Montreal·Analysis

Here's what's behind Premier François Legault's confident leadership in this COVID-19 crisis

We are just a few days into this COVID-19 crisis, and Quebec Premier François Legault has come across as a calm, decisive and trustworthy "père de famille." When you cast about the world, they are leadership qualities not easy to find these days.

Lauded for his handling of the outbreak, premier has a role model to draw on and a strong supporting cast

Quebec Premier François Legault has received praise for his leadership from even his harshest critics, as well as his rivals in the National Assembly. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

We are just a few days into this COVID-19 crisis, and Quebec Premier François Legault has come across as a calm, decisive and trustworthy "père de famille."

Those leadership qualities aren't easy to come by these days. Witness the U.K., where Prime Minister Boris Johnson opted initially to approach the outbreak as a kind of experiment, hoping to ultimately conquer the novel coranavirus through "herd immunity."

South of the Canadian border, President Donald Trump spent weeks shrugging off the warnings of health experts, much to the horror of observers on all sides of the political spectrum. 

Closer to home, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listened closely to his health advisors but was initially criticized for his irregular updates and reluctance to act quickly and take aggressive measures.

President Donald Trump speaks during a press briefing with his coronavirus task force, at the White House on Tuesday. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Against this backdrop, Legault has emerged as a comforting presence to many in Quebec. 

His decisive leadership has earned him praise from even his harshest critics, not to mention his rivals in the National Assembly. "I think, honestly, the reaction of the government has been very good," Marc Tanguay, house leader for the Opposition Liberals, said Tuesday.

But imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. As Quebec has acted against COVID-19, other provinces have swiftly followed suit.

On Thursday, Quebec was the first to ban gatherings of more than 250 people. British Columbia had a similar plan in place within hours and by now, so do most jurisdictions in the country.  

Over the weekend, and for the first time in its history, Quebec declared a public health emergency — a legislative measure that gives health officials sweeping powers. Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia did the same Tuesday.

Abrupt turnaround 

Legault's new, proactive approach is in sharp contrast to his initial response to the declaration of the pandemic, just days ago.

Last week, while his health minister, Danielle McCann, was warning of the imminent dangers posed by the spread of COVID-19, Legault downplayed the risks of the outbreak to Quebecers.

His government tabled a budget that completely ignored warnings from economists that growth would be weaker this year because of the virus. COVID-19 barely earned a mention in Finance Minister Eric Girard's March 10 budget speech.

Quebec Health Minister Danielle McCann warned Quebecers early of the dangers posed by the spread of the novel coronavirus, but there was little indication of the government's concern in the March 10 budget. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/Radio-Canada)

Sensing a government that was out of touch, the opposition pounced, accusing Legault of having his head in the sand. 

Whether or not the criticism spurred his about-face, it was a different Legault who addressed the province on Thursday, just two days after the budget was tabled.

The gravity of the situation was apparent, both in his words and in his actions. A ban on large gatherings? That's almost unheralded in peace time.

The premier's message was clear: this is serious. 

Legault has appeared before reporters in Quebec City every day since then, and sometimes twice a day, announcing progressively more drastic measures: first, it was no schools or daycare, then it was no visits to hospitals or long-term care centres, then no bars or clubs or gyms.

On Tuesday, Legault's message was directed squarely at teens: "It is not time for the parties. It's not time to be together."

Learning from the Ice Storm

Many in Quebec have noted that Legault's communication strategy appears to be modelled on that of Lucien Bouchard during the Ice Storm of 1998.

During those cold, dark January days 22 years ago, Bouchard ran the province from his Montreal office which was, conveniently enough, located in the headquarters of Hydro-Québec.

Many in Quebec have noted that Legault's communication strategy appears to be modeled on that of Lucien Bouchard during the Ice Storm of 1998. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

It was a precarious situation. Large swaths of the province, including its biggest city, were in the dark, and public security officials had no contingency plans to draw from. 

"We improvised everything," Bouchard told Radio-Canada in an 2018 interview. 

But despite that, Bouchard decided the public needed to be kept as fully informed as possible. And so every day, he appeared alongside Hydro CEO André Caillé to answer questions from reporters. 

Those news conferences, delivered from a makeshift studio in Hydro-Québec's headquarters, are part of Ice Storm lore.

Bouchard, who could be stern at the best of times, cut a reassuring figure for people in a province unsure of when the lights and the heat would come back on.

"We had to save the family," Bouchard said in the Radio-Canada interview. "And as head of the family, I had to lead the fight — an uncertain fight whose rules had not been written." 

Legault will remember the example set by Bouchard well. He entered politics just a few months after the Ice Storm, as a minister in Bouchard's cabinet. 

Strong supporting cast

This is not to say there haven't been stumbles in Quebec's response to COVID-19.

The Health Ministry's information hotline, 811, was not prepared for the deluge of calls from concerned Quebecers, and it is now asking those with symptoms to call a backup number: 1-877-644-4545.

Legault also initially said it was unnecessary to shut down the province's schools, but many school boards did so anyway, forcing the government to make it official. 

And Legault has been helped by a strong supporting cast, including the unflappable McCann and Quebec's public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda. 

With his colourful (or gross) pleas for teens to avoid 'exchanging bodily fluids' and accessible explanations of epidemiology, Quebec national public health director Horacio Arruda has become something of a media darling. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

With his colourful pleas for teens to avoid "exchanging bodily fluids" and accessible explanations of epidemiology, Arruda has become something of a media darling. He's the subject of several dank internet memes.

Arruda even appeared on the most popular television talk show in the province, Tout le monde en parle.

It's a show that depends on a lively studio audience, but on Sunday, the audience was eerily absent — because of the guidelines against social gatherings that Arruda himself had issued. As a gimmick, it worked. But this was no gimmick. 

Legault has been helped, too, by a co-operative opposition. The criticisms have receded, allowing the state to issue its public health directives in a single, clear voice.

On Tuesday, the house leaders of the four parties stood together to announce they had struck a deal to pass several important pieces of legislation before suspending the National Assembly until April 21.

In the span of an hour and a half, Quebec's legislature passed four bills, two of which gave more powers to pharmacists and nurses, which will help streamline care during the outbreak.

The National Assembly house leaders, left to right, Marc Tanguay of the Liberals, the Parti Québécois's Martin Ouellet, Simon Jolin-Barrette of the Coalition Avenir Québec and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois of Québec Solidaire, struck a deal to pass several key bills quickly. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

The opposition also approved $2.6 billion in allocations which included money essential to pay for several of the emergency measures in place, such as the free daycare for essential-service workers. 

And even though the budget tabled last week will have to be rewritten at some point soon, MNAs passed that as well, ensuring some measure of economic continuity going forward.

Boring stuff, perhaps, but essential to keep the government running smoothly. And, moreover, a sign of how extraordinary the situation is.

Legault has a majority. His government doesn't technically need the support of the opposition. And yet for the moment, anyway, politics in the province is operating on consensus.

As Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the rabble-rouser-turned-house leader of Québec Solidaire, put it: "It's a good example of the power of Quebec democracy."

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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