Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Québec is in shock after a possible assassination attempt on its new Premier

It was a tumultuous and ultimately tragic election night here in Québec. After an intense campaign marked by strident rhetoric on the part of all the major party leaders, Pauline Marois, leader of the sovereigntist Parti Québecois, won a minority government. This victory, however, was overshadowed by the fact that someone may have tried to assassinate Marois during her victory speech. The photo on the right shows her being pulled off the stage by her bodyguards.

At this point, details are still pretty sketchy. What we know is that a man armed with an AK-47  came to the back door of the Metropolis nightclub where the PQ's celebration was taking place. He shot two men, one of whom, a sound technician, was killed. After firing several shots, his gun jammed, and he fled the scene, setting off a Molotov Cocktail as he fled. After he was apprehended by police, the suspect, Richard Henry Bain, a bilingual Anglophone, shouted "Les Anglos se reveillent," (Anglos are waking up) in French, and said "There's going to be fucking payback."

Everyone is shocked by this. No one ever, ever expected a violent attack of this kind. It is the work of a lunatic.

Yet the fact remains that this attack occurred within a particular context--namely, a climate of fear. Many people in the Anglophone community in Québec have been on edge throughout this election, dreading the possibility of a PQ victory and a possible subsequent referendum on sovereignty. Marois did not do much during the campaign to assuage the anxieties of Anglophones--in fact, at one point, she suggested that unilingual Anglophone citizens would be denied the right to run for office in a hypothetical future sovereign Québec. She later corrected this statement under pressure from her party, but this incident did not do much to endear Anglophone voters to her. Jean Charest, the now-defeated Premier and the leader of the Liberal party, also fed the fears of Anglophones, warning about the potentially disastrous consequences of a PQ government and a subsequent third referendum on sovereignty. For its part, right-wing TV channel SUN News offered up a "Battle: Québec" graphic with the three major party leaders under a dark sky.

Notably, it is not only Anglophones that have been on edge; in general, there's been a lot of ambient anger and anxiety in this province over the past couple of months. Some of it has been directed at the student protesters and the social disruptions they caused, some at Marois, and some at Jean Charest. Clearly, it is not good for a society to be as tense and polarized as Québec is right now. One cannot draw a direct link between the tense political climate and the actions of the man who attacked Marois, but there can be little doubt that these simmering tensions are dangerous and unproductive.

Anglophones are right to be somewhat anxious about the PQ, which may well implement some policies that are deleterious to major Anglophone institutions, but the election of the PQ (especially as a minority government) does not seem to me to be nearly as dire an event as some are making it out to be. In fact, of the three major alternatives, the PQ is the one which I, personally, would prefer. As a leftist, I could not support the right-wing Coalition pour L'Avenir Québecois (CAQ) party, which promised to implement radical health and education reforms that would cause serious social tensions. The centrist Liberals, under Premier Jean Charest, have been tarred by corruption scandals of New Jersey proportions, and would have also refused to negotiate further with the student protesters, which would have caused further social strife.

Given the unpalatability of these two alternatives, this leaves the PQ. I disagree with the PQ about sovereignty, laicité, and their plans to limit access to Anglophone CEGEPs, but I agree with much of the rest of their platform, which has a strong social democratic slant. Now, if a referendum on sovereignty were imminent, it might be a compelling reason not to vote for the PQ, but support for sovereignty is at an anemic 28%, and Marois knows that holding a referendum right now is a losing proposition. Given this fact, the PQ seemed to me to be the least bad choice of the three major parties, and I was not at all disappointed to see them win a minority government.

Another major benefit of a PQ victory is that Marois has pledged to settle up with the student tuition protesters. If this settlement goes through, this will be an amazing victory in the battle to keep university education affordable in Québec. It will demonstrate that massive street protests and effective mobilization of social media can serve as powerful levers for social change. The victory in Québec should inspire students around the world to fight hard against the attempt to make public education a private good. If students don't demand both affordability and quality from their universities, they will not get it.

In any event, I certainly hope that we are heading for a period of increased calm in Québec. The shooting at Metropolis is a vital reminder of the importance of a political culture that is more conciliatory and that stresses inter-group respect and tolerance. It is the responsibility of all of the major parties to work to create this climate.

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