#NewsMatters: The National Assembly Report

How we navigate out of pandemic has become alarmingly divisive in Quebec

Raquel Fletcher in Quebec City

It’s become clear politicians, like Quebecers in general, are fed up with the pandemic that keeps dragging on. Health Minister Christian Dubé even let loose a swear word Friday in the house. Ignoring all decorum, he described the COVID-19 health crisis as “this damn pandemic.” But while everyone can agree the frustration is universal, the question about how to navigate out of this crisis has become alarmingly divisive.

This past week, Quebec lawmakers have had to contend with threats of armed violence. Organizers of the Quebec City trucker convoy, which drew thousands of protesters two weekends ago (and hopes to do the same next weekend) published videos online in which they claimed they knew of people who were considering “taking up arms” and attacking the National Assembly.

Premier François Legault then raised ire and eyebrows when he lashed out, not at the people making threats, but at his political opponents. He accused both the Liberal Party and the Parti Québécois of condoning violent behavior. In nuanced statements, the opposition parties had told reporters earlier that the government was partly responsible for polarized attitudes and rising social division. However, they also unequivocally condemned all threats of violence.

During a debate Friday morning, Liberal MNA Monsef Derraji called out Dubé when he repeated the premier’s comments.

“I want to put an end to this once and for all,” Derraji said, addressing the speaker. “There is not one MNA, not one, in this legislature who encourages violence.”

Quebec City correspondent for Global Raquel Fletcher.

“To suggest otherwise is irresponsible in my opinion,” he added.

The minister eventually acknowledged he was in the wrong. “I’m sorry and I think it’s important Quebecers see us all working together,” Dubé said.

The apology might also be a sign the government believes it’s in its best interest to maintain a constructive and collaborative tone with opposition parties. The trucker convoy in Ottawa, which has now led to Ontario declaring a state of emergency, is stoking more and more tension in the population, as well as anti-government sentiment. Quebec, conscious it needs to tread carefully to avoid similar protests, has now released a reopening calendar with things slated to get back to normal by mid-March. The Legault government hopes this will release the building pressure.

Refusal to end state of emergency

However, Quebec refuses to end the public health state of emergency order, which gives the government exceptional powers to act without debate at the National Assembly. Opposition parties argue this cannot continue.

Debate is needed, they say, to answer pressing questions: Is the vaccine passport still effective? Should mask mandates stay in effect long-term? What happens in the event of a sixth or even seventh wave? Will there be more shutdowns? The only way out of this pandemic, opposition parties say, is if government allows the return to the regular way of debating and passing legislation, rather than governing by decree as it has been since March 2020.

The government sort of agrees. The health minister says he plans to table a bill to address these questions when the National Assembly reconvenes after the March break.

Despite the calls from both sides of the house for more collaboration, politics remains a game of division. That is the very nature of government: to argue, to criticize, to oppose, especially when the province is headed towards an election campaign. But it’s often hard to see when creating division goes too far.

Painting into corner over bilingual judges

In another example this week, French language minister Simon Jolin-Barrette tried to paint the Liberal Party into a corner over bilingual judges. After rising to defend English-speaking communities the week prior, the Liberal Party then supported the minister’s motion this week to affirm that the province should not disqualify unilingual candidates from becoming judges.

Liberal MNA David Birnbaum accused the Legault government of trying to create a conflict where none need exist. He said it is possible for Quebec to strike a balance between the right to work in French and the right for the English minority to have access to justice in their maternal language.

However, playing identity politics can be advantageous for parties, according to Laval University political science professor Marc André Bodet.

“Identity politics has been very useful for the CAQ,” Bodet explained. “It was a way to marginalize the Parti Québécois, but also to marginalize to a certain extent, the Liberal Party.”

“In that sense now a part of the CAQ branding is a defense of the Quebec identity, whatever that is,” he added.

But Bodet cautions against the government and all parties playing that card too often in the current political climate.

“There is a major event that is very salient. That is COVID-19. And then there’s a lot of small politics going on and parties are trying to make gains at the margin.”

In other words, Bodet believes there are few political points to be scored from these kinds of tactics. But there are potentially many political points to be lost when parties start accusing each other of things like inciting violence. Maybe a better strategy is more cohesion and less division.