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Since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, politics in Quebec have been consistently characterized as “explosive.” Whether about nationalizing hydroelectricity, refusing to sign the Canadian constitution, handling a massive student movement, instituting a Quebec Charter of Values, or threatening to separate from Canada, key election issues in Quebec have traditionally been anything but boring. It is in this context of historically high-stake politics that the 2018 provincial election appears at first glance to be rather uninteresting.
For the first time in decades, the typical election super-issue of Quebec independence is largely off the table, leaving Quebecers confronted with the seemingly less turbulent questions of immigration, daycares and long-term care facilities. While these issues may lack the seductiveness that normally accompanies the threat of another sovereignty referendum, the 2018 Quebec provincial election should not be discarded as unimportant. For the first time in half a century, Anglophones in Quebec are seeing leaders from all of the major political parties regard their presence within the province as increasingly legitimate. The occurrence of the province’s first ever televised English-language debate, held on September 17th, demonstrates not only that Anglophones are being granted access to more aspects of the democratic process, but also that their voices and concerns are being increasingly validated.
Prior to September 17th, 2018, the last time the provincial party leaders debated in English was on the radio in 1985, when “Robert Bourassa was the incumbent Liberal premier and Pierre-Marc Johnson led the Parti Québécois.” In other words, it was a long time ago. The hesitance on the part of politicians to debate in English was largely due to a fear of alienating the much larger francophone voting base. Throughout the history of the province, Quebecers have feared that they would be assimilated into the dominant Anglophone culture, seeing themselves as an “island of French in a sea of English.”
Many Quebecers perceived English-speakers as threats to the preservation of their distinct society, which ultimately lead to the adoption of several laws that limited the rights of the Anglophone minority. Because of this ingrained fear of assimilation in the Québécois psyche, and consequent fear that it would alienate their Francophone bases of support, most parties traditionally shied away from seeking the support of the Anglophone community. Consequently, the leaders refused for decades to engage in debates in English.
Given that Anglophones have historically been locked out of the debate portion of electoral campaigns, the decision taken by the current leaders, who are all Francophones by birth, to hold an English-language debate was welcomed as a breath of fresh air by the English-speaking community. Beyond permitting Anglophone voters to view a live debate without translation, it allowed for English-speakers to have issues specific to their community addressed. The acceptance by major party leaders to engage in such a debate highlights the parties’ recognition that Anglophones have unique needs which are worth addressing. What makes this particularly salient is that leaders showed a willingness to prioritize the discussion of these Anglo-specific issues despite the potentially hefty political costs of speaking English.
For instance, the first candidate to agree to the debate was Jean-François Lisée, the leader of the Parti Québécois. The PQ, a staunch advocate of sovereignty, has been a defender of French as the sole official language in Quebec since its creation in 1968. For the leader of a political party, which has historically advocated for independence, to explicitly seek votes from the Anglophone community highlights a departure from status quo politics. Lisée’s decision to speak in English and encourage others to do so is evidently not without risk, as the PQ found its strongest base of support among Francophones living off the island of Montreal in the 2014 provincial election.
Agreeing to debate in English was also risky for the historically Anglophone-supported Parti Libéral du Québec, as it opens the door for traditional PLQ voters to be swayed by the politics of another party. For both the Coalition Avenir Québec and Québec Solidaire, which have never had a particularly strong hold on the Anglophone vote, agreeing to Lisée’s initiative might mean angering their French voter bases while simultaneously losing an opportunity to convey their party platforms because of their lack of fluency in English.
As such, although there are clear potential benefits for the Anglophone community and even for some political parties to debate in English, there are also heavy political costs. So, while the English-language debate may be seen as a strategy to tap into an underused voting bloc, or an attempt to embarrass political counterparts with weaker English, it almost certainly also demonstrates that high-level officials from all parties are increasingly beginning to recognize the legitimacy of Anglophones in Quebec.
Participation in this debate is not only interesting because the leaders chose to face the aforementioned potential costs associated with speaking English. The 2018 provincial elections, and the English debate specifically, are also important because they have allowed members of the English-speaking community to directly engage in the politics of their home-province in their first language for the first time in decades. According to the 2006 census, 13.4 percent of Quebec’s total provincial population is Anglophone.
This signifies that, for close to half a century, one sixth of Quebec’s population, some of whom lack a firm grasp on the French language, was unable to get answers to political questions in their mother tongue. As such, many had to rely on the media or other third-party sources to inform their vote. As evidenced by the historic English debate, this has changed. Fully participating in Quebec democracy is no longer reliant on a person’s ability to speak French. While it may not change the vote of some English-speakers, who as a community have historically supported the PLQ, it has at minimum allowed them the opportunity to engage with the ideas and visions of other political parties, thereby deepening the democratic process in Quebec.
Although the legitimacy of the English-speaking community in Quebec is not yet fully recognized by all high-level politicians, as demonstrated by the recent unearthing of Legault’s comments in 1998 about hating Anglophones, the 2018 provincial elections demonstrate that progress is being made.
This election may surround the largely mundane (although not unimportant) topics of daycares, long-term care facilities and immigration. Because of the English-language debate, however, this provincial election has also become about the recognition of Anglophones as a significant part of Quebec’s political society. While this electoral campaign may appear uninteresting because it lacks the explosive politics of past decades, it should be kept in mind that the broadening enfranchisement of a minority group is far from unimportant.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.