PQ showdown looms as internal rift grows
ANALYSIS: If he fails to push forward the sovereignty agenda,
Bouchard risks splitting the party, RHÉAL SÉGUIN writes
The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, January 2, 2021
QUEBEC -- The Parti Québécois is at a crossroads, and this year its leader will be pressed to make the most important decision of his political career: how and when to make a move toward sovereignty for Quebec.
Lucien Bouchard has been reluctant to push the sovereignty agenda, saying Quebeckers are not ready for another referendum. Impatient with the Quebec Premier, some high-ranking PQ members are preparing for a confrontation at a party meeting in late February.
The first signs of the growing dissent came less than a week after a PQ national council meeting in December. It dealt with the issue that has propelled the sovereignty movement since its inception: language.
At a three-hour, Dec. 8 meeting with the party executive, Mr. Bouchard refused to cave in to demands for a tougher language law that would require francophone and allophone students to attend French-language community colleges after obtaining a secondary-school diploma.
Children of francophone and immigrant parents are required to attend French-language elementary and secondary schools, but can attend an English-language college. In Quebec, a two-year college diploma is mandatory to pursue a university degree.
Studies show attendance in French-language colleges has declined by about 1 per cent a year since 1995. The studies also conclude that students from ethnic communities who attend French-language colleges are more inclined to adopt French as their principle language than do those attending English-language colleges. Based on these studies, many PQ regional riding association presidents and members of the executive proposed to make it mandatory for all francophone and non-anglophone students to attend French-language colleges.
Mr. Bouchard refused, saying the proposal would be too coercive and would require the province to use the notwithstanding clause to override the Canadian Constitution. He also said francophone parents wouldn't like it.
"Besides, how will I explain that in Boston?" Mr. Bouchard said to the party executive, according to one high-ranking official.
How Quebec language laws are perceived in the United States and in the business community has often influenced Mr. Bouchard's actions.
In the midst of this divisive debate for tougher language laws, a prominent PQ member added to the controversy with comments about Jews and claims that there is an anti-sovereignty ethnic vote in Montreal. Yves Michaud, 70, wants the party's nomination in the Montreal riding of Mercier, where a spring by-election is scheduled.
The Quebec National Assembly condemned his remarks as "unacceptable."
Already at odds with his party over language, Mr. Bouchard decided, without consultation, to support the condemnation motion. He said he could not lead a party that appeared intolerant or discriminatory toward Quebec's ethnic communities and added that he opposed Mr. Michaud's candidacy.
The decision made Mr. Michaud a martyr. Influential separatists, including former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau, said Mr. Bouchard and the National Assembly had no right to condemn Mr. Michaud because he is not an MNA. While it might be Mr. Bouchard's right as party leader to reject Mr. Michaud's nomination, Mr. Parizeau said the Premier was wrong to use the National Assembly to rid the PQ of someone who threatened to cause embarrassment.
For his handling of the Michaud affair and the language issue, Mr. Bouchard has been called too authoritarian and unyielding. His leadership has been questioned within the party and the sovereignty movement in general.
"Most of the members are shocked and angered by his attitude. They don't recognize the party any more and they don't recognize themselves in the party any more," Mercier riding president Andre Reny told Le Devoir last week.
As the internal rift grows wider, party membership is declining. One insider estimates the PQ has fewer than 80,000 card-carrying members, far below the more than 100,000 of only a few years ago. The latest membership drive failed to attract a significant number of new members.
For Mr. Bouchard to quell the brewing protest, he will have to offer at the February meeting a clear plan of action aimed at achieving sovereignty. Failure to deliver could split the party and perhaps damage Mr. Bouchard's leadership beyond repair.