Did Quebec take a populist turn with its new religious symbols law?

The word is loaded, wildly overused and highly contested. But perhaps the time has come to consider whether populism is an appropriate term to describe the recent turn in Quebec politics.

The word is loaded, but there are reasons to think it might apply

'The majority was asking for secularism, and they were ignored. Now they feel listened to,' Quebec Premier François Legault said in a recent interview. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

For the past week Premier François Legault has been on a victory lap of sorts, doing the rounds of big media outlets in Quebec, talking up the accomplishments of his freshman year in office.

Not surprisingly, Legault was asked repeatedly to defend his government's last act before the National Assembly's summer break: invoking closure to ram through a law that strips public-school teachers, among other civil servants, of their right to wear a religious symbol at work.

Legault's go-to response to these questions is to invoke the desires of the majority. Sure, he told Radio-Canada recently, listening to the concerns of minorities is important.

"But you can't forget the majority either," he added. "The majority was asking for secularism, and they were ignored. Now they feel listened to."

Taken by itself, this is a routine statement from a politician whose party was given a solid majority in the last election and, according to most polls, still enjoys a wide measure of popularity over its rivals.

Yet there is nothing routine about his government's anti-religious symbols law, not in its content (a first in North America) nor in the way it was passed (requiring the legislature to sit for more than 12 hours on a Sunday).

A protest was held in Montreal the day after the religious symbols law was passed. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press )

To put the matter simply: Legault's government suspended normal legislative procedure to pass a law that deprives minorities of a fundamental right, and did so in the name of the majority.

Moreover, the government included a notwithstanding clause in the law, which is designed to prevent those affected by it from appealing to the usual constitutional safeguards.

There is a word that is often used when governments elsewhere have engaged in similar behaviour.

The word is loaded, wildly overused and highly contested. But perhaps the time has come to consider whether populism is an appropriate term to describe the recent turn in Quebec politics.

Defining populism

Since coming to power, the Legault government has shown a stubborn commitment to its campaign promises, regardless of what evidence or expert advice says.

On the campaign trail, for instance, the Coalition Avenir Québec promised to build another link — either a bridge or a tunnel — between Quebec City and the suburbs on the other side of the St. Lawrence River.

The government is pushing ahead with the multi-billion dollar plan, even though research suggests traffic is relatively light in Quebec City. And it is insisting on building the link east of the city, ignoring conclusions of a government-commissioned study that said it would be better placed on the west side.

Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette sponsored Bill 21, the religious symbols legislation. The government used closure to ensure it passed before the National Assembly's summer break. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

On the campaign trail, the CAQ also promised to cut immigration levels by 20 per cent. Business groups and economists alike said "don't do it," worried the move will aggravate the province's chronic labour shortage.

But it was one of the first things the CAQ did after winning the election.

This devotion to campaign promises could be described as either smart politics or foolhardy governing, depending on your level of sympathy for the CAQ's goals.

It does not, though, qualify as populist, at least in the way the word is used by more esteemed scholars of the subject.

Populism has generally involved some sort of denunciation of the "elites." That's not a word that Legault, or any of his ministers, use often.

They may steer clear of evidence-based policy, but they don't suggest a cabal of experts and intellectuals is actively gaming the system.

But also fundamental to populism is the notion of "the people" as the supreme source of power. What often follows from that is a willingness to bypass institutions that seem to get in the way of what "the people" want.

It is on these two dimensions that the Legault government is more vulnerable to the claim it tilted toward populism this spring.

When majority = the people

When Legault speaks about the religious symbols legislation, the difference between "the majority" and "the people" gets fuzzy.

Just a few days before the law was passed, Legault said it would enable "our people" to "find their pride again."

He added that it "allows us to send a message that we want to protect our values, our way of life in Quebec."

And when the bill was first tabled in March, he issued a YouTube defence that ended with the defiant statement: "In Quebec, this is how we live."

When Legault speaks about the religious symbols legislation, the difference between 'the majority' and 'the people' gets fuzzy. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

These are rhetorical constructions that flatten the diversity of opinion in a province that is cosmopolitan. And they risk further marginalizing minority groups in the province.

Then there is the issue of the CAQ government's impatience with current democratic norms, those unwritten rules that enable a smooth functioning democracy.

This impatience was expressed, first, by the inclusion of the notwithstanding clause in the religious symbols law.

Is this constitutional? In a strict sense, yes, but scholars have questioned whether it violates the spirit in which the clause was intended.

"There is a worldwide standard that holds you only suspend constitutional rights, provisionally, in exceptional or emergency situations," Maxime St-Hillaire, a law professor at the Université de Sherbrooke, wrote recently.

Second, there was Legault's use of closure to cut short debate on the law. To be sure, he is hardly the first premier to use the mechanism. Lucien Bouchard used it 53 times in his five years in power.

Members of the National Council of Canadian Muslims Mustafa Farooq, left, and Bochra Manai and Noa Aviv, right, of the CCLA at a news conference Monday in Montreal, where plans were outlined to challenge the religious symbols law before the courts. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

But consider, too, the message that using closure sends within the context of Legault's repeated appeals to the will of the majority.

Closure silences the elected opposition in the National Assembly; it suggests minority voices need to be curtailed when they get in the way of the majority.

And third, as he announced his intention to use closure, Legault mused about reforming parliamentary rules to reduce the amount of time MNAs spend studying bills.

The problem, he said, is that speeches made by the opposition are often "not constructive."

The guardrails of democracy

At the risk of stating the obvious, ignoring democratic norms is not the same thing as brazenly flouting the Constitution. The CAQ is flirting with the former, not the latter.

But there are reasons why this has caused alarm in some circles.

In their recent book, How Democracies Die, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that the slide toward authoritarianism has, in recent years, not been the product of a coup or a revolution, but rather the slow decomposition of democratic norms. They are the "soft guardrails" of democracy.

Without these guardrails, democracy in Quebec faces a wobbly future so long as Legault continues to talk about his majority in populist terms.


Jonathan Montpetit is a Senior Investigative Journalist with CBC News, where he covers social movements and democracy. You can send him tips at