Robert Libman: Legault’s legacy grows ever darker

The premier’s reign has been divisive and harmful to Quebec’s social cohesion, and harkens back to the era of “La Grande Noirceur.”

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La Grande Noirceur — the great darkness — is what Maurice Duplessis’ tenure as premier of Quebec has commonly been referred to. If our current premier, François Legault, continues along his current path, I believe historians will look back at his tenure also as a dark period in Quebec history — worse than any other of the 16 premiers since Duplessis was first elected almost 90 years ago. 

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Legault’s reign has been divisive and harmful to Quebec’s social cohesion in relations with minorities and anglophones and in pitting Quebec City against Montreal. And no other premier since Duplessis seemed so inclined to vilify those who disagree with him. 

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When Legault founded his “non-sovereigntist” political party, he offered hope as someone with economic substance forging a vast coalition of nationalists and federalists. In 2013 he enthusiastically presented his dream of a Quebec “Silicon Valley” with a series of technopark / living environments running along the St-Lawrence River, creating a valley of innovation in synergy with universities resulting in thousands of high-tech jobs and 1,000 new companies.

But since taking power in 2018, rather than elaborating a larger inclusive vision for positive change, Legault has instead become more preoccupied with an insular nationalist agenda. He pre-emptively invoked the notwithstanding clause twice to shield controversial laws, on language (Bill 96) and religious symbols (Bill 21), from both the Canadian and Quebec charters of rights — a tacit admission that these laws may violate rights, but not allowing them to be tested by the courts. 

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Duplessis would have appreciated the notwithstanding clause. His infamous Padlock Law enacted in 1937 empowered the attorney general to close any building used for propagating “communism or Bolshevism” (undefined) and confiscate any printed material. The fact that “communism” wasn’t defined in the law meant Duplessis could use it impetuously against his critics and those he despised (trade unions) and scapegoated (religious minorities.) There was no process for appealing to the courts, but the Supreme Court eventually struck it down. 

Legault seems to have become increasingly erratic and impetuous since polls started showing him slipping, prompting actions that appear reactionary rather than rationally based. Reversals on the expensive “third link” tunnel project in Quebec City. Rash decision to abolish fundraising by his party because of an ethics controversy. Attacking opposition MNAs personally for criticizing the government. His juvenile swipe accusing Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante of not caring about French, because she dared challenge the government’s attack on English universities with the tuition overhaul for out-of-province students. Economic think tanks and numerous francophone university heads also criticized the move.

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Legault even blithely dismissed six former premiers, who — in an unprecedented move — jointly raised concerns about the government’s hastily adopted massive health-care reform. Despite major questions, Legault seemed more intent on giving the impression of action, rather than solutions, with a reform that seems more like just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. 

Interpretations about the Grande Noirceur period are varied but most concede that the authoritarianism of Duplessis was extremely harmful. Québec solidaire’s Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, during debate about Bill 21 — regarding what defines who is Québécoiscompared Legault to Duplessis. The premier retorted that while, in his opinion, Duplessis had many faults, he defended his nation.“ 

That seems to be Legault’s fallback mantra. He will insist that his legacy is tied to defending Quebec and stemming the decline of French. 

But I suspect little, if anything, he’s done so far will tangibly improve Quebec or enhance the protection or vitality of French in North America. Weakening English institutions, marginalizing minorities and vilifying opponents or dissent won’t achieve any positive objective. It will, however, cement a legacy of another dark period of division in Quebec society. 

Robert Libman is an architect and planning consultant who has served as Equality Party leader and MNA, as mayor of Côte-St-Luc and as a member of the Montreal executive committee. He was a Conservative candidate in the 2015 federal election. X @robertlibman

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