Québec’s fragile democracy: the canaries that have died

27 Aug

I’m always on the look out for signs that our democracy is suffering. Luckily, such a hobby means that I’m constantly busy and frustrated with what I see. I wrote this about the threat to our rights to protest that have been obvious both during the student protests of this past year and in Toronto during the G20. Our civil liberties have been under attack since Sept. 11 2001 and those organizations that track this attack are doing really important work.

Democracy is premised on a couple of things: citizens being educated enough to know what’s going on, citizens being allowed to have and demonstrate their own opinions, and citizens having access to run, vote or spoil their ballot during general or special elections. There’s also a bunch of shit that the press is responsible to do, and that it’s mostly failing at, but that’s the subject for another post.

Québec’s election has been fascinating for a lot of reasons, but the persistent assault on democracy is one of the most interesting.

The biggest culprit of playing fast and loose with democracy is the Parti Québecois. Last week, they announced that they would prohibit some Qubécers from running in provincial and municipal elections based on whether or not you can pass a French test, details to be worked out later.

Some facts: in a democracy, all citizens should be allowed to seek office. No political party should be able to declare who can/not run for office. In a free and fair election, people have the right to elect whoever they want regardless of if the person is an old white dude who doesn’t represent people who aren’t old white dudes, someone lacking style, someone with too much style, someone who speaks a language that is not one of Canada’s official languages, and so on. That’s the beauty of democracy. The winner was supported by the largest group of people who voted.

There was an instant backlash. There are some ridings in Québec where English or Cree are the dominant languages and where someone could easily be elected whose French may not pass a language test.

One argument I heard was that it just makes “sense” to ensure that people could speak French. But, I was left wondering: how many sitting MPs would have failed a French test? How many MPs would fail an English test, outside of Québec? Who’s in charge of this new, highly political French test? How hard will it be? (would I pass?)

In response to the backlash, the PQ announced that it would only apply to immigrants (who would only be voting if they were citizens, so, it’s unclear how they’re level of “Anglo/Franco/Allophone-ness” would be measured). It’d be an easy way for the PQ to get rid of a Liberal candidate who could threaten the local PQ candidate.

The PQ is in that grey area that separates majority governments from minority ones, so it’s not surprising that schemes such as these would be pulled out as a way to bolster their support.

Nipping at their heels is Québec Solidaire. They’re the progressive alternative to the PQ and a political party that is also destined for something big, in relative terms. They’ll be fighting for a few more seats, but the places where those seats will be won will likely come from support where the PQ has a chance at winning.

Enter assault on democracy 2: the spectre of “strategic voting.” Similar to every election in Ontario where the NDP has threatened the Liberal votes, the PQ has managed to spin the message in the media that a vote for QS is a vote for Charest. (Although, a vote for the CAQ is a vote for the PQ, says the Liberals. You see how this works?)

Strategic voting attempts to convince people to suspend their critical faculties, hold their nose and vote for someone they wouldn’t vote for normally. They do this because the option of having Charest in for another four years is a worse outcome than voting for the PQ even though your heart belongs to the Khadir-David dream team.

No one should vote under duress but that’s exactly what this argument does. Scare people.

It’s total bullshit.

Luckily, it probably wont work. Especially not with QS. They’re building a movement. If they have 10 people elected or two people elected, the power of QS is the daily work of building a political movement that isn’t just seeking power (like some social democratic parties out there), but that seeks to overhaul the entire system. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t vote for QS either. Vote for that candidate who makes your heart jump. Then hound your MNA as much as you can later on.

Third sign: The Director General of the Québec election has deemed that the red square is a political sign.

Yup, a patch of red felt is a political sign.

Here’s some things that aren’t political signs: Nike shirts, NHL team ball caps, hemp pants, expensive jewelry…

Clothing can make all sorts of political statements. Buttons can too. Short of partisan political material at the polling booth, however, this limit to freedom of expression is another example of how fragile democracy is. The carré rouge is a political symbol but it doesn’t belong to or signify the support of any political party. Just like many people who wear shirts that say Québec Libre with a Québec flag on them may vote PQ (or ON, or QS or CAQ…whoever), people wearing a carré rouge may be more likely to vote for a particular party (or, more accurately, most unlikely to vote Liberal). But demographically speaking, certain kinds of people may also vote for someone based on their age, their language, their sex.

Why signal out young people, the folks who are wearing the carré rouge the most?

People’s electoral convictions must be strong for a democracy to work. The DGE’s attempt to argue that the carré rouge is a partisan symbol is targeting youth who have been politicized through the Printemps Érables and who are exercising their democratic right (many for the first time). What’s worse is that poll clerks are vested with this authority and, on today’s first day of advanced polls, have been reported as barring electors from entering the voting area if they’re wearing a carré rouge.

Yes, democracy is fragile. It’s fragile everywhere but obviously so in Québec.

I didn’t get to write about things like this during the Ontario election, but it’s not because it was a great election. In some ways, Québec is a reminder of what an election looks like when the parties actually stand for something different. HST off [fill in the blank] seems like a ridiculous common chorus from where I sit today.

But with the province on fire politically, it’s the citizens’ responsibility to ensure that democracy is protected.

Even if we’d fail the French test.

DISCLAIMER: Like with many of the other things I’ve written, me focusing on this issue does not mean that I don’t think that other provinces are bastions of democracy or that Québec is the closest it’s been to a fascist state since the 1930s. Just saying that so that it’s clear.

UPDATE 1: Ethan Cox has told me on Twitter that the DGE has said that voters will be allowed to wear the red square. Poll clerks cannot. Too bad that this had to be tested on day one of voting. Great news, though.

2 Responses to “Québec’s fragile democracy: the canaries that have died”

  1. Philippe Marchand August 27, 2012 at 10:58 am #

    Language proficiency: I’ve said this elsewhere, but the only way this could be legitimate is for a country to include a certain level of proficiency in its official language (or one of its official languages) as a requirement for citizenship (this is precisely what Canada does, at least according to the citizenship test description on the web). The PQ’s proposal for immigrants is basically to act as if Quebec was already a separate country with French as the single official language.

    Quebec politics are getting better: The sense I get from your post is that things are going downhill, yet I would argue the opposite (although it’s difficult to make either statement before seeing the results on Sept.4th). There has been a right-wing shift in Quebec politics for at least a decade (with the rise of the ADQ, and the PQ/PLQ moving away from their historical social democratic positions), and no visionary social policy besides, maybe, the $5 (now $7) daycares. Considering this, the visible movement of social-democratic sovereignist votes from the PQ to QS, which has a more inclusive vision of Quebec’s future, seems like a positive long-term outcome of this campaign.

    • Nora Loreto August 27, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

      This is a great point. When I was writing this, I was thinking of the assault waged on democracy by people who have positions of power. Running through the back of my mind was other jurisdictions too. But I agree with you that this will be a positive outcome, regardless of what happens. Though, that is in large part thanks to the student struggle.

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