Allison Hanes: What will happen to English community as Legault's Teflon wears off?

Anglos have further reason to be concerned now that François Legault’s CAQ government has taken a hit in the polls.

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The only people who should perhaps be more worried than Premier François Legault about the latest poll numbers showing the Parti Québécois surging are those in the English-speaking community.

It’s not so much that the sovereignist PQ is poised for an imminent return to power and putting the nationalist question back on the agenda. To keep things in perspective, the next election is still three years away and the PQ has only four seats in the National Assembly.

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It’s what a directionless and desperate Legault might do in response as the PQ, once written off for dead, sets the tone for the official opposition, even if it currently has only third-opposition party status behind the Liberals and Québec solidaire.

Legault is a populist who has no qualms about stoking divisions, whipping up nationalist sentiment or engaging in wedge politics. He chips away at minority rights, undermines institutions, centralizes power, gaslights the English-speaking community and picks fights with the federal government.

This is a track record of which anglophones, allophones and other minority groups have good reason to be wary, after Bill 21, which prevents civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious garb, and Bill 96, the law to bolster French that is more punitive than constructive.

If the PQ pushes him further into nationalist territory on language, identity and immigration, what will he do next?

The PQ’s byelection win at the Coalition Avenir Québec’s expense in the Quebec City riding of Jean-Talon this fall seems to have spooked Legault. Since then, he has made a series of rash and perplexing decisions.

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The controversial Troisième Lien he stubbornly clung to during the 2022 election campaign, then jettisoned after winning, is back on the table.

Out of nowhere, his government announced the doubling of tuition for out-of-province students that will badly hobble Quebec’s English universities, blaming fellow Canadians for freeloading off taxpayer funding and anglicizing Montreal.

Then there was the absolutely mind-boggling decision to spend up to $7 million for the L.A. Kings to play two pre-season games at Centre Vidéotron in Quebec City next year for a “celebration of hockey.” That doozy came the week after an austere economic update that warned of the need to rein in spending and before a week of strikes by public-sector workers, when almost 600,000 teachers, after-school staff, support workers, nurses and medical imaging technicians walked off the job for varying durations.

For the first time since he came to power in 2018, Legault is floundering, and his Teflon has worn off.

The PQ is on top with 30 per cent support, according to the Pallas Data survey conducted for Qc125 and L’Actualité, while the CAQ has slipped to 24 per cent. The Quebec Liberals and QS are in the basement with 16 per cent support apiece.

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If the byelection defeat caused Legault to panic, the poll numbers prompted a rare moment of humility.

“I am very aware Quebecers are angry with me,” he said last week. “So I’ll try to do better.”

He hunkered down with his cabinet ministers last Wednesday night, without any political aides in the room, TVA reported, to allow for some frank — perhaps even painful — discussions.

But while there’s reason to fear more dog-whistle politics and language crackdowns, there was also a glimmer of hope last week that perhaps picking on anglophones is getting old.

The government unexpectedly announced it would exempt English schools from parts of Bill 23, its latest education governance reform. This legislation proposes to give the minister the authority to appoint school board directors general and overrule their decisions. The English community warned this would infringe on the constitutionally protected right to manage and control its own schools, which was recently reaffirmed in a court decision. So the surprise tabling of amendments to exclude English schools from certain problematic clauses of Bill 23, at least for now, is a welcome surprise.

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The Quebec government is, after all, still appealing the ruling on Bill 40 that bolstered minority-language rights over education. The law replaced French school boards with service centres, but English schools retained their elected boards through an injunction. The judgment preserved them. The appeal of Bill 40 seems stubborn and vindictive, but hey, it’s not too late to drop it.

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A more ominous sign of what may be in store was the PQ’s attempt last week to bait the CAQ into extending the provisions of Bill 101 to English vocational schools, where about 140,000 new immigrants over 20 years, who should otherwise have gone to French school, were trained. The PQ presented a motion to close this loophole in the National Assembly, but the government didn’t bite. French Language Minister Jean-François Roberge did, however, call this entry point to English education a “flaw” and promised to study remedies. So access could yet be curtailed.

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But tradespeople are in such short supply and high demand that the government just announced a new fast-track program involving paid internships. So maybe the government will think twice before slamming the door to English vocational programs without examining whether it might be shooting itself in the foot amid a labour shortage.

In the same spirit, perhaps Legault will rethink the ill-conceived policy to double tuition for out-of province university students. The move might have been intended to score cheap political points, but it has instead provoked a backlash well beyond English-speaking Quebec. The business community, most French universities, francophone student groups and many others have pushed back against this counterproductive plan.

Polling also shows most Quebecers think the government should instead take up English universities on their “historic” offer to improve the French skills of their graduates.

So if Legault is looking for ways to “do better,” these are places to start.

But a lot will depend on why he believes Quebecers are angry with him.

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