Language and debt, the two landmines that could shatter Quebec's Liberal calm

Quebec has become a much calmer, less confrontational place since the election of Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard three weeks ago. But can his new plan to cut government services maintain the peace.

Philippe Couillard has had a bit of a honeymoon these past weeks, cutting services could change that

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard enjoys the warm embrace of his new cabinet, during the swearing in ceremony last week. Will the honeymoon last? (Jacques Boissinot / Canadian Press)

Quebec is a finicky province, to say the least.

The texture of daily life here has changed so dramatically since the Liberal's April 7 election win that it feels like a completely different place.

The high-octane atmosphere of the campaign has dissipated, and gone is the months-long state of siege imposed by the Parti Québécois' proposed charter of values.

Instead, a kind of calm prevails. It may just be election hangover — dare we say a Liberal honeymoon? — or a hiatus afforded by the changing of the guard in Quebec City, but it's as if the whole province is on pause.

Into the void has come endless speculation about everything from the future of separatism to how Quebec's new federalist Liberal government might affect the 2015 federal election (won't help Justin Trudeau seems to be the consensus), to whether Pierre Karl Péladeau has the PQ leadership all sewn up (apparently not, according to yesterday's CROP poll which placed a for now uninterested Gilles Duceppe in the lead).

As Quebec resets, however, two old hang-ups — language and debt — have also risen to the surface, and for new Premier Philippe Couillard they are the ones with the potential to shatter the calm.


The perceived vulnerability of the French language was invoked too late in the campaign to make a difference. But within Quebec it is widely considered a self-evident concern, and remains a stronger hook for identity politics than the values charter.

It also has the potential to ignite with very little warning.

For an example, look no further than last week's Ron MacLean imbroglio, when the Hockey Night in Canada host took a mid-week shot at "French-Canadian referees," and asked whether they should be allowed to ref Montreal Canadiens playoff games.

The controversy was played out within a day in the rest of the country, but here it went on for several, through the weekend in a back and forth over racism, tribalism and what MacLean really, truly meant.

In her tearful goodbye, the outgoing PQ leader Pauline Marois enlisted the protection of French as one of her two lasting concerns for the province.

And despite Couillard's repeated attempts to recoup the campaign gaffe in which he touted bilingualism as a must even on the factory floor, Quebec's most overtly federalist premier in years remains vulnerable on this point.

Indeed, he seems to recognize this himself, witness the rather wily appointment of Hélène David, the sister of Françoise David, one of the leaders of the sovereigntist Quebec Solidaire, as the minister responsible for the protection and promotion of the French language.

Of course, Liberal leaders from Robert Bourassa to Jean Charest have always been easy prey on the language front.

Simply, the PQ set the agenda decades ago with Bill 101, and has successfully maintained its image as defender of the faith.

It's spin, but decades of spin have made it stick. And when Liberals do try to tap into the cause they often fumble, as Charest did during the 2012 election, suggesting on a Monday that he'd extend Bill 101 to federal institutions in Quebec, then backing off by Tuesday.

Follow the money

The other potential landmine for Couillard is the provincial debt. It's almost a Quebec tradition now that every change of government brings with it the sudden discovery of a shortfall in its predecessor's accounting.

True to form, late last week Couillard announced that this year's deficit is greater than the previously estimated $1.75 billion, and that his government will need to cut an additional $3.7 billion from this current year's spending if it is to meet its promise of a balanced budget by 2015-16.

Appearing confident and in charge, Couillard used his first press conference to announce coming cuts, including an immediate hiring freeze, and a wider-ranging plan to cut programs, with the details to be unveiled in a June budget.

The news was bad but not unexpected. Quebec has been living beyond its means for years, its economy beleaguered by a perfect storm of lagging revenues, increased expenses, and an aging population.

It was just over a year ago, March 5, 2013, when university students turned out in huge numbers to protest against the PQ's three per cent tuition increase, and the Marois government was considered a friend of the students. Much bigger, longer and louder protests helped bring the Charest government down. (Graham Hughes / Canadian Press)

An old story, yes, but one that has never been well received. Almost all Quebec premiers in recent memory, including such prominent PQ ones as Rene Lévesque and Lucien Bouchard, have met huge resistance in their attempts to scale back the public sector; Charest faced massive demonstrations almost immediately after being elected in 2003.

Couillard's planned cost-cutting has drawn some criticism, mostly for not having outlined anything like this in his election platform and for seeming to borrow his new-found ideas from the rival Coalition Avenir Quebec.

Still, there also appears to be something close to a consensus in the press at least that it's time Quebecers get on board with the business of frugality.

But the press is not the public, of course, and Couillard, a former health minister, likely knows well how partisanship and fierce public attachment to entitlements have long stood in the way of reforming the province's cherished public sector icons.

The 2012 student protests were the most recent, tangible manifestation of this opposition, and, if they stand as any example, Quebecers are likely to quit coasting the moment austerity begins to bite and wonder just what kind of government it is that they have wrought.

About the Author

Michelle Gagnon

Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She has covered domestic and international affairs, including the European economic crisis, the mass migration of refugees, and the Paris and Brussels attacks.


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