Election night in Quebec was a long night for the Quebec Liberal Party and its candidates. The party lost a third of its seats in the National Assembly, and its share of the popular vote fell from 46 to 33 per cent. Gains made in the 2003 election in Quebec City and the regions were wiped out, leaving a caucus formed primarily of MNAs from Montreal, the Outaouais and the Eastern Townships.

The good news, if there was any, centred on the plight of the Liberals’ longtime adversary, the Parti Québécois, which also had a long night on March 26. Its popular support fell to 28 per cent, the lowest since the 1973 election. More significantly, the PQ was reduced to third-place status in the legislature, holding 36 seats.

The big winner was the upstart Action Démocratique du Québec, which made big gains in the Quebec heartland. It swept the Chaudières-Appalaches and Beauce regions southeast of Quebec City, won seven of eleven seats in Quebec City itself and made significant gains in the Mauricie, Lanaudière, Laurentian and Montérégie regions surrounding Montreal. These victories catapulted ADQ leader Mario Dumont into the role of Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, and represented a startling rise from four seats in 2003 to 41 in 2007. The result was the first minority government in Quebec since 1878, with a battered Quebec Liberal Party holding on to power.

What does this mean for the parties? For the PQ, the answer came quickly. On the eve of the first sitting of the new Assembly, leader André Boisclair resigned. He was replaced by Pauline Marois, who has signalled her intention to rethink the PQ’s strategy on holding another referendum and to revamp its program. Clearly, the new leader has work to do in the next few months to reposition her party.

For the ADQ, the challenge is to consolidate the gains made, develop more comprehensive policies on key issues and learn the ropes as new members of the legislature. The party’s decision not to participate in finding a solution to the impasse over the spring budget drew some criticism from the media, which felt that the ADQ had a duty to try to make the minority parliament work.

The challenges for the Liberals are complex. First, they must find a way to reinvent themselves while governing at the same time. This is never an easy task. With key ministers caught up in the day-to-day grind of managing the province’s business, they have less time for policy matters. In addition, with a smaller caucus, Premier Jean Charest was forced to reduce his cabinet to 18 members, the smallest cabinet in recent memory. Several ministers are called on to take on two or even three cabinet responsibilities.

A key event for the Quebec Liberal Party and its renewal is a members’ convention scheduled for March 7–9, 2008, in Quebec City. Over the next few months, working groups will be set up to prepare policy proposals for this event. Three groups have already been formed to this end: one group is examining the question of economic and regional development; a second is looking at issues related to sustainable development; and a third is tackling the question of Quebec’s identity and its relations with Canada. In launching these groups, the Premier indicated that these themes were chosen to “clearly distinguish ourselves from our adversaries.” He appealed to Quebecers who “want a society that is more prosperous, greener and that grows within Canada.”1

The reflection within the party on its future direction must also take into account the traditional values that it has always defended. These were most clearly enumerated by its former leader, Claude Ryan, in 2002 in a document prepared for the party. Liberal Values in Contemporary Quebec lists seven values that have always guided the party:

1. the primacy of individual freedoms;

2. identification with Quebec;

3. emphasis on economic development;

4. commitment to social justice;

5. respect for civil society;

6. attachment to democracy;

7. the sense of belonging to the Canadian federation.2

How will these values be reflected in the renewal process announced by the party? How can they be used to differentiate the Quebec Liberal Party from its two main rivals? Five questions spring to mind that arise from the election results. How the party answers them will go a long way toward shaping its next platform.

Immigration and the Quebec identity

The first question focuses on the Quebec identity. Much ink has been spilled on the debate over “accommodements raisonnables,” the issue that proved to be the surprise element of the 2007 election campaign. In making comments about how far “we” were willing to go to accommodate “them,” Mario Dumont tapped into a broad current of insecurity over the future of Quebec’s culture and identity. The media quickly joined the debate, giving significant coverage to a wide range of issues, ranging from whether a fitness class window should be frosted to respect the modesty requirements of a minority community to whether it is appropriate to remove ham from the traditional pea soup at a springtime cabane à sucre. More recently, a huge furor has been created over the identification of voters wearing a burka, even though no one has attempted to vote wearing this garment. Talk about making mountains out of molehills!

This is not to say that the question of intercultural relations is not important. The arrival of newcomers in our midst poses certain problems and requires a constant dialogue between members of the host society and the new communities. However, when compared to other large cities, such as Paris, which must deal with its colonial legacy in northern Africa that has been imported into its suburbs, or Toronto, where relations between the police and the black community are often strained, or western Canadian cities coping with an Aboriginal urban underclass, the problems raised in the Quebec reasonable accommodation debate do not loom as large.

To regain control of the situation, the government appointed two respected university professors, Charles Taylor and Gérard Bouchard, to chair a commission of inquiry, conduct public hearings and make recommendations to the Premier by March 31, 2008.

Two considerations must guide the party in this area. The Quebec Liberal Party has traditionally been the only political party at the provincial level to make room for Quebecers of all origins. In terms of its membership, candidates and elected representatives, the Liberal Party has worked as a coalition, reflecting the diversity of the Quebec population. As a general rule, it has been the party of choice for nonfrancophone voters in Quebec.

Another consideration is the demographic challenge facing Quebec. Despite a slight rise in the number of births in the last two years, Quebec’s birth rate remains low. With many baby boomers set to retire in the next few years, shortages of skilled individuals are forecast in the workforce. Immigration is therefore a key component of Quebec’s economic future. It will have to accept more immigrants in the future, not fewer, and add to the diversity of its population, especially in the Montreal region, where 88 per cent of all immigrants to Quebec settle.

The Liberal Party must therefore develop policies that help welcome newcomers to Quebec while reassuring the host society, especially outside Montreal, that the Quebec identity is not threatened by these changes. The Bouchard-Taylor Commission is spending September, October and November crisscrossing the province, listening to citizens’ concerns and, it is hoped, demystifying some of the issues surrounding pluralism. However, it remains to be seen whether the commission will face the same challenges as the Stasi Commission in France in 2003, which was established to examine the question of “the application of the principle of laicité in the Republic” following controversy over the wearing of headscarves in French public schools. As the public hearings were conducted, the commission was under increasing pressure to “do something.” This is often a poor climate in which to draft public policy. The commission responded by proposing a law regulating the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols at school. This was done despite the warning of then–Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy, who opposed the law, and urged “a France that gave women the right to vote only in 1945 to show some humility when preaching gender equality to Muslims. He attacked those who, decades after France encouraged the massive migration of Muslim workers to its shores, would even pose the question of whether Islam is compatible with the Republic.”3 At the end of the day, the commission raised more problems that it solved, and relations remain uneasy in La République.

The Liberal Party must mount a vigorous defence of the need for immigration, the need to be a welcoming society and the need to strengthen services, particularly French language training, for new arrivals. It must also work on the recognition of foreign diplomas and work experience to help professionals who are attempting to offer their skills for the benefit of Quebecers. Quebec quickly embraced the free trade agreements in the 1980s and 1990s, and the increased mobility of individuals is a direct result. To be coherent with previous decisions our society has made, we must vigorously build “une société d’accueil.”

Montreal and the regions

The second question facing the party is addressing the uneasy relationship between Montreal and the regions. Once again, this question poses a unique challenge for the Quebec Liberal Party. Its adversaries have tended to write off the ridings located in the 514 area code on Montreal Island, with the exception of the few PQ strongholds in the eastern part of the island. The Liberal Party must again do a delicate balancing act between its traditional base in the Montreal area (29 of its current 48 seats are in Montreal and neighbouring Laval) and the regions. Obviously, the debate over reasonable accommodation is part of this balancing act. However, it also extends to economic development, investment in infrastructure and the governance of the Montreal region.

It has often been stated that “Montreal is the motor of the Quebec economy” (some think it should become the motto of the city!). Montreal politicians often claim that their city is taken for granted in Quebec City, in part because of its loyalty to one political party. The city faces huge challenges today – crumbling infrastructure, inadequate transportation (especially public transit), universities calling out for new funding and a tax base that is being eroded as people continue to flee to off-island suburbs. Given the size of the projects, any announcement made to improve conditions in Montreal is greeted with resentment outside Montreal. For example, the decision to build the long-delayed teaching hospitals, with a public investment of roughly $2 billion, has been openly criticized as too generous to Montreal. However, if Montreal wants to continue to attract cutting-edge medical researchers and build on its reputation as a “ville de savoir,” these investments are necessary.

The Liberals must also address the economic development concerns of the regions, which over the years have fought to obtain some revenue from the exploitation of natural resources and to diversify their economy to be less dependent on a single industry. Given the current difficulties facing the forest industry – including overharvesting, the collapse of the American housing market and the expensive Canadian dollar – this question has taken on new urgency. Investment in transportation and communication infrastructure (new highways and broadband Internet access, for example) and decentralization of the decision-making process are required to strengthen regional economies. However, there is only so much money in the pot, and the competing demands of the metropolis and the regions cannot all be met.

Social programs and wealth creation

This leads us to the third question: how will Quebec create the wealth necessary to support its public policy lifestyle? Over the years, Quebec has earned a good reputation for public policy innovation. A highly subsidized daycare program, a low-tuition policy for university students, an ambitious new parental leave program and an extensive public prescription drug plan are among the social programs offered to Quebec residents – but these programs all have a price tag attached to them.

The popular $7-a-day daycare program, for example, costs $1.6 billion per year, and even though 200,000 spaces are now available, many parents still have their name on waiting lists to enrol their child. Quebec’s public health insurance agency, the Régie de l’Assurance Maladie du Québec, struggles each year to limit the premiums charged to members of the prescription drug insurance plan. Despite its efforts, the costs have risen from $175 in 1998, the year the plan came into effect, to $557 this year. The 13-year tuition freeze, which was lifted this September, has created a funding squeeze for Quebec’s universities, which have fallen well behind the per capita funding received by other Canadian universities.

Part of the answer to this dilemma is to create more wealth, and therefore more revenue for the government. The energy sector has great potential, moving toward (in particular) more hydroelectric development and the use of wind power. However, the Liberal Party will have to make a strong case for further development, as many new projects have run into stiff opposition from environmentalists and other interest groups. For example, concern over “visual pollution” has led several regions to prohibit the construction of windmills in their area. New dam projects are hotly contested by groups and individuals who argue that Quebec’s goal should be limited to energy self-sufficiency. In their view, the lucrative export market for electricity should not be developed further. These arguments must be overcome in public opinion if Quebec is going to find ways to fund its ambitious social programs.

The role of government

The fourth question facing the Liberals is how to rebalance roles and responsibilities between government on the one hand and individuals and the private sector on the other. The public policy activism that was spawned during the Quiet Revolution and thereafter reinforced the role of government in Quebec in both social and economic domains. In health care, regional development, labour relations and many other sectors, government was a more active player than in most North American jurisdictions. More recently, the modèle québécois has been critically examined, especially by a blue-ribbon panel chaired by former premier Lucien Bouchard. The so-called Lucides called for a review of Quebec’s economic model to ensure that Quebec remains competitive in the global economy.

The ADQ has staked out a position that emphasizes less government interference and a much greater role for the private sector, potentially in health care. The PQ remains determined to defend a strong interventionist role for the state. The challenge for the Liberals will be to find and defend the middle ground between these positions. It is true that government cannot do everything, but it must provide leadership and appeal to the individual’s sense of responsibility. In many areas, from environmental protection to the promotion of physical well-being to school success, government must put in place policies and incentives to change people’s habits and promote best practices. However, these efforts will have a limited impact if citizens do not buy into the new program.

Similarly, the role of the private sector in providing public services must be examined. In the Charest government’s first term, much debate occurred over the place for public-private partnerships (PPPs) in providing government services. To date, the debate has provided lots of talk, but little action. The Liberal Party will have to pressure the government to get these projects up and running, whether in the transportation, cultural or health care field, to demonstrate the advantages afforded by the PPP model.

The government has also asked a former minister of health from the early days of the Bourassa era, Claude Castonguay, to examine the role of the private sector in health serivces. The Liberal Party will have to react to the recommendations made, and explain how any increased role for the private sector would help overcome the personnel shortages now being experienced. Will more doctors, technicians and nurses working in private practice alleviate or accentuate the human resources problems faced by the public health care system?

Quebec in Canada

The final question facing the Quebec Liberal Party is the external reflection on Quebec’s place in the Canadian federation. Traditionally, provincial political parties have invested their energies in preparing lists of demands to be made on the federal government. From fiscal imbalance to controlling the federal spending power, the Liberal Party has defended Quebec’s interests by forcefully demanding its due in Ottawa.

The arrival of the ADQ and its ambiguous autonomiste policy stance vis-à-vis federalism complicates the situation for the Liberals. To distinguish themselves from the ADQ, they will have to demonstrate and explain the tangible benefits of their brand of federalism to Quebec voters. The establishment of the Council of the Federation, a new deal on health and negotiation of the parental leave program are all examples of how the Charest government’s approach was effective in its first term in office. The Liberals will have to build on these successes while discrediting the ambivalent ADQ position and the some-day-but-not-today referendum position of the renewed PQ.

This is an ambitious list of issues to be addressed. Time is a huge factor, because a minority government cannot control its destiny. However, for the Liberal Party to be prepared to do battle in the next election, it must pursue its reflection on Quebec’s identity, the role of Montreal and the regions, the creation of the wealth needed to support our social programs, the role of government and the individual, and the constant question of Quebec’s place in Canada. To distinguish themselves from their rivals, and to continue to play a fundamental role in Quebec politics, the Liberals must apply the key values identified by Claude Ryan to tomorrow’s challenges.

Working for the consummate public servant

In 1990, I went to work for Claude Ryan, then Quebec’s Minister of Education. Following a cabinet shuffle in October 1990, Mr. Ryan was named Minister of Municipal Affairs, Minister of Public Security and Minister responsible for the application of the Charter of the French Language. I served as a political staffer to Mr. Ryan until 1994.

Working for Claude Ryan was one of the greatest privileges I have known. He was the consummate public servant, and taught all of us who worked with him the importance of public life. The first lesson we learned was the need to work hard. Claude Ryan had an amazing capacity to read everything that came his way, from government papers to academic studies to the daily newspapers he devoured. He also remembered what he had read, and would often question a staff member or a civil servant on a point he found in a footnote at the end of a document. So it was imperative to read all relevant documents before making a presentation to the minister.

The second lesson was the importance of curiosity. Despite his long and varied career in public life in Quebec, Claude Ryan always wanted to know how things worked and how things were organized. From providing safe drinking water in Quebec municipalities to the policing of Native communities to the challenges of delivering affordable housing, there was no topic that failed to capture Mr. Ryan’s interest. After leaving the education portfolio, a job that he adored, Claude Ryan threw himself into the at times arcane world of municipal affairs with great enthusiasm and curiosity. We all learned from his approach.

Finally, Claude Ryan encouraged a healthy exchange of ideas before he made a decision. This practice ran counter to the public perception of Claude Ryan as a somewhat authoritarian figure. Nothing could be further from the truth, in the period leading up to a final decision. We were even encouraged to think up arguments to oppose the minister’s thinking. However, once a decision was made, we were all expected to defend it vigorously. No one was more energetic in this regard than the minister himself.

In short, the years spent working for Claude Ryan provided many memorable moments. It was an honour to work for such an interesting and engaged public servant, and such an outstanding individual.


1 Quebec Liberal Party website, press release, “Jean Charest launches three working groups for the Quebec Liberal Party,” July 4, 2007.

2 Claude Ryan, Liberal Values in Contemporary Quebec (revised edition, 2004), p. 22.

3 John R. Bowen, Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 119.