An insider’s reflections

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.

Language and the constitution – two defining issues

No two issues have generated more passion, polarization and division than language and the constitution. In my work with the party and the premier’s office, I experienced first-hand the impact of language and the constitution on the party. Although the protection of the French character of Quebec and the status of the French language have been strengthened over the years through legislation, changing attitudes and new realities, there will always remain a certain fragility. The Liberal Party has remained a guardian of this identity – no small feat for a party that has a significant anglophone component.

The Liberal Party was the first party to recognize French as Quebec’s official language. Bill 22, the Official Language Act, was passed in 1974, making French the official language and restricting access of immigrants to English schools. This was hard for the only Quebec political party with significant anglophone support and representation. It destabilized the anglophone party base and contributed in large measure to the defeat of Premier Robert Bourassa in 1976. Yet the Liberals have persevered in affirming and defending Quebec’s French character.

In the 1980s, the language debate had shifted to commercial signs. The Charter of the French Language, Bill 101, the successor to Bill 22, was passed by the sovereigntist PQ government in 1977, and it further restricted the use of English. All commercial signs had to be in French only. After the Liberals under Premier Bourassa regained power in 1985, the issue made its way through the courts, leading to the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1988 ruling that French could be the predominant language on commercial signs (as the Liberal platform states), but that English or other languages could not be prohibited. When the issue came to the National Assembly, the government invoked the notwithstanding clause to maintain all “outside” commercial signs in French only, contrary to its own party program. Again, the anglophone constituency within the Liberal Party reacted angrily.

The “angryphones” could not know what was made clear to me at the time by the Premier: that this policy was temporary, and the decision to use the notwithstanding clause was designed to buy time and prepare a consensus down the road. At Premier Bourassa’s request, I worked with the minister in charge of the language dossier, Claude Ryan, to develop a climate in which we could eventually enact the Liberal language policy on commercial signs. A parliamentary commission was set up to prepare the way. Before the notwithstanding clause’s five-year sunset provision came into effect, Bill 86, which permitted the use of other languages but required the visual predominance of French in outdoor commercial advertising, was passed with very little protest, bringing the law in line with Liberal principles.

Ironically, while nationalist rhetoric and the declarations of French-language purists often characterize the Liberal Party as the “Parti des Anglais,” it has throughout its history defended and promoted the French character of Quebec in an inclusive way that respects Quebec’s demographic composition. Quebec has never had a stronger consensus on language than it does today, and I maintain that the Liberal Party was instrumental in this accomplishment.

On the constitutional front, however, it has not been as successful. Though attempts to pass constitutional reform packages have failed, Quebec Liberals have consistently defended Quebec’s distinct character, and thus its power to veto any change that affects the federal distribution of powers and the nature of Canada’s political institutions. The Liberal Party has repeatedly promoted provincial autonomy and fought to establish guidelines and safeguards with respect to the federal government’s spending power within provincial jurisdiction.

Indeed, the founders of both the Parti Québécois and the Action Démocratique du Québec were Liberals who failed to win the party over to their vision of Quebec’s constitutional future. In 1967, following President de Gaulle’s visit and his call of “Vive le Québec libre,” a prominent former Liberal minister, René Lévesque, led the charge for sovereignty-association, which his opponents saw as calling for the political separation of Quebec from the federation. Lévesque left the Liberal Party to create the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association (MSA) and later mobilized the pro-independence forces to form the Parti Québécois.

We saw another decampment when Mario Dumont left the Liberals to form the Action Démocratique du Québec. In 1990, Quebec Liberals faced a similar profound crisis when the Meech Lake Accord failed to be ratified in Manitoba and Newfoundland. A new constitutional program, the Allaire Report, was drawn up, which envisioned a massive transfer of powers to the provinces. Failing this, the Quebec government would be authorized to call a referendum on sovereignty. This position made many party activists uncomfortable. Some, including myself, had joined the Liberal Party primarily for its commitment to federalism. The thought that the Liberals could eventually call a referendum on sovereignty left many federalists puzzled, concerned about where the Premier intended to take his party.

Parallel to the party efforts, the Bourassa government had established a special commission headed by two well-respected Quebecers, Michel Bélanger and Jean Campeau, to study the future status of Quebec. Its conclusions were similar to those of the Allaire Report. Following the report of the Bélanger-Campeau Commission, the Quebec government asked a parliamentary committee to prepare an assessment of the costs of sovereignty, and another to assess eventual offers from the rest of Canada following the defeat of the Meech Lake Accord. These offers were eventually contained in a document known as the Charlottetown Accord.

During the debate on the Charlottetown Accord, tension continued to grow within the Liberal Party between the moderates led by Premier Bourassa who supported Charlottetown and the youth wing led by Mario Dumont who was unwilling to water down the Allaire Report. The media seized on the tension between a sitting premier and the young upstart who would not compromise.

As chief of staff, my role was to keep the party behind the leader should new constitutional offers emerge. When the Liberal Party endorsed the Charlottetown Accord in August 1992, Dumont and Jean Allaire split with the party and supported the No side in the October referendum, in which the Canadian population rejected the Accord. Dumont and Allaire later formed the Action Démocratique du Québec. In spite of those defections, the Liberal Party weathered the storm. By staying united during this difficult period, it remained a political force able to return to power in 2003 and win reelection in 2007.

While progress on the constitutional front has stalled, the Liberal Party has done much to advance Quebec’s interests and identity through administrative agreements in the areas of immigration, health, education and culture. The Charest government was instrumental in creating the Council of the Federation, composed of the ten provincial premiers and designed to protect provincial interests and foster interprovincial consensus.

Quebec Liberals at a crossroads

Looking over 35 turbulent years, I see a party that has balanced its commitment to federalism with a commitment in words and in deeds to the defence of Quebec’s interests. Those who contend that the Liberal Party in power has allowed Quebec’s position to be weakened in its dealings with Ottawa are wrong. It was, in fact, the Charest government that was the driving force behind the recognition of Quebec as a nation by the Canadian House of Commons.

The Liberal Party currently faces another critical moment. Though it forms the government, it is in a minority situation. Its vote in the last election was its lowest ever in a winning cause, and its support is even lower today – the polls rank it third in party preference among francophones, behind the ADQ and the PQ. Some suggest that the crisis threatens its very survival. Clearly, if it is to regain its position in Quebec politics, the Liberal Party of Quebec must take stock of itself, reconnect with its roots and traditions and make inroads into the francophone electorate while maintaining its nonfrancophone support. Not an easy task!

Traditionally, two currents have dominated political thought in Quebec. I have already identified the traditional liberal current, the Rouge tradition. The other is conservative, referred to as the Bleu tradition. While the Rouge tradition emphasizes secular values, individual rights, economic growth, federalism and social justice, the Bleu tradition fosters more traditional values and collective rights, insisting on Quebec’s French character and its autonomy. Throughout history, Quebec has been alternately governed by parties articulating these two currents of thought. Thoughtful observers, notably former Liberal leader Claude Ryan, have argued that the interplay of these currents has served Quebec well. And this is still true: Quebec stands to gain when these two currents compete. But we now face a new and worrisome challenge: it is an open question whether the Rouge current can find sufficient expression in today’s political context.

The francophone electorate has two parties representing the Bleu tradition, the ADQ and PQ, to choose from. It is important to note that while the PQ adheres to a social democratic agenda and has in power delivered progressive policies in line with the Rouge tradition, it qualifies as a Bleu party because of the dominance of its nationalist ideology and its commitment to sovereignty as the logical outcome of its political action. Currently support among francophones for the party closer to the Rouge tradition, the Liberals, is at less than 30 per cent. While 60 per cent of Quebecers would vote no on sovereignty, a larger proportion favour the Bleu parties. The challenge for the Liberal Party is to present a compelling alternative vision around the issues that define Quebec’s identity as well as foster its economic development. Will the party be able to recapture some of its lost francophone electorate in articulating its position on language, the constitution, federal-provincial relations and the current debate on the reasonable accommodation of newer cultural communities? It will come down to its ability to be relevant to the problems as faced and understood by the ordinary citizen in families across the cities and regions of the province.

In so doing, however, it should not – and I believe that it will not – compromise on its principles of tolerance and inclusion, of showing compassion and justice. Above all, Quebec Liberals embody the image of a responsible, proactive and daring civil society, not only within the Canadian federation but also on the international stage. In the past, the Liberal Party has been able to adjust to new realities while reasserting fundamental liberal principles. The test this time is to articulate a convincing program based on a modernized vision of liberal values. There is no guarantee of success; but the Liberal Party has no choice but to take up the challenge. And in the current minority government situation, the test will come sooner rather than later.


1 Pierre Trudeau’s “Some Obstacles to Democracy in Quebec” (originally published in the Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, Vol. 24, No. 3 , and later included in Federalism and the French Canadians , pp. 103–23) provides a still influential portrayal of how some generations of Quebecers used parliamentary institutions to foster Quebec’s francophone identity rather than parliamentary values. Also useful are the numerous works dealing with Quebec’s independence movement from the 1950s on and the careers of Parti Québécois notables.