What Quebec’s Election Could Mean for Canada
Quebeckers headed to the polls today to elect the new members of their province’s legislature, the National Assembly. While results have yet to be released, recent polling shows the governing Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), led by current premier François Legault, cruising to an easy victory. The final projection from 338Canada has the CAQ winning a comfortable 39% of the vote, which translates to 77% of legislative seats.
In an article published in CTV News last month, political scientist Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and frequent Berkeley Canadian Studies collaborator, spoke to some potential national effects of this election. Legault and the CAQ have worked to increase Quebec’s autonomy from the federal government, and the party has opposed many of Trudeau’s policies. While a CAQ victory is all but assured, Béland says the margins are important: a strong victory would “not be good news for Justin Trudeau.”
A particular point of contention between Trudeau and Legault is immigration. Legault has vocally opposed the Liberals’ target of 430,000 immigrants per year, equal to about 1% of Canada’s total population. Liberal policymakers argue that immigration is necessary to sustain the Canadian economy. Last quarter, Canada saw its highest quarterly population growth since 1957, 95% of which was due to international migration.
Legault calls the Liberals’ policies “extreme”, and has promised to limit Quebec’s acceptance of new immigrants to 50,000 people per year. In controversial comments, the premier suggested that increasing levels of non-Francophone immigrants would damage “social cohesion” and threaten Québécois culture. Opponents called his words “divisive” and “hurtful”, and accused the CAQ of weaponizing anti-immigrant sentiment for politics. The CAQ immigration minister recently apologized after being criticized for falsely stating that “80% of immigrants… don’t work, don’t speak French, and don’t adhere to the values of Quebec.”
Other opponents worry about how the CAQ’s push for autonomy extends to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Some high-profile laws sponsored by the current government have been accused of violating the Charter, notably Bill 21, which instituted a ban on the wearing of religious symbols by state employees, and Bill 96, which expanded the scope of French language laws. While these laws are mostly popular in Quebec, they have been harshly criticized from other parts of Canada, as well as by Quebec’s English-speaking and religious minorities. They are nevertheless exempt from review by the Canadian Supreme Court due to the National Assembly invoking Section 33 of the Charter (the Notwithstanding Clause). This clause, unique to Canadian law, allows a province to suspend fundamental rights for a limited period, which can be renewed indefinitely.
In the CTV article, human rights lawyer and McGill professor Pearl Eliadis decried this move as a “unilateral attempt… to change our fundamental Charter and constitutional values.” She warns that if this practice becomes commonplace, the Charter will soon lose its relevance in Canadian law and society. This was the case for several years after the passage of the charter in the 1980s, when the Parti Québécois invoked the clause for every piece of legislation they passed to ensure that no law could be challenged based on Charter rights. A CAQ government will likely continue to employ the Notwithstanding Clause.
Image: François Legault. Source: Lea-Kim Chateauneuf, Wikimedia Commons.