Toula Drimonis: CAQ adds to basket of big ideas that go nowhere

Panier bleu and Espaces bleus are the latest examples in a long list of abandoned projects, broken promises and ill-planned schemes.

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Leave it to the Coalition Avenir Québec government to vaunt big ideas and shiny projects that too often end up going nowhere, sometimes at taxpayers’ expense. The Espaces bleus and Panier bleu initiatives are the latest examples, after both were unceremoniously axed in recent weeks.

This month, the government cancelled Espaces bleus, a network of museums that Premier François Legault insisted would celebrate Quebec’s culture and history. The ambitious project, announced in 2021 with great fanfare, had the government allocating $259 million for the creation of 17 spaces that it said would motivate Quebecers to forget Cancun or Puerto Plata and travel the province instead. As if Quebecers travel to those destinations for the culture and not the 32 C weather in the middle of winter.

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When opposition MNAs like Pascal Bérubé of the Parti Québécois pointed out Quebec already has regional museums that could desperately use that infusion of millions spent on grandiose plans no one asked for (an argument reiterated on social media by Liberal culture critic Brigitte Garceau) they were ignored. Fast-forward to 2024. After construction costs skyrocketed, the government realized it would be forced to invest far more money than it initially estimated, and shelved the project.

Last month, we saw a similar outcome with another of the CAQ’s “pride-generating, nation-building” projects when the Panier blue, an online merchant site launched to help Quebec businesses sell their products, died a quiet death. With only seven per cent of the province’s online transactions made on the platform in 2022, the site never succeeded in convincing enough Quebecers shopping “blue” is better than Amazon’s free shipping. What’s more, last year it was revealed a mere 600 out of 100,000 available products were actually from Quebec.

When Amazon recently decided to identify certified Quebec products, making it easier for online shoppers to support local, it was officially game over for Panier blue, as it no longer had a reason to exist. The plug was pulled on another ill-conceived project infused with taxpayer dollars.

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After more than five years in government, “poorly thought out” appears to be the CAQ’s signature style. We saw with the university-tuition saga how Legault and his ministers were unwilling to listen to experts, including the government’s own advisory committee. With the Northvolt battery plant project, they wouldn’t listen to opposition parties, among others, urging more consultation.

Whether guided by political motives or personal ideology, or both, this government has been pushing projects that don’t appear based on sound arguments. Remember the CAQ’s restrictions to the student immigration program? It backtracked on that, just like it beat a quick retreat on the “third link” tunnel project in Quebec City, only to flip-flop once more in the face of a public backlash and raise the possibility anew. And now Espaces bleus and Panier bleu have been abandoned altogether.

Likewise, Legault campaigned heavily on the promise to offer free pre-kindergarten classes for all four-year-olds, even though his plan was criticized by opposition parties as untenable. Five years later, he grudgingly admitted Quebec doesn’t have enough teachers to make the plan a reality.

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You can add electoral reform and “a family doctor for every Quebecer” to the list of broken promises.

When governments announce shiny signature projects — perhaps firmly convinced of their merits — they should show a willingness to listen to constructive criticism and consult with those directly impacted by these decisions. With the CAQ, we are too often left with the impression that projects serve as a political tool to incite national pride and position the party as a steward of “Quebec values.”

What Quebecers need most is far less sexy — better health care, better education, better public transit, and far more affordable housing. Delivering on any of that beats flashy projects any day of the week.

Toula Drimonis is a Montreal journalist and the author of We, the Others: Allophones, Immigrants, and Belonging in Canada. She can be reached on X @toulastake

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