest outside Quebec in “what Quebec wants” ebbs and flows with the tides of passion about the “national question.” Since the beginning of the decade, as nationalist fervour seemed to die down, there has been a corresponding tendency to ignore the forces at work in Quebec politics. This is a dangerous tendency, for it risks plunging Canada into a crisis – not dissimilar to the buildup to the 1995 sovereignty referendum. As someone with long experience of Quebec politics and the Quebec Liberal Party in particular, I suggest that, short of reading a series of books,1 we can gain a useful understanding of the deeper forces at work in Quebec politics by looking at the evolution of the role of the Liberal Party up to its current status as the first minority government since 1878. I begin with a historical overview of the Liberal Party and then look at the current situation.

The Liberal Party of Quebec – a driving force

It is in the “Rouge” tradition that we find the roots of the Liberal Party of Quebec. The origins of the Rouge tradition can be traced to the emergence of legislative politics in the 1790s; it worked its way through Louis-Joseph Papineau’s Patriote Party in the 1830s to Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine’s Reformers in the 1840s to Antoine-Aimé Dorion’s Rouge Party in the 1860s. The ideological core of this tradition was the quest for greater democracy, the promotion of secular values and the affirmation of Quebec’s political role within a larger political community.

Adopting those core values, the Liberal Party of Quebec, which has been in power more often than not since that time, has defined much of what makes Quebec so distinct. It has defended provincial autonomy, fostered industrialization and economic development, promoted the French language, implemented democratic reforms, modernized the institutions associated with health, education and culture and, finally, pushed for constitutional change within the Canadian federation. Quebec Liberals led the No forces during the referendum campaigns over sovereignty (1980, 1995), and the Yes forces supporting the constitutional reform package in 1992.

What has made the Liberal Party of Quebec so central to Quebec experience? The answer lies in its worldview, its adaptability, its commitment to federalism, its party structure and its francophone identity. First, it has embodied the secular, liberal worldview from the time it first emerged in the late 18th century. These values emphasize the importance of the individual, the reliance on market forces to create wealth and the redistribution of wealth to those in need. They combine an emphasis on broadening political rights with an active and positive role for government.

Second, part of the Liberals’ strength has been their ability to adjust and adapt to new realities in promoting political reform and social change. In opposition to Maurice Duplessis in the 1950s and then in power under Jean Lesage in the 1960s, Quebec Liberals set in motion the Quiet Revolution, which transformed a community with a strong rural tradition under the sway of the Roman Catholic Church into a modern urban society largely influenced by secular values with an important interventionist role for the state. In the 1970s, it was the Liberals who harnessed Quebec’s hydroelectric power with the James Bay project, brought in the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms and instituted medicare.

Third, the Liberal Party has remained resolutely federalist: it defended the federalist option in all three referendums between 1980 to 1995, while promoting constitutional initiatives to enhance Quebec’s autonomy and influence within the Canadian federation. Even though the Victoria Charter, the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord ultimately failed to be implemented, they constituted major initiatives for meeting Quebec aspirations within a reformed Canadian constitution.

Fourth, in its party structure, the Liberal Party of Quebec has shown a great capacity for change and renewal. In the mid-sixties, it broke ranks with the federal Liberal Party and became a totally autonomous entity (and thus, as a party, takes no sides in federal elections). In the 1970s, to rival the Parti Québécois, it became a mass membership party, with an active youth wing and regular party gatherings to encourage grassroots militancy. In addition, under Claude Ryan, the Liberal Party developed a grassroots-based system of fundraising much along the lines developed by the PQ – and with greater success.

Finally, the Liberal Party has played a determining role in Quebec’s assuming a clear francophone identity and expressing that identity beyond its borders. For example, it recognized French as the official language of Quebec. Between 1970 and 1995 the language and constitutional debates defined what Quebec is today. And the Liberal Party played the key role in both areas, for better or for worse.

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About the Author

John Parisella
John Parisella was director general of the Quebec Liberal Party from 1986 to 1988, and was chief of staff to premiers Robert Bourassa and Daniel Johnson from 1989 to 1994. A frequent commentator on Quebec and Canadian political issues, he is president of BCP Communications and special communications adviser to the president of Concordia University in Montreal.


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