Is Premier François Legault a “closet separatist”? Ten years after Legault founded the Coalition Avenir Québec, many federalists are still hesitant to trust the former Parti Québécois minister.
Former Premier Robert Bourassa was also at times similarly accused, because of how he swayed back and forth in his nationalist leanings, depending on the political winds. If Bourassa had been a closet separatist, though, he could easily have engineered Quebec’s exodus from Canada right after the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990, when nationalist fervour in the province reached a pinnacle. Instead, he carefully navigated another course, not so much due to his love of Canada, but more likely because he was first and foremost an economist, whose primary concern was Quebec’s economic stability.
Legault’s background is also steeped in economics, business administration and accounting. He founded the CAQ after shelving the sovereignty option, vowing that a CAQ government would never hold a referendum.
The recognition by both Bourassa and Legault, seemingly driven by their economic backgrounds, that Quebec best remain part of the Canadian federation, tempered their nationalist impulse.
The same pragmatism should also apply when it comes to language laws, another manifestation of Quebec nationalism.
Nationalism is an ideology built around advancing what are perceived as being the collective interests of a group of people who share an ethnicity, language, religion and/or culture. While there can be upsides — nationalist energies can be harnessed for positive collective projects, group identity can be a source of pride — there often is a darker side, in the form of xenophobia, conflicts and rights abuses inspired by nationalism. Among other negative effects, these can lead to instability and uncertainty, both of which are harmful to an economy.
Depending on your perspective, Bill 101 can be viewed as being positive or negative. But it cannot be denied that the coercive aspects of the law have undoubtably fostered unfortunate economic consequences. Bourassa certainly struggled with the language debate and wasn’t oblivious to the economic decline of Montreal relative to Toronto and Vancouver over the course of his political career. Hundreds of thousands of people left, as did companies and head offices. He was always much more comfortable with his grander economic vision, the harnessing of Quebec’s natural resources into hydro-electric energy at James Bay.
Legault has his own ambitious economic vision for Quebec, which he enthusiastically elaborated in a book he published in late 2013. “Projet Saint-Laurent” is 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 with thousands of high-tech jobs and 800 to 1,000 new companies.
Four years later, he formed a majority government, yet we haven’t heard much about his Projet Saint-Laurent. What we have heard about instead are imminent amendments to the language law that seem likely to put more limits on English and might include new rules for small businesses, which are already struggling in Quebec. In addition to being antiquated and detrimental, and unlikely to achieve the desired goal of strengthening the French language, this all seems very petty compared to his ambitious vision of economic vitality and innovation. A Silicon Valley North with dynamic tech companies in artificial intelligence, Virtual Reality, 3D animation and environmental science will require important synergy with others in North America. Someone with Legault’s economic acumen should know that suppressing English will hamstring efforts to attract talent and forward-looking companies, and achieve such synergies.
Robert Bourassa’s legacy would be much more impressive if it were just James Bay, and not the language scars, that he left behind. Legault would do well to keep that in mind.
Robert Libman is an architect and building 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.